The Reason You Should Pass The Tissues

I like to pride myself on my stoic, even-keeled approach to life, but that is a giant lying waste of time because I am an emotional emotion who goes around emoting all the time. I wouldn’t know stoic if it bit me on the ass and offered me a Band-Aid. Interestingly enough, though, I am not much of a crier. It’s not that I don’t feel sadness, it’s that I’m shallow and mostly dead inside. I don’t feel a LOT of sadness before I get distracted by jazzier feelings, like sulkiness or enthusiasm or hungry. The result of all this diversion and denial is that a lot of my crying gets done as a result of book ambush. There I’ll be, reading a perfectly innocent book, when I unexpectedly get jumped by the major sads. It can make reading in public a little tricky, but I’m a razor’s edge kind of gal. Sometimes, a catharsis via a good cry is what’s called for, even when it’s terribly inconvenient to fall apart in my dentist’s waiting room.

There are books that have made reputations by the epic sobfests they instigate. Where The Red Fern Grows. The Color Purple. Charlotte’s Web. Whichever Harry Potter book where Snape dies. I didn’t cry while reading any of these. They barely ranked a “Watery Eyes” on my personal Cry-O-Meter, but the titles listed below? My Waterloos. Let’s face them.

John Adams by David McCullough

Learning about the American Revolution sounds exciting until you realize that a lot of the American Revolution is about meetings. I don’t care if you give your meeting a fancy name like “Continental Congress”. It is still a MEETING and the only thing more boring than going to a meeting is learning dates in the 1770s when other people held meetings. The only exception to this rule is if David McCullough writes a book about the meetings. (Sorry, Lin-Manuel Miranda.) I can go on and on about David McCullough’s books (and one day I will) and his masterpiece John Adams is the American Revolution story we all deserve. This definitive biography of America’s second president is enthralling, with a sexy love story and political intrigue and an honorable, intensely principled central character. I was so absorbed by  David McCullough’s charming and sympathetically rendered portrait of John Adams, and so delighted by the details of Colonial life and times, that I was completely unprepared for John Adams to die. On the 4th of July. And the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. AND ON THE SAME DAY AS HIS BESTIE THOMAS JEFFERSON. Are you kidding me with all this? As I was hard weeping my way through this part of the book, my husband heard me crying and came to check on me.
Husband: Are you ok? What happened??
Me: (sniffles) John…Adams…diiiiieeeeed (fresh weeping)
Husband: John Adams? Federalist John Adams?
Me: (closes eyes, nods)
Husband: (makes disgusted noise and leaves)

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff’s superpower is research. More accurately, it is researching the unresearchable. She should have a place in the Marvel Universe for this because it’s at least as difficult as using archery to defeat robot armies. It is this remarkable, non-archery ability that delivered the book Cleopatra: A Life into my hot little hands. When you hear ‘Cleopatra’, what comes to mind? That’s right—Elizabeth Taylor’s questionable style choices and something vague about a snake. For all Cleopatra’s fame, very little was documented about Egypt’s defining monarch, until Stacy Schiff came along to do all the heavy lifting. For gaps where records about Cleopatra do not exist, Stacy Schiff’s meticulous research fills in with fascinating details about Egyptian history, culture, and what it meant to be a member of the royal family in power in Ptolemaic Egypt. Cleopatra was strong ruler dedicated to the welfare of her kingdom, but it was her alliance-turned-love-affair with Mark Antony that gives this biography a powerful emotional thread. Cleopatra and Marc Antony seal their fates when they unwisely take on the Roman Republic. After losing the final, decisive battle against the Roman leader Octavius, Marc Antony commits suicide. The description of Cleopatra recovering her beloved husband’s body and bringing it home to be with her prior to her own suicide is nothing short of heartbreaking. Cleopatra’s devastation and desperation as she prepares to take her life – I cracked while I read this. And it wasn’t pretty weeping, either. It was a big old ugly cry, the kind where your lashes get so wet it feels like your mascara is running right off even though you’re not wearing any mascara. That is the blurb this book needs: “I cried my imaginary shadow mascara right off my face”.



Book reading supplies: Bookmarks, comfy chair, cucumber for puffy eyes


Love Is A Mix Tape: Life And Loss, One Song At A Time by Rob Sheffield

Just typing the title of this book makes a lump well in my throat. Rob Sheffield, a music and culture critic for Rolling Stone, wrote this memoir about meeting, falling in love with, and marrying the perfect girl while a student at the University of Virginia. It is a love story about how complicated dating life can be, about marrying young and loving the intimacy of married life, and about reeling from the sudden, crushing loss of that intimacy. Rob and his wife Renee were married five years before their life together abruptly ended when Renee died from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 32. Rob Sheffield processes his shock and grief by losing himself in the 90s music that brought them together, telling the story of his life before, during, and after Renee. He sugarcoats nothing in this book, laying bare the bewildered anger and aimlessness he felt after his wife’s death, all the sadder for its contrast with the contentment and joy he found in his relationship with Renee. This book took me beyond ugly crying into showoff crying. I went for the sustained, constant quiet sobbing for the entire second half of the book, and because I just could not believe that Renee died. I kept interrupting myself to go read that part again. It’s a beautiful, moving, and brave book.


