What I Learned from // The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

“Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”

― Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

In his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of the beautiful, strange, and mysterious Lisbon sisters. The girls Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Therese (17) live in Nowhere, Suburbia—AKA Grosse Pointe, Michigan—in the 70s under the ever watchful eye of their mother and the timid parenting of their father. We watch them through the eyes and memories of the neighborhood boys who have become, and will forever be, obsessed with them.

Through carefully cataloged bits of evidence and eyewitness interviews, the boys present us with what they know. They know a lot, but it turns out it isn’t enough to have saved the sisters and certainly not enough to explain why they did it. Suicide may seem a grim topic for a novel about teenagers and love, but Eugenides gives us enough distance from the trauma to see what his characters cannot.

The book was a dream to read, but it’s taken me a long while to wrap my head around what exactly Eugenides was trying to tell me. The style is unique, written from the perspective of the boys years later, still obsessed with their investigation into the lives of these three young women. Their ordered presentation of evidence and testimony drew me in, and I became just as obsesses with the Lisbon girls as they were, but what I learned is that this story is not about the Lisbon girls.

“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all.”

― Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides is the story of boys growing into men who know that women aren’t mysteries to solve or beautiful objects to pursue and possess, they are people. They have dreams and needs, and they experience emotional pain. They are complex, cunning, and sexual. They are no more mysterious than any man is too another man. Look at them, at us, as human beings, and you will see.

I suppose most boys have little reason to consider the growth and development of young girls. There is no reason to care whether a girl’s inner world is as rich and lively as their own, but maybe that should change. Maybe it already has, but thinking back on my own experience of teenage boys much more recently than the 70s I find many reasons to doubt that. Some boys loved me, wanted me, and who were very sweet in their efforts to show me that, but I never felt truly seen by them.

These boys also learn that even when you love someone, if you can’t see them as whole human beings you can’t even begin to save them.That kind of love is, at best, useless, and at worst, self-serving and harmful. This is the way men often love women and how parents often love their children. It comes from thinking that your experience of a person is all there is to a person. It comes from never considering that women and children (and gays, and transgender people, and people of color, and elderly people, and disabled people) are more than one-dimensional and that the solutions they seek may be complicated.

The system failed them, the school, the neighborhood, their parents, and ultimately the boys who loved them too but it was all a metaphor for the many people, men, and women, young and old, are failed by the people who love them and the systems mean to save them too. The Virgin Suicides is about our collective aversion to dealing with issues of mental illness and abuse.

“They said nothing and our parents said nothing, so we sensed how ancient they were, how accustomed to trauma, depressions, and wars. We realized that the version of the world they rendered for us was not the world they really believed in, and for all their caretaking and bitching about crabgrass they didn’t give a damn about lawns.”

― Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

We would rather pretend it doesn’t happen and hope it goes away, and when we can’t do that, we resort to empty gestures and shallow, often selfish acknowledgment. When that doesn’t work, we try anger. We shame and blame and force the ugliness away from us so we can pretend again.

And suicide isn’t the only issue we would rather not face. Poverty, sexism, isolation, religion, humans are always finding new ways to avoid what hurts, embarrasses, or confuses. We find more and more mundane and pointless things to focus on to leave as little time left to consider life’s unanswerable questions. We let people who can’t conform slip through the cracks because it’s easier that way but what we can’t see is the devastation under the thin and shining lie.

The truth is we can’t ever escape the ugly parts of ourselves and our lives. I would bet each of us has our own catalog of evidence and eyewitness accounts of every pain we lived through. We carry it with us wherever we go. Maybe it’s time we presented it too and admitted we know nothing at all.

“What lingered after them was not life, which always overcomes natural death, but the most trivial list of mundane facts: a clock ticking on a wall, a room dim at noon, and the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.

― Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

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What I Learned from // One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

“One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey tells the story of a group of Oregon men living in a mental ward and the staff meant to get them sane through cruelty and control. There is Randle Patrick McMurphy, who is new to the ward. He’s street-smart, stubborn, rambunctious, and ready to have some fun.

