As part of nonfiction November, an annual event celebrated by multiple bloggers, I’m taking a stab at the weekly prompt. This week, readers have been asked to either compile recommendations about a topic they’re interested in, or share their expertise on a subject they’ve read a lot about. For me, that means sharing and recommending some of my favorite books about maritime disasters.
I’m not sure where this interest sprang from, exactly, but I’ve traced its origins back to writer Anne Lamott, who wrote in passing that she had a serious obsession with writing about the arctic. That led me to Alfred Lansing’s classic book of arctic survival, Endurance, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Below, I’ve recommended some of my favorite nonfiction books that feature arctic travel, sea travel and exploration, and — of course — survival amidst disaster. I also included a few of my favorite fictional takes on the subject.
I have to mention Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, since it apparently started this whole thing off. Endurance, published in 1959, tells the story of Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose ships became encased in pack ice during an expedition in 1915. Shackleton and his crew of 27 spent over a year hacking out an existence on the ice floes of Antarctica, before making a desperate attempt for rescue. Lansing,’s account, which is informed by the testimony of several survivors still living at the time, is thoroughly gripping, and the story would be completely unbelievable if it weren’t entirely true.
Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice is probably my favorite of the bunch, though it is slower than the others mentioned here. In it, Sides expertly recreates the failed American expedition to reach the North Pole in 1878. Like Shackleton, explorer George De Long becomes quickly entrapped in pack ice and must shelter his crew through multiple winters on the ice, and then in the wilds of Siberia. Alongside his story, Sides explores the unusual circumstances that led to De Long’s expedition, which includes a brilliant exploration of New York City during the height of the Gilded Age. If you liked Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, you’ll appreciate what Sides accomplishes in this book.
For maritime disasters, see: Titanic. Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, published in 1955, is the definitive account of the sinking. Like Endurance, it was published at a time when many survivors of the sinking were still alive, and so it includes several first-hand accounts. The book is short, but perfectly recreates the events of the Titanic’s sinking minute by minute. It has all the immediacy you might expect from such a re-enactment. If you can get a hold of it, the audio version of the book, performed by Martin Jarvis, is equally fantastic.
I won’t go into great detail, but a few other books I’ve read and enjoyed include In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen, Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz, and Alone by Richard E. Byrd.
And if you’re looking for any fiction on the subject, I can happily recommend a few more: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams, and English Passengers by Matthew Kneale.
I swear I don’t have a thing for ships. I get seasick? Anyway, hope you find something you here to like.
Over the past year, I’ve meandered through a series of unexpected setbacks: some of them personal, some work-related, but most frequently — and most devastatingly — mental. For a few months, these setbacks were debilitating. I was unable to make any forward movement in my life, and actually had a fair amount of backward movement. I spent months in a state of near-constant anxiety, sleeplessness and fear, and then, when that let up, I experienced the worst wave of depression I’ve ever had. I’ve wavered between these two conditions (anxiety and depression) for the better part of two decades, now, and I’ve become better at protecting myself from the fallout. But last fall was the worst I’ve ever known. I endured, which was all I could do.
The strange thing about anxiety is that life goes on, but your life doesn’t. It feels as if everyone else is moving forward without you, and despite your best intentions, it’s all you can do to keep yourself upright. When the symptoms subside and you have a moment to survey the damage, you’ll often notice that your life looks the same way you left it. But now, you’re a year older. Now, you’re behind.
It has been about nine months since the worst of my symptoms slackened, with a few minor flare-ups in between. But mostly, I feel better. Mostly, I feel ready to move forward again. I am ready to write and to move, to travel and to learn. I’ve decided to do these things while I feel the urge to, because I don’t know when I’ll be knocked off my feet again. A large part of me hopes that I’ll never be derailed by depression or anxiety again; but a smaller part knows that I will.
There are a few things that have helped me immensely in the past several months, and I’m trying to incorporate them into my life as cushions, now, against future setbacks. Some of them have to do with the way I treat myself, which is weird and indulgent and not totally relevant to this post. Others, though, have to do with writing; with maintaining a record of my life and holding myself accountable to it. Learning is another: honoring my interests and my curiosity; continuing to reach toward new things. And movement, too, has been vital. When nothing else made me feel better, moving did. Pushing my body distracted and challenged me when I couldn’t push my brain any further. Music, friends, family — all of these helped in their own ways, too. Strangely, one of the things I had to give up on was reading. I haven’t been able to properly focus on a book in months.
