An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender

An Invisible Sign of My OwnSoundtrack for this post: Pretty Little Head, Eliza Rickman

Published in 2000, An Invisible Sign of my Own is Aimee Bender’s first novel-length work. The story opens with a fairy tale which serves a controlling metaphor. In a town where nobody dies, the king orders each family to sacrifice one of its members in order to control the population. One family refuses. Instead, each member agrees to amputate a part of their body—a nose, an arm, a leg. However, the resulting change in the townspeople’s attitudes towards them drives the family out of town anyway. “That’s the story my father told me at bedtime on my tenth birthday.” the narrator, Mona, explains.

That same year, Mona’s father fell ill with a serious, but unnamed affliction. After that, she “started to quit,” pulling back from anything fun, interesting, or risky, or at which she excelled–piano, dance, dessert, movies, track, jobs, boyfriends. Like the family in the story, she made the decision to sacrifice parts of herself. Around the same age, she also developed a compulsive need to “knock on wood,” to wash herself, to eat soap–compulsions that help Mona to calm herself in moments of stress and anxiety.

The one thing Mona “loved but never quit…was math.” Her special relationship with numbers enables her to see each figure as multidimensional, fully formed, and deeply meaningful. Other residents of Mona’s slightly surreal hometown appear to share her fascination. A local man has a business making numbers for the addresses in town. Her former math teacher and neighbor wears small wax number signifying his state of mind beneath his clothes–an act of self-assertion that inspires Mona’s desire for her own “invisible sign.” The shapes and essences of numbers permeate the text: square roots, Pythagorean philosophy, and the way everyday objects seem to hold numbers within.

An Invisible Sign of My Own (hardcover)At nineteen, Mona is deeply pained by her father’s illness, trapped in rigid inertia, hemming in and controlling herself with a range of OCD-like coping mechanisms. Then, the principal of her former elementary school invites Mona to become the new math teacher. Through she accepts the position reluctantly, in interacting with her students Mona finds a new kind of satisfaction. For the first time she can share her appreciation for numbers with a receptive, even enthusiastic audience. She feels a particular kinship with her second graders, especially Lisa Venus, whose mother suffers from a terminal illness. Through her work she also meets Benjamin Smith, the new science teacher, with whom she begins a tentative relationship.

Mona’s internal struggle between rejoining the rest of the world and maintaining her distance at the cost of pleasure and human connection lies at the heart of An Invisible Sign. In one climatic moment, Bender splices fragments of Mona’s abandoned track career into a sex scene, driving this point home in no uncertain terms. In women’s fiction, TV and movies, we’re more used to seeing this particular story played out through an eating disorder–but it remains familiar when recast as a sibling mental illness, also related to control and self-determination.

Benders prose is–as always–dynamic, surprising, and beautiful, with the casual brutality of a fable, and a very high quirk factor. The Washington Post quote on the back of the paperback edition calls An Invisible Sign “unique as a snowflake.” Perhaps eighteen years ago this compliment may not have carried the backhanded sting it does today. It’s a simile that nevertheless holds true in its best and worst connotations. I was getting pretty sick of Mona’s eccentric struggles when a truly fantastic extended classroom scene redeemed the book for me.


I was utterly charmed by Aimee Bender’s debut short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998). I heard the author read the first selection, “The Rememberer,” about a woman whose lover de-evolves into a sea turtle over the course of maybe two pages, one night at San Francisco’s Makeout Room. I bought a copy on the spot. Bender’s selective unreality, with the rule-bound fanaticism of an old-world fairy tale is endlessly appealing in short form. In her longer works however, that magical quality can pall–something I hadn’t yet realized when I picked up this used copy of An Invisible Sign of my Own at Pegasus in Berkeley.




The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret Life of Bees cover

Soundtrack for this post: Oh, Susanna! The Be Good Tanyas

Another book down in my quest to read and destroyThe Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. A wonderfully distinctive narrating voice, a real heavy handed metaphor, and a good deal of repetition make this novel read like a prime candidate for a 9th grade book report. Which is pretty much the reason I never read it to begin with. Charming in the beginning, tedious by the end, ultimately not a bad way to pass a few hours in the sunshine.

This used volume, picked up by my mother at a library sale, and later foisted on to me, is now safely deposited in the Goodwill donation box.

Bone, Fae Myenne Ng

Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng
Original cover art for Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng

Soundtrack for this post: I wish I was the Moon, Neko Case

My most recent selection in the slow but dogged effort to purge my overflowing bookshelves of unread titles is Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng (1993).


