It’s that time of year, the time of Bests and Mosts and pretty much any superlative you can think of that will fit in a quick headline. At Vela, we’ve scoured all of our Women We Read this Week posts from 2013, and have compiled a list of our favorite nonfiction featured this year in our weekly column. And it turns out we’ve got a lot of love for these women writers we’ve been discussing, because this is quite the list, one that’s sure to keep you busy through the holidays. So, recline in your cramped plane seat, steal away to your childhood bedroom, or laze around on your couch, and spend some time with these incredible pieces of writing.
Judith Shulevitz’s “The Lethality of Loneliness” in The New Republic
If there’s one piece I read this year that I haven’t been able to get out of my head, it’s this one. Judith Shulevitz’s piece on the brain science of loneliness was like reading the story of my life. Examining studies on HIV-positive gay men, Romanian orphans, and American college students, Shulevitz creates a broad, intercultural picture of the personal and societal affects of loneliness, which is shown to be not so much a situational experience but rather a chronic, life-long condition, a way of existing in the world. And while it may not being uplifting to admit that I have been plagued by feelings of loneliness my whole life, it’s at least comforting to realize that I might not be alone in those feelings of aloneness.
Vanessa Veselka’s “Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives And Why It Matters” in The American Reader
This was probably the year’s most exciting piece for me, both for the writer’s deft handling of the topic and the conversation it stirred. In this piece Vanessa Veselka uses her own experience as a teenage hitch-hiker as a lens through which to examine the lack of female experience represented in travel writing, what she terms “road narratives.” It was incredibly gratifying to see the buzz this piece created–though I wish of course that it had led to the publication of more bad-ass female travel narratives. (On that note: we’re always accepting submissions!)
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s “If He Hollers Let Him Go” on The Believer
In terms of arts and culture writing, nothing blew me away like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah‘s smart, articulate examination of comedian Dave Chappelle. Because she is never able to actually interview Chappelle, Ghansah instead uses interviews, research and her own critical savvy to create the shape of Dave Chappelle, almost like a negative-space Jacob’s-Room affect. It’s very fucking cool, very skillfully done and makes for a fascinating read. — Lauren Quinn
Kalpana Narayanan’s “Aviator on the Prowl” in the Boston Review
This story, deep down nitty-gritty, is about suicide, but the life-blood of the piece, what makes it flow, are the intricate descriptions of food. Not only do I love this story, but I want to eat a nine course meal with the author. Narayanan uses food in ways that are beautiful, grotesque and brutal, strange markers that punctuate a story about loss. The piece is full of small, sharp moments: violence that springs out of a situation involving a bulb of garlic, an almost sexual encounter on top of a box of soft-shell crabs, the desperation of dying crawfish clinging to the edge of a bowl. For me, this piece brings together so well the complexity of violence and the threat of violence, and the ways in which food remind of loss, help us cope with our own empty spaces and provides us with a few unexpected moments of pure joy.
“Mavis Gallant: The Art of Fiction No. 160” in The Paris Review
You are 28. You move to Paris. You decided to write only fiction and somehow survive on that. You make this your life. You are Mavis Gallant. At the time, she explained, “I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way.” I recognize this sort of youthful all-or-nothing ultimatum, and I am jealous of its purity. Living off writing is often an unreal, impossible dream or one mixed with stints working in bars, making coffee, or even ghostwriting – something you are quite sure you don’t want to do, except that you need to pay your rent.
I was introduced to Gallant through the New Yorker Fiction podcasts, which I listen to while running around on the NYC subway. In this interview with The Paris Review, when asked if she likes her own writing she replies, “I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t think that one is impressed with one’s own work. I can’t imagine such a thing. It’s a question of getting it right; it’s not a question of admiring it.” I admire her directness. Gallant goes on to explain,
In fact, I think that I’ve only written one thing that on rereading I thought, This is fine and I like it. The long story “The Pegnitz Junction”—it reads exactly as I wanted it to. I wrote it in a tearing hurry. It was as if it was all in my head and waiting to be written—almost like taking dictation. It was extraordinary.
At 91, Gallant continues to live from her writing. “It is not a burden. It is the way I live.”
