It’s a question that’s always fascinated me. It’s one reason I like wandering into a bookstore or library and having no particular plan in mind. Or having a plan but junking it in favor of a certain sudden clicking in my synapses that says, Walk down this aisle. It’s the Zen of finding books.
I like stumbling onto books. Finding them in unexpected places: a table at Anthropology. A gift shop. A review in a magazine I only read at the dentist’s office.
One of the best stacks of books I ever took home were six two-for-a-dollar’s on the tables at a library sale I happened on one afternoon in St. George, Florida. Each one answered some question I barely knew was in my head until I started reading.
You can’t do this on Amazon.com. It’s trying too hard to get your attention, with the giant best-seller lists and the “related to items you’ve viewed” and “recommended for you.” Amazon will never “get” us, anymore than an online Tarot card reading can tell our fortune.
The books that have ended up in my house lately are all about children: unwanted, given up for adoption, unable to fit in—one is even a changeling. Who knows why? It’s not as if I set out to do a roundup of books about the subject. It’s the kind of synchronicity that makes me wonder, the way you’d wonder about the meaning of a recurring dream. But like a dream, much of the pleasure comes from letting it work on you, not getting too crazy about extracting the meaning.
I used to love picking through the advance readers copies at local independent bookstore Tall Tales when I worked there. I liked that so many of them were sleepers, authors you’d never heard of. I used my Zen of Reading on those unknowns a lot; it’s how I found Nell Freudenberger, Greg Bottoms, Lydia Peelle, Julie Orringer.
They still let me go through the ARCs at Tall Tales, and recently, just like old times, I found The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch, sitting there under the radar between a couple of young adult books, its gray paper cover-bra (hiding a bared breast) still intact. If you haven’t heard about this book yet, it’s Yuknavitch’s memoir of growing up with an abusive, violent father and an alcoholic mother and how she escaped—into a world pretty much like the one she left, except that she became a sort of combination of her parents, a violent, risk-taking alcoholic and heroin addict.
Chuck Palaniuk loved it (though he may not count, being in her writing group). The Rumpus Book Club did a long interview with the author (here it is, uncut) that ended with their suspicions she might be the mysterious columnist who advises the lovelorn and the desperate at Dear Sugar. Yuknavitch is also the author of three novels and claims Kathy Acker as one of her influences.
Swimmer, compassionate survivor, and mother, Yuknavitch advises those touched by “the great river of sadness that runs through us all” to collect rocks. “Own more rocks than clothing,” she says, and “sometimes feel lithic, or petrified, or rupestral instead of tired, irritable, depressed.” For it is rocks, she tells us, “that carry the chronology of water.” But before she was able to get to the safety of rocks, she was “a burning girl” who had to do enough drugs and sex and sex and sex and sex until her “life, and what it was and wasn’t, simply left.”
I read The Chronology of Water over a period of a few days, and each time, felt as if I’d been sitting in the corner of a bar with a woman articulate enough to tell me her whole story, and by telling this story, she was saving her own life. Not everything she had to say was as funny as she thought it was, and not everything she’s done was as wild and gender-bending and shocking as she seemed to believe, but the telling is courageous, much of it brilliant. I can think of at least one beautiful burning girl I’ve known who would still be alive today if she’d been able to transform her pain into words this way.
Here’s a taste of Yuknavitch’s style, from the chapter on her mentor, Ken Kesey, at The Nervous Breakdown. And here is an essay she wrote for The Rumpus about books—”Those thingees with covers and pages that you hold in your hands? Smell like paper and trees? Portable brain defibrillators?”—that found her.
In the story that Chris Adrian (The Children’s Hospital) turned into a novel, The Great Night, Titania and Oberon, queen and king of the fairies from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sit out yet another night at a hospital with their changeling human child, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. As the royal fairies struggle to understand disease—they never die, don’t even get sick—the doctors fight to save the baby. What a heartbreaking story this is, and Adrian’s decision to transfer the sadness of losing a child to a fairy’s limited vocabulary creates the perfect analogy for our own human experience with death and dying: Despite our greater knowledge and ability to speak to the doctors, are we really any more clear on why? Do we do a better job of accepting the loss? Wouldn’t we, too, like to destroy the doctors and the entire hospital, and punish the underlings who let it happen?
I found Adrian’s book through my favorite source of new book links and information, Shelf Awareness. Their subtitle—Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade—couldn’t be more apt. Every weekday, if you subscribe, you’ll get news of independent bookstores, new books, industry news, and reviews. Their brief description fired me up to find the story, “A Tiny Feast,” that inspired Adrian’s book.
It took them both a long time to understand that the boy was sick …. Neither of them had much experience with illness. They had each taken many mortal lovers, but had cast them off before they could become old or infirm, and all their previous changelings had stayed healthy until they were returned, unaged and unstuck from their proper times, to the mortal world. “There was no way you could have known,” said Dr. Blork, the junior partner in the two-person team that oversaw the boy’s care, on their very first visit with him. “Parents always feel like they ought to have caught it earlier, but really it’s the same for everyone, and you couldn’t have done any better than you did.” He was trying to make them feel better, to assuage a perceived guilt, but at that point neither Titania nor her husband really knew what guilt was, never having felt it in all their long days.
They were in the hospital, not far from the park on the hill under which they made their home, in the middle of the night—early for them, since they slept all day under the hill and had taught the boy to do the same, but the doctors, Beadle and Blork, were obviously fatigued. The four of them were sitting at a table in a small windowless conference room, the doctors on one side, the parents on the other. The boy was back in his room, drugged with morphine, sleeping peacefully for the first time in days. The doctors were explaining things, earnestly and patiently, but Titania was having trouble following along.
Ben and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon. We face glowing white headlights of cars following us, our sneakers pressed against the back hatch door. This is our joy—his and mine—to sit turned away from our moms and dads in this place that feels like a secret, as thought they are not even in the car with us. They have just taken us out to dinner and now we are driving home. Years from this evening, I won’t actually be sure that this boy sitting beside me is named Ben. But that doesn’t matter tonight. What I know for certain right now is that I love him, and I need to tell him this fact before we return to our separate houses, next door to each other. We are both five.
Read the rest of this first chapter here.
Thirteen more linked essays trace the author’s steadily increasing awareness of his difference from other boys, with some glorious passages about his secret pastimes, including a scene that will drive you crazy with joy where his grandmother lets eight-year-old Ryan help her set the table wearing a little girl’s blue party dress he found in a closet.
The bottom hem just skims the carpet as I shift my weight left and then right, my eyes in the mirror watching the full skirt tilting like a bell. I gather the folds of the dress in my hands, the way the women do on Little House on the Prairie, and bustle around for a minute or two before the door opens.
My grandmother. She just stands there and keeps her hand on the knob….
I say, “It fits me,” and sort of twist side to side.
“It does. It does,” she says.
Van Meter’s website.
The Zen of Finding Books works best in small independents and used bookstores (one of the best is the Atlanta Book Exchange on North Highland). Here’s some straightforward, smart advice on why you should shop locally.