Bone was required reading for my Spring 2003 Literature course, “Asian American and Pacific Rim Literature.” I purchased my copy used–and not just a little used, either. Five different resale stickers, three shades of highlighting, underlining in both pencil and pen. I never read it. Never even started it, as far as I can recall. I suppose I felt honor bound to keep this book, since I received college credit for pretending to have read it.


In the aftermath of a sister’s suicide, Leila Fu examines her family’s past in search of justification. With simple clarity, she narrates her experiences growing up with her younger half sisters, Ona and Nina, and their lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a city within a city, where she and her family are known to everyone. Her stepfather Leon emigrated from China, sponsored by a “paper grandfather” whose lost bones have been interred in Colma, instead of being sent home to China as he wished. Her mother was abandoned in San Francisco by her first husband, forced to tirelessly as a seamstress. In a bid for independence, the family opened commercial laundry. Its failure and dissolution proved a precursor to the partial dissolution of their family–Leila’s move across town to the Mission to live with her longtime boyfriend, Nina’s exodus to New York, and Ona’s leap from the top of a Chinatown housing project.

The narrative is structured like a tightening spiral, looping through time, but always anchored in grief and personal diaspora, loss and escape. The clean narration and corkscrew timeline create an effect that elevates the story above the simple facts it relates. It’s a fast, absorbing read. It was a special delight to read knowing the city. I work within a few blocks of the landmarks Leila describes. If I had read Bone as a college sophomore like I was supposed to, I would have missed that.

Final Disposition

Goodwill. (Success!)


#purgefail, or what I read instead

Cover Image for Inside Job, by Connie WillisReading Territory led to a dangerous chain of logic: Emma Bull -> other female SciFi writers -> Connie Willis. This culminated in the compulsive purchase of All About Emily, Remake, and Inside Job. Have spent the last week or so reading these on my phone instead of the, oh, say, two dozen unread hardbacks on my shelves. Sci-fi Old Hollywood is the best!




Book Purge Round 1: College texts, aspirational reads, and strays

Two bags full of worn out cloths and second-hand kitchen supplies have made their way to Goodwill, and there’s a box of purses and t-shirts bound for the same destination waiting in the corner. (It is an Amazon box, but it contained jeans, not books. I’m resolved: I’m not taking more until I’ve finished what I already have.)

I’ve also started a box of books. So far, I’ve identified the following:

The Aeneid, Virgil (Robert Fitzgerald translation). Read for my 2002-3 Epic Poetry seminar and, as far as I know, never opened again. A $10 paper back available in probably every public library in America, which I have moved approximately nine times over 15 years. Having already committed to this level, I’m actually kind of tempted to keep this one.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs. Read for my 2004-5 American Literature, History and Culture course. I think about Harriet Jacobs from time to time. Purging this tattered and sticky Modern Library Classics edition, but downloaded a free copy of Incidents for Kindle.

Manliness & Civilization, Gail Bederman. Read for the same history and culture class. People on the Internet hate this book. I spent some time reading one-star reviews, which seem to fall into three categories: people who misinterpret the analysis of 19thcentury culture as the author advocating in favor of the sexist and racist attitudes she attempts to explore, men who are angry that a woman would dare to comment on male identity under any circumstances, and students who would rather not have to read anything. For the record, found it to be a valuable piece of criticism.

The Prince and the Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli. Read for some class at some point—possibly Renaissance and Reformation England during my freshman year. That would mean I haven’t cracked the cover since 2001.

A load of lit mags purchased from the now-defunct Cody’s in Berkeley in 2005, most of which I have not read or did not enjoy: Noon, ZYZZYVA, Blue Mesa Review, Ploughshares, and one year’s worth of Tin Houses (2007).

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell. Purchased used from the airport Powell’s (trust Portland). Discovered two bus tickets dated February 25 and 27 2008 marking page 158. I think I forgot I owned this one and later listened to the audio book.

Hot Pink, Adam Levin. Selected based largely on the cover art, and purchased using a Pegasus gift certificate. I read this book on a really wonderful camping trip, so that, although I only actually enjoyed a couple of the stories, looking at it leaves me with a hazy happy feeling. I will never read this again.

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Purchased at random based solely on the San Francisco setting and the Neil Gainman endorsement. I have no idea why this particular quote was so compelling. (Book marketers take note.) Preachy, boring, skimmed the last half.

