Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why I Read Books That Make Me Sad

I'm having a tough week so far...and it's my own doing.  I have a light workload this week, summer days are still long and warm with endless possibilities and I chose - ON MY OWN - to read two books (at the same time) that are both horribly sad and graphic.

To echo my mother, "Why would you do that to yourself?"

I teach classes on trauma and war, so one could argue that I gravitate toward sad material.  However, on my days off, I try my best to find something lighthearted.  So why these two books, why this week, why keep reading?

The books in question were Your Fathers, Where Are They?  And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers and The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson.  Different subject matter, but the same loss of breath and sinking dread every time I turn the page.

With this breathless feeling still in my lungs, this is why you should read books that make you sad:

To begin, Your Fathers, Where Are They?  And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?  is written entirely in dialogue - right away, this is a brilliant choice for the tried-and-true novel genre.  Dave Eggers is no stranger to having people call him a literary genius, but this is the novel in which his ingenuity should be celebrated.  Eggers is not the first writer to compose a narrative entirely out of dialogue (just ask my students, who groan every time I bring up Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"), but I feel he is part of the small percentage to get the pacing just right.  Setting and plot are easy when it is narrative, but imagine crafting characterization, setting, plot, and theme out of speech patterns and the rhythm of conversation.   Our antagonist (and protagonist by default) is Thomas who wakes up his "friend" Kev the astronaut after he just kidnapped him and chained him to a post in an abandoned military base.  Thomas explains calmly to Kev that, based on their history that he HOPES Kev remembers, he has a few questions for the astronaut.  Just like that, we have become Kev - stuck in Thomas's dialogue loop and frantically trying to find a way out in case things get "too real."  Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for Kev, I didn't want to leave and instead allowed Thomas to continue his line of questioning, even grimacing as he collects a few more "pieces" (word used very loosely) of information to weave together a narrative that I was no longer privy to as the novel continues.  I read nervously, I read with one eye, I read as my tomato sauce began to bubble and almost burn (practically ruining Sunday dinner).  I texted my best friend Andrea and told her to pick this up immediately.  I put it down and paced around the room. Thomas made me sick, but so did the responses that he was getting.  I was passing judgement of everyone, including myself.  Finally, I put the book down on Sunday and told myself I will not pick it up until Tuesday morning.  It was difficult, but I kept my promise and I finished it breathless and nauseous in my office that morning.  Now that it is sitting on my desk, I suggest you give yourself two days to read this as well.  Do not be manic like Thomas - allow yourself the dignity of a breather.

Between Eggers, I picked up The Daylight Gate.   Unlike Your Fathers/the Prophets, I was well aware of Winterson's subject matter and unlike Eggers, I was a bit more familiar with Winterson's work.  I knew this would be a tough read, but Jeanette Winterson's words always make it worthwhile.  This woman is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest writers we have today.  In college, I had taken a few women and gender studies courses on witchcraft and the witch trials, so I already understood what I was getting into.  The Daylight Gate tells the tale of Alice Nutter and the Pendle Hill witches - which is a story I know all too well from my classes as student and as professor.  This novel dances in and out of the veil between reality and imagination, superstition and magick, the masculine abuse of power by those in charge and the feminine struggle to not let this abuse cause more destruction.  The Daylight Gate is horribly graphic, extremely devastating, and must be read by everyone who doesn't know the true story of the witch trials.  The witch trials are more than an Arthur Miller play, they are more than the horror movies we pay money to see every summer, and they are more than faceless women that no one cared about or forgot about today.  Winterson takes this unspeakable tragedy and reprehensible violence against women (and a few men) and gives it a voice through her main character, Alice Nutter.  Alice Nutter is a heroine I can be proud of and a victim that I am still mourning after I finished the novel.  Thanks to this book, Alice and the rest of the Pendle witches have not died in vain.  I am so grateful to Winterson for having the courage to venture into the dark, diseased, and despicable side of humanity.  I would like to think that I am that brave as a writer and reader, but I know her writing puts me to shame.  As I tell my students whenever we discuss the Holocaust, we need to make ourselves uncomfortable so we cannot forget.  The Daylight Gate is an eloquent example of this unsettling moment of remembrance.

Furious Readers, I encourage you to seek out books that offer to take you out of your comfort zone.  Always know that, as the reader, you hold the power to stop reading if it doesn't feel right (and I've done that with many books as well...I like to think that I was not ready for their message just yet).

However, if you can keep reading, please do.   The reward will stay with you long after the book has been returned to the shelf.

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