December 2017


I have finished quite a few books recently — My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith; The Opposite of Loneliness by  Marina Keegan; and both Seven Stones to Stand or Fall and The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon.

The Opposite of Loneliness is not itself a sad collection, but the author died in a car accident at the age of 22 shortly after graduating from Yale with a job at The New Yorker lined up.  So, it’s not exactly upbeat reading for that reason.  It is an impressive collection for someone to have generated in college, although certainly the book wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t died so it’s kind of hodgepodge of what she had created, and probably not a collection that she would have put together to seek publication.

It is yet another book that reminds you that life is very very short. And you’d better think carefully about how you’re spending your time.

So, with Christmas bearing down on me and all the difficulty that brings to those of us with dying relatives, mentally ill relatives, and multiple sets of relatives to visit and make happy, I took a turn and have been reading things that are much, much lighter.
I think I can safely recommend My Italian Bulldozer as fun reading for a broad swath of the population — man goes to Italy, man ends up without a rental car, but instead is able to rent a bulldozer.  Hilarity ensues, but being Alexander McCall Smith, it ensues in a way that is both over the top, while still being sort of very proper and subdued.

I feel bad talking down Diana Gabaldon, because I mean, she’s obviously doing something right, she has boat loads of money, many fans, and well, I clearly love her books.  And they aren’t crap.  They are very carefully researched, well written novels.  But they are purely for entertainment.  Fluff for those of us who can’t stand reading like a Harlequin romance novel, but would basically like to be reading that.  You may be thinking, aren’t novels basically all like that? I don’t think so, I think there are novels that make me see the world differently, that change who I am as a person, that give me a new perspective.  I don’t feel that way about Gabaldon’s books. But I love them.  If I’m reading to escape, they are excellent. So really I would say, if you love to escape to someone else’s head when you read, if you want to feel connected to the characters, and if you’re totally fine if there happens to be a good amount of sex, as well as murders, rapes, various acts of violence, I can safely recommend any of Gabaldon’s books to you.

At the moment I’m pretty invested in the side-novels she’s written involving the character Lord John, who is a gay character in mid-1700’s London/all over the world because he’s in the military.  These are mostly sort of mystery books with Lord John trying to figure something out.  I’m not a huge fan of a lot of really popular mystery writers, but again, during the holidays, light escape reading is a must, and I enjoy the history in these novels as well.

Currently reading: Lord John and the Private Matter (and I swear I’m going to the library when it opens tomorrow to get some new books so I won’t just keep reading all the Lord John novels….ALL MY HOLDS ARE FINALLY IN! So I’ll be reading The Power, Promise Me Dad, Artemis, and What She Ate!!)

 

I’ve been thinking about reading Bad Feminist for a while, and still haven’t picked it up, but it’s been a pretty memoir heavy year in my reading, so when I was able to get Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body out of the library, I went for it, and slightly before that, when Hunger was checked out, I got Difficult Women (also by Roxane Gay but a collection of short stories) out of the library as well.

These books go together kind of perfectly to read around the same time because it a lot of ways, the short stories in Difficult Women are telling the same story that Gay is telling in Hunger.  As a person who thinks about writing fiction, but has never put much/any time into doing so or becoming better at writing fiction, it was interesting to me to really see how the events of her actual life had permeated the fictional stories she wrote.  Most obviously, many of the short stories are set in places where she lived.  But also, as she reveals in Hunger, she was the victim of a brutal gang rape at a young age, she spent a long time feeling very broken because of it, and basically letting people hurt her and break her more because she thought maybe being more broken would make it better or she thought, she just didn’t deserve to be treated better.  Pretty much all the women in Difficult Women are broken either by some particular act of sexual violence they experienced, or just by the general terribleness of their day-to-day lives.  I like a happy ending, so I preferred the stories where there is some redemption for these women, where they are treated with kindness and seem to think that they could eventually come to a place of lesser brokenness.

Hunger is obviously also about weight and eating and food.  I think I’m in a pretty common place reading this book because I identified with some of it, and some of it made me feel like an asshole.  I will say that as someone who once struggled with food and eating and numbers on the scale in a really unhealthy way, if you know that that struggle is inside you, you may not want to read this book. Because as much as Gay is telling the horrible truth about dangerous weight loss and bulimia, I could definitely see this book being somewhat triggering.  It was and it wasn’t for me, as I was reading it, at some points I was filled with the desire to get up and run and run and run, but I wasn’t filled with the desire to secretly not eat food and count calories, but I think that’s because I’ve finally realized that you can fucking kill yourself doing that, and I don’t want to be dead.  So yeah… if you have or have had a serious body image problem, eating disorder, I’m sure you will identify with a lot of this book, but maybe too much.