The purpose of this post is to put a new plan into place. I’ve never had a strict sense of the direction my life was headed in and I still don’t, but I know that there are a few things I want to do now, or in the near future, while I’m level and steady and calm. These are also, for the most part, activities that helped to alleviate the worst symptoms of my anxiety and depression over the past year, and that will hopefully allow me to avoid another sudden resurgence of either. I’m posting this here so that I have a record of it, and so that a few other people do, too. I’m posting this here so that I have an open channel to return to whenever I feel inspired. I’m posting this here so that I can find my way back to good health the next time I falter. I’m told that this is part of being accountable. No (wo)man is an island.
The (New) Road Map: For When You Lose Your Way
#1. Continue to Move, and Incorporate Yoga
Regular exercise is something I’ve always struggled with (as is, more tellingly, my weight). But it was one of the most helpful activities I’ve taken on recently, and seems to help in any capacity or amount. This isn’t heavy lifting; this is walking breaks at work. This is hopping on an elliptical machine once or twice a week. And lately, this has involved doing yoga.
I’ve always loved the idea of yoga, and it’s often been recommended to me because of my anxiety. But in my experience, telling an anxious person to “relax” and “breathe” is just, like, the worst advice ever. It is the opposite of relaxing. And my complete inability to relax in any quantifiable way has always made me feel like a failure. But for some reason, in the past month, yoga has simply clicked. I joined a vinyasa class and am pushing my body in new and challenging ways. I’m remembering to breathe. I’m sitting with myself, in stillness and silence. I’m reading books again, if only books on yoga (including Jessamyn Stanley’s Every Body Yoga). These are big things.
A big part of this road map will include regular movement in any capacity I choose, with a particular focus on yoga. If the movements become too much, the breathing is always there and always helpful. I’ve found myself returning to my “yoga breath” even at work now, when a patron or a co-worker leaves me fuming. It helps.
Some of my smaller goals here include:
Joining a gym / fitness facility
Taking a yoga class once per week
Moving or exercising, in some capacity, five times per week
#2. Learn New Skills, and Take Up New Hobbies
Aside from reading (which I’m not doing a lot of), I don’t have a huge list of hobbies. I have even fewer skills. But there are a few things I’ve always wanted to get better at doing, and it’s time I put some real effort toward that. Aside from continuing to work toward my graduate degree in library media, which I began in June, here are some things I’d like to work on:
Cooking: Learn to bake or cook five new meals.
Guitar: Learn to play five new songs on my acoustic guitar.
Reading & Writing: Read whatever calls out to you and don’t waste time on what you can’t absorb. Journal as often as possible.
Complete my Master’s degree.
#3. Update My Passport, and Then Use It
Though I hate most of the details involved with traveling, I love exploring new places. It’s been almost three years since I went anywhere new, and I’ve been ready for something big. I renewed my passport last summer, and booked a trip with a friend who is in a similar situation — single, living alone, heartsick and restless and tired. In October, we took off for a twelve-day tour of Portugal and Spain, which was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. And for the first time in my life, I had no desire to come home. In fact, I panicked at the idea of returning to the life that was waiting for me, the life I’d built. This plan is partly in response to that feeling: an effort to build a life more in keeping with the one I’ve always wanted. A life I’d be happy to return to. I hope to continue traveling in some capacity every year, whether short trips over the weekend or cross-country treks. I’m going to make it a goal to visit one new country each year.
#4. Take Care of Myself, and Others
Continuing to check in with myself — to slow down, to breathe, to write — will be vital. Part of taking care of myself also involves practicing mindfulness, which I’m getting better at. Falling under this category, too, is getting a second tattoo, something I’ve wanted to do for a while (and finally did, in September). I think of tattoos as totems — physical markers that remind me to stop, breathe, reflect, and remember. The tattoo I have now is hidden from view; I wanted one that I could see every day. It’s there now; an outline of blooming wildflowers on my wrist.
I’m including a section about taking care of others, too. Partly because it’s something I enjoy doing, and partly because it’s another way of getting me outside the boundaries of my own life.
Some of my goals here include:
Getting a second tattoo
Buying fresh flowers for my apartment once per month
Donating to a charity twice per year
Continuing to practice mindfulness and breathing each night before bed
#5. Make My House a Home
Part of what triggered my relapse last year was moving into my own place. Because of that, it’s taken me a lot longer than I’d hoped it would to make that space my own. One of my goals over the next year is to finally finish furnishing my apartment. Some of those tasks include:
Buying or acquiring the last few pieces of furniture I need
Buying or acquiring three original pieces of artwork
Taking on a renovation project
I’ll stop there, because I think this list reflects all of the “big ticket” items I have in mind. But I’m also going to make a continuing effort to seek out friends and family, to spend time with my nieces and nephew, to maintain relationships with former co-workers and classmates, and to spend time with people other than myself. Think of that as another current running beneath all of this.