Christine Smallwood’s “The Counterlife: Lionel Shriver’s Speculative Fictions” in The New Yorker
Writers often revel in disaster reading, in looking for traces of wreckage in the lives of other writers, searching for stories that will prove that persistence, in the face of overwhelmingly unfavorable odds, can eventually lead to SOMETHING. Like, hey, if she was a drunk, heroin addict, maniac who only ate doughnuts and struggled with depression….and she made it….then surely I can too. Smallwood’s article on novelist Lionel Shriver was a particularly satisfying read because it speaks of persistence in such pure way. After I read it, for at least a few hours, I had renewed faith in writing for writing’s sake. As Smallwood describes, “It took the American novelist Lionel Shriver a long time to get our attention. Her first six books, published in the course of two decades, were met with a critical shrug and sales that Shriver later described as ‘in the toilet.’”
In the toilet. It’s only the first sentence of the article, and I know Shriver is my kind of writer. In her novels, Shriver explores what it means to try your hardest and still fail, to be passionate and good, but still not end up where you dreamed you would.
In Shriver’s new novel, Big Brother, the protagonist, Pandora, says, “Only gradually do you come to appreciate that the occupation you aspire to is harder than you thought, that the supply of other young, self-anointed apples of their own eyes is inexhaustible, and that you’re not as uniquely gifted as you thought.”
And I am reminded that all that is left is to dig in for the long haul, to find some peace of mind in the writing process, and to forget about doughnuts & drugs, distractions and illusions of success.
Lauren Collins’s “Bansky Was Here” in The New Yorker
Obsessed to the point of conversion, Thierry Guetta started out making a documentary about street art and ended up believing he was the second coming of Banksy. The film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, traces Thierrys charming madness for Banksy. I was talking about the film recently with a photographer from Mexico City who asked me, “Why do you love graffiti so much? Why are your memories of the city tied to graffiti rather than street names or landmarks?” I like the daring, the wild innovation required to reach impossible surfaces – signs hundreds of feet in the air, the underpass of a bridge, the walls in front of the Cineteca Nacional – that and the fact that it is a creative, ephemeral act, one that exists outside of a monetary system.
Lauren Collins explores how Banksy, who has managed to maintain his anonymity over the years, has dealt with the transition from being an underdog-rebel-nobody to an artist who can fetch millions of dollars for graffiti of a rat. Collins captures the allure of his long-term anonymity:
The British graffiti artist Banksy likes pizza, though his preference in toppings cannot be definitively ascertained. He has a gold tooth. He has a silver tooth. He has a silver earring. He’s an anarchist environmentalist who travels by chauffeured S.U.V. He was born in 1978, or 1974, in Bristol, England—no, Yate. The son of a butcher and a housewife, or a delivery driver and a hospital worker, he’s fat, he’s skinny, he’s an introverted workhorse, he’s a breeze-shooting exhibitionist given to drinking pint after pint of stout.
Banksy fights the system by living as an eternal shadow, by constantly fucking with the art world and its system of names and values and commodities. As Collins describes, “Banksy has always had a fatalistic streak: in one of his books, a pair of lovebirds is juxtaposed with the dictum ‘As soon as you meet someone, you know the reason you will leave them.’ In another, a little girl releases a heart-shaped red balloon: ‘When the time comes to leave, just walk away quietly and don’t make any fuss.’” The other day Banksy set up a pop-up booth in Central Park and sold some of his work for $60. Almost nobody noticed, not even me, until it was too late.
Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” on Guernica
I love Rebecca Solnit’s writing for its ability to render the intangible graspable without losing a sense of wonder, a whiff of the ethereal. She is a writer you want to read for the pleasure of inhabiting her brain, listening to her think on the page. Here, she thinks about reading and writing, envisioning each as a solitary wood through which one emerges into connection, communal understanding, a terrain of shared and vital stories. She frames the piece through her childhood of “gorging on stories, fasting on speech,” to the eventual emergence of her spoken voice, and her realization that her words, crafted in solitude, are creating intimacy with distant readers. Ultimately, Solnit comes to understand the paradox of reading and writing: “You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.” Also featuring, in classic Solnit style, the road runner, tern’s eggs, and a Tang dynasty artist Wu Daozi.
