Little books have always had a special place in my heart. When I was a kid in the early 90’s, when malls still had Waldenbookses (and we still went to the mall), I was captivated by the spinning racks of tiny books next to the register. Full volumes shrunk to pocket-sized editions, small enough to balance on a palm. Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn… one year I found a copy of A Christmas Carol in my stocking’s toe. So much in such a small space.
Even now, when I visit Powell’s with their thousands upon thousands of full-sized books climbing to the lofted ceilings, it’s the spinning rack of chapbooks that never fails to catch my eye. There is something so personal and loving about these books made for hands, made for an afternoon or evening hour. Although humble in stature compared to their bookstore companions, these essays, short stories and poetry collections usually say more than books twenty times their size.
This is why Pity the Animal, Chelsea Hodson’s essay-contained chapbook, was one of my favorite books of 2014. Her lyric dive into art, objects and desire reformatted what I believed nonfiction was capable of accomplishing. It’s a precious thing, this book. So slight I’m afraid of losing it on my bookshelf. I may read a number of stories and essays every year, shared and Tweeted around in circles, and as lovely as it is to so easily spread the love of someone’s work, I wish they could all arrive like this. Coupled with art and typeface and thick, luscious paper stock, slight enough to mail just to me.
Which is exactly how Kendra Fortmeyer’s chapbook, The Girl Who Could Only Say sex, drugs, and rock & roll (Awst Press) appeared in my life. It appeared alongside holiday cards and overdue bills, between the overwhelming undertow of celebrating perfectly and starting the year off right. It fluttered into a creative desert where I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t reading. When everything was feeling out of my hands and overwhelming.
Open me up, the hand-sewn ivory cover beckoned. You’ll only be a minute.
The faintly magical story of a girl fascinated by her high school classmate—a girl who can only say “sex, drugs, and rock & roll”—is one of the most heart-true pieces of I’ve read all year. The chasm between girls divided by social class is so tangible and ridiculous, pulsating with all of the love and apology we could never articulate to our longest-lost childhood friends. We know from our own lives as either girl, on the pedestal or against the wallpaper, how impossible it is to find the words needed to bring together the admired and unseen.
Fortmeyer is fluent in the young, aching truth of the adolescent heart, and the earnest hopefulness of her narrator makes this book glow. It was this letter, written to the beautiful, popular girl who can only say “sex, drugs, and rock & roll” that stopped me mid-breath.
I wrote, The thing is that I am sad all the time. For years I thought that sadness was my domain and mine alone.
It never occurred to me that someone like you would be sad. I think I knew you were sad but didn’t want to believe it because it was easier to not believe that you were a fully-fledged person with feelings. Even now, it is a little hard to believe that you are sad, because I have been so preconditioned. What do you have to be sad about? Your life seems so very perfect. Do you feel that way, too? Like you are sad even though you don’t deserve to be?
In the midst of my artistic fog, I was feeling my depression flare with the signs I’ve learned to identify when I was young and address before they drowned me. Anger, fatigue, anxiety, helplessness. When I was in middle and high school, no one asked me why I was sad. It seemed obvious: I was geeky, socially awkward, bad-skinned. I couldn’t get eyeshadow or curling irons to work. I couldn’t figure out a good way to communicate that didn’t involve lines and lines and lines of cursive thought spilled into a spiral notebook. I was not popular and my condition seemed natural; as Fortmeyer’s protagonist asserts, this was a melancholy hard-earned.
In the years since, shit has come together. I made friends, figured out who I was, stopped trying to fit into something else. That’s generally worked out well. Which isn’t to say I no longer feel depressed or don’t require treatment; it’s just that now, expressing that need comes with questions. Why aren’t you happy? What’s wrong? How can you be sad?
In the end, the narrator realizes that she’s been judging those around her for what they can’t express or haven’t become. Her dismissal comes from the single dimension she can view in passing, and she finally admits that “everyone out in this great and waking world [contains] multitudes.” Sadness and vanity and banality and brilliance. All of us are more than what the others see; we’re all more than one incarnation of our authentic selves. Sad and smart. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
Which is all to say that one of my favorite things about little books is how much they can reveal about ourselves in such a compact, dense, powerful space. How 27 mini pages can breathe your perspective back. And how unforgettable the exact words you’re searching for can be. How much blazing talent can bring the possibility of writing back to light.