Again, I write this here mostly for me. I keep trying to pin down why, exactly, I’m making this public; why I want other people to see it. And I think it comes down to making it matter. Making it known. I’m not sure why that’s important to me at this stage in the game, but it is.
In May, it will have been five years since I graduated from college, a length of time that still seems staggering. In that time, I haven’t accomplished a whole lot personally. It has been a period of almost constant uncertainty, frustration and fear, occasionally interrupted by something lovely, like the birth of my nephew. I have felt, for most of that time, like I’ve been squandering my twenties. I’ve traveled briefly, but not as much as I’d like; maintained only one friendship from college and let the rest drop; dated hardly at all. The only goal I’ve had during this time is, eventually, to buy my own house.
I’ve been living with my parents since I was 22, looking for a secure job and then, upon finding one, saving every dollar I could. About two years ago I started browsing through listings online, getting a feel for the market around me, making endless calculations about how much money I’d need to get started, and how many years it would take before I’d have it. About six months ago, I decided to step up my game. I realized how quickly the condos I liked were being scooped up, and began contacting realtors to get my foot in the door. And what all of that comes down to is this.
Over the past four weeks, I:
Accidentally contacted the wrong realtor about a condo I was interested in;
Decided to work with that realtor to find my first home;
Found a great condo and submitted an offer;
Had my offer accepted;
Bought a house.
I know that buying a house is not exactly an uncommon event, but for so long it seemed impossible that I still have trouble wrapping my brain around it. The sentence “I bought a house” keeps sticking in the back of my throat. It just doesn’t seem real.
And that’s one reason I haven’t written anything about it until now; I was so sure it was going to fall apart. For a couple of weeks during the negotiations, it seemed poised to. But the sentence “I bought a house” is true and has been for ten days, now, so I’m writing to tell you the news. Guys, I bought a house!
Well, a condo. It’s a great space, perfectly sized, and situated in my dream location. It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a small patio that leads to a common yard (great for my dog, who became more of an obstacle in this search than I would have imagined). The living room boasts a wood-burning fireplace and built-in bookshelves, something I imagine Belle would approve of (and that is, embarrassingly, important to me). The sellers have updated everything, including boring, costly things like the furnace. The paint is fresh and plain. The whole unit’s a blank slate.
I’m doubly excited about that, because I’ve developed a sizeable interest in design. My Pinterest account has devolved into a collection of interior design boards sorted by room and function, and I regularly browse through home design websites and blogs. I also spend an inappropriate amount of time at Home Goods. Until now, there hasn’t been much I could do with this interest, but now that I have a home I’m eager to dive in.
All this has been an elaborate way of excusing, once again, my absence here. And to warn you that this “book” themed blog might quickly transform into a “house” themed blog, with a side of books.
And finally, because it would be anti-climactic otherwise, some pics:
It will be about a month before I can move myself in. I’ve applied for a mortgage, and now the bank is doing its thing. I’m using that time to acquire some of the things I need, planning changes I’d like to make, and thinking about what shape my life will take once I live there. And really, it’s anybody’s guess. Odds are I’ll maintain the same lifestyle I have now, only somewhere else. But it’s pretty to think it might be more.
The first month of the new year is coming to an end, and good riddance. Between unavoidable stresses at work, upheavals at home, and my harboring a cold over the past week, it wasn’t exactly a promising start to 2016. In terms of reading, though, it was actually a decent start. I began the year with one goal in mind: to read my own books as part of a year-long challenge by Estella’s Revenge. I also decided to spend the month of January reading only books written by women, since I tend toward the opposite direction if left to my own devices. I began the year with 79 books in my TBR, and in January I’ve managed to knock it down to 74. (You can read more about my challenge here.)
The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker: I loved this. It had been languishing on my shelves for a long time, and I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to dive into. I wrote more about Parker and my reactions to this book here.