Amy Boesky’s “The Ghost Writes Back” on The Kenyon Review
I confess: I was addicted to Sweet Valley High. The Baby-Sitters Club books were my true favorite, but Sweet Valley came in a close second, especially as I neared middle school. I never would have imagined that Jessica and Elizabeth’s pastel, saccharine California dramas were spun by a PhD student “reading sermon after sermon in the collected prose of John Donne.” So that’s the first thrill of this piece: the behind-the-scenes look at what, for so many women I know, was a childhood institution, and at the larger world of ghostwriting.
But the piece goes so far beyond that: it deals with the dualities of responsibility/recklessness and good girl/bad girl(Elizabeth vs. Jessica Wakefield); of reality and fantasy; of teacher/student and ghostwriter/author. Boesky pits her own life against that constructed in the Sweet Valley series: while she struggled through graduate school, feeling invisible and ghost-like, absorbing the lectures of her professors and eking her way through a dissertation that her thesis advisor mandated be “original,” she was also conjuring up “an ersatz southern California landscape (pan shot of beach, ocean, red-tiled roofs)” and a narrative in which “difference [went] in one side, and out the other side came the reassurance of sameness.” A narrative in which everything was curable, resolvable; a place that provided relief from proving herself, making a name for herself in those awful uncertain spaces of grad school, relief from “the darkest of dark secrets: how much I hadn’t read, and didn’t know. How little I felt I had to say that was different, or new, or mattered.”
Ultimately, Boesky stops ghostwriting the series. But,
“…every once in a while, sitting in the library or working upstairs in my study, tussling with a footnote, checking and re-checking a source, struggling to make a contribution in a field crowded with smart people, I would sit back and remember the ease of Sweet Valley High. The words that came so easily, and gave me so much combined pleasure and guilt.”
Sweet Valley offered, in other words, ease and pleasure. And this is where her piece really gets me: I am so torn between what I used to feel writing, the immediate ease and the pleasure, and the immense pressure I feel now to make a contribution in a field crammed with smart people, to go deeper, think harder, revise more, push further. This is the paradox of graduate school, of becoming a “professional” writer: in aiming to make this craft you’ve loved into a career, you struggle for something more than the ease and pleasure, more than sheer entertainment; you aim for a name for yourself, and you often drift in a space more gray than pastel.
Jeanne Marie Laskas’s “Have You Heard the One About President Joe Biden?” in GQ
Jeanne Marie Laskas’s latest piece for GQ could not open in a more Jeanne Marie Laskas way:
“Keep going straight here,” Joe Biden says. We’ve been at this for hours, climbing in and out of the SUV to look at stuff, a water tower, a stone wall, the house where the most beautiful girl in the world lived, hoagies, Herman the German’s gas station, Meyers-eats-tires tire shop, the house where another most beautiful girl in the world lived, and he’s holding up better than the rest of us.”
You know right away who you’re reading. And right away, there’s the thrilling juxtaposition of this original, funny, humble voice – an everywoman voice that is also slyly observant, insightful – with the subject matter, which ordinarily might call forth the most buttoned-up of Serious Reporter Voices. We’re in Joe Biden’s SUV, and we’re looking at Herman the German’s gas station. The whole piece will continue like this, with surprising tenderness, humility, and casual ease for a profile of the Vice President, but then these characteristics are Laskas’s trademarks. Here, they are meant to reflect Biden’s distinct and unusual lack of pretense – “Biden can say malarkey. Biden can hug, literally, Republicans.”
Laskas does all the traditional reporting work for this story, talking to friends and relatives and fellow politicians and riding along with Biden, but the story never feels like it’s jumping through the traditional hoops. This is all in the masterful scene-setting and the writing, which is nowhere more powerful than in the cemetery where Biden’s wife and daughter are buried:
“It’s too far away. We can’t see anything.
‘Should we walk over?’ I ask.
‘It looks like there’s a funeral about to come in. I don’t want to disturb…’
But there is no funeral coming in. There is no activity over there whatsoever.
‘We shouldn’t,’ he says. His mother, his father, his wife, and his daughter. This is close enough. Close enough.”
It is rare and refreshing to read a big magazine story like this one that is so charged with emotion – both the subject’s emotion but also the writer’s as she reacts to her subject’s story: the tragic death of his wife and daughter; his struggle to overcome his stuttering; the way he cannot escape this thing, this strange American perception that humility, approachability and unpretentiousness are incompatible with intelligence. I was sad to see the piece end, and felt what I think Jeanne Marie Laskas might want the reader to feel: not necessarily a deeper understanding of policy issues or strategic moves or political history, but an affection for the man himself and his unique human story.