I felt like an asshole while I read this book because I have never been objectively fat.  I feel weird writing that, and there are certainly people who are skinnier and fitter than me, but there’s a lot in this book I didn’t identify with because I’ve never had to move in this world as a fat person.  I have judged myself harshly, but I have not been judged harshly by others in the way that Gay has been.  I’ve never worried a chair wouldn’t hold me, I’ve never worried about arm rests digging into me, I’ve never bought two seats on an airplane.  I have definitely judged others, and I’ve said careless things to people I love because it didn’t occur to me how privileged I was to not move in the world this way. I’m hoping that having read this book will make me less prone to doing that in the future.

Initially, I was going to say if you’re only going to read one of these books, read Difficult Women, but I think having thought more about Hunger, I would say, maybe you should read both.  Difficult Women, as fiction, is perhaps more enthralling, despite being very short, I really enjoyed the stories of many of the women.  But Hunger is raw and important.  And, for a memoir, actually a pretty quick read.

Currently reading: The Opposite of Loneliness and making a trip to the library for more fiction before this all gets too depressing….  Still going to read Bad Feminist someday…

I tend to read a bunch of books at the same time, and then once I really get into one, read it really quickly towards the end, or I read fiction and non-fiction at the same time, one of each kind of keeping me going at a time.  Whenever this year I’ve gotten bogged down in something, I tend to gravitate toward a lighter novel to get me going again.  Reader, this is my way of telling you that I’m probably (ok, definitely) not going to finish Hamilton this year.

Instead of reading Hamilton, I’ve been reading Death’s End by Cixin Liu and It Devours by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Both are kind of sci-fi, although in completely different ways, and I this I can recommend them both to  you (although you should know that Death’s End is the third in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy), assuming you like sci-fi.

It Devours is a novel based in the same world as the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (http://www.welcometonightvale.com/), although you don’t really need to listen to that podcast to read this book.  It kind of reminds me of the show Eureka (which I never really watched much, and to be honest, I don’t really listen to this podcast much, so they are probably not similar but whatever), because really all you need to know to read this book is that Night Vale is a weird place where basically all conspiracy theories are true.  This is the second Night Vale novel, and having finished them both, I enjoyed the first one (called, Welcome to Night Vale) more.

Basically, in this novel, there’s weirder than usual stuff happening: buildings disappearing from Night Vale, with all the people inside, leaving behind just empty pits.  The Night Vale scientists try to figure this, and other things out.  The writing style is fun and funny, but you can basically guess the twist ending from like the second page.  I don’t need a twist ending, I pretty much never read books like Gone Girl where it’s all about messing with your head, but if there’s going to be a twist I don’t want to see it coming for the entire book.  I don’t know, maybe that was part of the point? The moral is: in science, never be too married to your hypotheses I guess.  I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll leave it here.

Death’s End is more classic sci-fi, and I’d even say it’s sort of reminds me of like, old school sci-fi because it’s very much concept driven rather than character driven.  I liked all three of these books (the first one is The Three-Body Problem) once I got about 200 pages in, which is a pretty long time to be kind of slogging along, and I think that’s largely because you don’t really care much about the characters.  I probably cared the most about the main character of this third book, Cheng Xin, maybe because she’s a young woman, maybe because she was drawn a bit more sympathetically, I don’t know.

As Barack Obama put it, the series is “Wildly imaginative.” And that’s really what I liked most about it — at no point was I really sure where things were going next and I don’t feel like I could have imagined anything like this plot line, let’s put it this way, the books start roughly in the present moment (actually the very beginning is a flashback to the Cultural Revolution and there are some more chapters in the first book set between that time and the early 2000s) and goes until 18,906,416ish.

Generally, the plot is pretty straight forward: aliens are headed to earth to take over, they’re going to be here in about 400 years, and the human race is screwed.  The second book sort of averts this, the third book makes it complicated again, sort of resolves it, makes things even more complicated. It’s the unexpected twists and turns that made this series interesting to me.

