How do you process current events? My way of coming to understand and (sort of) cope with the news is fairly non-linear. I may read an article—or sometimes a slew of headlines that leave me not knowing where to start—think about the latest news (whether it’s an act of violence or more disturbing news about the climate), talk about it with someone, return to the news, stumble upon social media posts responding to the event, privately mourn and feel a little lost, and, if I’m lucky, I find a text that may be completely unrelated to what I’m concerned about but that will have a way of helping me frame my feelings and put events into a larger context. Even if that context is as fraught and jumbled as our current times.
While this doesn’t always provide closure or really help me make sense of things, I do find that reading non-news sources provides a deeper thought outlet for me. Also, it’s just helpful to hear the voices of others responding to tragic or traumatic occurrences in a way that’s sometimes more nuanced than the average news outlet reporting facts or the earnest friend posting a one-line call-to-action on Twitter. Of course, we absolutely need dedicated reporters and passionate activists. Having outside reading, however, complements the coping process in a beautiful and productive way.
The following are a few books that have helped me think through our turbulent times and have challenged me to imagine my place in everything. Perhaps they can do the same for you.
The White Album by Joan Didion
Writing from a place of existential confusion, Didion explores how the upheavals of the 1960s—from racial tensions to the Manson Family murders—shaped a new, uncertain era of American culture. She resists putting her observations in a tidy framework, and in doing so, illustrates that the act of observation—really opening your eyes to what’s going on—is a difficult but necessary step to being more present in our torn world.
Further, her writing has shown me that we may not fully understand everything we witness or read about, but that doesn’t mean our sense of mourning is any less real, and our unease isn’t something we necessarily need to fix. Maybe it’s what we should be feeling. After sharing a grim mental assessment from her doctor, Didion writes that, contrary to her doctor’s opinion, her bouts of illness made sense given the times: “I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Indeed.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
When I initially heard about this book, it was described as the “hottest book of the summer” that we would all be whispering about, poolside with cocktail in hand. Per other accounts, it was groundbreaking feminist journalism that would forever change the way we discuss female desire. I’m not sure if it’s either of those things (regarding the latter, time will tell!), but I’m still glad I read it.
Taddeo shares the stories of three women, and rather than being salacious bubble bath reads, these stories are heart-wrenching and full of unanswered questions. Although the work has received criticism for not presenting a more diverse collection of stories (the three women are caucasian and largely heterosexual), what it does accomplish is showing that women’s sexual pasts and presents, their desire, and their emotional needs are often simmering darkly beneath the surface of stoic exteriors.
In the era of #MeToo, we’re collectively struggling with how to listen to women and the thorny stories that can be excruciating to share with the world, and it can be disheartening that we still have to remind others to believe women. Ultimately, the book asks that we women listen to each other with an open mind and that we don’t judge.
“I think about how much I have wanted from men. How much of that wanting was what I wanted from myself, from other women, even; how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have greater hold over other women than men have.”
The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende
This monumental work of historical fiction spans four generations and lushly portrays life in Chile before and during the Pinochet Era, which began with a military coup in 1973. Among several things that the book does beautifully, it shines a light on the strength of women, even in oppressive times, and the way no administration or regime has guaranteed stability, for better or worse.
The violence and political turmoil of the era, as described in the novel, illustrate that very little is certain in this world, there is always a chance that a bad leader may come to power, and our character is defined, in part, by how we respond to dire times. The book asks us to consider who we can help free (who is more oppressed than us)?—and reminds us that even if the way we help people isn’t political in nature, it can still have reach in the larger community and offer a beacon of hope.
Have you read anything moving lately?
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