Standing in his way is Big Nurse Ratched who likes her ward kept quiet and is determined to bring McMurphy under control by any means necessary. We follow it all from the perspective of Chief Bromden, a half-Indian schizophrenic who can see the authoritarian gears grinding behind the walls and working through McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.

This book was definitely something altogether different. I can certainly see how it came to be one of the most banned books in America. The writing is intense from the very outset, and the imagery is vivid and often disturbing.

My heart raced along with Chief Bromden while he hid from the orderlies. I was afraid of Nurse Ratched and her way of breaking the will of anyone by using condescending kindness and patience. I was sad to see the way the “chronics” were treated, or the way “acutes” were turned into “chronics.” I wondered at the great big “Combine” working keeping us all in control and conforming. I wanted to fight the Combine, and keep it from churning us out, one by one, to the roles ready-made made for us.

I was in awe of McMurphy and confused by him too. I couldn’t understand whether he was supposed to be good or bad, but I know he stood for something big, and bold, and free.

“And later hiding in the latrine from the black boys I’d look at my own self in the mirror and wonder how it was possible that anybody could manage such an enormous thing as being what he was.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I learned that in the real world heroes and villains are bigger than right and wrong. That a person can save you and swindle you at the same time and that the best of intentions, the kindest smiles, and the gentlest treatment can make a prison out of a person.

Kesey reminded me that joy, spontaneity, and adventure are an important part of the quality of someone’s life and ought to be a part of their recovery, even if it leads to a little mess and the occasional setback. The alternative is worse.

I learned that a person needs to be free. A person needs to feel like a person. They need to know they mean something and that the way they see the world is valid. A person needs to be built up and loved the way they are. Yes, we are all special snowflakes and while that may not entitle us to any special privileges in this world is does mean the right to be our beautiful, unique selves. It means we have the right to joy and proper mental care free of someone else’s biased view of what it means to be “normal.”

But we can never claim those rights without first recognizing the way we allow them to be taken from us in the first place. In this modern world. Each of us has to make his mind for himself what rules he will and won’t follow, not because he is told, but because he agrees with the reasoning behind the rule.

“Rules? PISS ON YOUR FUCKING RULES!”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a reminder to us all not to place too much trust in authority and to never stop asking why things have to be the way they are. This book is about the ways we control each other and the need to constantly question that control.

This book certainly asks a lot of questions. In a world where any deviation of behavior makes a person crazy, does the word mean anything anymore? How do we treat people who are depressed, anxious, or unhappy? How do we treat people who we have deemed are beyond our help? How do we decide, why do we decide, that people aren’t worth seeing, helping, or caring about anymore? How do we recognize who is trying to help us, and what help looks like when we see it if we aren’t of sound mind? What makes a person good or bad? What makes a person a person?

“Papa says if you don’t watch it people will force you one or the other, into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite out of spite.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Some of the other themes I wasn’t so comfortable with. There seemed to be a misogynist tones weaved below the action that threw me off and made it hard for me to fall head over heels with the book. It’s hard to cheer for the little guy when a big part of why he hates the figure of the authority is her womanness.

Nurse Ratched wasn’t a good person, but it wasn’t because she was a woman. There are plenty of men at the top of every one of societies institutions using physical violence and mental manipulation to keep the masses controlled. Men love destroying the masculinity in one another as much as any woman ever would.

This is my only gripe with the book, but maybe the book wasn’t written with someone like me in mind.

I recommend reading it regardless though. It was still an enjoyable and exciting read and, let’s be honest, no author is perfect, and no story can be either. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some good to get out of exploring it. This book is all about questioning, and just like we question the motivates and meaning of Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, we can certainly question Ken Kesey himself.

“But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

— Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Featured photo is by paul morris on Unsplash

What I Learned from // Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway, written by Virginia Woolf and published in 1925, is the story of just one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high society woman living in London in the 1920s as she prepares to host a party at her home that evening.

We also follow the very troubled Septimus Smith, a World War I veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or “shell shock” as it was referred to back then. He comes back from the war paranoid and hallucinating trying to make sense of the loss of his friend Evans and his current feelings and memories of the war and his place in the world now.