Rachel Aviv’s “The Science of Sex Abuse” in The New Yorker
In this piece Aviv follows a man named John, who was convicted of possessing child pornography, sent to prison, released, convicted again after relapsing, labeled a pedophile, and then kept in prison indefinitely under ethically and medically questionable “civil commitment” laws. Such laws are ostensibly meant to prevent sex offenders from committing crimes they would not be able to stop themselves from committing if released; they are backed by what Aviv shows to be dubious scientific and psychiatric studies that have come to reinforce what we think is common sense. In practice, these laws can keep people like John in prison indefinitely for crimes they have yet to commit.
Aviv is singularly talented at navigating ethical labyrinths. John is an unsavory character, and the crimes he could potentially commit are those our society most reviles. The brilliance of Aviv’s piece lies in the way it twists the knife of “yes, but…” into our consciences.
Leslie Jamison’s “What Should an Essay Do?” in The New Republic
“What drives the essayist toward these acts of assemblage? What abiding hungers make us want to link the Big and the banal?” Leslie Jamison asks in this piece, a gorgeous example of complicated thinking rendered with ringing clarity. Jamison is reviewing Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby and Michelle Orange’s This Is Running for Your Life, mining comparisons between the two books for a deeper understanding both of their form – how does the associative thinking that drives the essay function at book-length and work as a form of storytelling, how is collagistic technique informing these books’ larger ideas – and of the emotional impulses behind that form: what drives such restless thinking, such relentless juxtaposition? For both Solnit and Orange, the answer is longing. Jamison observes, “excavating analogies everywhere is a form of generosity but also a symptom of hunger: for sense, for connection, for accumulation.” This piece contains too many thrilling sentences to quote here, so I’ll leave you with one wee expression that should make you want to go read immediately: “mythic ticker tape.” There. Go.
Jenny Diski’s “Learning how to live” in the New Statesman
This one has really stuck with me. It’s rich and complicated. I had to read it several times just to absorb it all. Invoking history, politics, religion, and her own stories, Diski explores ideas about work and leisure and asks why “not doing” is “so terrifying in our culture”. There’s something sad about this piece, but also something hopeful. And perhaps it appeals so strongly to me as a writer – the first time I read it I leapt upon ideas that seemed to play to my own experience and beliefs (“Many people,” Diski writes, “say that writing isn’t ‘proper work’. Often they tell me they are saving up writing a book for their ‘retirement’. Creative work sits uneasily in the fantasy life between dread leisure and the slog of the virtuous, hardworking life. It’s seen as a method of doing something while doing nothing, one that stops you flying away in terror.”) But, as the title suggests, it’s really about pretty much the most universal human experience there is: living.
Driving ambition might just be a way of staving off the vacuum, rather than a sign of bottomless greed for more when you have enough. An unquenchable passion for work might be a panic-stricken way of concealing the fear of a lack of passion for life itself. If you are what you do, what are you when you stop doing it and you still are? There are people who don’t find this a problem, who have not entirely or even at all identified existence with what they do and how they make a living, but they are evidently a great problem to those – the majority – who do.
Joanna Walsh’s “In Cyberspace: a love letter” in Granta
This piece deals with themes of space, place, and time in the Age of the Internet – a topic close to my heart, and rendered in a beautiful, dreamy tone that feels appropriate for the subject matter. It’s a sort of love story, but it’s also very much about a sense of place. “Am I asking the wrong question?” writes Walsh, “Maybe it’s not ‘Where am I’ but ‘When am I?’ That’s what the Internet seems to do with time and space. It makes one look like the other.” This idea of a sort of spatial/temporal tangle runs through the piece, and writing, or reading, or connecting, become ways of exploring, or controlling, or letting go:
Sitting at the station I am entirely present yet entirely absent. Love, like hope, slips continually from the present tense. I live (I love?) mostly in the clumsy ‘future perfect’, where love exists, or when it will have existed.
