Calamitous

Yolanda Reading

When Typhoon Yolanda [international name Haiyan] entered Philippine territory—just after midnight of the 7th of November—I was about a hundred and fifty pages into Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Theo Decker had just stepped into a world that so suddenly, so numbingly went on without his mother. He wrote: “But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.” I tucked a colored flag into the book. An evening or so before the Tartt—a Manila evening as calm as any other—I’d nodded at Patrick NessA Monster Calls when it intoned, “The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.” I tucked a colored flag into that book as well.

I didn’t read while the storm raged; I had to work. I didn’t read for days after that; even more work had to be done. The Sunday evening after Yolanda, I retrieved Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art from P.’s bookshelves. I’d just stepped out of the shower, had a towel around me, and refused to think: I sat down, and read it straight through—fighting the distaste of having a book that was more an exercise in typography than anything else; (snidely, I’d grumbled that it was not even a good speech). I set the book aside about fifteen minutes later, and went back to work. I’d needed that brush with my reading self, I would realize—and, at that point, beset with all that had yet to be done, with realities I wanted to put off for a little while longer, with exhaustion creeping ever so surely: I needed an accomplishment from my before-Yolanda self. I’d needed to finish a book.

Two days later, I almost idly started a Tessa DareThree Nights with a Scoundrel, the last of her Stud Club trilogy, and only the fourth book of hers I’ve read [something to remedy, and soon]—that had been downloaded on my phone. It felt like coming home. And, because I loved the book, the accomplishment of having finished it didn’t ring false. Then I switched gears and picked up the beautifully rendered Scarlet, a graphic novel by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. I spent an afternoon with it, didn’t bother analyzing the satisfying violence of vigilante Scarlet Rue and her campaign. Three books done, read as though in a haze—read, perhaps, for the wrong reasons—but there they were. And I kept on reading, when time and energy and my flagging mortal body all allowed.

I finished reading the interviews in John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist; desultorily, I should note, having already discovered that there wasn’t much in it for me. I picked up another graphic novel, the first volume of Justice League Dark, which brings together DC’s rougher, occult-bent characters. In a mild panic attack over thoughts of the future, I picked up a local chick lit, She’s Dating the Gangster—and it now holds the dubious honor of having been the worst book I have ever read. I’ve been pissed at books before, I’ve wanted to hurl them at walls—but I’ve never gone from one page to another vibrating with the restraint to not rip out leaves and tear them into itty bits and pieces. I finished The Goldfinch through pure stubbornness, in defiance—staying up all night, a luxury I could ill-afford given that I was supposed to wake up a mere three hours later. A couple of nights after that, I stayed up again to finish Duke of Midnight, the inimitable Elizabeth Hoyt’s Georgian-era riff on Batman and [to me] Wonder Woman—complete with a nod to Arkham Asylum. And it was having finished the Tartt and the Hoyt that told me I was going back to reading, that I was going to try my damnedest to go back to a reading life—one that existed not only to crow [or feebly pat one’s own back] at a finished book.

* * *

I’ve started Jean-Christophe Valtat’s intriguing steampunk novel, Aurorarama—it reminds me, very superficially, of the worlds Philip Pullman built in His Dark Materials. A few nights ago, deep in an insomnia made more hellish by a headache that hinted at a migraine, I began Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman. And just today, having been heavily weighing decisions that need to be made by the end of the year, I found myself gravitating toward Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild—me, who shudders at the very thought of spending ninety minutes in the garage/garden with all those mosquitoes and bedamned frogs. The Currently Reading pile will change, as it is wont to do; and I shall try not to examine whether the flightiness is just my usual restlessness or if this is not quite the reading life of Before, not just yet.

It’s a more-awkward-than-usual post. There remains shame in bewailing one’s difficulty with reading—never mind that stepping into books has always been a salve, a sanctuary for my sanity, my exhausted-with-feeling soul—more so the overwhelming gladness that a semblance of a reading life has returned, in light of all that’s happened. This is the shift, I suppose, when one belongs to a nation in mourning: Everything shall be [must be] held against that light.

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2 comments

  1. […] so if I need words for a consuming but eternally hazy grief over the chaos left by a supertyphoon, I turn to Donna Tartt; if the politics in this country makes me want to eat a blanket, I let Scarlet rage for me; if […]

  2. […] exactly—was it the prose, was I simply the target audience for stories of art and dissolution, was it my absolute need to be consumed by a narrative so divorced from my own? It just felt really good to surrender to Tartt, especially since she never lets up on making that […]

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