My Favoritest Book in the Whole Wide World!

It’s been a wild couple of weeks, what with being the town’s emergency management director and getting three or four updates a day from the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Emergency Management about current status and instructions re: COVID-19. I was going to do a workshop at a conference in DC on April 1-3; that got cancelled. The 50th anniversary event for my graduate program’s department got cancelled. The freakin’ NBA season got stopped. Everyone’s practicing self-quarantine and social distancing.

So stay home and read a book. I’ve got one for you.

As I promised a couple of weeks ago, I’ve finally gotten a drizzly day to read, and I re-read Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng. I came across it a little over three years ago, when it was a relatively young book. And, like Mayumi herself, I was smitten with its freshness and youth. Now it’s a mature book, and I love it all the more.

Years ago, when Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I decided that I should expand my horizons a bit, and I picked up A Personal Matter. And from there, I discovered a body of fiction that didn’t move as much as it churned. The plot is secondary, physical and social details are shared only sparingly (and all the more remarkable for their rare appearance, like catching sight of a deer or a porcupine during a forest hike). The real work is to explore what goes on inside one’s mind. What we think, and the absurdity of our thinking that way, and the other plausible ways we might think about the same circumstance. What we imagine others are thinking, about us and about themselves and about our secrets if only they knew. 

This book is firmly within this tradition. Mayumi, the narrator of this story, is a Japanese-British-American librarian who lets us completely, unguardedly, inside her mind as she navigates a web of relationships—family, work, and (most especially) otherwise. She is disgusted and at peace with her husband, loving and exhausted with her daughter, at home and alienated from her work. And she is ashamed and impatient and delighted and brazen with her lover.

It’s easy to see that Ms. Tseng started her literary career as a poet; Mayumi thinks almost entirely in metaphor, always seeing one thing in the language and form of another, part of what gives the book such a surreal, shimmering light. I could point to hundreds of examples, but here’s one:

Transgression has a scent. One wears it like a perfume and there are those who smell it immediately. During the course of my affair with the young man, countless patrons confessed to me their crimes. Thierry Lambert’s wife was the nanny for whom he had left his first wife, Joe Fischer had been banished from the priesthood for his love affair with an altar boy, and Linda Cardo continued to meet with her childhood sweetheart in an off-island hotel where they drank Chianti and floated in the indoor pool. Why tell me? Why not any of the other librarians? I’m convinced I wore the perfume of transgression and that transgressors were drawn to it, perhaps even comforted by it. I was their kind.

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There are several books that I’ve come back to several times, with years of life between readings that have made me into a different reader. Sometimes the book doesn’t stand up to that new examination; flaws that were once overlooked now seem to shout their presence, the only thing visible. But sometimes, the new reader simply finds new perfections, patterns unseen by the first viewer and waiting patiently for other selves to come. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is one of that second group. It’s a treasure, a powerful and humbly honest story that defies summarization. I can’t recommend it highly enough.