2011 was a good year for me. I published a book, pierced my nose, and successfully took on a major new work responsibility. Cumulatively, these accomplishments made me feel like I was finally myself, in a way I don’t think I’ve ever felt, except perhaps when I became a mother.
2011 wasn’t such a good year for my reading. While Mara discovered Anne Tyler and loved Finishing Touches, Eva loved My Life in Pink & Green and the Canterwood Crest and The Mother-Daughter Book Club series, and Sam’s favorites were The Man from Beijing (yet another Swedish mystery) and Nikky Finney’s Head Off and Split, I’ve had a hard time picking out highlights. This is partly because I read a lot less than I usually do – perhaps half the number of books as 2010. But I also didn’t read a lot of books I loved. In fact, I don’t think I read any.
These days when people ask me for a good read or a book club suggestion, I still find myself returning to Room, which only didn’t make it onto my list of 2010 favorites because I read it after I wrote that column. Room isn’t an original choice — it made scads of 10 Best lists and was a Booker Prize finalist in 2010 — so a lot of the people to whom I recommend it have already read it. But a lot of the others say they won’t read it.
Room tells the story of a five-year-old boy and his mother who are being held captive in a small room by the mother’s abductor who is also the boy’s father. Told from the perspective of the boy, who was conceived, born and has always lived in the room, the novel is a masterpiece of perspective, linguistics, and imagination. I think the book is beautiful, but the idea is certainly horrifying, and for lots of people, especially mothers, it’s apparently too much.
Having this conversation several times — “Can you recommend a book?” “How about Room?” “No, I can’t/don’t want to/won’t read that” — has made me think about the books we don’t read. Not the books we don’t read because we don’t like the author or genre, like I don’t read Don DeLillo or science fiction, but the books we don’t read because we don’t want to go there.
For my kids, that means scary books, which is to say: books they find scary for any kind of reason. For years, Mara wouldn’t read any book with a dead mother, which pretty much ruled out the bulk of classic literature (no Dickens, A Little Princess, or Anne of Green Gables). She eventually eased up on that stricture, perhaps when she realized that dead mothers were largely a thing of the nineteenth century, but she remains baffled by her friend who is reading her way through Stephen King. Mara is a fundamentally sunny person. She wants to be happy and actively works to keep herself happy. The dark side — any dark side — has no appeal to her. She doesn’t want to go there, in fact or fiction.
Eva is different. She knows fear — we recently learned that after Katrina she was terrified she would die in a hurricane, which explained some hitherto incomprehensible fits of weeping (and shows, once again, that we should not underestimate our capacity not to understand our children). She says she doesn’t like scary books because they are scary, but I think she chooses not to go there in books because she has no choice in life: the dark side is inherently visible to her, and she knows just how scary scary can be.
I think I know this about her because I know it about myself. I am always aware of the chasms of misery, destruction, and danger that surround us, and I work hard not to fall into them. But I’ve learned that scary books can actually help me keep irrational fear at bay and allow me controlled access to my genuine fears. On the light side, I’ve learned to enjoy the catharsis of a terrifying thriller.
One book I did like this year was Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life, the memoir of Hollywood hairdresser Carrie White. White has done the hair of everyone you ever (and never) heard of, and her husband was one of the inspirations for Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo. Hollywood High in the ’50s, Rodeo Drive in the ’60s, and Malibu in the ’70s, hair, fashion, and movie and rock stars galore. My kind of book.
Actually, my kind of book in more ways than one. Once you get past the froth of hair and parties, Upper Cut has its own darkness. The book begins with a disturbing account of childhood neglect and abuse, and it eventually becomes one of the most palpable accounts of addiction I’ve ever read, exactly the kind of terrifying read that relentlessly draws you in, making your skin crawl and your bones shiver, even as you flip forward in the pages to see how long you’ll have to endure the discomfort you can’t resist. I’ve never been an addict, but that state of uncontrollable thrall has always fascinated me, perhaps because I sense it’s just over the edge of my own need to be in control. I’ve started down dicey paths, but always stopped myself from going too far, though too far has always had its appeal. I tell myself this shows that I am fundamentally in control, but I wonder if it actually shows how tenuous that control really is.
This isn’t to say that everyone should read scary books. Mara started Upper Cut before I did and was annoyed that I returned it to the library before she finished it, but I assured her that she would have stopped reading anyway. I don’t tell my friends who won’t read Room that they need to confront their anxieties about endangered mothers and children, though I do tell them they are missing something great. But it does make me think that it’s worth scrutinizing the books we reject out of hand for what they can tell us about ourselves and why we read. Indeed, it makes me wonder if next year’s favorite book might be waiting in a pile I’m not even considering.