I’ve been reading about transformation.
Which is what you’re supposed to be thinking about at the onset of a new year — a new you, refreshed and eager, free from the excess and confusion that accumulated over the past 12 months and culminated with six weeks of anxiety and joy and gratitude and melancholy. That’s all behind you now. Begin again! Hit factory reset! At least that’s the elevator pitch. That’s why the first weeks of a new year get packaged as a period of self-care. And why, I suspect, a pair of excellent new books — both of which, had they been published a few weeks ago, would have been among the best of 2021 — arrived at the dawn of 2022. You read them and you feel smarter, not machine-tooled for optimization.
Neither are easy, prescriptive or self-help, though, to be reductive, both are guidebooks to ourselves, albeit the way great writing always is — you step back to find you have new eyes and a heart swollen with possibilities. No surprise, these remarkable books, both memoirs, come from two of our finest contemporary writers — The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz and Jami Attenberg, a native of Buffalo Grove, Illinois whose best-known novels (“The Middlesteins,” “All This Could Be Yours”) were excavations of rough families. Also no surprise: Both use the memoir as personal archaeological digs that build on the insights and influences of similar writing. Schulz’s “Lost & Found” (Random House, Jan. 11), about the loss of her father and start of a relationship with the woman who became her wife, is as searching as the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, as marked by open roads as Frank Baum’s Oz books, to name two rest stops here. That said, you read “Lost & Found” slowly, not because it’s difficult but because you feel yourself internalizing every sentence, cataloging your thoughts alongside Schulz’s, or simply recognizing yourself.
People are also reading…
It’s been a while since I felt that so strongly.
Consider Schulz noting how grief renders us inarticulate and polite, reduced to mumbling that a loved one has “passed away” and we’re “hanging in there,” all the while feeling a loud silence, “a foretaste of the permanent (silence) to come, a loss so total that for a while I did not understand its real scope. And then one night, during that early stretch of grief when I could find solace only in poetry, my partner sat me down and read me ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.’” Schulz hears in Whitman’s words a vision so expansive “it includes not just the piers and sails and reeling gulls but everyone else who makes the crossing, too: all those who stood at the railing watching before his birth, all those presently watching around him, and all those who will be there watching after his death.”
It’s overwhelming, beautiful stuff, though always full of living, just as effective on love and promise. Which is not a bad way of describing Attenberg’s “I Came All This Way to Meet You” (HarperCollins), an essay collection more cohesive than most, perhaps because it not so much centered on Attenberg right now, a successful writer with a following, or the sort of traumas typical of memoirs (childhood neglect, bad marriages), than the forever developing writer that Attenberg explains to us. At some point, she picks up “Just Kids,” Patti Smith’s rightly-praised, luminescent classic about being young and brave in the New York of the early 1970s, and you can feel Attenberg revving and spinning outward from there, into a similar kind of messy, glorious ramble that also unfolds in New York (she lives for years in Brooklyn), but then New Orleans, Sicily, small bookstores across the West and most compellingly, her Midwestern youth.
Consider Attenberg on places not that unlike Buffalo Grove:
“I loved a small Midwestern town. I loved a place with two pizza parlors and one Chinese restaurant and one burger place and one steak place and one small department store and a park with walking trails and grills for barbecues and a town swimming pool and a town hall and three taverns that all serve Old Style on tap and two grammar schools and one junior high school and one high school and a Weight Watchers franchise and a public library and several religious institutions and a temp agency and a nearby body of water and flat, flat land and icy winters and tornado warnings and a dusty liquor store that sold out of kegs on Friday night and maybe, on the edge of town, a terrible motel, ignored by all, but still, somehow in business.”
That’s not written out of condescension or even the ache of nostalgia but a more complicated recognition that such places are always a “half-true version of America,” perpetuated by lazy schools, built on the labors of others. And yet, Attenberg writes, if she squints, she can look at such a place and think for a moment: “Aren’t you cute?”
“I Came All This Way to Meet You,” as you probably suspect, is the looser, the more rollicking memoir here, but it’s no less poignant. Attenberg’s account of being an unknown writer and driving herself across the country to sell her book to five people here, 12 there, manages romance and loneliness. Later, she interviews her father and digs through her family’s history of selling — he was once a salesperson at Montgomery Ward and then for Sears at the Woodfield Mall, and so he recognizes the value in his daughter driving those endless highways, answering the same question about “her writing process” again and again. As he puts it, “Product knowledge is the big thing.”
You could think of “I Came All This Way to Meet You” and “Lost & Found” as something similar, as the product manuals for two authors, and ultimately, tangentially, for yourself.
I guess that’s a crass, simplistic way of reading these books.
But I don’t think so.
In her final pages, Schulz mines Virginia Woolf, who wrote with sadness that it was “impossible to have every experience.” Except Schulz then builds on that line, recognizing “the essential difficulty of our situation: life goes on, but we do not.” Which is oddly helpful to read, perhaps even self-helpful, to have someone write something so direct and obvious, to remind us of the longview, to provide the necessary kick in the butt. We assemble ourselves knowing that it’s never perfect. Like most, Schulz remains uncertain if the “faint contrails of longing left behind by all these other imagined futures ever fully disappear.” But she’s such a good writer you don’t read that as regret. You read it as a kind of exhilaration, at such a rich world. It’s the right book for a cold January of quarantines and unease.
I mean, I could wish you a happy new year. But why limit ourselves?