Sticky Situations

51lVS48aPaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Necklace of Kisses
Francesca Lia Block
2005, Harper Perennial

Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat series is thrilling, and that’s mainly because the character Weetzie is so entrancing. She is the archetypal strange-and-maybe-sorta-magic girl. As she goes through adolescence and early motherhood, Weetzie learns to trust her instincts in a way that still gives me a lot of hope for living life. In Necklace of Kisses, Weetzie is in her 40s and she’s struggling to keep her relationship with My Secret Agent Lover Man (a character from the series) afloat. She takes off to the Pink Hotel in Los Angeles because “everything is sad and scary.” Thankfully she’s accompanied by a cast of sirens, spider women, and mermaids—everything you’d expect from a great Francesca Lia Block read. Weetzie is in search of the truth of love itself. The truth of the book is that myth, magic, and love are still real well into middle age, and that Weetzie is still a great conduit for these life-lessons. —Meredith

136977The Places That Scare You
Pema Chödrön
2001, Shambhala Publications

I don’t get creeped out by real world places like dark street corners, roller coasters, or the dentist. Maybe that’s because the world inside my head can be much scarier than anything external could be. In The Places That Scare You, the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön provides a manual for dealing with your stickiest, most frightening baggage—all that complicated emotional stuff that you’d much rather avoid. Chödrön presents Buddhist teachings in ways that are accessible to people of all beliefs—for instance, “Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.” I want to enter the warrior’s world! Pema is my go-to guide for being a kinder person, and her writing is unpretentious and welcoming, like a really good teacher. Grab this book if you’re freaking out about, oh, anything at all! —Emma S.

22095699My Body is a Book of Rules
Elissa Washuta
2014, Red Hen Press

I’ve never read an essay collection like this one. In My Body is a Book of Rules, Washuta shares her psychological records, lists her medications and their effects, and then compares and contrasts her experiences of mania and depression with what she’s read about Britney Spears’ and Kurt Cobain’s experiences. On her mission to understand sex and consent, she analyzes the IM conversations she had with a friend after her first sexual encounter, and imagines how detectives from Law & Order: SVU might interview her about that experience. Throughout this collection, Washuta is constantly shifting angles as she tries to see herself more clearly—her American Indian identity, her relationship to Catholicism, her sexual history which includes sexual assault, and her bipolar disorder. These are raw and painful essays, but through them, Elissa rebuilds herself, her body, her brain, and her trust in herself. Her story empowers her readers to do the same. —Stephanie

prayer1-243x366A Prayer Journal
Flannery O’Connor
2013, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

It’s kind of strange to read a diary that you know an author didn’t intend to publish. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should even read A Prayer Journal, because it felt like I’d be intruding on O’Connor’s privacy, or somehow breaking her trust. But I’m constantly trying to understand faith—other people’s and my own—which is why I eventually decided to pick up her recently discovered and posthumously published prayer journal. The journal is a record of O’Connor’s thoughts on faith, her personal idea of God, and her struggle to understand what faith in God even means. Sometimes it seems like the deity O’Connor addresses is one that she’s created; she can’t live up to her God’s standards, just as she can’t live up to her own. Thoughts like, “I don’t want to have created God in my own image, as they’re so fond of saying,” sit alongside others like, “Today I have proved myself a glutton–for scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought.” In one of my favorite passages, she ponders sin and then writes, “But perhaps that is too literary a statement–this mustn’t get insincere.” In her stories, O’Connor’s voice is quick and well-crafted, but in her journal she allows herself to drip. Here, she is afraid and unsure of herself, her writing, her faith and even her God. A Prayer Journal contains O’Connor’s multitudes: She is insecure and cocky, faithful and afraid, desperate to write, desperate to make a difference, and trying to figure out how all these factors can coexist. —Tova

Meg Wolitzer
2014, Dutton Books

Not everyone’s English class is as inspiring as the one in Dead Poets Society (though that’s probably a good thing, because that didn’t end very well at all), but Special Topics in English, in Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, definitely rivals it. At a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teens, five students learn that they’ve been selected for this legendary, but mysterious class. At first, it seems like the new classmates have little in common, besides an experience of trauma. The narrator, Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue, is mourning her late boyfriend; Marc recently found his dad’s sex tape; Sierra’s younger brother was abducted and is presumed dead; Casey has to get used to using a wheelchair; and no one knows much about the brooding Griffin. Their teacher, Mrs Quenell, introduces them to Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, and gives them a journal to write in. Little do they know that their journal will actually pull them into another world. The mysteries they find there are enough to draw the students out of themselves, and to teach them how to trust each other with their precious secrets. —Estelle

vertical_interrogationThe Vertical Interrogation of Strangers
Bhanu Kapil
2001, Kelsey Street Press

