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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Sooner Or Later It All Gets Real (reprise)

I have a confession to make: I’ve always been afraid of killing someone by accident while driving. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where a person seems to appear out of nowhere as you’re backing out or making a left turn, no matter how many times you look. I’ve never been able to easily shake those  moments, but instead replay them over and over. Do you do this? Is it normal?

When I heard about Darin Strauss’ new memoir, Half a Life, I ran out and got it. Strauss was weeks away from graduating high school when he kills a girl riding a bicycle. It was quickly ascertained that he was not at fault, but that doesn’t alleviate his suffering. I read the book in two sittings, completely mesmerized by the events he describes. The writing is also extremely effective, self-aware of both  his inner life and the potential for a writer’s manipulation through poetic language.

I am wondering why I am so powerfully drawn to this story and to stories like it. I suspect it has something to do with the death of my baby sister and how I, at four, didn’t really understand what happened. It happened very quickly and life was forever changed in our family. While very few people experience what Strauss did, the story strikes me as universal because he is able to capture that particular terror where our lives can be irrevocably changed. Loss of control. Terror. Desire. Permanent loss. Unspeakable regret. The reason why we replay those moments again and again. For Strauss, it happens on the eve of going to college, of what must certainly have felt like the beginning of life, not the end. Which for me made it all the more poignant. All the more unbearable.

What was the last book you heard about that you had to have, and that you ran out and bought (or bought on-line)? What spoke to you that powerfully? And does the book you are working on touch that nerve?

46 Responses

  1. I bought Steve Almond’s book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, primarily because of an interview with Bob Schneider and music by Chuck Prophet and a tale of Kip Winger. Music touches a nerve. Music by hot guys touches a nerve ending.

    I would like something I write to touch someone’s nerve endings, rather than simply get on someone’s nerves.

  2. I remember my mother telling me about an uncle of hers who hit a young girl who had run out from between two parked cars. He was not at fault but he never drove a car again because of the impact that had on his life.

  3. Room by Emma Donoghue was that book for me. I bought it the second I heard about it.

    The only good stories are the ones about loss.

  4. The last book I had to buy, resist though I tried, was your “The Forest for the Trees.” It’s at the top of my short-list, though I haven’t read it yet, as the short-list is superseded by the library list, since library books have to go back to the library (currently there are five on that list).

    You touched a nerve with your question, “does the book you are working on touch that nerve?” That is a very good question. Although I have not read your book yet, I flipped it open when it arrived and happened to land upon a page where you write about Gordon Lish. I also studied with him, and as I’m sure you know, he had little patience for writers who waste their time. I presently have one book finished that I’ve been trying to sell, but just yesterday realized it needs to go back into rewrite. I have another two that are finished but may as well go through rewrite one more time. They may not need any more work, but I should check anyway. I have two more that are close to being in some state of finish. But of all those five books, I don’t think I can honestly say that any one of them is one that would deliver, as Gordon put it to me once, “a real kick in the head and the heart.”

    You’ve given me much to think about tonight.

  5. I just received Mark Twain’s Autobiography….imagine the world anticipating this for 100 years. And it is fantastic….The News Of His Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

    When I was about seven, I went to my uncle’s funeral. I was Catholic, so the casket was open. Uncle Nonc was born mentally challenged and never matured over the age of nine or so. When I was five and Nonc was about 24,he picked me up and swung me around and around. I thought it was fun, but the grownups became very upset and decided to put him in an institution (that was many, many years ago.) We drove up to Pineville to visit him, my grandmother, my mother and I, in a orange and white winged Chevy. I’d sit in the cold hallway and wait remembering my parents talking about what he had done “to me.” He did nothing wrong. When he died and when I looked at him dead, I blamed myself. I thought that I had done something to kill him. I have since written a story about him, which won a couple of prizes, but even with that I still close my eyes and at this moment see him smiling, waiting for his special journey through eternity; I will always know that the gods are always kind to him. I have often thought that perhaps writing this family history as a memoir would break this hold Uncle Nonc still has on me. I have also thought that perhaps back then when he spun me around, we were both innocents and I may, if lucky, get to travel through my own eternity with him. He was the best playmate I ever had.

    I have in the years since tried to place blame on my family. Nonc died of pneumonia and I have no doubt that the care he received at Pineville was substandard.
    I am haunted by this more than just about anything.

    But I still blame myself. Did I scream ? Did I laugh too
    loud when Nonc swung me around? Did I cry out? I know I did; I was five years old.

    I would like to read Half a Life. I wonder if it helped the author accept his ghosts.

  6. …Everywhere and always go after that which is lost.

