Welcome to our Indie Spotlight series. In which TNBBC gives small press authors the floor to shed some light on their writing process, publishing experiences, or whatever else they'd like to share with you, the readers!
Today, we have a returning guest, and dear author friend of TNBBC, Jennifer Spiegel. Her latest book, Cancer, I'll Give You One Year
, released just this past January. Here's what the Goodreads page claims:
The book is 100% narrative nonfiction and 0% self-help. It was actually written for the author’s children in case she died. This sounds morbid, but maybe “pointed” and “candid” are better words. Embracing candor as an aesthetic, this real-time story hits upon the sacred, the profane, a trip to Epcot, a colonoscopy, her kids’ responses to everything, and OJ Simpson’s parole hearing. Writing-centric, voice-driven, and conscious of a death sentence . . . no diets or exercises are offered, but the author may give horrible parenting advice. It’s undoubtedly funny, but also a meditation on meaning.
Now that you've got a better idea of what the memoir's about, check out Jennifer's unorthodox reading list below:
An Unorthodox Cancer
Reading List: Annotated, Of Course
|The Ferrante photo is
literally in the pre-op room . . . |
the socks were put on by the hospital.
You will have time to read, assuming, well, assuming you’ve
got time. Crap. It’s tough. Read some books. It may be hard to focus, to delve
into an alternate reality, to even want to give credence to someone else’s
perspective . . . on, like, the disease that is possibly killing you. You may
get angry. I don’t know how you process things. There are so many cancer
offerings and they seem upbeat and positive and reading them might give you
peace or, um, reading them might make you want to kill yourself.
Alas, here’s an unorthodox reading list . . .
- Charles Bock’s Alice
& Oliver. Very real characters, a marriage and cancer novel. With its
New Yorkisms, its East Village collisions, CBGB-Limelight-Patti-Smith-Yaffa-all
night Polish diner ministrations, I was bedazzled. I loved how a chic life
could be turned on its head, the brutality of it—like some kind of plucked
peacock. Which would make a great title of a story: A Plucked Peacock. Dibbs. All Rights Reserved. Copyrighted.
- Elena Ferrante’s The
Days of Abandonment. Yeah, don’t read this one. I literally read it on the
chopping block. Like I think they took it out of my hands as I slipped into sweet
slumber and rolled into surgery to take of my breasts. This was my first
Ferrante. It’s very Ferrante. That excruciating intimacy. Like you’re in the
head of the protagonist, unraveling her madness which sounds a lot like your
own madness, and you’re so close to her that you can smell her breath. You
might just want to skip this one and move onto her Neapolitan Novels, actually.
You will not forget yourself or lose-yourself-in-a-book. But you will recognize
the complicated lives of others. Ferrante is brilliant.
- Emil Ferris’s My
Favorite Thing is Monsters, Vol. 1. A graphic novel! This book is AMAZING,
a tour de force. The artwork is fabulous. The writing is great. It's a complex
story with monsters-as-metaphors, and interweaving narrative threads about the
Holocaust and survivors, Chicago in the sixties, the murder of MLK, cancer,
coming-of-age, not fitting in, being an artist, and siblings.
- Vincent Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad.” Which isn’t even a book.
I’m not going to tell you that Walter White was an inspiration or that, since
you’re possibly dying, you might want to give up your ordinary existence and
break bad. But I will say that this show did have something to say about
endings and finality and taking care of shit before you go.
- Leslie Jamison’s The
Empathy Exams. It’s decidedly secular, maybe postmodern, feminist,
scholarly. I began to envy Jamison for her ability to step into some foreign
world and be more than just a voyeur and write with empathy. Isn’t this something many, many writers long to do? Go to
the places to which we aren’t invited and absorb the world in a real way, make
it ours, if only for a moment? And to do so with empathy?
- Adam Johnson’s Fortune
Smiles. Johnson’s wife had breast cancer, and she went through everything.
We’re not talking lumpectomy, folks. We’re not talking out-patient surgery,
friends. I like Johnson’s work in general, but there’s a great cancer story in here.
