April 2018


 

Nah, really they’re jellyfish. But as Juli Berwald points out in her book/memoir on jellyfish – Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone – most people really associate only three things with jellyfish: (1) getting stung/not being able to swim in the ocean due to likelihood of getting stung, (2) damage to power plants, and (3) impeding fisheries. Okay, if you, like me, are not affiliated with power plants or fisheries, probably you were just thinking about number 1. But the broader point is, there are a lot of people that think jellyfish are the mosquitos of the sea — annoying, with no purpose.

 

Jellyfish turn out to have many interesting qualities (although they probably kill more people than sharks each year, they aren’t responsible for spreading malaria so, some species are dangerous, but many are just cool). My takeaways were mostly that you can (and many people do) eat jellyfish and that they are an amazing source of protein. I told a lot of people about eating jellyfish while I was reading this book, and I would say that none of them believed me, or no one wanted to eat any jellyfish. And I can’t say I blame them, because part of preparing jellyfish to be eaten involves alum — which, while it is in many things (probably you’re absorbing some into your body via your deodorant) it not exactly known to be safe for humans and may increase your risk of certain cancers and Alzheimer’s. So yeah, maybe make sure if you’re consuming jellyfish that you know it was prepared properly.

Jellyfish, beyond being edible, have many fascinating research applications — you can use bioluminescence to study when genes are turning off and on in other animals, and jellyfish may also hold the key to reversing hearing loss.  I am the wrong person to explain any of the research applications, but if you’re interested and not up to reading the scientific papers, or looking for an easier entry point, Berwald’s book does explain in some detail.

Berwald’s book was also a lot like Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, in that it’s not just a book about jellyfish, it’s also a book about a woman in science. Berwald, unlike Jahren, didn’t pursue the academia route – she has a PhD in ocean science, but she became a science writer/editor/journalist so she’s writing as a woman who, as many do, opted out. Unlike Jahren, I identified with Berwald tremendously — she relates a turning point in her earlier life when she was on a plane that had to make an emergency landing where she prayed (to the moon): “Please. Please let me live. I am not done yet. I have more to do.” This is pretty much verbatim what I think every single time my plane hits turbulence (she also accepts fortune cookies as signs, which I think just makes me and her that save them and take them much more seriously than intended, at least, when they’re telling you what you already want to do…). So this story is also about her, kind of in middle age, thinking about where she’s come from and where she wants to go. She does at one point really think about how she got where she was going, and realizes that every thing she’s written down was a low point in her life, because it’s in those low points of your life that you’re brave enough to make changes — when you’re comfortable, you don’t make the changes you might need to make:

To break up with a destructive boyfriend. To change my career. To change it again. To move from a toxic city. To choose the right person to marry. The low points- not the moments of joy- were the decisive moments in my life.

Man, I hope she’s right.

The story is also about more than jellyfish and more than Berwald because the story she’s telling about jellyfish is also about climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, overpopulation, over-development of coastlines. A lighter moment comes when another scientist shows her a clip of George Carlin’s take on this — his basic view, we don’t need to worry about earth “The planet isn’t going anywhere…. We are. Pack your bags.” And, honestly, this is how I comfort myself sometimes — the earth has been through a lot of crazy changes, I think it will go on after we’re gone, and that in 65 million years or so, it’s going to be as different as the time of dinosaurs is from today. I just don’t think humans will be around to see that.

Currently reading: The Ten Year Nap and Why We Sleep

The Morning News Tournament of Books has brought me a lot great reads so far this year, and I’m officially including Exit West among the

new book friends I made as a result of the tournament.

 

Mohsin Hamid’s book is at once a very realistic story about two refugees living in an unstable country and then fleeing that country in search of safety, but it has a magical fable quality to it as well. It actually reminded me a lot of Colton Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, using magical realism to make me look at the treatment of refugees differently. In this case, the magical twist is that suddenly, doors everywhere become doors that go not from the bedroom to the bathroom but too California, London, Greece, etc. Mostly you follow the two refugees, Saeed and Nadia, as they fall in love, leave their country, deal with life in refugee camps, and try to make a life for themselves in a few other places. But you also get a few glimpses of other people trying to make sense of this somewhat borderless world where people from anywhere can suddenly appear by simply walking through a door.

To be clear, the doors aren’t the Tardis, you don’t get to travel through all of space and time, the door still goes from one place to another, but now it goes to California. So, the doors that go to ‘good’ places are guarded once they’re found and Saeed and Nadia don’t immediately get to Europe or America.

It is a beautifully written, fairly sad, modestly hopeful book — SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILERES !!! SERIOUSLY IF IT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU TO BE SURPRISED ABOUT ALL PLOT EVENTS IN THIS BOOK STOP HEEEEREEEE!

For example, Saeed’s mother is killed, for no reason, she’s just in the wrong place, and Saeed’s father is described:

Saeed’s father wept only when he was alone in his room silently, without tears, his body seized as though by a stutter, or a shiver, that would not let go, for his sense of loss was boundless, and his sense of the benevolence of the universe was shaken, and his wife had been his best friend.

Here’s another passage that gives a sense of tone and style (and I bookmarked it because I bookmark everything about people reckoning with mortality okay!):

By the time he entered university, Saeed’s parents prayed more often than they had when he was younger, maybe because they had lost a great many loved ones by that age, or maybe because the transient natures of their own lives were gradually becoming less hidden from them, or maybe because they worried for their son in a country that seemed to worship money above all . . . or maybe simply because their personal relationships with prayer had deepened and become more meaningful over the years.

If there’s a prettier way to say, thinking about mortality than the “transient nature of my life is gradually becoming less hidden from me” I haven’t heard it yet.