All now for sale on the internet. Because….I don’t know, it feels like I should at least try? Will most likely haul these down to the Goodwill with the rest.

Book Purge

I have an unfortunate habit of forming emotional attachments to objects with considerable inertia but little to no measurable worth. A 300 pound, 30 year old sofa, which I moved four different times, including two trips up narrow Edwardian staircases. Only one trip down though. A 1973 Oldsmobile, like a living room on wheels, which remained parked for over two years more than 3,500 miles from where I lived at the time. As I write this, roughly 60 pounds of thrift store clothing and costumes which no longer fit me are zippered into clear plastic bags, shoved under my bed. All of this flies in the face of common sense and Marie Kondo.

By far the most glaring example, though, is my book collection. Stacked two and three deep on bowed shelves, piled in the cabinet of my nightstand, lined up between risers under the foot of the bed, and generally strewn behind me as I move around my apartment, they are slowly swallowing up my living space like gathering snow drifts.

Overfilled bookshelves
Earthquake hazard? You decide.

There’s nothing objectively special about what’s on these shelves. A couple of first editions and signed copies, but nothing rare or valuable. There are several duplicates, purchased either because I liked the cover art, or had temporarily misplaced my first copy. Most of these books can be found in any public library in America. An embarrassing number have not been opened since college. A even more embarrassing number are still unread.

They have traveled though—extensively. In suitcases that consistently failed to meet with airline weight requirements; in duct-taped boxes mailed to college in the fall and home again in spring; in the back of a truck full of event tents and helium tanks bound for the Special Olympics; in moving vans and u-hauls and the trunks of cars driven caravan-style between nine different residences across the greater Bay Area. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t let them go. I never seriously considered it.

I learned to treat books as talismanic objects even before I could read them. They were an imaginative focus and, as I grew older, a symbol of personal ambition. As a teenager I carefully displayed my collection according to author, genre, and personal preference. Certain shelves were more prestigious than others. I’d take comfort and inspiration from looking at the spines lined up just right. I’d pull down a favorite and spend an hour rereading the best parts, sometimes just standing there beside the shelves, but more often sprawled out on the carpet in front of the hall heater, or pacing tight circles around my bedroom (because reading was too exciting to sit still for, obviously).

Even as a broke college student I can remember buying books with the intrinsic assumption that they would stay with me throughout my life. I believed, without applying a lot of scrutiny, that at some point I would live in a real house with actual storage space—built-in bookshelves down one side of a cozy living room, perhaps an office, or even (swoon) a library.

A question would arise and I’d go to the shelf and pull down a reference to search out the answer. Not that I have a lot of reference books or anything. I’d feel lonesome or nostalgic or bored and pull down one of my old favorites—a paperback, probably, but the edition with the best cover art, and the spine broken in all the right places. I’d loan books to friends and foist them upon my someday children at age appropriate intervals. What I expected, basically, was an old house, full of books and children, with a massive kitchen garden, set in the middle of someplace beautiful.

I’m sure this vision must be common among my particular subspecies of North American nerdy girl–former history and creative writing undergraduates, nature lovers who haven’t quite reached the multi-day backpacking level, people who form friendships based on mutual love of obscure (or embarrassing) authors, and those who thought a library degree was a good plan.

In the string of dorms and shared apartments where I spent my 20s, I attempted to preserve that early, strengthening combination of familiarity and safety, passionate admiration and excitement, by keeping my books close. This was not terribly successful. Somewhere along the way, the things that made me happiest started to feel more like a rebuke. (Why did I watch the entirety of Six Feet Under twice instead of reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men?)

And what, ultimately, will become of all those books anyway? When I’m gone, I suppose my library might give my hypothetical descendants an excuse for a cathartic fight. Maybe the collection could be auctioned; donated to a grateful and deserving public institution; sold to theaters, real estate agents and hipster bars as bulk set dressing. Failing all else my corpse could always be burned on a pyre made of paperbacks.

I still want that house, that calm and beautiful life. What I’m realizing though, is that my coping mechanisms (which are many) have gradually shifted from comforting to stifling. Maybe I don’t need a safe place full of things anchoring me to earth. What exactly I do need isn’t quite clear, but I think it has something to do with flexibility, and openness, the willingness to expose myself.

So, in an effort to be light and mobile, I will use up and throw away what I can, box away the things I want for my whole life, and find what’s next.

I need to throw a bunch of shit out. Seriously, look at those sagging shelves.