Jessica Grose - Soulmates

Soulmates – by Jessica Grose

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Jessica Grose’s novel, Soulmates has a special place in my heart. It unravels the mysterious murder of a pair of yoga instructors, found dead just outside a retreat. The news headline dubs it “namaslay.”

 

The book takes satirical aim at the trend of faux-spiritualism, with Western style yoga being a prime target. Don’t get me wrong – I love yoga. But there is something that can feel a bit disjointed about the West’s interpretation of it. This is a practice that preaches against materialism, but somehow Americans spend $27 billion on yoga products annually. (1) We’re urged to make peace with our bodies, while supermodel physiques are what we see in yoga publications. The fact is that Western yoga has been molded to both appeal to and drive consumerist behavior. Fitness sells, and so the physical aspects of yoga are emphasized, while the spiritual side is often left behind or improvised.

 

When Grose wrote this book, she didn’t do any research on the spiritual elements of yoga. “I made up all of the theology,” she said. “It is a mishmash of nonsense, and that was done purposely.” (2) The yoga teachers in Grose’s book tell made-up parables and spew words of wisdom that they themselves invented. The gospel they spread isn’t yoga – it’s that amorphous “New Age Spirituality,” ever growing in popularity.

 

But why?

 

Grose’s theory is that it’s so people can fill a void.

 

She describes how “Americans, especially younger Americans, are moving away from traditional churches. They’re looking to alternative spiritualities to fill a very legitimate missing piece in their lives.”

 

That’s exactly what happens to Ethan, one of the main characters. Caught at a dead end job and rooted in an unsatisfying marriage, he finds an escape in the outlet of an urban yoga collective. He runs away with one of the teachers, but then the two of them turn up dead. Grose unravels the mystery with tongue in cheek humor and a compelling narrative that will keep you hooked through the end.

 

 

 

 

(1) Channel Signal – retrieved May 22, 2017. https://channelsignal.com/blog/by-the-numbers-the-growth-of-yoga/

 

(2) Julia Fesenthal, VOGUE, September 16, 2016, http://www.vogue.com/article/jessica-grose-soulmates-interview

Other People We Married – by Emma Straub

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As someone who adored Straub’s most recent book, Modern Lovers, I savored the best stories in this compendium of vignettes. While there were twelve short stories, my favorite four are highlighted below.

“Other People We Married”

The eponymous tale was my favorite of the bunch, and by no narrow margin.

This story unfolds the romance between Steven and Laura, a widower and widow. Their connection is unexpectedly kindled through a support group for survivors of deceased spouses. And it’s the memory of those spouses that ultimately extinguishes the flame.

Their burgeoning relationship is hindered (at least for Laura) by the other people they had married. Steven had been – well not married to, but dating – a blonde marathoner before being fatally hit by a bus. Meanwhile, Laura’s late husband died from cancer.

As Laura and Steven navigate the terrain of their relationship, she is plagued by the knowledge that they would each be with their previous mates if it wasn’t for their untimely deaths. Straub artfully describes how “if the four of them had all been in a room together, breaking the laws of time and space, the original pairings would have prevailed.”

This most unromantic love story found a special corner in my heart.

“Pearls”

Describes how Franny and Jackie, two friends in their first year of college – go on a trip to Florida together. Although simply friends, sexual tension develops between them, coming to a head with a kiss between the two. But once this precipice is reached, that energy dissipates, and they never speak of the experience again, seeming to choose silence over exploration.

“A Map of Modern Palm Springs”

A story of two grown sisters who go to Palm Springs for a vacation together – and still wear the hats of “big sister” and “little sister.” Relatable for any adult who has felt infantilized by a family member.

“Some People Really Must Fall in Love”

A professor has an inappropriate crush on a freshman student. It’s nice to see the reversal of an otherwise overtrodden trope.

 

Modern Lovers – by Emma Straub

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I loved this book. It offers an acute view into the romantic relationships of three intertwined couples. Each of the six main characters feel real and complex. They’re funny and likable, if not imperfect.
First are Jane and Zoe, owners of a Brooklyn restaurant. Jane, a professional chef, seems to be early/ mid fifties, while Zoe seems about five years younger. They have a daughter, Ruby, who is wild, fun, and snarky.
Down the street live Elizabeth and Henry with their son Harry, one year younger than Ruby.
Zoe, Elizabeth, and Henry were all in a band together with a fourth band-mate who died in her late twenties.
Now middle aged, the remaining band members experience struggles of middle-aged marriage. Jane and Zoe contemplate divorce, while Andrew flushes out his mid-life crisis by joining a yogi/meditation tribe of millennials. The adult dramas are juxtaposed against the youthful romance sparking between their teen children, Harry and Ruby.
It’s messy, witty, and delicious. I hope to see a film version soon!

It’s Kind of a Funny Story – by Ned Vizzini

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This book aims to broach a serious subject — suicidal inclination — with an approach that’s lighthearted and funny. Which is probably why the movie adaptation features Zach Galifankis. At the same time, the author’s voice lands with authenticity. This is no surprise, given that the author, Ned Vizzini, suffered depression. He ultimately committed suicide in 2013, at age 32 — just shy of the book’s 10 year anniversary.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story is narrated by Craig Gilner, a 15-year old who finds himself utterly run down by the intense pressures of his competitive NYC high school. His physiological symptoms — primarily the inability to hold down food — are one side of it. He wafts through reality, in so much psychological pain that he decides that suicide is the only option left.

Before going through with the endeavor, Craig calls 1-800-SUICIDE, which instructs him to check into a hospital. The desire to commit suicide is, after all, a medical emergency. Before checking in, Craig remarks how fortunate it is that “suicide” has seven letters to accommodate the 1-800 algorithm. Once in the hospital, Craig has some time to assess his depression — an amorphous condition that he lucidly articulates.

He uses the terms “tentacles,” “anchors,” and “the shift” to explain his experience of the world. “Tentacles” are the things in Craig’s life that make him feel pulled down and overwhelmed. Examples are having to deal with email and drawn-out school assignments. Meanwhile, “anchors” are activities that make Craig feel grounded and good — like riding his bike. Despite his anchors, Craig feels overwhelmed by the tentacles. His thinking isn’t clear. What he craves is “the shift,” an experience when he is able to see the world through a new lens where the anchors are stronger than the tentacles. The shift will make him feel, happy, secure, and confident.

In the book, Craig experiences “the shift” while in the psych ward. He makes friends and discovers a new anchor for himself — drawing. He loves to draw an abstract concept that he dubs “brain maps..” He becomes happy again, and at the end of the book, he declares with passion that he wants to live. He wants to draw, make out with girls, hug his mom, kiss his little sister — he wants to live.

While the fictional Craig becomes reinvigorated with life, it’s both sad and disturbing to me that his real-life creator lost that vigor.

In the book, Craig’s recovery gave a happy ending to the book, but it did feel forced. Ned Vizzini is a talented writer and story teller. I wish he could have given the world another story about overcoming depression — but with an ending that rang true.