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl: Another one that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, but this didn’t go over as well. This is primarily a memoir of Reichl’s unconventional upbringing and early adulthood, with some of her favorite recipes sprinkled throughout. Reading about the author’s childhood was actually kind of fascinating, but I became less fascinated as she aged. It’s not much fun reading about twenty-somethings hobnobbing all over the country, living in penthouse apartments, travelling and working whenever they damn well please, when you’re a twenty-something who can’t afford to do any of the above. I’m hostile toward Reichl’s generation, and it showed.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: This is the most collectively beloved book by my friends on Goodreads, with an average rating of 4.53. Suffice it to say that I didn’t understand what the fuss was about.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: This was a short, quick read, with beautiful writing and great insight. Dillard is a skilled writer. But for some reason this book didn’t resonate with me as much as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell: Confession time! I’ve never actually read Montaigne’s Essays, but I hope to change that soon. I’ve been hearing great things about this biography for a long time, and it definitely lived up to the hype. This is primarily a biography of Michel de Montaigne, but it’s also a history of France in the 16th century, and a study of philosophy from Socrates and the Stoics all the way through to Nietzsche. It was beautifully done, and introduced me to ideas, characters and time periods I’d forgotten all about. A great read, if you’re into this sort of thing. The author has a new book arriving in March, which I’ll definitely be adding to my list.
So that’s January, in the bag. In February I’m hoping to continue reading women writers, and I have a few books from my shelves lined up and waiting. This weekend, though, I picked up my first library book in a month: Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston was the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book I read for the first time last fall (and one I highly recommend!)
I’m also shaping my reading to fit my library’s winter reading program, a bingo card with different reading tasks to complete. I created this program, so I felt I had to give it a try. In February I hope to read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (a book published in the year I was born), Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (a book that has been turned into a movie), and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (a book with a one-word title).
When Dorothy Parker died in 1967, she was living alone in New York. Her husband and creative partner, Alan Campbell, had already passed, and she had no children or other family still living. She left everything she had to a hard-working and compassionate civil-rights activist she had never even met: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Parker’s story is full of incredible intersections like this one. Reading her columns, reviews and letters in The Portable Dorothy Parker is an unexpected glimpse into the top-tier literati of the ’20s and ’30s. She panned plays by A. A. Milne and Theodore Dreiser (both of whom she hated), reviewed books by Ernest Hemingway and John Updike, wrote introductions for works by James Thurber, scolded Jack Kerouac, sent telegrams to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and trashed one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s infamous “Follies,” for which she promptly lost her job. She worked in Hollywood, writing movie scripts during the Golden Age, but her heart belonged to New York (even though, she writes, “I was cheated out of the distinction of being a native New Yorker, because I had to go and get born while the family was spending the summer in New Jersey, but, honestly, we came back into town right after Labor Day, so I nearly made the grade.”) She new everyone, and everyone seemed to know her.
Parker was a prominent member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York’s elite writers, actors and editors, that met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel. They were known for their clever and often poisonous wit, with Parker’s astute ear for language, and her ability to turn almost anything into a pun, leading the charge. (Challenged one day to use the word horticulture in a sentence, she supplied, without hesitation: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”) They were the Bright Young Things of the Lost Generation, and they took New York by storm. Later in life, Parker downplayed the group’s importance:
These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days—Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them… There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth.
Parker was, most of all, a prolific writer, penning dozens of short stories and three complete volumes of poetry. She also wrote regular columns for Vanity Fair, until she was fired, and then jumped ship to the newly-founded New Yorker in 1925, where she reviewed books in a regular feature called Constant Reader. (I have a feeling she would have been a fantastic book blogger, given the opportunity). She is remembered today for her one-of-a-kind humor and scathing wit, with many of her one-liners passing into notoriety. (“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” is one of hers, as is: “Tell him I was too fucking busy – or vise versa.”)
When Martin Luther King died in 1968, Parker’s estate passed onto the NAACP, per her wishes. Her executor contested the move for years, and Parker’s ashes languished in the filing cabinet of her attorney for 17 years. Finally, in 1988, her ashes were buried in a memorial garden, outside the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore. Her plaque reads:
Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893–1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people.
And strangely, it is that moniker, “humorist,” that would have bothered Parker, and the fact that it precedes the word “writer” in her epitaph. While known for her wit and charm, Parker took little stock in her own reputation as a humorist. Her stories and poetry are, overwhelmingly, serious in nature, often focusing on love, death and suicide (she attempted three times to take her own life). She struggled mightily to produce a novel, something that would prove her mettle as a serious writer, and lamented when she failed. Here’s Parker reading one of her more famous poems, “Resume.” (Note: Almost entirely sure that’s not her picture, unless she was born fifty years before the record states).
Having spent the last week happily wrapped inside the extended Portable Dorothy Parker, I can vouch for her abilities as a writer. My copy has been (neatly) underlined, asterisked, and covered in loving notes. Next to one of my favorite reviews, a scathing indictment of A. A. Milne’s newest play (which she ended with the words “and so I shot myself,”), I scribbled: “OMG. I love this woman.” And those are basically my sentiments about the collection as a whole.
