Potato-Ball Days: Spring Cleaning and Rediscovering the Thrill of Pleasure

By: Nicholas DiBenedetto

“Put all your books on the floor.” Marie Kondo The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

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Spring has finally woken up here in New England! Okay, maybe not quite yet, but I’m sure I heard him rustling around in his room. Honestly, I don’t know how he can sleep in so late; I know the paper says teenagers need extra sleep, but it seems unhealthy to be waking up past noon on a regular basis.

With spring comes spring cleaning. It’s been an intense reading season for Long River’s staff this year, and now that we have a brief respite with spring break, I’ve been taking advantage by listening to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on audiobook and preparing for my annual bout of putting off spring cleaning until next spring. Although I’m not an avid reader of self-help or instructional books, I’ve been pretty happy with the quality of writing in this book, and Kondo makes a compelling case for tidiness and against “potato-like lumps” in the sock drawer.

There’s even an entire section of the “KonMari” tidying method devoted to tidying up your books. According to Kondo, the best way to decide what books you want to keep and which ones you want to dispose of is to gently wake your books from hibernation by removing them from their place on the shelf. As you take them in your hands, one by one, measure whether or not each book gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it. “Remember, I said when you touch it. Make sure you don’t start reading it. Reading clouds your judgement.” This kind of tactile approach to literature is fascinating to me: having read the book in the past, using touch to access how urgently you feel about a book before you can mentally make excuses for or against it feels like a more honest approach to discover what kind of literature has really taken a foothold in your psyche. Whether or not this is actually true, I can’t say for sure, but I like the approach. As Kondo says, “(i)magine what it would be like to have a bookshelf filled only with books that you really love. Isn’t that image spellbinding? For someone who loves books, what greater happiness could there be?”

Taking inspiration from this section, I laid out my books on the floor to see which ones caused a visceral reaction in me, and tried to reason out why I might be drawn to them.

Bad Bad by Chelsey Minnis

Even though this book has been on and off my shelf for about a year now, it actually doesn’t belong to me. A professor lent me Minnis’s book of poetry when I was looking for recommendations on contemporary poets. I promise that I will return it when we eventually go out for tea! Nevertheless, I’ve always felt Minnis’s writing bore a heavy weight. Her trademark ellipses have been described as “bullet-holes that remain after Minnis’s speaker takes shots at the reader,” and I definitely feel that. While some might be tempted to skip over the lines upon lines, pages upon pages filled with ellipses, I couldn’t help but feel like I had to trace over each one as it disrupted the white space on the page, somehow making the blankness blanker. This deep silence not only compounds the book’s heartbreak and frustration, but also amplifies its deadpan comedy while Minnis explores her frustration with poetry. In the first of 68 prefaces she writes “(l)ike if I were to carry around a turd and pretend it is my baby…” Poetry is a smelly burden, this book makes me feel like Swiss cheese (in a good way).

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf by Paul Fattaruso

I stumbled on Paul Fattaruso’s first book by chance: a friend who hadn’t even read the book passed it along to me, and I read it early on during the summer of 2016. I’m ashamed to say that I read the majority of this book on a plane from New York to San Francisco. It may seem like I’m demoting this book to ‘plane reading material,’ but I can guarantee this book goes far beyond that. Somewhat centered around the story of a young man named Iple going deaf and travelling to Antarctica, Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf feels like it defies back-cover synopses. It feels incredibly expansive despite its short chapters, moving from Antarctica to Argentina and, finally, to the afterlife. This is perhaps reflective of Fattaruso’s background in poetry, having received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts in 2003. All I know is that I often find myself thinking of Fattaruso’s ex-president “flirting and dancing a tango, saying, ‘Please, call me Harry. The lady smiled and blushed… (s)he was Valentina Vladmirovna Tereshkova, the first woman in space.”

Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary by Harryette Mullen

I have a bit of a sentimental history with this book. I had a brief stint in the hospital during the spring of 2015, and while I wasn’t allowed much during my stay there, this book was one of the things I got to keep. An exercise in daily writing, Mullen wrote a tanka every day for a year and a day in order to explore the connection she had with herself and the natural world. That collection of tankas became this book. Having access to a book where the author is writing about her own exploration of the world around her was something I was incredibly thankful for when all I had to look at were a few hallways and a window that faced a brick wall. Now, I’m not saying this book is perfect. Given the short form and the daily writing, there are natural ebbs and flows in the book where some entries are more compelling than others; Mullen does resort to the inevitable tanka about writing tankas eventually, but how could you resist if you were doing it daily? The habit of this book, and the faults that come with it, are what makes it a human exercise for me, each tanka an actual piece of urban tumbleweed floating in, then out of the day.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