“She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”

― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway is a strange book. Written almost entirely from inside the minds of the characters in a “stream of consciousness” style follows their thoughts and observations on the past, present, and future of their lives and loved ones. It took me a long time to finish it despite its small size because that “stream of consciousness” style made it hard to get and keep my bearings. Once I did though I understood why Woolf might have chosen it.

Themes of relationships, time, religion, mental illness, existence, feminism and even sexuality are mulled over by not just Clarissa and Septimus but of all the characters around them. We learn quickly that the inner lives of these people are much richer and more interesting than their outside worlds.

I don’t claim to know what the moral of Mrs. Dalloway is, but what I learned was that your whole life is lived inside of you every day. Your thoughts are where you exist but we are so wrapped up in what’s going on outside us we never even realize it.

You remember things. You think about who you love and who you hate. You think about who you wish you were and who you are now. You wonder about other people and other places. You learn things and teach things. You’re happy, you’re sad, you’re angry. You see yourself as a child and wonder what you might look like when you get old. You wonder when do you will die, and if it will hurt, and who will remember you.

“It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.”

― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

But these thoughts occur only inside of our own heads and language is a poor medium for expressing them or even describing how they come to us. So, we are isolated and perpetually misunderstood. It is impossible for a person to know another person fully. THis leads to much of our sadness and suffering. To do better, to understand and to be understood, we have to start practicing sharing your thoughts, and even before you can do that, you have to start paying attention to your thoughts, and then you have to make a point of asking people about their own.

I had no idea the novel was created from two short stories titled, “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” and “The Prime Minister,” the latter of which was unfinished. That might explain the abruptness of the ending, which is my one and only critique of the book. It felt like there was so much left to explain, not of the story, but of what it all meant. Still, I finished the book feeling once again that all the praise received for the book and for the author herself was well deserved.

I highly recommend you read it if you never have. It’s different, but if you went into it with an understanding of the style, you might have a better time of it than I did. When you do, be sure to let me know what you think!

“Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums. And it was smashed to atoms—his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought—making onself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more. But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share—it smashed to atoms.”

― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

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P.S. If you have been a long time follower of Zen and Pi you may remember my older book review posts were titled “Short and Sweet Reviews,” but let’s be honest, most of the books I read have already been reviewed hundreds of times over and my short and sweet opinion won’t mean much to many. 

So, instead, I want to start sharing what I have learned from each, hence, the name change. I read to acquire wisdom and a new way of seeing the world and so, that should be what I share, not my crappy fifth-grade quality “review.” I’m excited about this new direction and look forward to reviewing more books soon, and I hope you will learn something too.

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Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Check out my other reviews on my “Am Reading” page or keep up with my progress on Goodreads.

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Short and Sweet Reviews // Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

I’m new to Virginia Woolf, but I wish that I had begun reading her work years ago. Like Jane Austin I assumed that her writing was shallow, all romance, and marriage, and manners. I mean, all of that was covered in this book, but there was so much more. I was wrong, so very wrong, but I’m growing and learning like everyone else.

In Orlando: A Biography Woolf tells the story of a nobleman born in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He joins the queen’s court, becomes a favorite, falls in love with a princess, get his heartbroken, and all the while works at becoming a poet, but none of that compares to the adventure of his miraculous transformation. Orlando, at the age of 30 turns from Lord Orlando to Lady Orlando and lives for over 300 years more.

“For here again, we come to a dilemma. Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

Obviously one of the major themes covered is gender and the ways gender shapes the way we act and the choices we make and the choices that are available to us. Surprisingly Woolf is critical of both men and women and our assumptions about the ways the other thinks. Men do not understand women, and women do not understand men because both refuse to believe that the other has the very same feelings, qualities, wants, and needs.

Another is time and change. Orlando lives a very long time and sees the world change around him and later her. Her inner world goes through many changes too, and he/she struggles to understand who she is and what she wants to be against the backdrop of “the times” which are always changing and seem always to be at odds with people living in them.