The Portable was originally compiled in 1944, and Parker selected and arranged the stories and poems herself. It was part of a series of small, lightweight books intended for use by soldiers overseas, and Parker’s is the only one of that series, aside from the Bible and Shakespeare’s collected works, that has never gone out of print. In 2006, Penguin repackaged and expanded the original Portable with dozens more stories, and also included samples of her reviews, columns, and letters. That, for me, is what makes this edition worthwhile. Parker can write, but so can a thousand other people – it’s her humor that can’t be reproduced. Many of her “serious” stories fell flat for me, and I can admit to skipping a few of them in order to get to the good stuff. It’s unfortunate that she undervalued her wit – I think it’s what has kept her in print all these years.
Here’s a passage from one of my favorite stories in this collection, The Waltz. In it, you have the inner monologue of a woman dancing politely with a man she’s just met. On the inside, though, she’s reeling. Here is how she reacts after the man inadvertently kicks her shin while dancing:
Oh, no, no. no. Goodness, no. It’s didn’t hurt the least little bit. And anyway it was all my fault. Really it was. Truly. Well, you’re just being sweet, to say that. It really was all my fault.
I wonder what I’d better do – kill him his instant, with my naked hands, or wait and let him drop in his traces. Maybe it’s best not to make a scene. I guess I’ll just lie low, and watch the pace get him. He can’t keep this up indefinitely – he’s only flesh and blood. Die he must, and die he shall, for what he did to me. I don’t want to be of the over-sensitive type, but you can’t tell me that kick was unpremeditated. Freud says there are no accidents. I’ve led no cloistered life, I’ve known dancing partners who have spoiled my slippers and torn my dress; but when it comes to kicking, I am Outraged Womanhood. When you kick me in the shin, smile.
This, I would argue, is Parker’s greatest strength: the ability to capture the most fleeting and often cynical thoughts and create an entire story out of them. She is the funniest writer I’ve ever read, and that is a considerable talent, whether or not she’d agree. And she did agree to some extent, at least once. In one of her columns for the New Yorker – one in which she reduced Theodore Dreiser to a sopping puddle – she wrote:
I am unable to feel that a writer can be complete without humor. And I don’t mean by that, and you know it perfectly well, the creation of the appreciation of things comic. I mean that the possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. A little humor leavens the lump, surely, but it does more than that. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself.
I haven’t blogged, or written nearly anything, in almost a year. I’ve tried more than once to return to blogging in the interim, because I really do miss it when I’m gone. Like a few other book bloggers I know, I’m charging into the new year with (somewhat) renewed energy, and a fresh start.
Or at least I would be, but the last couple of weeks have been more stressful than usual, and I don’t feel “renewed” so much as exhausted. Part of the reason for my return, if I’m honest, is because I could really use a creative outlet right now, and a project to focus my time on. The past year was a difficult one for me on multiple fronts. I’m trying to take some steps to make things better in 2016, and blogging and writing again are major links in the chain.
In terms of reading: I had a rough year. I was able to polish off a respectable number of books, but I slogged through so many that I didn’t enjoy and had trouble making myself read. I got bogged down in books I really should have pushed aside, and lost a lot of time floundering in between. My plan, and my only plan in 2016, is to read the books I have at home. I’ve noticed that a lot of other bloggers are doing the same, mostly led by Estella’s Revenge and the Read Your Own Damn Books Challenge, which might be the best-named challenge I’ve ever heard. I’ll be making my own attempt, which you can follow along with here.
What’s On Tap
I’m kicking things off with Dorothy Parker, who might just be my spirit animal. The Portable Dorothy Parker is a collection of short stories and poetry originally collected and arranged by Parker in 1944. The newest incarnation, released by Penguin in 2006, includes dozens more stories and poems, along with a sampling of Parker’s letters, reviews, and columns written for the New Yorker. It’s more than double the size of the original. I’ve had it on my shelf for a few years now, and I’ve dipped in and out a couple of times but now I plan to read it through.
I also tried a small experiment in the fall of 2015, during one of my longer slumps, which I might try to replicate in January. For one month, I read only books written by women, and it was by far the best month of reading I had. I’m not sure if that was just coincidence, but I’d like to think not. One of the highlights, for me, was finally getting through a book by Virginia Woolf, and then another. I’ve never been able to read her before, and now I’m slightly in love.
I’ll leave you with some great advice from Miss Parker herself, which hit particularly close to home.
If you looked for things to make you feel hurt and wretched and unnecessary, you were certain to find them, more easily each time, so easily, soon, that you did not even realize you had gone out searching. Women alone often developed into experts in the practice. She must never join their dismal league.