January 2018

I didn’t finish this book. I didn’t like it for the first fifty pages — the style is very different, it’s written sort of as a play without stage directions, all dialogue.  And, about half of it is quotes from historical sources about Lincoln.  It owes a debt to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town — although the concepts of death in the two are a bit different, there’s the same idea that the dead we bury may simply be waiting in the cemetery, talking with each other.

I started to get into this book around 100 pages in, the format wasn’t bothering me as much, I was starting to like the characters that are in the cemetery with Willie Lincoln. But I’m not going to finish this book any time soon. Because the same day that I got into reading it, I got the call that my Mom was dying.  And she did.

So I will say, Lincoln’s grief in this book as written by George Saunders felt very accurate to me. His comfort with the body of Willie Lincoln resonated.  The hard thing is not being with the body of your loved one.  The hard thing is letting this last thing that you have go.  The hard thing is trusting your loved one’s body to strangers, and knowing that you won’t see her again.

I loved, loved, loved Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan.  If you’re looking for a book that will tell you, Tan was born on this day, these things happened to her at these times, this is not that book.  Instead, it’s sort of a free flowing trip through Amy Tan’s mind.  Sadly, it did not teach me how to write novels, but it seems like Tan doesn’t really know how she does it exactly.

Tan and I have almost nothing in common, except that we both love reading, we were both early readers, we love dogs, and sadly we’re both part of the “I lost/am losing my mom to Alzheimer’s” club.  It’s a big, and shitty club.

The book reminded me to some extent of Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.  Both are in a way memoirs motivated by the death of mothers with whom the authors had complicated relationships. Both break into poetry and other forms outside of narrative writing. I liked Tan’s book better, although both Tan and Alexie overcame horrible childhoods and became amazingly functional adults, Tan’s book contains more joy. Tan’s mother tried to kill her, threatened to kill herself thousands of times when Tan was much too small to know it wasn’t her fault, Tan’s father and brother both died before she turned 16, and yet.

You will find mostly in this book (1) the story of Tan’s childhood/life until age 18, and (2) sort of current musings, current habits. She writes about her imagination, how she experiences music, her relationship to reading, and her relationship to languages.  Although apparently Tan wrote another memoir in 2003 which I am now going to have to read.  Also, all of her fiction (she’s only written seven novels, that’s like a month of reading!).  Also, in googling her I discovered that she also took part in this book: Mid-Life Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America With Three Chords and an Attitude which is described on Amazon as, “A crazy chronicle, in words and mostly embarrassing pictures, describes a road trip with fifteen of America’s most popular writers, who leave their jobs to hit the road–on a bus–as a performing rock and roll band.”  Now, that’s a book to get you through February if it isn’t too over the top ridiculous.

What I love about this book is that, unlike Joe Biden in Promise Me, there’s no sense that Tan is hiding anything.  Her style makes me feel like we’re friends, really really close friends who have no secrets.  As she told the NYTimes“I wrote this in a fugue state, not realizing what I was writing … It wasn’t until I was done that I became a little distressed and thought, wait a minute, this is going to be published?”  I wanted to find some good excerpts, I marked a few places as I was reading it, but I can’t really give you a paragraph of this book and give you the feeling I’m talking about.  You’re just going to have to read it. 

Currently reading: Working my way through Lincoln in the Bardo, so far 50 pages in and still not in love. About to start Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Also… re-reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon when the need to escape the real world overwhelms.

So, although this week has been a bit slower reading wise, I think I’ve decided to go for it and attempt to read 100 books this year (for reference, last year was 68).  I think it’s completely doable… assuming I can keep up my current pace — so far I’ve read 6 and I’m nearly done book 7, leaving only 1.33333 books to read in January with a whole weekend still to go, also I tend to read significantly more in the summer so I should be able to read more than 8/9 books in June, July, and August depending on when I take vacation.  What are your reading goals for this year?

I did read The End We Start From by Megan Hunter on MLK Day, and I recommend it to you, especially if you’ve impulsively decided to read 100 books this year because at 160 rather small pages, it can be read in just a few hours.  It’s also a rather beautifully, although sparsely, written book. In a nutshell — this is sort of a Noah’s Ark story about a mother and her son born just before a massive flood in London.  So basically, a book about living/mothering through crisis.

I found the fragmentary writing a bit frustrating at times, I wanted to hear more about what was going on and what had happened, and what’s told is really just what is directly experienced by the mother/main character in this story.  That was certainly a deliberate choice by the writer, who explained to NPR:

[t]he form really seemed to fit very nicely with both the experiences of new motherhood and the experience of being affected by an environmental crisis in this way. I mean, she doesn’t have time to write long things, and it’s very much written, you know, as though she is writing something. Sometimes she’s consciously reflecting on the writing experience, and so the fragmentary-ness of the narrative, I hope, has a sort of naturalness about it. It’s not too forced because it comes very naturally from her situation.