    Carolyn Forché
    Ourselves or Nothing

  7. One day in January we went to dinner at Bouley. We said good-bye to our two year old son, Gus — he waved at us from the window. When we returned he was in the Pediatric ICU on life support.

    I will never again be that who I was.

    I wrote a novel — The Peekaboo Project — about how we all changed. My agent at the time compared it to Lorrie Moore (“People Like That Are the Only People We Know,” ) but knew it would be a tough — maybe impossible sell.

    And so it was. That was seven years ago. Every day I think about how to rewrite it. I haven’t written another novel since.

    I ran out to buy Gate at the Top of the Stairs but then couldn’t read it. Every page it’s like you can hear the tickticktick. Nothing can be unseen, or unfelt, as Darin Strauss knows too well.

    So I commend you, Betsy, for buying that book. For keeping your eyes open.

  8. The last book I had to have was Walter Schneir’s Final Verdict; What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case. I’ve been mesmerized by the Rosenbergs since I was ten years old and saw Sing-Sing for the first time. It seems that their story has followed me (friends of friends knew them, I lived very close to where Julius and Ethel lived as kids and as adults, I grew up in the same town their kids spent time in a foster home, and I worked very close to where the Meeropols lived on the Upper West Side).

    I hope my WIP when it’s finished touches a nerve since the Rosenbergs, the blacklist, and progressive politics all play a very big role in the story that proves that history does repeat itself, and we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes.

  9. The last book I ran to buy was one of the re-released Parker novels by Richard Stark. I’m not sure what I’d charge to read a memoir about running over a girl, but more than nothing. Jesus Christ. You’re not miserable enough? Does reading this shit -help-? Is helping not the point? I can’t tell if damaged people reading about damaged people is a form of self-medication or self-abuse.

    Nothing bad’s ever happened to me, I’m sailing through the shitstorm completely untouched, I whine and moan and rage and recoil with exactly zero cause, I’ve got no excuse to complain about anything more serious than my nostril hair turning into fiber-optic cable, and I -still- spend half my days bailing out this smug little dingy to keep the depression from dragging me under. I guess we’re all uniquely screwed, but the idea of inviting a dead-girl story into my psyche makes me sick. My son says ‘I have no friends,’ and I spend the next six hours in an orgy of anxiety. I don’t want dead girls in my dreams, I don’t want rape, I don’t want torture or unspeakable regret. I don’t want a boy called It. Fuck you, It, stay in the basement.

    Is it -women-? Are you punishing yourself? Trying to develop callouses? Touching the doll to show where it hurts?

    ‘Loss of control. Terror. Loss. Regret.’ I’m sorry, but I will cross the street. I’m just not that strong. And there’s nothing realer or purer or truer about suffering; that’s the stuff you’re supposed to -avoid-. What’s the draw? Someone’s hurting more than you? In a different way? Is it like collecting baseball cards, you want the entire team? Is it emotional porn? Some kind of competition? What’s the prize?

    I’m not just being my attention-whore self here, I honestly don’t understand. Why read about misery? Because victimhood is virtuous, and you want to be good? Are there lessons in suffering? Is there comfort? Is it just masochism?

    I don’t read books that touch nerves. I read books that anesthetize.

    • It’s identification for me. A better understanding or reflection of myself in the world. Sometimes being able to feel like you’re not the only person who ever hurt or felt terror or inconsolable loss is better than anesthetizing. Not always. But sometimes. And it’s worth the read if there’s that possibility, at least for me. Of course the best books do both.

      I also have to at least be able to pretend it’s fiction. That way the nerves are touched a little more gently. And when the nerves are touched, there’s often a letting go. It’s the opposite of punishing, at least for me.

      Last one that got me like that was a re-read of The Things They Carried.

    • That nostril hair can be deadly. August. Fiberoptic to the brain cuts off the circulation….oh. maybe that’s why you’re . . . wait!! What a book, what a movie. You think Jason was scary, wait until you read the series called

      Chapter I
      August was a man who lived a perfect life. Until he started sneezing and sneezing. After seeing five doctors, one finally discovered that hairs in August’s nose were growing before his eyes.
      “pretty soon you won’t be able to breath through your nose,”

      the end

    • “Is it women? Are you punishing yourself? Trying to develop callouses? Touching the doll to show where it hurts?”