The future perfect is also the tense of train travel: ‘En cinq minutes ce train sera arrivé à la Gare du Nord’. As though saying it could guarantee against delays, accidents…
Georges Perec wrote that words – after all only the arrangement of marks on a 2D page – give the ‘illusion of movement’ a bit like the way that, looking out of a train window, the landscape appears to move and the traveller feels still. Conventionally we read from beginning to end and, unless we’re the type to skip ahead, to flick, to guess the weight of story to come, a tale will reveal its ending only in its own good time. Reading is time travel both in a straight line (the time it takes to read a story) and in unexpected directions (the timezones the story covers, which may be minutes or many years). We read to stitch up gaps in time, to pass the time as we wait, or as we travel.
Jill Lepore’s “The Prism” in The New Yorker
“An extraordinary fuss about eavesdropping started in the spring of 1844,” begins Lepore’s labyrinthine article, “when Giuseppe Mazzini, and Italian exile in London, became convinced that the British government was opening his mail.” It turns out, they were opening his mail. In fact, it was an organization called the Secret Department of the Post Office. While the events were unfolding, the New York Tribune was watching the case closely, and called the Secret Department’s move “a barbarian breach of honor and decency.” Two months after the affair began, the Secret Department of the Post Office was abolished. “What replaced it,” Lepore writes, “in the long run, was even sneakier: better-kept secrets.”
Lepore chooses to begin with this anecdote because it showcases a point in history where the use of secrecy led to individuals demanding rights for privacy. It’s a piece that examines the relationship between these two: secrecy and privacy. Lepore waxes theologically for a moment, saying that in “the beginning of life,” there was only mystery. Mystery led to knowledge, which led to understanding. Only once mysteries are understood are they able to be kept secret. Only once secrets are revealed do we need privacy.
“The defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets,” Lepore writes. “In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late.” If this sounds like a heady trip of an article–it is. It seems at first to be a philosophical bender, but it’s really a historical account–from Christian theology, to the Reformation, to the theories of Jeremy Bentham, to the N.S.A scandals–of how secrecy and privacy, and the way we define both of those, have evolved in governments, the press, and in individuals’ lives.
With the end of the year nigh, Snowden and the N.S.A. scandal are bound to be rehashed in year-reviews of all sorts. Lepore has little direct comment for the actual events, but the reader can feel the scope of her perspective: “A measure of the distance between the Mazzini affair and the N.S.A. scandal is their wholly different understandings of the nature of the public eye.” As for people now, Lepore says, “There is no longer a public self, even a rhetorical one. There are only lots of people protecting their privacy, while watching themselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism of absurd design.”
Helen Hayward’s “My children, my life” in Aeon Magazine
Some readers may recognize Hayward’s name from a piece of hers we published this past summer. Helen contributed a piece to us after I wrote up this essay from Aeon. Much in the vein of her work found on Vela, this essay challenges the assumption that a woman can’t dedicate herself equally to both her career and raising children. Hayward chose both, and loves both, even if it means working until late into the night, “accepting a double shift.” I’m not a mother, so I can’t speak personally to the choice of motherhood, but what does strike a chord with me in this piece is the idea that this choice is loaded with other people’s opinions. Women are accused of being selfish for wanting careers, and are accused of “giving up” when we choose to be mothers. “…was I right to take my children into my arms, and let the careers of others overtake mine?” Hayward asks. “Some might say I lacked commitment — I didn’t lean in. Others that my mortgage wasn’t big enough. Still others that I’ve loved my children too much, that I’ve over-invested in my relationship to them.”
Hayward claims that her children give her profound love, but her work gives her a “sense of identity and worth” and “inner buoyancy.” And the following paragraph is possibly one of the more beautiful claims for motherhood I’ve read:
So why did I become a traditional mother, rather than the modern mother for which my feminist education — and nearly 20 years of working in publishing, higher education and psychotherapy in London — groomed me? Why did I risk being consumed by a role that might leave me high and dry, a cuttlefish at high tide? In part, I rather unexpectedly enjoyed being needed. Equally unexpectedly, I found being around my children very creative, far more than I’d been led to expect. Caring for them — loving them unreservedly and creating a way of life out of this love — has been a revelation to me. Least fashionably of all, I realised that my marriage might not survive if I didn’t bend, and that bending like a reed was far better than breaking something good. Family life has expressed a deep part of myself that was there, as a potential, well before I had children.