Despite the sparse narrative, and perhaps because you’re so in the mother’s head and only as aware as she is of everything else going on in the world, I did identify with her.  Particularly here:

A secret: I though having a baby would stop the fear.

When I was a child, my mother told me she would die for me, of course.

I asked her all the time. Tested her.

The fear of ending woke me up, it choked me.  It rendered me incapable. I thought a baby would stop it. Give me something to die for.

When you have a child, the fear is transferred, my mother could have told me.

In a way, it is multiplied she could have said.

I love that the narrator puts it this way — she’s not afraid of death, she’s afraid of ending.  She thinks a baby will change this feeling, give meaning and purpose and a sense of immortality maybe.  But it’s not that way exactly, certainly being a mother is central to this character as she’s written, and she learns that motherhood doesn’t fix things exactly although I think it’s also clear that her having this child does give her a sense of purpose through the biblical flood-like crisis.

Currently reading: Amy Tan’s memoir (almost done! LOVE it), just started Lincoln in the Bardo, not loving it so far 😦

This is the first time I’ve felt compelled to give you a spoiler alert, I guess I read a lot of books that don’t have many key twists. SPOILERS BELOW REGARDING PLOT POINTS in The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.

I read this book in just over one day.  I was stuck on an Amtrak train significantly longer than I was meant to be stuck on said train, leading me to read the first 300 pages of this novel.  I had almost picked this up and then not picked it up and then finally decided to read it, and I will say it is a very compelling read.  I’m not going to read it again, but I don’t read that many books twice anyway (Station Eleven and The Sixth Extinction being recent exceptions to that rule), so take that as you will.

Basically, this book is about a widow and a divorcé (which I have just learned is the male version of divorcée) who fall in love, but have teenage children, a girl and a boy, who don’t get along nor are they supporters of the new relationship.  I wanted to put all these characters in therapy.  It was in fact maddening to me that the teen daughter does go to one session.  BUT I really wanted to put them in therapy later in the book because SPOILER, the teenagers don’t keep hating each other, instead, they start banging each other. AND SURPRISE, teenagers are terrible at birth control.  Which I think it also pretty accurate to life.  The main take away from this book for me really was, if I have a daughter, I’m really going to encourage her to get an IUD.

The book is also about different styles of parenting, and how you can manage (whether you can manage?) being a parent and a person at the same time. The widow asks the divorcé this, Do you think we’re being punished for being people? For those of us without kids (but plenty of time for reading!) this question is still abstract. But I’m hoping that you get to be both.  The book ends not happily exactly, but hopefully, raising the possibility that you can be a parent and a person, but maybe the timing has to be right.

Currently reading: about 100 pages into Amy Tan’s memoir and planning to read The End We Start From today or tomorrow.

I really enjoy reading the kind of book that is a memoir, but also not exactly a memoir, books written by people about particular moments in their lives or sort of a how I got here book by people who aren’t 80 yet and thus are sort of telling you about their lives, so far.  Generally these books are about something else as well as the person’s life, so Lab Girl by Hope Janren also taught me a lot about trees and academia, and How To Fall in Love With Anyone by Mandy Len Catron told me a lot about Catron’s family, but also about love in America more generally.

I definitely recommend Lab Girl, although I will say it’s one of the rare books I’ve read where I was like… I do not identify with this person very much at all.  I’m not Norwegian or mid-western, I’m not good at science and I’m not bipolar.  I don’t think Jahren and I have quite the same sense of humor and she seems much braver than I am, although she does let you in on her fears and her mental health struggles.  Her relationships with people are kind of odd, she describes her marriage in this way:

We love each other because we can’t help it. We don’t work at it and we don’t sacrifice for it. It is easy and all the sweeter to me because it is so underserved. I discover within a second context [the first being science] that when something just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work– and similarly, there are some things that you just can’t screw up. I know that I could live without him: I have my own work, my own mission, and my own money.  But I don’t want to. I really don’t want to.

Yeah, I love my husband, but sometimes marriage is work or not work exactly (or not yet), but it’s not this amazing lark that takes no effort on my part. I love being part of a partnership, but partnerships by nature require compromise, you don’t always get what you want (but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need).

I loved reading about a woman succeeding in science, and I loved reading about Jahren’s life, which has had some crazy adventures which will have you laughing out loud.  Her best friend/fellow scientist who she employs in her lab, is  a very odd duck.  There’s not really a nice short passage that illustrates this, so you’re going to have to read the book.  There is, of course, the death of a parent!

“Oh, I’m not worried about him,” returned Bill. “He’s gone. It’s not any more complicated than that. Honestly, if I admit it, it’s me that I feel bad for… There’s nothing like having a parent die to make you realize how alone you are in the world.”

