You know that meme that only gets more and more relevant as the days pass: A dog in a hat sits at a table. Ignoring both his coffee cup and the flames that engulf the entire space around him, the dog smiles slightly, then wider, almost manic. “This is fine,” he says. If this seems #relatable to your life, you may have anxiety. And who doesn’t? Jobs are fleeting and precarious, you have a million responsibilities, and who knows what is happening online this week? Anxiety can be crushing and destructive, but the three authors in this week’s book club know that it can often be fascinating, sometimes even with its own strange beauty; if nothing else, it’s a profound and uniting part of being human. Pick up one of these books about the bizarre buzz in the back of the brain (but only if it doesn’t stress you out too much).
1. Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell ($26): Graphic artist Gabrielle Bell didn’t have the luxury of ignoring the flames around her; in fact, the fire in her life was very much of the literal variety, destroying her mother’s home. When Bell’s mother was reduced to pitching a tent in her blaze-scorched yard in rural Northern California, the dutiful daughter knew three things: 1) She had to leave New York to go help her mother, 2) It was going to be a painful trip, given their uneasy relationship, and 3) She was probably going to get a great deal of writing material out of this pain. Is Bell’s storytelling exploitation, creativity, or therapy? Possibly a bit of all three, but it’s all going to be messy, intense, and hilarious: Like any good anarchic, anxious art, Bell’s book is a riot.
“It was late at night, or early in the morning. A candle fell over, and everything up here is so dry it all went up in flames…” Somewhere between “Everything is awesome” and “Everything is terrible,” Everything Is Flammable examines the deep impressions (even scars) a place can make on your values and your sense of who you are, how you can and can’t go back home again, and how terrifying those ideas might be.
In her blog, Bell writes that the novel comes out of a combination of “trying to help as best I could as well as sticking my unwelcome, intrusive nose into my mom’s personal life and history,” admitting that it comes with her mother’s “begrudged blessing.” Bell’s fellow graphic artists extraordinaire are deeply impressed by her work. Roz Chast calls Bell “an acute and compassionate observer of her fellow humans,” and Alison Bechdel writes, “Bell’s pen becomes a kind of laser, first illuminating the surface distractions of the world, then scorching them away to reveal a deeper reality that is almost too painful and too beautiful to bear.” Enter a world where, to bastardize Kurt Vonnegut, “Everything is flammable, and everything hurts.”
2. Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke ($30): Anxiety can have real physical as well as psychological effects, and it can affect entire families, being passed on through generations like the world’s most jittery legacy. Continuing the trend of graphic novel memoirs, Radtke, managing editor of Sarabande Books, writes a non-chronological narrative that meanders through her life and possible future, dealing specifically with a particular rare variant of heart failure that runs in her family.
“Uncle Dan was the youngest (coolest) of my dad’s brothers… He was my favorite person I knew in real life.” In college, Radtke received the shocking news that her beloved Uncle Dan had died from that heart failure, and her return home for his funeral, and then a short side trip to an abandoned mining town, led to a near obsession with what remains after people disappear and places crumble.
Radtke used this anxiety-causing realization to travel the world from Iceland to the Philippines in search of the missing; not to actually find those who were missing, though, but rather what is left behind when they leave. Her book asks the question that plagues most of us at some point when we think for too long: How can someone be there, and then, in the next instant, be gone? It’s an ode to the concept of legacy (or lack thereof) that looks both inward and outward, to the past and to the future.
3. A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume ($25): The heroine of this week’s lone fictional entry, Frankie, tries to stave off the pain of her anxiety and depression by setting strict rules and conditions for her life. Like in Bell’s book, Frankie finds herself temporarily relocating from urban to rural life after she has a breakdown; she moves from Dublin into her late grandmother’s bungalow on rural Ireland’s “turbine hill.” Frankie, struggling through art school, is motivated by her new surroundings to take up photography again, starting a new series of wilderness and dead-animal portraits.
As she tries to get back on an even keel with the mental illness that has always been with her to varying extents, she walks. And walks. As she walks, and creates constraints for her own behavior to follow, she recalls various artwork that resonates with her state of mind (a list is helpfully provided for those of us who want a visual primer for the psyche). “A smudged-sky morning, mid-spring. And to mark it, a new dead thing, a robin. Somehow, they always find me. Crouching in the cavernous ditches and hurling themselves under the wheels of my Fiesta. Toppling from the sky to land at my feet. And because my small world is coming apart in increments, it seems fitting that the creatures should be dying too. They are being killed with me; they are being killed for me.”
Baume’s follow-up to her debut, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and a host of other awards, is brutally honest about the realities of mental illness, but also finds value in it, something many might dismiss. As The Guardian says, in A Line Made by Walking, “there is a reminder of the beauty that can be found when you allow yourself to look slowly and sadly at the world.”
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