Once, my friend and I were cooking and I put on this recording of Bhanu Kapil reading from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. My friend stopped chopping vegetables, leaned her head against the wall, and stayed there with her eyes closed, just listening, until the recording ended. The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers began as a project to create “an anthology of Indian women’s voices.” Kapil asked Indian women living in the US, England, and India questions like: “Describe a morning you woke without fear?” “What is the shape of your body,” and my favorite question, “Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?” Kapil crafted this book of prose poems from their answers. The way the words are presented—as clusters on each page surrounded by blank space—made me think about the things, and the people, that migrants leave behind. The writer Kate Zambreno describes Bhanu Kapil as “one of the most vital writers working today, and a crucial writer (and thinker) of postcolonial and displaced identity,” and it’s true. I can’t emphasize enough how special this book is, and how much power it contains. —Tova

9781584350347-mediumI Love Dick
Chris Kraus
1997, Semiotext(e)

I Love Dick is definitely up there in my canon of books about women’s experiences of being in love. Kraus’ book isn’t linear or straightforward—seriously, there are so many mind-fuck moments that as I was reading I kept having to stop, breathe, and read back a few lines to take in what Kraus had written. But I Love Dick more or less follows the narrator Chris, as she explores her feelings for a man called Dick. As part of this exploration, she writes—and sends—Dick a lot of love letters. The letters double as essayistic musings, with digressions about art and sexual politics. At one point she writes: “[D]esire isn’t lack, it’s surplus energy—a claustrophobia inside your skin.” The narrator never apologizes for her obsession with Dick, and I love that! After all, when have dude writers ever apologized for their obsession with a woman? Instead, Chris uses her infatuation as a way to explore herself, her feelings, and her experiences. In my first year of college, I fell for a boy I couldn’t have. A year later I wrote in my diary: “I don’t think that boy was my Dick.” I mean, thinking about him provided me with none of the philosphical epiphanies that I Love Dick had! —Naomi M.

9780062121288 copyEvery Last Promise
Kristin Halbrook
2015, HarperTeen

Kayla loves everything about her small Missouri town, so much so that she’s the only one of her close-knit group of friends who isn’t dreaming of going away to college. Then she witnesses something at a party that changes things, and in the aftermath there is a secret that threatens to destroy Kayla’s relationship with her friends, as well as her place in the town she adores. Kristin Halbrook weaves together moments from the spring of Kayla’s junior year and the fall of her senior year to show how Kayla figures out what to do, who to trust, and how to have faith in herself. Every Last Promise looks at rape culture in a small town from all of the complicated and heartbreaking angles that you’ll rarely find in news coverage of real-life cases like this. I’m so grateful that a book as nuanced and honest as this exists. It isn’t out until next month, but you can pre-order it from your favorite bookstore. —Stephanie

Wajdi Mouawad trans. Linda Gaboriau
2011, Playwright’s Canada Press

The play Scorched follows Janine and Simon, siblings whose mother, Nawal, has just died. Five years before her death, Nawal stops speaking. Janine and Simon travel to Lebanon—their mother’s home country—to fulfil her dying request: to find their father and brother. What unfolds reads like a horrifying and brilliant twist on Sophocles’ Oedipus. The mystery of Nawal’s silence hangs over Janine and Simon throughout their journey, until they discover what kept their mother from speaking in the first place. Scorched is a beautiful, tragic, and unsettling play. It forced me to think about tragic events as more than just isolated moments that we can escape. Sometimes, those horrors become inextricably part of the people and the places that we love. —Tova ♦

Our World Alone

Illustration by Eleanor.
Illustration by Eleanor.


Dear Allen,

It’s been almost a year since we first met in the corner of that theater in New York. We had both bought the day-of student tickets and I had a crush on you the moment you sat down next to me. After the play we wandered around the city and pretended we were only excited about the play, and not each other. It had just rained. We sat in Central Park. You asked to see me again, but I was flying home to Chicago the next morning. When I got home, I called you. You answered. We talked. Then, I began writing you emails. I wrote this one back in December, right after your 20th birthday, when you had already forgotten about me.

I found it again recently, just as I’m at the cusp of so many things. In a few weeks I’ll turn 20, too. Soon I’ll be transferring schools, leaving the city I grew up in, my friends, and everything I know. I’m scared to be at the edge again, and finding this old letter reminded me that there are all kinds of edges to be at.

Now I write to a different boy. His name is Paul. I might have forgotten about you, if not for the emails still saved on my hard drive.

For now,


Dear Allen,

We still haven’t addressed the fact that I send you emails at strange hours—2, 3 AM—without really knowing you. But you still haven’t responded to any of them, so I don’t bother asking you about it. I just keep sending them. My friends say you probably think I’m crazy. Last night I read I Love Dick again, just to feel better about myself, these messages, and your silence. I came across this line: “But loving you’d become a full-time job and I wasn’t ready to be unemployed.”

I underlined it because it was just your 20th birthday, and for the entire day I was struck with the significance of that. The day felt important, like the birthday of someone I’ve known intimately. It made me wonder about my own age. About still having “teen” slapped onto the end of my number.