Action Items
Honorable crying mention goes to the part of Little House On The Prairie when Laura’s dog Jack dies.

The Reason I Prefer Limericks

Are you entertaining entering the glamorous world of liberal arts and becoming an English major? There is a lot to ponder (what color ink should you choose to take notes? what will your unifying design theme be for your iPad and iPhone cases?), but it really comes down to whether or not you’re ready to embrace the fundamentals. Let me break it down for you. As a literature student, you have two jobs. The first job is to read everything assigned to you to read. Never mind that sometimes your reading list is a brain-baffling tossed salad of German postmodernism , world mythology, and John Milton. Nobody is asking you what you want to read. You’re reading what’s on that syllabus, so hush your mouth, put down that People magazine, and pick up that Bertolt Brecht.

Once you’ve read your assigned works, you might think you’re done. Well, you’re not, because that’s when you start your shift on your second job, which is to get your analysis on. Unleash your powers of perception and persuasion and run the time-honored drill of writing a paper. The act of writing a paper demonstrates understanding of the text, grasp of the larger ideas and context around the work you just read, and that you know how to procrastinate to a point where it becomes necessary to read The Grapes of Wrath, draft an outline, and write a paper about Steinbeck’s use of grapes as a motif in the 48 hours before the due date. Or maybe I wrote about Steinbeck using wrath as a motif? I’m not sure, as I was hallucinating by hour 37.

For the opinioned among us (looks in the mirror, points to self), crafting and writing papers is a rewarding exercise. I thoroughly enjoy making juicy literary arguments and I can cite more sources than a Kardashian has eyeliner. Fiction, non-fiction, plays, short stories, novellas, fairy tales–bring it ON. Notice anything missing from that list? I’ll fill you in. POETRY. I don’t know why, but I am incapable of articulating anything insightful about poems. It’s not that I can’t enjoy poetry. It’s that I can’t explain it. When obligated to describe why a poem has a particular quality, I’m stumped. It just comes out as “Nice letters make good word poem picture”,  and the only thing exaggerated about that example is that it’s giving me more analytic credit than I deserve. I dreaded assignments requiring any analysis of any poetry.  I once punted so hard on a paper about Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” that my teacher took me aside to ask me if everything was okay. I think she suspected me of having someone else do the assignment for me and was wondering why I’d hired a kindergartner. Sadly, that’s when I had to face an unpleasant truth: I would never be a poetry whiz. I’d never be in the same class as the amazing Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a Jazz Age writer, activist, and all-around badass. How badass, you ask? Okay: She was a Maine native, Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity poet, and named after a hospital. BIO BONUS LEVEL UNLOCKED. POINTS AWARDED, EDNA. Where Zelda Fitzgerald embodied Jazz Age liberation as a volatile live wire, celebrating conspicuous consumption and inebriated recklessness, Edna St. Vincent Millay was cooler than the other side of the pillow.  Independent, willful, and insanely talented, she lived an unconventional life characterized by artistic integrity and intellectual curiosity. And sexual curiosity. Let’s just say all the curiosity.

Savage Beauty is the gorgeous biography about Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. It does ESVM’s life justice (Four-initial monogram? Badass) spanning her early, poverty-stricken years in rural Maine, her boldness as a Vassar student, and her amazing career. All of that is interesting enough, but Milford’s meticulous research reveals an Edna who is lively, stubborn, and driven by her passion for the arts and for artists. ESVM was a born writer, composing opera librettos and plays, but it is her poetry that casts the longest shadow.

Generally, my ability to appreciate poetry is limited to crying at a well-placed poem at a movie funeral. (And you know I just paused to watch John Hannah read W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And now you’re pausing to do the same thing. I’ll wait. It’s a good scene.) There is one exception to this sad rule, and that is the sublime, brilliant ESVM poem “Renascence”.  Written when Edna was a teenager, she submitted in a national poetry contest, where it was awarded 4th place instead of an expected 1st. The ensuing “she was robbed” controversy was Edna’s first exposure to poetry fame and facilitated a full scholarship to Vassar. “Renascence”  is ambitious in scale and subject matter. Over 200 lines long, it is written in the first person, with the narrator reconciling her feelings about feeling overwhelmed and lost in a vast world. It is almost prose, almost a short story, both intimate and sweeping with a sermonlike momentum. I’ve loved it since I first read it. It’s fortunate that it’s a good, long, juicy, solid poem because it has to stand in for all the other poems that I avoid like the plague.

Like all masterpieces, “Renascence”  is deceptively simple. It’s both challenging and comforting, begging larger thematic questions (immortality and stuff) while grounding itself in a natural, mountainside setting. The real magic of “Renascence”, though, is that I never had to write a paper about it, so I never ruined it for myself or anyone else. (Um, until today.)  My poetry bandwidth is just too narrow. Trying to pin down ESVM poetic genius for research posterity would have been like trying to hammer a nail with a baguette: crumbs everywhere and a really annoyed nail.


Poetry analysis toolkit

I’m definitely calling in sick at the second job today.


Action Item
Nancy Milford writes stupendous biographies. Sadly, she has written only two–Savage Beauty, and Zelda. You go read them while I sit here and wish for her to publish another one, preferably about Zora Neale Hurston or Dorothy Parker.