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Reading With Sea

A book club on your own time

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One thing that I hate about reading is having to skip over some books while selecting others.  I love books and I love the idea of books. Even before I read I bought.  I dislike having to choose one over the other.  And thank you, but I don’t need reassurance:  I live under this vain idea that everything has got something to offer.  I realize some authors are better writers and some plots are more creative and all of these types of things.  But these facts do not alter or lift the guilt I feel for not giving some the attention and time I wish to.

There are stacks and stacks that I have yet to even begin making my way through.  There are books in these teetering piles that have been living inside these heaps and on my shelves for months and others still for years.  Titles that at one point in time inspired me to bring it home; at one point convinced me that I had a need for it.  Books that had aspirations to assimilate into my intellect and my life and I once had an eagerness to let them yet now I keep them guarded by other books who are equally zealous and not about to let some other book jump the line.  I have so many books in what some people call a TBR (To be read) mound that my nightstand pile has turned into my actual nightstand.  I had to move the furniture piece (the ACTUAL nightstand) out of the way and now have stacks of books on the floor, against the wall holding my bedside lamp.  Books are replacing furniture.  If you are wondering if this scenario is making me happy wonder no longer: it does.  It does.

Being an inquisitive person is constructive to everything but my pocketbook.  Even after I picked up a handsome pile of hardbacks on Saturday morning for dirt cheap, I found myself arriving at a book store Sunday evening.  In this particular store, biographies live upstairs while essays, criticism and poetry live downstairs.  In between my lingering in isles I created my own step class and might have even burned a few calories.  I have this innate tendency to completely engulf myself into intellectual searches.  I soon found myself sifting through biographies and when I would come across names and titles of works that interest me and I hop downstairs to look at the original works which inevitably introduce yet another author’s name to me and back upstairs I head.  This continues for the better part of an hour and I leave with postcards – a completely unforeseen conclusion to my impromptu inquisition.  The only disappointment rests in my original goal’s dead end.  At the outset, I had intended to pick up a history of Uruguay and found every other South American country represented with one exception – Uruguay.

Nick Hornby once wrote that “reading begets reading.”  This thought jumbled in my mind brings me to wonder how my reading begot my reading would trace back through its lineage.  What would be the essence or the original text that was responsible for splitting in two, then four, then eight and now a number too large to count and forever in need of reorganizing and dusting.  My recent trends of curiosity have prompted me to stockpile essays on the subject of reading as well as works written by A.M. Homes, and an attempt to find more collections of letters.  Where did I originally decide to love collections of letters?  Where did this desire originate?  I cannot remember now.

March was a total bomb.  Or maybe it was a bum.  A bummer.  A bummer bomb.  Bomb bummer.  It doesn’t matter.  Basically I purchased a lot and read practically nothing.  A bust month.  Oh, March, where did we go wrong?  Let’s retrace.

It started out ambitious as ever with a scan over the calendar and a steady, long look at those beautiful and open 31 whole days.  Looking over my lists the tallies come to 13 books purchased and a whopping 2 books read.  The reading began with Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.  The thing I love about Lethem books is that multiple reads deliver multiple realities.  There are so many freakin’ layers to his stories and characters that I am constantly regaining a grasp on what is actually going on.  I found this similarity in all of the books I have read by Lethem with the exception of Motherless Brooklyn which I found slightly easier to follow.  In Amnesia Moon the lines of reality and dreaming (if I could call it dreaming) were so intangibly blurred I was not sure which characters were real and what to count on.  Lethem is famous for invisible foundations that somehow manage to still provide footing.  In Chronic City Lethem followed suit to the tee.  Chase, the leading complexion, carries on for most of the book carefully tucked inside his little bite of world when suddenly unleashed on the reader is something I can only consider a monster, which tears the walls down of Chase’s own little Truman Show to reveal that his life is made-up.  What?  Lethem!  Made-up?  You didn’t!  You sly cookie.  Again!  Lethem always catches me with my pants down, literaturely speaking, of course.

After having my brain dissolved and rearranged by Lethem, I lock away his tentacles between the two hard bound covers and shelve it only to pull down American Rust. I had never been acquainted with any of Philipp Meyer’s writing, but what could go wrong with a Philipp who spells his name with two p’s at the end?  Most Phillips go with the normal two l’s, but not Meyer, not Meyer.  I thought – what is a rebel like this going to do with a story about five characters out of the back country in Pennsylvania?  Come to find out, not much or in the very least, not enough.  Two weeks later after the initial christening I found myself avoiding the book like a relationship gone sour.  I found myself sneaking around my bedroom quietly hoping the book wouldn’t notice I was choosing to spend my free time without it.  I had made it through enough of the chapters to be introduced to all five of the main characters, but had no desire to meet them again.  Luckily for me, I get an email from my friend, Drenning, to meet him at a reading.  And alas, my first introduction to Melissa Febos commenced.  And yeah to Drenning.  Three cheers for him because Melissa Febos’ writing style was just what I wanted and needed.

