Here's One for the Bookstores

By Samantha Schoech

September 1, 2015

Here's One for the Bookstores

Days Like This: Good Writers on Bad Luck, Bum Deals, and Other Torments, Edited by Samantha Schoech

Editor Samantha Schoech writes, in her introduction, that there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this essay collection: it is a “vote for a certain way of life. The bookish life. More specifically, the bookstore life.” The compilation appeared this spring to commemorate Independent Bookstore Day. For Schoech, the indie bookseller provides a necessary space in a world of “tweets and algorithims and pageless digital downloads.” They affirm our need for “aimless perusal,” where a day spent stalking the shelves might lead us to a “novel that expands (the) heart,” or an “art book that changes the direction of your life.”

Each writer in Days Like This responded to the prompt, “My _________ From Hell.” Each essay or story, in turn, depicts the epiphany that comes in the midst of a day from hell. Or a job from hell. Or a girlfriend, an amputation, an acne problem from hell so severe that it drives you to snort heroin in your father’s basement. This, fill in the blank, was the absolute worst. And this is where the writer ended up, afterwards.

The pieces range from hilarious to shocking, from reflective to instructive. It seems that, whatever one’s experience in hell may be, the author’s voice takes on the tone of a guide. Like Dante’s Virgil. After you make the descent, you know the way not to go down again. In “How to Feel Better About Falling Apart,” Mary Roach approaches the phenomenon of aging and makes a list of what to look for: “Unwanted hairs. Georgia O’Keeffe had visible wiry chin hairs, but no one remembers her for this. They remember her for large, vaginal nature paintings. Let this be an inspiration.”

Other stories also serve as inspiration. When essayist Wendy Speros’ neighbors keep her and her husband awake at night with their unfathomably loud sex, Speros and he try to ignore it. But after weeks of sleepless nights (for both Speros and her neighbors), Speros turns desperation into action:

Like a mother who lifts a car to save her trapped baby, I dragged my hearty husband off the bed, moved the bed inward so the headboard would bang against the wall, pushed him back on the bed, and savagely unzipped my footie pajamas. We started making out and I imitated every sound (my neighbor) had ever made. Amos followed my lead . . . . It was sex with a serious cause. I highly recommend it.

Romance and longevity in love are well-addressed subjects in hell. Anne Lamott chronicles a year on Match.com with the caveat that “relationships are not the answer to lifelong problems. They’re hard, after the first trimester.” Chris Colin recounts the trysts of middle school camp and being branded the “nice guy in the dismal camp taxonomy: the kiss of death, or rather of no kisses at all.” Yiyun Li yearns for “a boy unlike my father, a boy who would not blink to buy a bottle of Tang for me.” And Brian Doyle passes on his trademark lyricism when recounting a “girlfriend from hell”:

Worst girlfriend ever. Three months of real interest and shy pleasure, and then nine months of dismay and fear and pain. Weary beyond words of every argument and fight and shriek and accusation and snarl and sob. In the end we hated each other. What a terrible thing to say.

Often, terrible things are said to—and recalled by—these writers. Kathryn Ma once stood as the defending attorney for a young Filipino who tried to mail a box of bullets to Manila. Ma is young, female, and Chinese; the judge, “a Reagan appointee,” is old and white-haired and quick to turn Ma into a target of his courtroom ire. What happens to Ma, and to the Filipino man with the box of bullets, is “rough. The years have only made it worse.”

The epiphanies that come to these writers in the ordinary unfolding of their lives prove that life is hard and times are hard. The anxieties and fears that erupt seem to have no source, sometimes, and no end. “To say that my year of heroin and acne was dark,” writes Chloe Caldwell, “would be an understatement . . . . I couldn’t find the source of my sadness, my stress, or my acne. Each thing was feeding the other things.”

Caldwell does end up somewhere better, as do all the writers, but the place she inhabits at the end of the essay is a waiting space: “My therapist says it’s going to take a while for me to piece myself back together.” In these essays, the writers find that there is no quick escape, no deus ex machina to open the roof and lift both reader and writer out of the pain. You face your pedicured feet and the shitty judge and that unanswered phone call and you plunge into them, whether by choice or by no choice at all.

The question is, how do you emerge? Meghan Daum emerges daily from the hate mail clogging her inbox and finds “a gasp of recognition” in the acts of reading and writing. Novella Carpenter, a housekeeper, dreams about a “dark road lined with golden wheat.” She wakes up and buys a ticket to Boston, leaving her bosses’ overflowing litter boxes behind her. And Caldwell marks the months, not days, between pedicures. “My feet look dry and sad,” she writes, “but my face, finally, looks alive.”

Schoech writes that the essays in Days Like This offer the “deeply felt zing of recognition” that comes with good writing. But there is also recognition of something else, something akin to grit and grace. These writers are tenacious. They show us, in the worlds they describe, what Schoech calls “the possibility of real serendipity,” the surprise of an insight that comes unbidden.

And isn’t this the kind of essay collection we look for in a bookstore? An answer to some of our unspoken questions as we peruse the stacks of poetry and sci-fi romances? I know that is what I did at nineteen, when I lived with my father in Chicago and roamed the city alone, my loneliness a great and sourceless despair. One day, I wandered down Milwaukee Avenue and came to Myopic Books. I sat in a corner armchair and hoped one of the mustached clerks would think I was cute. I sat there for hours, reading and hoping for any kind of connection, even if I couldn’t say what it was I was looking for. It was my summer from hell. But an orange tabby cat that belonged to the bookstore’s owners perched next to me while I flipped through random books; he crawled into my lap and rubbed his head on me, his affection completely unbidden.  And I eventually felt better and walked home.

No novel changed my life that day, but the bookstore certainly did something for me. Who among us hasn’t felt the same way in a bookstore at one time or another? It’s why, years after my summer from hell, my husband and I took our engagement photos in an indie bookstore, and it’s why Days Like This is a necessary collection.

Days Like This: Good Writers on Bad Luck, Bum Deals, and Other Torments
Edited by Samantha Schoech, California Bookstore Day Publishing

$16.00 Paperback  | Buy at your local independent bookstore or online here if you must.

 

Allison Backous Troy

About the Reviewer:

Allison Backous Troy holds an MFA from Seattle Pacific University, and has been published in Image, the Crab Orchard Review, Art House America, and a variety of other places. She teaches writing at Suffolk University in Boston.

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