I will also say that, obviously I read the translated versions of all three books (all originally written in Chinese), and maybe the characters are less wooden in the original language.  I also think that as much as I think people are people (and these books make you think about the human race as one thing even more because there are all these other aliens out there), maybe I didn’t get some of the characters in this book because their values aren’t exactly my values.  I don’t know that Americans carry quite the same sense of duty that many of the characters seemed to have.

Currently reading: Finishing up Difficult Women by Roxane Gay and trying to decide what to read next … probably not Hamilton …

Just finished Practical Magic (by Alice Hoffman) and It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree (A.J. Jacobs) and very nearly done with A Grief Observed (C.S. Lewis).

Every time I try to just pick up a book, I feel like it ends up being about mom’s dying or dying or Alzheimer’s.  I keep picking up books so I guess I don’t mind too much.  But I was definitely like, YOU ARE KIDDING ME when I was reading It’s All Relative which is about Jacob’s hosting a Global Family Reunion with the idea of creating a little more peace in the world by showing how we’re all related to each other, and he decides to donate any proceeds from the event to Alzheimer’s research.  I mean, good pick because it is the sixth leading cause of death and we have no cure, no real treatment, and I have no words to describe its horror. But still man, come on.

Practical Magic on the other hand was a delightful escape for the most part.  I picked it up because apparently Alice Hoffman’s newest book also deals with the characters and I realized I’d never read it (and all my recent reads have been nonfiction and I needed to mix it up).  From a writing standpoint, I was really trying to figure out how she wrote it so seamlessly — the book doesn’t have chapters it has sections, and within those sections she goes for pages and pages without segregating the thoughts beyond starting a new paragraph. Everything just blends into the next part of the story.  I also enjoy the fact that it basically ends happily for everyone.  Nothing wrong with that, okay.

You need to read Vacationland, but I think you’re okay if you never read It’s All Relative. Totally your choice on Practical Magic also.

You’re probably wondering why I picked up A Grief Observed if I was looking for a delightful escape, and the answer is, of course I knew what I was getting into.  I’ve been reading a lot of books about grief and memoirs that touch heavily on grief (The Bright Hour, The Year of Magical Thinking, Grief is a Thing With Feathers (fiction), You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me — strong recommends just maybe not all at once) because, well, I’m not entirely sure.  Because it makes me feel less alone.  Because sometimes when your feelings are put into words by someone else it helps.  Because sometimes you just want to cry.  Because sometimes you want to know how someone else made it to the other side.  Because sometimes I need to remind myself (because I can be a HUGE jerk) that I’m not the first person who was ever sad, that I’m not the only person who has lost their mother or parent or loved one in a way that didn’t feel fair.  A Grief Observed doesn’t always strike home for me, although obviously he was writing about his wife, which is quite different.  I think he was spot on about life in other places though:

One never meets just Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness). One only meets each hour or moment that comes.  All manner of ups and downs. Many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst. One never gets the total impact of what we call ‘the thing itself.’ But we call it wrongly.  The thing itself is simply all these  ups and downs; the rest is a name or an idea.

I also very much like, and was somewhat surprised by, how Lewis shuts down platitudes about death and questions his beliefs, because I find that like him, death forces you to very seriously consider what may or may not be — as he says you have no trouble believing in the strength of rope when you’re tying it around a box, but it’s another matter when that rope is going to hold you over a precipice:

The vast majority of people I meet, say at work, would certainly think she is not [anything.] Though naturally the wouldn’t press the point on me. Not just now anyway.  What do I really think? I have always been able to pray for the other dead, and I still do, with some confidence.  But when I try to pray for H., I halt.  Bewilderment and amazement come over me.  I have a ghastly sense of unreality, or speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity.

Unless of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms.  But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs.  There’s not a word of it in the Bible.  And it rings false.  We know it couldn’t be like that.  Reality never repeats.

I do envy Lewis in some ways his unwavering faith in God, for although he questions where his beloved is and what her life and death meant, he never considers a world without a God.  Whereas I am regularly kept awake thinking about the void, and trying to figure out how we all go along every day not looking into the precipice, not realizing what a slender rope holds us and everyone we love from leaving this existence and then what?

Currently reading: Still Hamilton…., also It Devours, the second Nightvale novel.