This book is sad. So sad. That’s not a bad thing though. If you’re looking for a book on grief then look no further. I remember when I was working my way through the first read of Wave; I made the mistake of trying to tackle it in a public place. I can honestly say this is the only book that has made me cry in public. Wave is the story of Deraniyagala’s struggles with grief and depression after the loss of most of her family—her children, her husband, her parents—to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. However, it isn’t just Deraniyagala’s tragic story that carries the book for me; when she writes about her family, and revisits memories of when they were alive, I feel like I am experiencing the loss of the book all over again, the water taking everything back with the undertow. Deraniyagala’s grief is honest, and her writing teaches me about the power of grief over and over again.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

This is another book with some sentimental value. I was actually really bad at English in high school; like I would fail the practice CAPTs (Connecticut Academic Performance Tests) for reading and writing. I have no idea why, but all of that changed with this book. Suddenly, terms such as ‘symbols’ and ‘metaphors’ and ‘character development’ made sense to me. Either Kate Chopin or my junior year English teacher did something right with me. The Awakening follows Edna Pontellier through New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century, and details her… awakening, as she begins to struggle against the conventional expectations of her as mother and wife. It’s been a while since I read through this book, but I remember the aesthetic to be particularly engaging: the hermit Mademoiselle Reisz and her devotion to the piano, the hideaway bungalow in New Orleans, the looming threat of societal gender roles as Edna’s husband consults a doctor over her independent behavior. Perhaps I’ve put off rereading it because I want to keep the memory of this book encased in glass, but I know that is not the way.

Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins

Robbins’ collection of poems makes me feel incredibly divided: at times I’m drawn to the kitchen blender concoction of references, such as Whitman mixed with CSI: Miami. At other times I find that making connections between disparate feels somewhat fruitless, and teeters on frustrating in its lack of accessibility. I concede that a lot of Robbins’ poems are most likely too smart for me, and I might pick up on a few more of the references if I was better read or in tune with certain facets of popular culture. While this effort can be frustrating at times, I find myself coming back to this book again and again, like it’s a puzzle I need to solve. Conversely, there’s often a simple pleasure in the humor of this collection of poems, the speaker of “Things I May No Longer Bring on Airplanes” lists “1. Boxcutters / 2. Airplanes” as being contraband, and bemoans the impossibility that results from the rules: “How will I open my box on the airplane??” Although difficult, this book inspires a feeling of challenge in me, one that I want to overcome someday. Until then, I’ll just continue to find myself repeating the couplet from “Plastic Robbins Band,” “I stitched my penis, which I hate, / onto the face of my friend Kate.”

No one belongs here more than you. Stories by Miranda July

One time I went to Cafémantic by myself, planning on reading this book and treating myself to a dinner out. While it wound up being pretty awkward eating dinner out, alone, especially with a large party having fun at the table next to me, which amplified my singular state at the other table, July’s collection of short stories made the uncomfortable experience worth it. Perhaps it was because I empathized July’s speakers, behaving as, if not more, awkwardly. One speaker, describing a dream she had on October 9, 2002, describes how, in a low-ceilinged world where people are forced to crawl on their hands and knees, a member of the royal family “had lifted up the back of my skirt and was nuzzling his face between my buns. He was doing this because he loved me. It was a kind of loving I had never known was possible. And then I woke up.” I often find myself in a similar position. I’m not sure what I mean by that. July’s characters are some of the most human, and most relatable I’ve encountered, and this collection of short stories makes me excited to read her novel The First Bad Man, which is on my shelf, but I plan to read it sometime. Even now I can hear Marie Kondo’s voice in the back of my head: “Sometime means never.” It will happen! I swear!

Point Your Face at This: Drawings by Demetri Martin

Every time I pick up this book I inevitably ‘read’ at least half of it. A collection of drawings, diagrams, and quips by Demetri Martin, Point Your Face at This is inescapably delightful. There’s something both charming and relatable about his simple cartoons, and the phenomena depicted, like the schadenfreude of several people thinking ‘fall, fall, fall’ while a man pilots a unicycle across the page. When Martin navigates the architecture of the letter ‘A’ to find the “(a)ctual A hole” I can’t help but be entertained no matter how many times I see it.

These are just a few of the books that I found sparked some visceral sensation as I tidied up the shelf. I’m sure I could find more if I kept going, but maybe that’s a job better left for next spring…

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