Six books to make you listen harder, tell more truth, and edit your internal monologue. Books to help you get out of bed tomorrow. Books to remind you there are people who are also sleep-deprived and sick of eating canned tuna. Here’s to more I-never-knew-a-book-could-do-that moments in 2k15.
1. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write by Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl, if you’re not aware, is a kickass playwright and all-around weirdo-genius. Probably the MVP of American contemporary playwrighting, she wrote Melancholy Play, in which one of the characters is so depressed she turns into an almond.
This book is a catalog of Ruhl’s ideas on writing, theater, motherhood, creativity, and sundry randomness. Each of these mini-essays asks a question, or several questions, and takes a stab at some answers. They are bite-size (~400–500 words each) and they leave you with that wonderful “I’ve always wondered about this too, I just couldn’t say it” feeling. Some examples:
- Why are umbrellas so pleasing to watch on stage?
- Must one enjoy one’s children?
- Is writing teachable?
- How can one be a mother and a writer (or anything else) at the same time? (“truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby’s diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin”)
Ruhl makes you want to keep a journal and an open mind. She reminds you that everyone is confused. And the best part is: You could expand any of these and turn it into a longer, Grown-Up Essay. Ruhl doesn’t have time, but you just might. Or you can just read them. Like an appetizer sampler in a solid Thai restaurant, reading them is enough on its own.
2. Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell
Chloe Caldwell is the bravest writer I’ve ever read. Every paragraph will make you want to grab life by the horns and then cut the tips off the horns and suck the marrow out of the horns. These are personal essays—some in second-person, like letter-essays. Each is so compact and raw and real it’s like a neutron star. Caldwell doesn’t seem like a ~writer~ as much as a real person who is living her life and telling you the truth.
Caldwell writes about babysitting, cancer, and condoms with happy faces on them. Also: Lotion made of carrots, German acid and, yes, legs. Together, they make you less afraid. They take off your masks. They make you want to just go, say it, save, send.
3. Beauty Was The Case That They Gave Me by Mark Leidner
Here’s poetry that will take your brain, pour fairy dust on it, and make it fly. I have never read poetry that made me more excited to be alive and lingual. You know those moments when you want to put a book down to run a line through your mind a few times like it’s a piece of hard candy? That’s this. Many of Leidner’s poems are about love — breakups, love triangles, sex metaphors. They are darkly funny. Leidner can switch from comedy to ethereal sadness in a line or less.
In this Rumpus interview, Leidner says he wants to “knit” jokes and poems, weaving them together to make something that makes you breathe a little deeper:
His gaze carries calcium on it like a one-way conveyor belt that deposits massive doses of calcium into whatever he looks at, and she has a calcium deficiency once thought incurable by experts in the field of calcium.
That’s an excerpt from a poem about possible rom-com premises.
There are eighteen poems here, in less than 100 pages. Short enough for an afternoon. Maybe two. But, if you can, you should stretch it over a week or so. Carry it with you on your commute, walk with it, and, yeah. Just hold it. It will make you want to push language as far as Leidner.
I also recommend losing yourself in his Twitter, which is a dream.
4. I Am Nobody’s N****r by Dean Atta
I discovered Dean Atta via Steve Roggenbuck’s podcast, read poetry & eventually die. Atta is a UK-based poet who writes about being young, black, and gay in London with a kind of short-sentenced urgency. Think declarative lines, rhyme, and some heavy-hitting nouns. The poems are righteous and also totally intimate — Atta writes about racism as much as he writes about Grindr. Some of the poems sound like spoken word, and what really strikes you about the language is how clear it is — it’s like Atta has cut through the noise and is giving you the signal itself. You won’t find many prepositional phrases in here, nor elaborate metaphor. Just Atta:
I’m ironic and yet I’m so on it
So if you wanna test me, let me hear your phonics
I’m not a battle emcee; I’m a community defender
Young, black and gay, you best remember.
5. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
A book of writing advice that is actually fresh and — shocker — fun to read. Verlyn Klinkenborg has one of the most consonant-heavy names on the planet, but this book is weightless. There are no paragraphs here — just sentences, short ones, like zen koans that make you want to be a better thinker and feeler as they glide through your temporal lobe. They’re some of the most elegant sentences I’ve ever read:
Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head.
In your head.
Did no one ever tell you this?
The book ends with fifty pages of sentence analysis. A shoddy sentence followed by Klinkenborg’s brief, sarcastic, and helpful commentary.
Reading this book is like going to a mountain retreat for writers and receiving very intense 1:1 tutoring from Yoda, if Yoda spoke in standard syntax and was on the editorial board of The New York Times (which Klinkenborg is).
6. How Should A Person Be? By Sheila Heti
Part novel, part essay, part diary, part drama, part dream — How Should A Person Be? knits together forms so elegantly it sometimes feels like a film. Heti wants to know the answer to the most important question there is, but she doesn’t ask it as much as she is it. She becomes the question, attaching herself to her best friend (Margaux, an artist) and lover (Israel, who is basically a personified bicep). She wants to know how they are so she can use it in her novel, or the play she’s been commissioned to write but can’t finish.
This is fiction as much as nonfiction, with many characters and events drawn directly from Heti’s life. Reviewers have compared it to HBO’s Girls, but to me it seems quieter, more curious. It’s essentially a 300-page question, and you feel, at the end, like you’ve just opened something you will never be able to close. It’s a good feeling.