July 13, 2010
I’ve never met Gina Frangello, and when we hooked up on Facebook we both wondered why weren’t already friends. Gina and I both write for The Nervous Breakdown (she more than I), and her book Slut Lullabies has just been published by the independent label, Emergency Press. Gina is cool lady, and a great voice of of our generation. I know that’s a bold statement, but check her out, she won’t disappoint. -JR
When We Fell In Love by Gina Frangella
In the world of my childhood, books were not common objects. Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood, what I remember about the shelves often were built into the walls of Chicago apartments is that they were usually full of cheap, decorative items (plastic flowers; imitation Lladros), rarely books. Most of my friends’ parents were first generation American, and had grown up speaking Italian or Spanish; few had finished high school. One friend’s mother devoured paperback V.C. Andrews or Sidney Sheldon, and her reading habits all but rendered her “intellectual” status in the hood . . .
Amid this, my mother was an anomaly, with titles on our shelves like Understanding the City Child and Love on the Left Bank and The Brothers Karamazov. And yet even in her case, these books were relics of a bohemian youth: the mother of my childhood—in her early 40s as I am now—had long since abandoned reading as a pastime, either out of depression or a desire to assimilate into her surroundings, my father’s world. These books loomed over my daily life of watching Happy Days and Little House on the Prairie, scanning the “funny pages,” playing kick the can or sitting endlessly on the front porch listening to ladies in house dresses gossiping, or practicing dance moves to the Bee Gees or Donna Summer on the record player. They hinted at something else—a life my mother had left behind to marry my father. Another kind of world that might be out there, someday, for me.
I trolled the library. I do not recall ever entering a bookstore until I was in college, though this seems hard to believe in retrospect so I’m open to the possibility that it is an exaggeration. In my library forays, I was confined to the children’s section—the librarian did not let us into the adult section, and so what we knew of adult literature consisted of a school friend’s smuggled in copy of The Friendly Uncle, glued into the spine of Moby Dick, or borrowed gang-rape-and-kidnapping-love-stories by Harold Robbins, loaned out by my best friend’s mother, a party-girl divorcee who never seemed to consider that this might not be the best reading material for twelve-year-old girls. In the children’s section of the library, I made lifelong friends. The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and A Pocket Full of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs; Anne of Green Gables; A Little Princess; The Outsiders; Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. Titles flood my memory: Foster Child; Then Again Maybe I Won’t; The Westing Game. Characters as diverse as Esme Sanchez and Ramona Quimby. These books were my childhood friends. They served, if anything, as stark relief from the world of my actual friends, many of whom, by twelve, were blowing twenty-year-olds in exchange for coke, running away from home, having pregnancy scares. Like the titles my mother had treasured in her younger days, these books served as a guidepost to me that there was another lens with which to view the world—many other lenses, and many possibilities as to how I might “turn out.”
I had started writing. By the time I was eleven, I had a “novel” of several hundred pages on butcher paper, ripped off into roughly equivalent sheets. By the time I began high school, I had three such completed projects, all about the same characters: a quartet of orphans living in an urban orphanage worthy of Dickens or Kafka, though I had never read either. I fancied myself a reader, a writer, and imagined it, in some way, as my ticket “out.” As soon as I could, I had headed across the city to a college prep high school you had to test into, high on my perfect Reading test scores that had landed me there. Gladly, I left my old peers behind, prepared to reinvent myself and conquer the world of books.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my first two years of English class at this prestigious high school left me dry. I was entertained by Greek mythology, but by and large the Important Work we studied failed to move me as the novels of my childhood had. Shakespeare sonnets or Beowulf. The gimmicky schmaltz of Flowers for Algernon. Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which I vividly recall provoked me to write a diatribe of a paper on why symbolism sucked. I can’t say why entirely—perhaps I was simply too young, with a shoddy early education—but these works simply failed to move me on any personal level. Too old for Judy Blume and too . . . something . . . now for the strange romantic misogyny of pulp fiction, I began to lose interest in reading altogether.
Enter The Crucible by Arthur Miller. I was almost sixteen, nearing the end of my sophomore year. If this was not the first book I loved, then it was the first book I read with what would later become my obsessive adult habits: underlining passages I liked and copying quotes into notebooks, dog-earing pages, memorizing lines that still ring in my mind. What was it about this short play that resonated so deeply—that knocked me on my ass and made me remember again the power of reading? Well, what is it ever? The answers to such questions are elusive to some degree. I can say that The Crucible contained many elements that would later work their way into my own fiction: sexual secrets, the theater of hysteria, jealousies between women, the hypocrisy of religion. I can say that while the books of my youth sometimes did take risks and end semi-unhappily, on a note of murder (ah, The Outsiders!) or war, that The Crucible pushed beyond that to a place where darkness and death could also be triumph, and where the illusion of triumph through death (on principle) could also be absurdity, because lines are blurry and truth itself is subjective. After reading The Crucible, there was a hunger in me not just to “escape” through books as I had in my girlhood, but to learn about people, their minds, their foibles. How intimate reading could be! What it could reveal of the human psyche! And because it was a play, I saw what dialogue could do for character development, and long before I ever sat in a creative writing workshop I internalized a major dose of “show, don’t tell.”
The Crucible was not a first love, and in the end (it no longer figures on my “favorite books of all times” list, exactly) not even my Great Love. But it was the love that came precisely at the moment I needed it. It was my transitional object/ rebound kind of love that took me from the realm of childhood escape to the complex, sometimes-scary world of adult lit, and reminded me again not only that I was a reader, but why.