As I wrote about earlier, when I went to her reading I was not intending to buy her book.  Not for any desire to be unsupportive, but simply because I had already bought a crap load of books for the month and was the very embodiment of a poor excuse for a reader.  I was already feeling defeated in my reading accomplishments for what I previously thought would be 31 beautiful days of reading.  Blah.  I was down and out and felt buying another book that most likely would not be read would really drop me lower.  I didn’t want to feel worse than a shmuck.  How did a serious intention of not coming home with another book turn into freshly shaved legs and hiding under the covers at midnight with Whip Smart?  Melissa Febos is just that good.  The moment she walked on that stage with her striped polo dress and gray knee high boots and I heard what came out of her mouth that so few writers have: a good reading voice, I was sold.  Simply sold.  It turned out I was not disappointed in the least bit by her wit, but her writing even continued to grow on me.

When I was through with Whip Smart, which took not as long as I would have hoped, I was still refusing to return to American Rust, so I read Whip Smart a second time.   Thus ending the month with 2 books read, 1 twice read and 13 books bought.  On one hand a very unproductive reading month.  One the flip side, I read a new book by one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Lethem and discovered a new favorite author, Melissa Febos.  I believe I described Febos’ writing as expansive and limitless.  How could it get any better than that?  Even if it was entirely an unproductive month it was a lucky month.


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No, not Liz Phair, but Melissa Febos’ Whip Smart.

“Do I want to have smooth or my current state of unshaved legs?”, I asked myself internally.  I was reflecting on how I wanted to look when I jumped into bed with Melissa Febos (or her recently released memoir, Whip Smart, that is). I was thankful that the experience of listening to an ex-professional dominatrix caused me to reflect on my own… let’s just say issues and driving forces and self-understanding.  Let me note here, that I have always believed that being aware of our desires intellectually, sensually, sexually are each of equal importance.  In any case,  I wasn’t planning on purchasing a copy of her memoir the night of her reading, since I had far surpassed my pre-determined limit on reading material for the month of March, but when I returned home, I had more than a book with me.

I have been wanting to write about Melissa Febos since I returned home from her reading, at the Elliot Bay Book Company, this past Saturday night.  I am one of those readers who breathe in what I am consuming and allow it to stir what it may in me.  My ability to open myself to influence, allow it to resonate and then filter out what I don’t want to possess or be possessed by made this book a difficult read to begin.  It was intimating to enter this story; knowing nothing of the world you are entering creates a wide spread tantalizing tension. I am not entirely comfortable in predicaments of minimal understanding.  I was apprehensive and expectant and the anticipation was thrilling.  No matter the thoughts spinning and teeming inside my head, I could not help but read it.

I remained curled under the blankets for hours with only a small lamp for light.  Each night that unfolds into early morning finding me under covers infatuated with a read leaves me feeling like I am with a secret lover.  I felt giddy.  I felt ache.  I felt heartache, sadness, strength, determination and a human connection that I am sure runs along the most raw, existential line.  This is a short list of what I felt and am still feeling even now, after finishing.

We have a mixed readership here, at Reading With Sea, so I will not go into every explicit detail, but basically, Melissa Febos worked as a professional dominatrix while earning a MFA from Sarah Lawrence University, somehow maintaining a 4.0 GPA and living in a state of addiction to Heroin.

Now, I have worked with a population of addicts of all kinds for years now and I cannot recall one person who was able to simply maintain a part-time job while using Heroin.  How Melissa was able to walk away with a 4.0 GPA with so many other intense distractions is a mystery to me with the exception of understanding that she is a truly brilliant being.  She has this determination that is beyond the word determination.  This is incredibly rare. I am completely inspired by this woman.  Truly taken by her.  From the moment she stepped up to the platform and microphone I was captivated.

Critics have written that Melissa’s memoir is “titillating, seamy, honest, brave, provocative, curious, disturbing, funny, dark.”  All of these things are uniquely true of this story, in their own context, but Febos, as a writer, is more than these limiting descriptions.  She is expansive and limitless.  Though a fair amount of people grow up with the experience of having at least one person in their life tell them that they are capable of anything they put their mind to, Melissa Febos, actually is.  She does not live in the possibilities of life, but in the movement, the upheaval, the roar, the friction.  There is some privity that resides in Melissa Febos, that she may not fully understand, but I like the way she carries it around.

I can only lament the paucity of time I was able to observe and be near her, but I look forward to her future bodies of work.  Some times there are people that you feel instinctively drawn to.  My innate intuition flared and Melissa Febos does not disappoint, no matter how many layers exist in her daily existence.  After the experiences she had and the ones she wrote about, I hope she knows this simple fact: she does not disappoint, regardless of circumstance, it is just who she is.


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