“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

A lot of time is also spent on literature and the life of a writer. In the moments when mass production and critique was the focus of Orlando’s life, I had the feeling that I was reading an inside joke between Woolf and the writers of her time. I got the jest, but I’m hoping through further reading I can gain a deeper understanding of Woolf views on the subject.

Woolf covers all this as well as wealth and privilege, society, individuality, and, of course, love.

But the real interesting bit about this book is the dedication. Orlando has been called “the longest love letter in literature.” The character of Orlando was inspired by Woolf’s close friend and lover, the writer Vita Sackville-West. At the time of its writing, their affair was waning. Vita, the more adventurous and fickle of the two was moving on to other lovers.

In fact, many of the other characters were also pulled from real life as well, and I imagine I will be reading about Woolf’s personal history for a long while to come.

The style was a shock, at first. From the very beginning, it reads like an old fairytale. The language is flowery, complicated and hard to follow, at first. After a few chapters, it becomes beautiful and poetic, interesting and lively. There is a lot of description and not much dialogue, and sudden jumps through time, which can be hard on the brain too, but I promise it is well worth the effort to stick with it. I have never read anything quite like this.

I am afraid my little review here has done the book very little justice, and you’ll just have to read it for yourself to understand how amazing this story is. As for me, I am firmly a Virginia Woolf fan from here on out and have already picked up a copy of Mrs. Dalloway to read next.

“The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

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Check out Vita Sackville-West on the necessity of writing and Virginia Woolf on space to spread the mind out in.

Featured image via Book Republic

Short and Sweet Reviews // The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”

In The The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood tells the story of a woman named Offred living in what was once America but, after the United States government is overthrown, is now called the Republic of Gilead, and governed by a system based on 17th-century Puritan roots.

Offerd—meaning, literally, “of Fred,” or belonging to Fred—is a Handmaid, a fertile woman who must act as a surrogate for the wealthy and privileged men who’s wives can no longer bear children. Offred still remembers the old world, when women had freedom and choices, and despite the danger of forced labor, or death, or both, she can’t let go.

Originally written in 1985, this book has been recently rediscovered by the public due to Trump’s election, the rise of the conservative right all over the world, and Hulu’s adaptation premiering this week.

I for one didn’t find a lot of parallels to our time and our current political climate except in the way it was allowed to happen, in the easy silence and acceptance. We are often silent and accepting, and that makes us easy to control long past when our energy and outrage flare and burn out.

“We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?”

Still, some of it felt very plausible. The way women will become complicit in the oppression of other women, hoping the same won’t happen to them. The way women will participate in the oppression of other women to ensure the same won’t happen to them, only for the same to happen to us all in some way or another eventually. The way that women are given only hard choices, but still will hold all the blame for what they must do and with whom. The way men will betray and pacify you and never truly see that women are just like them with the same needs for freedom and fulfillment.

What felt relevant will be different for every reader, but I believe everyone who reads it will find something of this tale in our present times and in our deepest fears. For me, the book was terrifying because, as a queer woman of color, I’ve spent much of my life terrified of a rising up of the religious right. I do not think I would have the same privileged place in Gilead but instead, would lose my life or be sent to labor camps.

Hush, he said. … You know I’ll always take care of you. I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.

So, I wouldn’t call The Handmaid’s Tale a prediction, but more of a warning. A warning about acceptance, and complacency, and the false belief that it can never happen to you. It is also an encouragement, to tell the stories of your time. Offred reminded me a bit of Anne Frank, who didn’t give us the historical breakdown of how Hitler came into power but instead simply told her own story and made us feel what Hitler’s power did.

But unlike The Diary of a Young Girl or even 1984 as I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale often compared too, Offred’s story doesn’t read so timeless. With references to specific movements and changing views of porn, gender roles, sex, and sexual orientation it made it hard to bring the danger into our time.

The style of writing makes it a hard read at first. Not difficult to understand, but difficult to stay engaged and interested in. Things either progress slowly and we are left frustrated for more information, or we are thrust forward and back with little or no understanding of how we got where we are. Stick with it through the first third, it gets better, and there will be answers to many of your questions, but not all.

