Sometimes I get sick and tired of writing. Especially when I’m facing a slew of deadlines. So I lie on the couch feeling sorry for myself. Or, if can keep my wits about me, I bury myself under the covers in my attic bedroom with a good book. If I were a society woman of times past, I could “take to my bed” without shame. But as it is, this habit remains a perplexing but enjoyable non-solution to an overabundant work life.
Or is it? Mightn’t I put those hours to good, productive use just in time for the idle days of summer by whipping up a recommended reading list based on my “research”? It’ll be like inviting you to my place for iced tea, where then you could enjoy the one reflexive activity I find irresistible when I walk into a friend’s house for the first time—snooping the bookshelves. Or the extensive vinyl record collection, like the one I was recently amazed by at a co-worker’s party. When I asked for some Cat Stevens, he said, “Name the album.” When someone else wanted Billy Bragg, he was right on it. And his indulgence of an especially emphatic request for Neil Diamond drove only two guests to leave early.
My music collection would tell you mostly that I am lame and stuck with the Indigo Girls in their prime. But my books, even just those of the last twelve months, might add up to something. First, there’s the Essential Rumi and Rumi: the Book of Love, plus True Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, a slim volume you can easily polish off in a sitting, but which, like Rumi, merits innumerable re-reads. In fact, there are twenty books in my “current” stack that have the word “love” somewhere in the title, not counting Breathing Together, Richard Kehl’s collection of quotes on the mystery of love.(Cut me some slack. I already told you I was planning a wedding this summer!) Once you got past the love books piled on my shelves and end tables, you might ask why so many books on kids and parenting, but then you’d remember that I have six kids, teach fifth grade, and used to edit a parenting magazine. You’d skim past all the writing and teaching books (though I have to say that Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That? has been both useful and inspiring), and then you’d start trying to find the ones that could tell you something you didn’t already know.
And that’s when you’d see Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. This harrowing novel of motherhood gone horrifically awry is indescribable and magnificent, although there are days I wish I had never laid eyes on it. Even now, a year since I first read it, it haunts me. Particularly the last chapter, when the author dares to allow the graphically unthinkable to happen to a child who reminded me too much of my own sunny and pure youngest. The book is a carefully constructed suspense story, despite the fact that you know from the beginning that Kevin eventually commits a school massacre; therefore, I won’t give anything further away. Suffice it to say that while many writers have attempted to explain what might drive a teenager to kill, Shriver’s book cuts to the imaginary chase unlike any other. The writing is as intense as it is intelligent, as the story unfolds from the perspective of Eva, the well-educated and extremely articulate mother of an “unsavory son.” Dubbed an “underground feminist hit,” this complex and wrenching novel rivals or surpasses Map of the World for its unflinching dissection of the darkest familial—and in this case, cultural—tragedies.
After you let Shriver beat you to a pulp, refresh yourself with The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken, who is a plainspoken genius. This eccentric tale of a 1950s romance between a spinster librarian on Cape Cod and a boy afflicted with giantism was superb and stunning.
As for my own summer reading, I just started The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, a book that my former mother-in-law passed along because it reminded her of me, and I have to find out why. Next, I’ll turn to a newish Anne Tyler, The Amateur Marriage, because even though I know it’ll be a downer, I’ve read and admired all her other books, and apparently, I love sad things. Finally, I’m looking forward to Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, a memoir of her friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, whose Autobiography of a Face was the first and most unforgettable memoir I have ever read. Upcoming deadlines? No problem. I’m fully prepared to procrastinate.