Friday, May 7, 2010


I've been tearing through books lately--I go through fazes where I don't read much for months, and then for months I devour almost anything, really amuses my sweetheart--and I just this morning put one down that has been messing with me ever since I picked it up.

James Frey's Bright Shiny Morning.

I could write about my opinion about A Million Little Pieces, and the state of the American memoir, or I could write a review of the book, which is crafted artfully and thoughtfully and is a sprawling tale of an enormous community told well (sometimes alarmingly, viscerally, achingly well).

But I'm going to write about feelings.

Last week I read a book my Janice Y. K. Lee called The Piano Teacher, about interracial relationships separated by decades in Hong Kong. It was interesting, and I'm sure Ang Lee would make a beautiful film of it, with Ming-Na and Ralph Fiennes and Tony Leung and other Asian American actors, and mouth-wateringly gorgeous costumes and sweaty jungle air, and it would do well in the box office. But it made me think of relationships, and prioritization, and how you choose to love someone and how you give to them.

This James Frey book, it makes me think about Los Angeles, California (the book is set there) and why I've been in love with it for so long, and how, in a very real way, I've been longing to engineer my life and the life of my sweetheart to wind up there. And it makes me wonder if all that desire isn't absolutely misplaced, isn't me trying to make a mistake, make a choice I would later regret.

The last book that made me cry, really sob, was called The Bone People, about three New Zealanders--one white, two Maori--who made a misfit and at at times utterly dysfunctional family. It was painful and brutal in places, and I was profoundly affected by it. Lee's novel puts me in a place of wondering about the mashing of two different cultures, and if it's ever possible to succeed at loving across lines of that kind of demarcation. Frey's novel makes me think that the jewel I've been dreaming of on the west coast is really just a cesspool of damaged, deeply wounded people left to bake and congeal in the sunshine with really good PR.

The truth is that these books are good, really good, but not great. Not transformative for me as a writer, at least not yet. The truth is I lately feel like a cup of hot dark liquid filled to the brim, perched on top of a car or clutched in the hand of someone distracted, that is threatening to turn over and stain whatever I land on. I feel tender and emotional. My mom used to tell me, "Jessica, you feel things more deeply than anyone I've ever known." There are all kinds of theories about why people are excessively sensitive, right? It doesn't help that I'm three weeks away from a major life change.

Today I am looking at a gray sky, wishing it were blue, and thinking about what it is to be someone who feels so deeply, who, despite a fair amount of damage from a number of sources, still has skin the thickness of rice paper. Does it mean that a career as a writer is a colossally bad idea, and instead I should choose something with less public interface, like work in a warehouse? Does it mean that sensitivity is an endangered quality of the human condition, and it makes me a better artist, and that I should treasure and preserve it, despite the fact that that means a painful life?

Or is this just how everyone feels when they're about to get married?

p.s. Big thank you to my good friend, and great writer, Andrew. I don't think he reads this, but he's the reason I'm reading all these books.

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