Kelley Benham’s “Never Let Go” in the Tampa Bay Times
I first heard Kelley Benham’s story on an episode of Radiolab in April, and soon after looked up the original three-part story that was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times last December. The story chronicles the birth and first few months of the life of Benham’s premature daughter, Juniper. Juniper was born at just 23 weeks and 6 days (normal pregnancies last 40 weeks), and Benham navigates the reader through the world of the neonatal intensive care unit: a world of ventilators and tubes; of monitors and protective plastic boxes; of stern doctors, stoic nurses, and an endless rotation of emotional parents, as she and her husband, Tom French, wait to see if their baby will survive to the next day.
Babies born before 22 weeks are considered to be miscarried or stillborn; babies are considered “viable” after 24 weeks. Juniper was born in an in-between period, about which Benham writes:
Babies born at the edge of viability force us to debate the most difficult questions in medicine and in life. Who deserves to live, and at what cost? Who decides whether a life is worth saving, or worth living? When does a fetus become a human being, with its own rights? When does life begin?
In glorious–and at times starkly, almost frighteningly blunt–prose, Benham circles around the ethics of life, viability, and parenthood. At times she just describes the situation, and it’s in these moments where the journalist in Benham shines through. Even through her voice shed of any potential maudlin sentiments, there were several moments where I was brought to tears, mostly in the moments when she is simply describing her daughter:
Tom wheeled me to her portholed plastic box. The nurse introduced herself as Gwen, but I barely heard her. There, through the clear plastic, was my daughter. She was red and angular, angry like a fresh wound. She had a black eye and bruises on her body. Tubes snaked out of her mouth, her belly button, her hand. Wires moored her to monitors. Tape obscured her face. Her chin was long and narrow, her mouth agape because of the tubes. Dried blood crusted the corner of her mouth and the top of her diaper. The diaper was smaller than a playing card, and it swallowed her. She had no body fat, so she resembled a shrunken old man, missing his teeth. Her skin was nearly translucent, and through her chest I could see her flickering heart.
She kicked and jerked. She stretched her arms wide, palms open, as if in welcome or surrender.
I recognized her. I knew the shape of her head and the curve of her butt. I knew the strength of her kick. I knew how she had fit inside me, and felt an acute sensation that she had been cut out, and of how wrong that was.
Emily Rapp’s “Grief Magic” on The Rumpus
This piece by Emily Rapp is easily one of the most powerful essays I’ve read all year. It’s so utterly alive and human that anything I can say about it seems insufficient. I’ve followed Rapp’s work since she published her first memoir, Poster Child, have watched her writing grow, burst out of its shell and become a force of nature, and this essay about grief in the wake of her son’s death feels like the apotheosis of that progression. She fully and courageously inhabits her voice in this piece, and it feels like she’s struck deeper within herself than most of us will ever be able to reach:
Almost five months gone. Before I know it, Ronan will have been gone as long as he lived, and then longer. How long will it take to lose this grip on vigilance? What span of time, what trick of the light or the season will obliterate this addiction, not just for the moment, but for good? And who will die next, and then when will it be my time? Who will put their hand on my head, close my eyes, wrap me in a shroud and see me out of this world?
Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Keeping it in the Family” on Granta
This is a tiny gem of an essay, but it has stuck with me all year. I love it not just for its lovely, understated prose but for all the ways it made me think about my own family and past: my grandfather worked his whole life in casinos, and there is perhaps no place on earth my father loves more than Death Valley, with the possible exception of the Sierras where he grew up. Like Watkins’ mother, my father is an amateur geologist — and an amateur of so many other things — and would fill our long car rides up to the Sierras or down to the desert with non-stop stories and lectures. It’s been ten years since I left the West, and almost just as long since my father left this continent, so I know, in a lesser way, what she means when she says Death Valley is the only place that satiates her hunger for her father, whom she lost when was 6. She had to discover him through newsclips, interviews, and books about his time in the Charles Manson Family, but this essay gives me the sense that she has found just as much of her father in the landscape of Death Valley itself: “…it was here that my father first felt the velvety texture of bentonite clay under his fingernails, the freedom of pulling an opal or a hunk of turquoise from the rock with his bare hands, the breathing smell of sagebrush after it rains.”