      Emotional pain is a hot potato. You want it out/off/away as quickly as possible, by any means necessary. You’ve had the barrel of a gun pressed to your eye and a drunk father and a lonely uncle and since your mother experienced the same sort of thing you begin to realize it’s all a rite of passage no one has bothered to explain, and that from time to time someone will manage to shove the hot potato down your throat. And then what? Tell me you wouldn’t try to vomit it up or carve it out with a razor blade or rip it from your belly with your bare hands if all else fails. What are we supposed to do with it? Oh, right. Eat it and smile, and don’t let the heat put a tear in your eye.

      I don’t read or talk about the hot potato because for me it’s not helpful or even particularly interesting, but I sure as hell can understand why someone would seek a suggestion or two about how to move it along.

      That said, when I learn to write I’ll avoid the spud and tell stories about carrots instead.

    • First, Betsy, I’m very sorry about your sister.


      First, sorry about the staving off depression stuff. Maybe mention symptoms to your doctor if it begins to be very painful? I recommend this as a primer about depression and mood disorders, if you’re interested http://www.charlierose.com/guest/view/3255.

      Second, wow. I am really trying hard to give you credit for being honest here–not that you need me to, or care. I am merely an anonymouse, after all. However I do have to say that I find much of your post misses the point. Many of us read to increase our understanding of other people and the world, to listen to others’ stories, impressions, insights, to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of characters, of language and voice.

      Is reading about pain and suffering about competition or virtue? I don’t think so. About curiosity, maybe, and empathy, about trying to understand people a little better, about appreciating character and story. But maybe I’m missing something? Are there people who go around high-fiving each other for reading books about suffering? Does this kind of thing win friends and influence people? Huh, it’s a thought.

      This, I think you know, is flippant, at best:
      “Is it -women-? Are you punishing yourself? Trying to develop callouses? Touching the doll to show where it hurts?” Certainly I’m not opposed to the asking of questions, but pretending to ask questions in the ways you have is just plain odious. People who have suffered the loss of a loved one–or who have been extremely ill or have family and/or friends who have been ill or have suffered in extreme–generally don’t get off on pain. Pain and suffering are part of life and largely inescapable. Why shouldn’t we read stories, real or fictional, that involve such such important parts of life? Maybe I’m wrong, but I really don’t think the chief motivations for reading this stuff have anything to do with punishing or numbing ourselves. Life is tough for many people. Reading can be good company for those of us who have suffered and seek understanding or solace. It can also teach us, artfully, indirectly, what is painful for other people, what they endure and how they endure it. Such knowledge strengthens our connections with each other and with the world, helps us develop empathy and understanding, qualities that can make life a bit more bearable–and sometimes even joyful!–for others and for ourselves.

      I don’t find any of these reasons objectionable or even strange. To the contrary, I think they make perfect sense.


      • Wow. Thank you for this elegant, insightful response, m.

        We are, as August says, uniquely screwed. You don’t have to be fed razor blades as a child or have cancer to know pain. Not to be a Pollyanna, but I don’t find anything wrong with trying to find a little peace — dare I say joy? — in life.

      • M, great comment. However, I think you do a disservice to people who ask questions trying to understand. His questions might miss your point, or mine, and his way of asking might not be your kind of words, but it seemed to me an honest attempt to understand. And that alone is unusual enough in today’s world.

        And Sally, I think “people” fits in both your sentences equally well.

      • Great response to big questions…
        When something intense happens, writing is our defense. It forces us to detach and build the sentences, one on top of the next, subject, verb, image, etc. I read — when I am brave enough — intense stories to know the survivors. Like the boy who drove the car that hit the girl, I wonder how he gets out of bed in the morning, brushes his teeth. I want to know if I will be able to.
        Basically, I write and I read to know I am not alone.

      • Yes, certainly, have nothing against anyone asking questions. I regularly make myself stupid to ask questions–that is, I presume I don’t know much. It’s a reportorial technique in a way, I think, and just my nature.

        As for suffering, joy, etc. The conversation seems largely to be about reading painful stuff, so I’ve replied in kind. Personally, I prefer books that are gorgeously written and funny as well as serious. Joy is one of my favorite things–and something I experience daily, along with sadness. Ask my family (of anonymouses). Every time I visit I foist meaningless celebrations and merriment on them.

    • Nothing shitty’s ever happened to you, August?
      Me thinks thou dost protest…etc.

      Scared men anesthetize. Scared women tend to look for answers.

    • Hair of the dog that bit you, August. Same principle at work with reading.

    • Guess I’m one of the few women who’s on the same page as August with this.

      In my teens and twenties, I gravitated toward books filled with emotional pain and sorrow. Since I’d led a nearly blissful childhood, I guess I was intrigued by the other side.

      By the time I hit forty, I’d experienced my own share of suffering. I now tend to prefer books which allow me to escape it.