I do consider it a must read, because it is different, and interesting, sure, but also because it is a warning, and because it is about women and the ways people can suffer and let other people suffer, which is something we all too easily forget.

“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.”

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Featured image via Tom Blunt

Short and Sweet Reviews // My Ántonia by Willa Cather

I had never heard of Willa Cather before or any her books set in the harsh and fertile American plains of the 19th century, but I am glad I have now. I came across this one after winning a selection of vintage paperbacks from macrolit’s monthly Tumblr giveaways a few months ago and the journey, both through the book and in learning about who Willa Cather was, has been fascinating.

The cover and synopsis didn’t interest me much, and so I set it aside to read only when I had nothing else. I wish I had given it a better chance from the beginning because it proved to not only be well-written but relevant to our current political and culture climate surrounding immigration.

In My Antonia, considered to be Cather’s masterpiece, we follow Jim Burden through loosely told stories he has pieced together from his past. From a recently orphaned boy shipped from his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents, pioneers in Nebraska. In looking back over his life in the country, he realizes everything he loved about that time and land have one thing in common: Antonia, the eldest daughter in a family of immigrants struggling to adapt to a new land and culture.  Jim and Antonia grow up always near one another, but their lives follow very different paths, separating and converging in often surprising ways.

I didn’t realize until after I had read the book that is was the third installment in the Great Plains Trilogy. I didn’t read the others, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything having skipped them.

Cather has a strong command of descriptive prose, and I really felt pulled into the time period and the place. I felt the harsh winters. I felt the warm summers. I felt the uncertainties for the future and the devotion to a way of life so different from my own. The story is a good one but the description, the way she pulls you in physically and emotionally, was genius.

The book did make me think a little about how the burden of immigration and of “differentness” has often fallen harder on the shoulders of women. In hard times women are expected to be women and to also be men. I would love to have heard the story from Antonia’s perspective, but I suppose this would have been a story with a very different message and focus.

As a woman, and as a person living in a time when there is so much ignorance surrounding immigrants and their lives, I think My Antonia has value today. Americans can never understand how hard it is to become an American, in heart and in culture, not just on paper. We can’t see the rocks and the hard places we put these people between with our judgment and ridicule.

I recommend My Antonia because it will make you think and because it is simply a lovely story. It is inspiring, and heart-wrenching, like all the best stories, are. If nothing else, I recommend it because it is a quick read and a piece of American history.

Short and Sweet Reviews // Small Ghost by Trista Mateer

because she’s nothing
because she’s nothing
because she’s nothing

but it takes an awful lot of work to be nothing sometimes

Trista Mateer, Small Ghost

I’ve been following Trista Mateer on Tumblr for a while now, and when she announced that her newest chapbook Small Ghost was free on Amazon for a limited time, I dropped everything I was doing to download it. I was not disappointed. This little book is packed with a ton of raw and real emotion. It left me in tears, both the sad and the happy kind.

Small Ghost is a collection of poems that tell the story of a girl, Small Ghost, who is coping with depression and anxiety. Smal Ghost has an apartment she can’t keep clean. She has shopping she can’t get done. She has emotions she can’t process. Small Ghost struggles to feel real. She wants to get better, but she isn’t sure how. She isn’t even sure exactly what is wrong. She is sad, but she is also kind of funny, kind of cute, and deep down, maybe a little hopeful.

she does something close to pacing in the fruit juice aisle
starts crying next to the cranberry concentrate
doesn’t remember why

Trista Mateer, Small Ghost

Throughout the story, you will recognize a lot of Small Ghost’s feelings and predicaments as your own. You’ll remember all the times you felt lost and alone, and you will cheer for Small Ghost. You will want to hug her and tell her it will be okay and by the end, you will realize you want to do that for yourself too. You won’t feel so lost or alone because Mateer will have you feeling hope for yourself too.

for anybody who feels like they’d rather
pull the sheet over their head and play dead
than get out of bed in the morning

Trista Mateer, Small Ghost

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