Angie Chuang’s “Why I Remembered What I Remembered” in Creative Nonfiction (Summer print issue)
Vela contributor Angie Chuang wrote a beautiful essay on survival guilt, the malleability of memory and the unraveling of her family with a humble, tempered eloquence that subtly underscores the seriousness of the material. “Whether or not we had really been booked on Flight 759, something died for us that summer of 1982,” she writes of the summer that, according to her memory, her family almost boarded a flight that was fated to crash, killing all passengers on board. It was also the last summer she could remember her family being happy, a summer frozen in time before her father’s Bipolar took over his state of mind and the physical and emotional atmosphere of their home: “The feeling that our home had been subjected to a series of explosions, that we were constantly tiptoeing around things for fear of stepping on a nail or dislodging some work in progress, mirrored our psychological states.” There is so much packed tightly into this essay that I’m looking forward to seeing further explored in her debut book, The Four Words for Home, due out in March 2014.
Mac McClelland’s “Is PTSD Contagious?” in Mother Jones
It’s been almost exactly a year since I read this piece, and I’m still telling friends about it. Mac McClelland first came on my radar with her searing personal essay “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.” In last January’s issue of Mother Jones, she tackled similar themes through her reporting: How the return of military veterans with PTSD is impacting their relationships, and how the disorder is actually spreading to their family members. It’s a chilling story. Here’s McClelland’s description of hypervigilance, a common symptom of PTSD:
Hypervigilance sounds innocuous, but it is in fact exhaustingly distressing, a conditioned response to life-threatening situations. Imagine there’s a murderer in your house. And it is dark outside, and the electricity is out. Imagine your nervous system spiking, readying you as you feel your way along the walls, the sensitivity of your hearing, the tautness in your muscles, the alertness shooting around inside your skull. And then imagine feeling like that all the time.
Also worth your time: McClelland’s appearance on the Longform Podcast awhile back. She discusses the reporting for this story, her own experiences with PTSD, and more.
Paige Williams’ “Bones of Contention” in The New Yorker
Here’s another one that stuck with me from early in the year. In a January issue of The New Yorker, Paige Williams unravels the strange, complicated, fascinating story of a Mongolian dinosaur skeleton up for auction in New York. It turns out there’s a whole world of black-market fossil smuggling and selling out there – who knew? Here’s a quick taste:
United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton went to court in early September, in lower Manhattan, with U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel presiding. Castel has adjudicated cases involving accused mobsters (John Gotti, Jr.) and cases involving rappers (Kanye West) but never one with a party from the late Cretaceous. “I stand to be educated,” he said. “I’m not going to claim that I have dinosaur arrests presented to me with any frequency.”
Nadine Sander-Green’s “Confessions of a Yukon Arm-Wrestling Champion, Women’s Division” on The Hairpin
I don’t often get to read one of my Yukon neighbors on the U.S. websites I frequent every day, so last May it was a thrill to find Nadine Sander-Green’s thoughtful essay about crushing all her challengers in an arm-wrestling contest – and about how, for a woman who describes herself as “shaped like a brick,” the victory wasn’t really very satisfying. Here’s Nadine:
The table was chest-height and constructed that morning from a couple two-by-fours. My first opponent was short with bulky arms. I beat her quickly, but not without effort. The second women I was up against was more gussied up. She approached me, looking toward her friends and laughing. What’s so funny? I asked. You, it’s you! she said. You just took that other girl down! I don’t want to wrestle you. When I beat her, she threw her head back. You’re a monster! She screamed and pranced back to her seat. With every arm I reefed to the table, the more self-conscious of my arms, of my whole body, I became. The roller derby girl called me a tank after I beat her.
…The thing about having a body that’s shaped like a brick is that it can be hard to continuously convince yourself this is sexy. Petite is sexualized. Breasts are sexy. Curves are hot. Big asses. Meaty thighs. Flat stomachs. Round stomachs. But solid?
Brooke Jarvis’ “When We Are Called to Part” in The Atavist
Finally, a more recent pick. The latest Atavist Original is a lovely, fascinating memoir about the author’s time as an employee at an extraordinarily isolated leprosy settlement in Hawaii. The settlement is in its last days: Now that leprosy is readily treatable and its sufferers are no longer ostracized from society, the place is home to just a few aging patients who chose to remain even after they were legally permitted to leave. “Even a prison,” Jarvis writes, “eventually becomes a home, becomes something you mourn.” The story covers both her initial stint as an employee and her return to the island years later. It’s an e-book; buy it formatted for your device of choice.