      Most of us are forced to breathe in occasional doses of misery, but I prefer not to mainline it.

      • What Sherry said.

      • Light doesn’t exist without darkness and there is no redemption or overcoming without understanding that. I don’t get how any serious writer can live on lukewarm literature.

      • I’m not saying I don’t ever read books of suffering and tragedy; I read several of those each year. But I prefer some humor and escapism in my daily fare. I would like to think that doesn’t make me any less a *serious* writer.

      • I soak people’s agony through my pores. Reading is an escape and I guard it fiercely. Every once in a while I’ll read a memoir but not often. I did read Food and Loathing, probably because I had a glimpse into the ending through this blog.

    • Well, August, your judging the book without reading it is kind of a cliche. So why do i respond? But I will say that the book isn’t about a damaged person — I don;t think — it’s about learning to live with and triumph over feelings of grief and (sometimes) misplaced guilt. It’s meant not to be sad but hopeful.

  10. Bought Mentor the day I heard about it. The whole author/teacher struggling writer/student thing …

  11. “All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them.” (I. Dineson)

    thematically, i’m writing about alienation and loneliness; greed and banking; machines and technology that quickly turn obsolete. i guess it’s because i don’t really understand this world we live in and i’m trying to figure it out? certainly, i’m writing from anxiety.

    i just read ‘Incognito Lounge and other Poems’ by Denis Johnson and was blown away. if i could source this book i’d buy it in a new york minute.

    • Denis Johnson is a genius writer–and a funny and eloquent extemporaneous speaker. Saw him at the Art Institute in San Francisco in the mid-90s I think it was.

  12. Most recent book I HAD to have as soon as possible: The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald.

    And yes, what I’m working on touches similar nerves, though not as gorgeously.

  13. I don’t want my writing to touch nerves. And I have no desire to read most books that do. I hope my writing touches hearts and brings smiles, but I will never be a literary giant because I don’t like touching my tongue to the tooth to see if it’s still sore. I’m happy being a literary midget, enjoying seeing the words flow on the page telling a story that I wish I’d lived, instead of the one I have. About people I wish I’d had in my life instead of those who were. I want to laugh while I’m reading AND writing, not cry.

    Few of us grow up in a Disney movie. I sure didn’t. And as an adult I’ve watched people I love die from cancer, and then I battled that same demon myself (twice).

    I have been so miserable with the life I was given that I prayed to die. And I’ve been so scared when that life was threatened that I prayed to live. And perhaps having cancer is what made me realize that misery is, after a while, a choice.

    The writing community will always idolize people who write what the critics call “great literature” because the author was obviously anguished during the writing and that shines through every line.

    Great literature to me is something that made someone’s heart lighter during the reading. Great writers to me are those that don’t have to touch their tongue to the tooth to elicit an emotion from the reader.

    And the last book I raced out to buy was Writer’s Market. 🙂 Us literary midgets need all the help we can get.

  14. Balm,” by Virginia Woodward Cloud first appeared in 1902:

    After the heat the dew,
    and the tender touch of twilight;
    The unfolding of the few
    Calm stars.
    After the heat the dew.

    After the Sun the shade,
    and beatitude of shadow;
    Dim aisles for memory made,
    And thought.
    After the Sun the shade.

    After all there is balm;
    from the wings of dark there is wafture
    Of sleep, — night’s infinite psalm, —
    And dreams.
    After all there is balm.

    * from Andrew Sullivan’s blog

  15. “To the End of the Land” by David Grossman. Bought it after reading a month old copy of a Times’ Book Review that was in someone else’s recycling bin. Haven’t read it yet, but what attracted me to the book was the notion of trying to keep sorrow at bay by not being around when bad news came knocking on the door. When things happen that we have no control over and can’t comprehend why, it’s good to know we’re not alone and we read what we can about tragedy to make sense of our own sorrow and emptiness. Whenever I think of a child dying, there’s only the question, why?

    The book I am working on now is about someone at the end of their life realizing that life is not always the best option. It’s a romance novel.

  16. I was on the other side of the bumper twenty seven years ago. I was visiting a friend in the hospital and wasn’t thinking all that straight when I left. I had to cross this busy street to catch my bus and I jaywalked. Well, jayran actually, right in front of a bus that had parked at the side of the road to pick up passengers. As I ran, I looked over my shoulder and saw a grey sedan coming at me at full speed. I saw everything, the car’s grill, the birdshit on his windshield, the look of terror on the driver’s face. And I turned and ran away from that fucking car as fast as I could. Which, it turned out, wasn’t the 40 mph or so that the sedan was doing. It caught me behind the knees, tossed me almost gently into the air. I blacked out in midair, my short life never passed before my eyes, I saw no white light that I needed to head towards, just darkness and a dim sense of wonder of what the hell just happened.