There were so many things that I wanted to say. I wanted to tell Bill that he wasn’t alone and that he never would be. I wanted to make him know that he had friends in this world tied to him by something stronger than blood, ties that could never fade or dissolve. That he would never be hungry or cold or motherless while I still drew breath. That he didn’t need two hands, or a street address, or clean lungs, or social grace, or a happy disposition to be precious and irreplaceable. That no matter what our future held, my first task would always be to kick a hole in the world and make a space for him where he could safely be his eccentric self.

First this makes me very jealous of Bill, but then this makes me think — how can I spend more time carving space for people I love to be their (slightly less eccentric than Bill) eccentric selves? Things to work on.

I identified much more with Mandy Catron, although she is from Appalachia and now lives in Canada and is a professor (I’m not, I don’t, I’m not).  But, her book How To Fall in Love With Anyone is really the story of her relationship and breakup, her parents divorce, and her research into love as she tried to make sense of it all.  The book is related to a piece she wrote for the New York Times – To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.  And the book indeed ends with her in a new relationship with they guy she this experiment with — they asked each other 36 questions stemming from a study by psychologist Arthur Aron that designed to determine whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other these specific personal questions.

When I picked up the book, I thought it would involve a lot more science or social science (like All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister).  It does not. It is mostly the love stories of Catron’s grandparents, parents, and herself.  She doesn’t really answer the question of how to fall in love with anyone, she raises another question later — if you can fall in love with anyone, how do you choose? Which, she also doesn’t really answer beyond her own choices.  She does include this thought about marriage, which honestly, I have never thought of in exactly this way:

Only in the face of death does commitment -in this case I am thinking of marriage- really become meaningful. We have one life, limited in its duration; to really invest in another person is to simultaneously sacrifice all the other potential people or investments of time.

Honestly, this gave me some serious ennui when I read it.  My husband is so good and kind and I love him.  And I certainly knew that we were mortal, and I was kind of aware that the happy ending to marriage is that one of you buries the other in sixty years, but jeez. I realize I’m not the first person, facing the death of a loved one, to spend a lot of time thinking, what is it all about? Am I wasting my life? Oh God, the world is going to go on without me someday and I just don’t want it to! (You really need to read Vacationland because he faces these things and somehow makes them hilarious).

That’s probably all the ennui you need for today reader.  I’m currently working my way through yet another memoir — Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan, and I also have a bunch of great fiction out of the library.  Although at this rate I may have to take a detour into something light and fluffy to get through February…



My final books of 2017 (and my first book of 2018) are all surging on the best seller lists, and I will say, I would recommend all of them:

*Artemis by Andy Weir

*Promise Me Dad by Joe Biden

*The Power by Naomi Alderman

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t enjoy Artemis as much as I like The Martian.  It’s a very interesting concept, a city on the Moon and the plot is basically a heist, IN SPACE!  It is a pretty entertaining book and a fast read, but I probably won’t read it again. I will say that Artemis fit in very well with my light holiday reading, so if you’re looking for a fast read for vacation or for the beach this summer (Yes, it was 11 degrees yesterday, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about my beach vacation which is coming in about…six months) this could be your book.

Promise Me Dad is probably not your vacation book. Instead it is a beautiful book talking about Joe Biden’s loss of his son Beau.  I have read a lot of wonderful book about death and dying and grief, and I will say that Biden doesn’t let you in quite as much as some other writers do.  He clearly loved his son.  Honestly reading this book will make you wish Joe Biden loved you or that you were part of his family, they appear in these pages to be an amazingly tight knit group. And if you are not fully taken into his confidences, Biden gives some wonderful advice about the power of time  over grief and the power of helping others to get outside your own grief, which you feel like, since he lost a wife and a child (and now another child) and he hasn’t given up yet, well, there must be something to it. Because how else has Biden been getting out of bed every day for the last few decades?

I also know from experience, that the time will come, the time will come when Rafael [a police officer killed in NYC]’s memory will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes. That’s when you know — it’s going to be OK. I know it’s hard to believe it will happen, but I promise you, I promise you it will happen.

Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for. [This is an Immanuel Kant quote].

But he doesn’t detail how he felt with the same rawness that you find in Joan Didion’s My Year of Magical Thinking.  I don’t know, maybe his loss didn’t make him feel crazy, maybe the sadness he refers to is all there was for him.  You do get a lot more about the policy work he was doing while his son was dying.  And I don’t want to sound like I’m judging him for being vice president and not just sitting by his dying son.  I know I recently left a job because I realized it was literally and figuratively killing me (stress kills you, crying all the time does not kill you it just feels like it will) to be giving my life to do this work that felt meaningless instead of being with my dying mother.  But I’m not the vice president, and I’m thinking that Biden felt like what he was doing something worthwhile with his time:

So how do I want to spend the rest of my life? I want to spend as much time with my family, and I want to help change the country and the world for the better. That duty does much more than give me purpose; it gives me something to hope for. It makes me nostalgic for the future.