There was another passage from I Love Dick that I underlined:

I feel so teenage. When you’re living so intensely in your head you actually believe when something happens you’ve imagined, that you’ve caused it. […] When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. Therefore, you’re both omnipotent and powerless. […] [Teenagers are] so far in [their heads] that there’s no difference between the insides of their heads and the world.

I’ve never really strongly identified as a “teen” nor thought about belonging to that particular species until this year, just as I’m almost done being one. I bought Lorde’s CD when it came out a few months ago, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since. On the way to school, on the way to work, on the way home, while driving in the rain, on my way to a Halloween party with all my friends singing along in the backseat. Lorde and her CD accentuated this teenage identity I’ve let myself adopt lately, before I let it go forever.

For a while I didn’t bother trying to understand why I like her so much, why it aches to listen to her music, why it haunts me until I turn it on and chase the ghosts away. But lately I’ve been reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writer whose short stories are filled with complicated characters and gruesome endings, and I began to understand a bit more.

In Flannery O’Connor’s writing, I saw everything I was familiar with but didn’t have words for. I quickly became obsessed with how she approaches religion in her stories. I knew she was describing the Deep South, where a stranger might randomly call you a Yankee, but she could have been describing the Hasidic community I grew up in and left. Her characters are self-righteous, complicated, naïve, and so terribly well-meaning. She describes a world filled with well-worn traditions that seemed odd to everybody except the people raised with them. She wrote in my language, the language of the grotesque.

When people hear grotesque they think of gross, weird, disfigured, ugly, and comically distorted. But grotesque can also mean fascinating, fantastical, strange, magical, unusual, eccentric, just plain odd. It’s also a way to describe the aspects of life that repulse us, humor us, and make us uneasy all at once. The grotesque takes on forms we are familiar with but distorts them until they start to contradict themselves. O’Connor’s short stories speak of things we are familiar with—death, religion, farms—but present them in a way that twists our assumptions and plays with our expectations.

I think this idea of the grotesque accurately describes the world of a teenager, which simultaneously involves itself with the outside world and keeps its distance from it. When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. This could also be said about the places we can’t escape from that also feel like home. I feel this way about my old community. The community that raised me is a large part of my identity and defines me in so many ways. At the same time, I remain completely contradictory to my community. I don’t look like them anymore, think like they do, or keep the traditions.

Most days, the world feels overlarge as it teems around me, and I struggle to keep steady and feel relevant within it. I stumble, and feel entirely unbalanced and worthless. On those days I feel powerless, and I am driven by a need to make the world feel bearable and navigable. When we’re young children, most of us have people we can trust to tighten our world up so it’s nice and small and cozy. But then we get older, and by the time we’re teenagers we’ve realized that religious doesn’t always mean “good,” and that our parents are right about many things, but not everything. Because more things are suddenly possible, the world, as we see it, gets bigger. I remember the first time I saw my parents cry, and how it eventually stopped surprising me to see them cry, to realize they don’t know all the answers. And the world got wider. I remember when I went to the psychiatric unit for the first time and realized I wasn’t the only one who constantly felt like dying, and that I couldn’t always trust authority figures to be looking out for my best interests. It was important that my world grow, but with each of its growth spurts came a feeling of powerlessness, and a consequent urge to grab on to things and draw them near and tighten my world again. When I’ve drawn my world in to a comfortable size, I feel omnipotent again.

All of this is possibly the reason why teenage romances feel so intense and monumental, because they become the home bases in an otherwise insecure world. I dated my first boyfriend when I was 17, and when we broke up I felt like I was let loose into a big, open world. I was glad to be alone in my own head, but there was something frightening about losing that security. For a long time, his positive opinion of me kept me anchored in a world that shifted unexpectedly. He loved me intensely, completely, and overwhelmingly. It felt special and singular, and it provided me with a cozy and safe world within the bigger world I had learned to mistrust and be skeptical about.

The funny thing about Flannery O’Connor is that she seems at once omnipotent and powerless. In her writing, the narrator critiques each of her characters and almost mercilessly destroys most of them at the end. But throughout the stories there is a feeling that the narrator is no better than the characters she condemns. In writing these letters to you I feel powerful. Here, between these lines, I can create a world where you care about what I have to say. Here, I have created a space for myself within the huge world where I feel as though I have no say. Maybe this is why I keep falling in love with boys who won’t answer my letters, because it’s a chance to create a world that’s small, one that I can steer.

The best way to approach these worlds—the small teenage world we create to make life bearable, the Hasidic bubble of Orthodox Jews in West Rogers Park, the farm in the Deep South—is through the language, the art, and the music that engage with them while contradicting them. Through identifying the contradictions and being fascinated and delighted and sickened by them all at once. Through facing them, confronting them, and fusing them, which Flannery O’Connor does in her writing, and Lorde does in her music.