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…