    Miraculously, I suffered no permanent injuries, although I lay on the road for the next half hour right in front of the hospital waiting for an ambulance. I’m happily married, have four great kids, good health etc. And virtually every day I think about what almost happened.

    I’m working on an historical thriller right now and found this research book about the era online – I read the googlebooks excerpt and quickly realized I HAD TO HAVE IT RIGHT NOW. It was out of print, however, and the price was quoted at ~$200. Damn ! I needed it, needed it bad, because it had that urgency about the time that I wanted for my book, that feel and facts and gritty details I needed to make the era come alive. But $200 ? Really ? So I finally found a copy for a mere $60. Can’t wait to get it.

  17. How to Hold a Woman, by Billy Lombardo. Because I lurk on the She Writes Web site and more than one reader submitted it as her favorite book last year.

    I fell in to the world of this couple, and I find his writing offers so much that other writers can’t manage. The characters, the descriptions, the visceral feel of the scenes, the feeling of loss and longing… I am not exaggerating in saying that “Morning Would Come” might change my life.

    If I were in the middle of my own work right now, I could only hope it would come close.

  18. Interesting, thought-provoking post. I, however, not only do I fear killing someone with my car, I also fear an inattentive/drunk driver killing ME. Never felt this way until I was rear-ended by a teenager who was texting; didn’t see him at all, he ran a stop sign – totalled my car. I was lucky to get out unharmed, astonishing to others who witnessed the wreck.

    I thought I was getting over that when, returning from a friend’s house in a rural area, a huge dog ran out in front of my car. It was summer, the grass alongside the road was high, never even seen the dog coming…just a glimpse, then bang. It killed the dog, but by the time I got stopped, my car was overheating; busted radiator. Long story short (too late!) I was in a rural “Deliverance” territory, ended up at a strange place, rundown trailer, etc. Everything turned out okay, but it was scary. That happend 3 months after the first wreck.

    It took me the better part of a year to feel comfortable driving, and I still get nervous if I hear sudden, loud noises. The county where I live in Alabama is known for a high percentage of wrecks, so I try to be vigilant now. Still…having those incidents happen out-of -the-blue, no warning, no way to have prevented it…made me afraid of not only of other drivers but myself to some extent.

  19. Last time I rushed out and bought a book right away was 2008. Just before the film came out I heard about the novel on Women’s Hour (BBC Radio 4) Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day by Winnifred Watson I bought it that day in our local bookshop. It was an absolutely charming book – very light but a real tonic.

    This week after hearing Audrey Niffennegger interviewed on Women’s Hour I rushed to the same bookshop to buy her “graphic” novel ” The Night Bookmobile but I balked at the £17 sticker although I have now seen it on Amazon UK for £11. But I think the moment had passed.

  20. Last time I rushed out and bought a book right away was 2008. Just before the film came out I heard about the novel on Women’s Hour (BBC Radio 4) Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day by Winnifred Watson I bought it that day in our local bookshop. It was an absolutely charming book – very light but a real tonic.

    This week after hearing Audrey Niffennegger interviewed on Women’s Hour I rushed to the same bookshop to buy her “visual” novel ” The Night Bookmobile but I balked at the £17 sticker although I have now seen it on Amazon UK for £11. But I think the moment had passed.

  21. Had to think on this for a few minutes, but the last book I simply had to rush out and get was Then We Came to the End. Just the right amount of darkness for me, with fabulous wit sprinkled throughout. Well worth that drive to the bookstore.

  22. wow, it was so moving for me to come across this. Thanks for being so kind.

  23. The last book I had to run out and get, other than the revised version of The Forest for the Trees, was The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon. I couldn’t continue reading it because 1) I got it from the library and I was leaving town soon, 2) it is a very big book and my time was short, and 3) I’m really sensitive to reading about people’s depression.

    I could see that Solomon’s story was by turns powerful, poignant, and repulsive, since he had what may be considered the psychological equivalent of leprosy. What can’t help watching, but we don’t want to get too close, for fear of its catching.

    When I was younger I would go as long as possible between re-readings of Dostoyevksy’s shorter works (Notes from the Underground, The Gambler, etc.) because even though I loved him obsessively (although I still haven’t gotten through The Brothers Karamazov) his stories would launch me into a full-blown funk for at least three months. Fortunately, my job in that era required alcohol consumption, so I didn’t have to miss work too often.

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