My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Even though I’ve been sober for eleven and a half years, I still fantasize about the ultimate break/nap—a total oblivion that will truly restore me to good health. I didn’t drink to get a buzz on; I drank for the restoration that I thought a deep blackout would give me. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator seems to share that drive—and this novel is a languid, intoxicating, and extraordinarily vivid account of what it might look like to hunt for (and capture) the perfect year-long nap.
Garlic and Sapphires
Before I stopped drinking, life felt like a carousel of disguises—a different mask for every event. Reichl’s memoir of her life as a New York Times food critic, which invited the use of fake names and complex disguises, and which I read before I got sober, felt like the perfect book; I could relate to her need to hide, while at the same time remembering, through her sensuous descriptions of food and her life, what it might be like to just be able to be alive in this world.
Better than any “do you think you might be an alcoholic?” questionnaire is this novel by the LA-based writer behind So Sad Today (both the Twitter amount and the essay collection). I put off reading it because I didn’t see how her fiction could be as entrancing as her nonfiction but, it IS. This is the single best description of the logics of addiction I’ve ever read. The protagonist Lucy’s actions—like dragging a merman onto shore and carting him home in a wagon to have sex with him in her apartment after drugging her dog—made total sense to this lifelong addict. Plus the prose is perfect.
The Year of Magical Thinking
I feel crass equating the loss of a person to the loss of alcohol, but when I stopped drinking, the grief floored me. I grieved for the person I had wanted to be, the person I thought alcohol had turned me into, the future casual drinker I had to say goodbye to. Didion’s memoir of the aftermath of her husband’s death is the perfect articulation of the peculiar mechanics of grief; when she left his shoes out so he could have them if and when he came back, it made sense to me. If you’re not drinking and sad about it, this book is the perfect filter through which to remind yourself that sorrow isn’t logical, but it does change.
The Perfect Nanny
A crime, a distanced narrator, a compressed marriage, and a sense of airlessness are everywhere in this novel about a nanny who murders her charges. The plot points might make it seem sensationalistic, but the real heart of the novel, to me, was in the constant drumbeat of marital antagonism and conflicting emotions. It’s ideally distracting but it’s also relentless—a perfect companion for those confused winter nights where you’re like, wait, what’s happening, why am I sober?
Walk Through Walls
Before I got sober, I saw Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim. Maybe the most famous piece was called “Lips of Thomas”, a seven-hour series of violences of various kinds that Abramovic undertook—lying on an ice cold block after slicing into her lower abdomen; eating honey; singing the Yugoslavian anthem. I was so dissociated from myself and my emotional life that I needed to see someone else be present in her body in order to see that another life might be possible. A few years later I saw her at an art opening: glamorous, air-kissing collectors. Abramovic is a true artist, one whose life seems still private even though she performs such indelible intimacies. This memoir is a chance to actually see who she is—or, at least, just another layer of who she wants us to see.
The second story, about a mother and a daughter, slayed me, as they say. But really, this whole short story collection—great for anyone with a reduced concentration span (when I stopped drinking, I just couldn’t hold a whole novel in my head)—offers a vividly fictional lens (a Cyclops on a dating app, a literally vanishing mother) through which life’s most intense emotions can be processed. This book reminds me of one of the reasons for fiction: to compress and distill and re-cast the elements that make up our daily lives in new and imaginative form, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.
The Princess Diarist
Fisher’s death washed through our community, a tragic reminder that alcoholism, no matter how much we think we might have a handle on it, can be stronger than even our most ardent wish for recovery. I recommend this book though not to be reminded of what happened after, but because of the opposite—the vibrant aliveness that you feel with every sentence, the way in which Fisher lived right up on the edges of her experience for every second. It’s that intimacy with my own life that led me to drink, and a desire to return to myself that compelled me to stop. Fisher’s life—and work—reminds me that I’m only here because of grace, and that I’m going to try and value every gift of a second.
I stopped drinking on July 25, 2007, mostly so I could dry out for a few months and then start drinking again like a normal person. I have yet to see if that’ll actually happen, as gradually, my sober life started feeling much better than my drinking life ever had. But whatever your reasons for taking January (or forever, or just today) off, here are some books that have kept me company throughout the years. Their genres are different, but a thread of honesty, transparency, and desire connects them all. From restaurant critic Ruth Reichl’s memoir to Ottessa Moshfegh’s most recent novel, these are some books that’ll hang out with you during the surprisingly long days, and maybe make you feel the way they made me feel—like I was, finally, not alone.
Featured image: @olyashtets via Twenty20