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.
Say you’ve got cancer.
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.
I was going to include this as an appendix in my memoir, Cancer, I'll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide To Breast Cancer, A Writer's Memoir In Almost Real Time. I removed it. I don’t know why.
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. Whatever.
- 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:
Jennifer Hayden’s The Story of My Tits. A graphic memoir!
Teva Harrison’s In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer. A graphic memoir!
Andrea Hutton’s Bald Is Better With Earrings. Orthodox-ish.
Tania Katan’s My One-Night Stand With Cancer. A little raw on the lesbian-side of things, but quite real.
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. Super moving. Downright beautiful. I could almost push it up to the top half of this list.
Meredith 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.
Nina 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.
Rebecca 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.
Kara 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.