- Meredith Maran’s Why
We Write About Ourselves. I mean, maybe you should write your own book. This
collection of essays by famous memoirists is a good intro to memoir-writing. It
can be summed up like this: Be unsparingly honest, willing to expose yourself
and your own horribleness without reservation, do not neglect craft ever, and
try not to hurt people--though you might have to and probably will. Cheryl
Strayed emphasizes universality--how she's striving for universals. I loved
James McBride's essay.
- Sandra Marinella’s The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal
from Trauma, Illness, or Loss. (She blurbed my book.) I
learned two things quickly upon my own diagnosis . . . First, everyone has
cancer. Second, everyone with cancer writes a book about having cancer. Which
is to say that there are a ton of books about cancer. Some stand out, and
Marinella had me when I hit the Nelson Mandela epigraph. I loved the combo of
craft and cancer. I loved the emphasis on storytelling--its power. I believe
that fully, and here is a full and well-written and inspiring exploration.
- Tig Notaro video. I actually forgot what I watched, but I
think it was on Netflix. Though it may send my conservative friends into a
full-blown tizzy, I have to say that I was utterly moved by the way she made
art out of her cancerous life.
- Roger Rosenblatt’s “I Am Writing Blindly” (TIME, November 6, 2000). This one-page
essay, maybe, is the best thing I’ve ever read about why people write, and you
can find it online. It’s why I write. About cancer and everything else.
- Chaim Potok’s My Name
is Asher Lev. And this is a must-read. A treatise on art and life.
Cancer-free or cancerous. It’s so brilliant that, once I start gushing, I won’t
be able to stop.
- Mary Elizabeth Williams’ A
Series of Catastrophes and Miracles. Is this my only “real” cancer book
here? I read others, but only this one—ONLY this one—stuck. It’s miserable to
say, but it's best when writers get cancer. Their books are the good ones. And here’s
a game-changer. Personal with some science talk. Maybe, someday, our kids will
survive because of this science.
Here are other books I liked:
Hayden’s The Story of My Tits.
Harrison’s In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer. A graphic memoir!
Hutton’s Bald Is Better With Earrings.
Katan’s My One-Night Stand With Cancer
A little raw on the lesbian-side of things, but quite real.
Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air
Super moving. Downright beautiful. I could almost push it up to the top half of
Norton’s Lopsided. How Having Breast
Cancer Can Be Really Distracting
. She died, so I get sad. This one is
strongest when she talks about being a black woman from America married to a
white man from France. Which brings me to her surviving husband. Thibault, if
you're reading this, I'm sorry for your loss. Really so very sorry.
Riggs’ The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying. This book terrified me. Nina Riggs is dead,
and her death hovers over the memoir; what scared me horribly was that her
initial diagnosis/prognosis seemed better than my own. Apparently, we were
diagnosed around the same time. Maybe the exact same time. She's dead. I'm
alive, supposedly okay, always conscious of my tenuous okay-ness. Her surviving
husband is romantically involved with Paul Lalanithi’s surviving wife. How’s
that for a love story? I liked the writing better in Riggs (the writing is
actually pretty excellent), but I liked Paul Kalanithi, the person, a bit more.
Is that okay to say? Nina’s story hit way too close to home, and I was actually
wondering if this were healthy for me to read.
Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, when she was a mom and
wife—at the age (I think?) of thirty. Without her knowledge or permission, her
cancer cells were taken (a sample of them) and harvested/multiplied/used all
over the world in medicine. These "HeLa" cells have been instrumental
in medical advancement for the last 60-70 years, without Lacks's family's
knowledge, permission, or acclaim. Henrietta was a poor black woman at a
particular point in history, and this book explores her contribution, her life,
and her family.
Tippetts’ The Hardest Peace
Religious. I liked it.
Jennifer is mostly a fiction writer with two novels, one story collection, and one memoir. She also teaches English and creative writing. Additionally, she is part of Snotty Literati
, a book-reviewing gig, with Lara Smith. She lives with her family in Arizona. For more information, visit www.jenniferspiegel.com