How many women have read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic A Gift from the Sea. Nodding along with passages that could have been pulled from their own musings and diary pages.
“Don’t wish me happiness. I don’t expect to be happy…. It’s gotten beyond that, somehow. Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor. I will need them all.”
I can imagine both Allie Brosh and Maria Mutch with collections of quotes like this in their notebooks, on their refrigerators, on scraps of paper in wallets or pockets or drawers.
And I have scribbled out passages from both Hyperbole and a Half and Know the Night this spring, have even memorized short phrases from each.
Although when I set the books alongside one another I am still struck by how unsuited for one another they appear.
But the ways in which we make sense of the world around us – of our own small known places and their inhabitants, of the wider world beyond, known and unknown – the process only seems different.
And while each of these women has a remarkably expressive voice, a distinct tone and style, the process – the questioning, the testing, the observing, the analyzing, the re-beginning – unfolds with determination and intelligence on the pages of both volumes.
That might seem like a stretch. Certainly, when I first glimpsed Allie Brosh’s drawings, I thought it was going to be a stretch to read even one essay illustrated in such a manner. Even more so alongside Maria Mutch’s lyrical and measured prose.
But these books nestled together in my reading like spoons in a drawer.
One was like this: nut butter and chocolate; lemonade and summer afternoon; tea and scone.
And the other was like this: lemon and ginger; cocoa and winter afternoon; coffee and chocolate.
Which is to say that each book contains contemplative writing about some of my favourite themes and that there is some outright overlap: solitude (also, loneliness), exploring (also, cocooning), love and acceptance (also, discord and denial), survival and endurance (also, despair and depression), and time (also, chaos).
Allie Brosh writes: “This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative – like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it – but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly.”
(This passage is illustrated, featuring the awkward fish-like creature who represents our protagonfish, er, protagonist.)
Hyperbole and a Half’s Table of Contents offers a glimpse (e.g. “Warning Signs”, “This Is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult”, “Thoughts and Feelings”, “Identity Part Two”, “The Simple Dog”).
If it sounds like a combination of Sartre, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and The Worst Case Survival Guide series: you might not be far off. Allie Brosh’s illustrated pieces are thought-provoking and often include serious social (and anti-social) commentary but never overlook the hilarity of being human (also, canine).
Maria Mutch’s Know the Night is subtitled A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours, which hints at the poise and formality of the work but conceals its intensity. “As a baby, Gabriel’s first words and affinity for sign language enthralled his adoring parents.” Then, a long period of silence and a series of diagnoses, and mother and son inhabited a “nocturnal existence of almost constant wakefulness”.
“When I’m here in the dark, I wish on the stars for what seems like their detachment, their delicious remove. What looks like a kind of freedom. But the twinkling is a bit of a ruse, attached as it is to a thread that stretches back into a sink of millions of years. Somewhere back in time their cores rage. Night’s ancient blasts and fires that are now so refined the cacophony is lost, combustion turning cold and clean and inscrutable. I want, sometimes, a night like this.”
The prose is beautifully constructed and quotes from explorers’ writings, Camus, and Thelonious Monk add to the work’s contemplative tone. Although the book might be shelved in Parenting, and her experiences caring for Gabriel are personal and intimate, her reflections on care-taking (also, self-care) beyond and apply to a variety of human relationships at a universal level.
Each book also reveals a love of list-making, of a semblance of ordering and quantifying, the rhythm and cadence of everyday life as an explorer, whether in the city or in the Antarctic.
Maria Mutch shares one from Admiral Byrd’s expedition provisions. “One of my favourites contains, laid against the crystalline blank of the land Byrd inhabits, the incendiary: 350 candles, 10 boxes of meta tablets, 3 flashlights, and 30 batteries, 425 boxes of matches.”
Allie Brosh details the set of steps involved in testing her dog’s intelligence (and, in the process, the test administrator’s intelligence – and compassion – as well), and lists some common misconceptions of the two- and four-legged. On the back cover, she even lists the things that are in the book (beginning with stories, followed by words, with other things).
Each writer deliberately pursues relief as a necessary element of survival. This is a complex multi-layered mechanism, but relief might come in the form of music (specifically jazz) and it might take the shape of a cake (the kind of cake is immaterial – it is CAKE).
Add these to any list of books that consider how we are to find and sustain meaning in this world, and shelve them with classics like Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s: these women’s works are insightful and dynamic.
And sometimes jazz is playing.
And sometimes there is cake.
Have you read any of these books/writers?
Do you have others stored on “this” shelf?