Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book 24 of 52: Drinking: a Love Story by Caroline Knapp

This year, I moved back into the house I bought in 2007. While unpacking my boxes and boxes of books, I came across a smaller box tucked inside a bigger one: my master's degree thesis, which was a short memoir about playing highly competitive softball.

In graduate school, I became enamored with the works of Caroline Knapp, who has appeared quite a few times on this blog before. I set out to write a book in her style, and even sent a proposal to her agent, Colleen Mohyde. She asked for sample chapters, then passed. I can't blame her. I wrote the project when I was 23. I've re-read parts of it in the last 10 years, and it wasn't terribly good. I also don't thing I was mature enough at the time to write a gut dump book. I certainly couldn't have matched Knapp's masterpiece Drinking: A Love Story, which I picked to read again for book 24 of this series.

This is the second alcoholism book of this cycle, and I am always interested in reading books about the topic because an ex of mine had a drinking problem (I hesitate to call him an alcoholic because I think that's for him to declare, and I don't know if he's drinking anymore). I pulled Drinking: A Love Story back off the shelf after the season finale of Mad Men. Don's alcohol consumption has been a part of the series (as has that of other characters, including Duck), but it wasn't really face front until that last episode where Don realized his hands would shake without a drink. The Wall Street Journal just published a story about women and drinking, too. I've been reading a lot of different kinds of first person books to see what's on the market now since I'm working on a proposal for a new book that would require me to be a central character, so why not turn back to the person whose writing started me down that road in the first place?

Drinking: A Love Story is not new. Knapp published it in 1996, and she died in 2002 of lung cancer. She writes that she came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which means she'd have been about the age as Sally Draper: "a little Marilyn Monroe here, a little Mary Tyler Moore there" and with her parents drinking.

To call this a gut dump would do a disservice to Knapp's work. It is a straight forward, blunt recounting of her drinking: why she did it, how she did it, what happened to her when she drank, why she got sober, and how she stayed there. She also includes the stories of other drinkers and alcoholics so that it's not just her story but a drinking store.

She writes about a lot of themes she'd pick up again in Appetites, which was published posthumously in Appetites(Knapp was also anorexic in her 20s): "I am consistently amazed to hear women talk about their multiple relationships and addictions, the way they combine two or three, the way they shift form one to another, so naturally and gracefully you might think they were changing partners in a dance...the dance will begin again, for the music is always there in women's minds, laced with undertones of fear and anger, urging us on into the same sad circles of restraining and abandon, courtship and flight."

I first read this book in my early 20s, but it made a lot more sense to me now at 32. Knapp was 36 when she wrote it, and we're at about the same stage of our lives: what's the next writing move, do we get married, do we have children? A sting of really horrible boyfriends were behind us, and we both had good, solid me in our lives. I had my issues with food in my 20s (and still a bit now but the worst was back then), though I don't have an issue with alcohol except that I have a hard time processing red wine when I'm training for a marathon. I don't even have any booze in my house except a small bottle of vodka that's been in my freezer since April, untouched.

But reading this kind of book is a good thing to do if you know anyone who's struggled with addiction or wonder why someone can't just willpower him or herself out of a problem. Knapp lays out, painfully but clearly, why.

I hate that she died.  That's the only way I could put it. She was such an important writer - not just women's writer, but WRITER - and to lose her at such a young age is rage-inspiring. I wonder what she would have written about the rise of the internet, life in her 40s, even the death of her beloved dog. It just doesn't seems fair, but cigarette smoking was one addiction she just couldn't quit until it was too late.

If you want to read more about Knapp's process of dying, read Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendshipby her friend Gail Caldwell (which I swore I'd reviewed here before, but I can't find anything). It's about female friendship, but what happens when it ends, far too early.

As for my softball book - I didn't trash it. I've moved it six times and can't let it go. It's a reminder of trying for things that seem too big and large - and I don't think that's a bad thing. I put it in the back of another closet. Maybe I'll be able to revisit someday. Maybe.

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