I will not be surprised to see Biden run for president having read this book, although I also wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t — he will be 77 in 2020.  What’s up with Gen X? Is Barack Obama the only guy they had ??

The Power falls somewhere in the vast chasm between Artemis and Promise Me Dad.  It is fiction and at times it is entertaining.  I was very invested in the characters.  It is a brutal book, but an interesting one.  The basic premise is this, suddenly women have the ability to generate electrical power with their bodies, which they can use to injure and kill others. This allows women to be more powerful than men, and so the central question is, would women really do things any differently if they were the more physically powerful gender, or would you just have rape and violence and murder and generally treating the other gender like they aren’t also human beings?  But again, the characters make this much more than a fun thought exercise.

You’ve got a middle aged woman with daughters who is in government, the story of one of her teenage daughters who has sort malfunctioning power, two teenage girls with immense power of different types, and one man, a journalist trying to get the store — and their stories intersect in places, but not in  a way that feels contrived.

If you’re only going to read one of these best sellers, I’d recommend The Power.  I was mulling it for days after reading it. It was more entertaining that Promise Me Dad (okay, pretty low bar since you don’t read that book to be entertained), and packed a lot more into a few hundred pages than Artemis.

Currently reading: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays by Mandy Len Catron (related to her NYTimes piece).

At the beginning of this year, I set myself a goal to read 52 books which I knew for me was pretty doable and I did in fact read 68 books (not including re-reads).  The complete list is below.

Honestly I think that if you love reading, reading 52 books in a year isn’t that challenging, unless maybe you only love reading 800 page biographies.  So step one is loving reading, step two is definitely don’t have young children.  Or possibly just don’t have children and you’ll get a lot more reading done.  Other steps: always bring your book, let yourself give up on books you just don’t like, you can get a couple pages read while you’re flossing your teeth AND then you flossed! (I use the little flosser things to make this possible, I don’t have a third hand), you will have to cut down on your screen time somewhat, you will have to make some time for reading in your life (see step one and step two to determine if this is possible for you).

Looking forward to another  50+ in 2018.

Books Read in 2017

1. The Long War – Terry Prachett
2. Another Place at the Table – Kathy Harrison
3. The Long Mars – Terry Prachett
4. The Long Utopia – Terry Prachett
5. The Long Cosmos – Terry Prachett
6. Grief is a Thing With Feathers – Max Porter
7. Being Mortal – Atul Gawande
8. Swing Time – Zadie Smith
9. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs
10. Faithful – Alice Hoffman
11. Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld
12. The Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert
13. Island on Fire – Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe
14. Northanger Abbey – Val McDermid
15. Sense and Sensibility – Joanna Trollope
16. The Terranauts – T.C. Boyle
17. Victoria – Daisy Goodwin
18. A Book of American Martyrs – Joyce Carol Oats
19. Dreams From My Father – Barack Obama
20. Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
21. Welcome to Nightvale – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
22. Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson
23. Pioneer Girl -Bich Minh Nguyen
24. Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
25. Splinter the Silence – Val McDermid
26. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
27. The Revolving Door of Life – Alexander McCall Smith
28. There Your Heart Lies – Mary Gordon
29. The Winter Sea – Susanna Kearsley
30. The Cafe By the Sea – Jenny Colgan
31. The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu
32. The Almost Sisters – Joshilyn Jackson
33. Backseat Saits – Joshilyn Jackson
34. Resilient Greiving – Lucy Hone
35. The Bright Hour – Nina Riggs
36. Gods in Alabama – Joshilyn Jackson
37. American Eclipse – David Baron
38. Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero
39. Every Anxious Wave – Mo Daviau
40. The River of No Return – Bee Ridgway
41. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory – Caitlin Doughty
42. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me – Sherman Alexie
43. Primates of Park Avenue – Wednesday Martin
44. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
45. Less – Andrew Sean Greer
46. Oryx and Crake – Margret Atwood
47. You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) – Felicia Day
48. The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu
49. My Life With BOB – Pamela Paul
50. The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls
51. The Jane Austen Project – Kathleeen A Flynn
52. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil DeGrasse Tyson (11/18/17)
53. The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion (out of order)
54. Shrill – Lindy West
55. Vacationland – John Hodgman
56. Turtles All The Way Down – John Green
57. Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman
58. It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree – AJ Jacobs
59. A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis
60. It Devoures – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
61. Death’s End – Cixin Liu
62. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body – Roxane Gay
63. Difficult Women – Roxane Gay
64. Seven Stones to Stand or Fall – Diana Gabaldon
65. The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan
66. My Italian Bulldozen – Alexander McCall Smith
67. Artemis – Andy Weir
68. Promise Me Dad – Joe Biden

Currently reading: The Power and From Here to Eternity