The book also plays with language by using the term “native” differently throughout, and pointing out that in a world full of recent door traveling refugees, but also before that, “native” is a debatable term:

And yet it was not quite true to say there were almost no natives, nativeness being a relative matter, and many others considered themselves native to this country [USA], by which they meant that they or their parents or their grandparents or the grandparents of their grandparents had been born on the strip of land that stretched from the mid-northern Pacific to the mid-northern Atlantic, that their existence here did not owe anything to a physical migration that had occurred in their lifetimes.

This isn’t a happy book, but it isn’t an entirely unhappy book, and the magical element adds something special. And, clocking in at just 231 pages, it doesn’t even demand too much of your reading time (although I bet you’ll think about it a lot once you’re done).

Currently reading: STILL SPINELESS. Okay, I would probably finish that faster if I weren’t also reading The Ten Year Nap and I just picked up Zadie Smith’s essay collection (which is a monstrous +500 page book).

*Also – I’m going to make an effort to include a link to Powell’s in case you’re moved to buy the book that I’ve been reading. I also encourage visiting your local library and supporting your local indie bookstore. I’m very guilty of buying books from places that are less kind to writers, publishing house, their employees… but I really want to be reading books in 20 years, and I think Indie bookstores are a big part of that. Also, my local indie bookstore is a magical place, I bet yours is too. And if not, there’s always Powell’s 🙂

I’m kind of absurdly proud of having finished Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. It’s 423 pages, and I read it on my phone because I was able to get the ebook from my library more quickly than the hard copy.

It’s a novel about Selin, a Turkish American Harvard freshman in 1995. Other than the tech, email and the internet are new phenomenon and there’s a fair amount of payphone use, I think this is still a pretty good representation of being a college freshman. Although…. I haven’t been a college freshman in a long time so who knows.

I found everything that happened in this book believable but simultaneously hilarious and sort of fantastic. Batuman is quite obvious in her sort of play on Russian novel style, this is a long novel in which nothing happens. I could see someone hating this book for that reason, but honestly I laughed out loud a lot. Selin is just a great narrator, her description of her plane landing in Turkey : “You could feel your soul sloshing around in your body, bouncing around in there like goat shit on a boat.”

The novel covers her freshman year of college and the summer and she’s focused on linguistics and takes Russian and Spanish and linguistic theory classes. She also teaches ESL in America and Hungary and picks up some Hungarian. Her ESL attempts with a Spanish speaker are hilarious:

“I felt overwhelmed by fatigue. What was I doing? For whose benefit? Who would understand what Joaquín meant by “Papel iss blonk,” let alone “Ball iss zool”? That wasn’t English. It was some kind of creole. No—a pidgin. If we had children and they grew up talking like that, they would add more grammar and then it would be a creole. It wasn’t even a creole.”

The whole novel (or at least the back half where she’s in Hungary) could probably be summed up with the Josh Joplin Group song, Trampoline:

I went abroad to break my concentration
But instead I broke my glasses lost my voice in translation
I talked but I couldn’t be heard
I never spoke a word

Language and meaning turn out to be difficult.

There’s also sort of a romance which many reviewers seemed to think was the whole story, I felt like this was more a year in the life of Selin than anything else, not a typical boy meets girl at all. So, I wouldn’t read it if you’re not open to a meandering story that just kind of covers a year in the life of an interesting thinker. I did laugh a lot.

Also read The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith, which to be honest I didn’t love, but I’ll probably continue reading McCall Smith’s books because often they do hit me exactly right.

Currently reading : still Spineless, also Exit West.

Took a vacation day yesterday and two four hour plane rides during my long weekend so I got Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Educated by Tara Westover, and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith.

I loved Everything I Never Told You, it reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere — they are very different stories, but Ng’s writing is wonderful. Everything I Never Told You is the story of a mixed race family in the 1960’s and 1970’s — not the easiest time to not be a white person in America.  In this case, the mom is a woman who is raised to be a wife and mother and desperately wants to be a doctor, but ends up being mom to three kids. The dad is a Chinese-American (born in America, but to Chinese born parents in the 1940’s and so doomed to spend his life proving that he’s American, that he’s “from here”) who worked incredibly hard to get into Harvard and loves teaching American History, but can’t get a job teaching anywhere but a mediocre college in Ohio.

Ng seems to really enjoy starting with a moment, and then working backwards to tell the reader, here’s how got here. So I don’t think I’m ruining anything to tell you that this book opens with the sentence “Lydia is dead.” In Little Fires Everywhere, Ng doesn’t tell you what happens next, but Everything I Never Told You goes in both directions, telling you both how Lydia (the middle child, and older daughter) ended up dead, and how her family copes with the aftermath of her death.

Despite knowing that Lydia dies, the book still manages to surprise you. Also, some of the complicated dynamics between these parents and their three children do actually get recognized and discussed between the characters. Despite the sadness, this is a fairly hopeful book.

Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated made me feel less hopeful. She was raised by “Mormon” survivalists in Idaho, “homeschooled,” and severely abused and neglected, and managed to get into college, get a PhD at Cambridge, a Harvard fellowship, etc. I say “Mormon” because her parents go to church, but believe a lot of additional things that the Mormon church does not (the government is out to get you, doctors are evil socialists, etc.). And I say “homeschooled” because her parents don’t really bother to teach her anything beyond how to read and do basic math.

I found this book interesting, Westover has a great narrative style. Her book isn’t exactly hopeful though because while Westover left and is now okay with the fact that some of her family (including her parents) aren’t in her life any more. Unlike Everything I Never Told You, because this is non-fiction, there isn’t a catharsis. There is a chasm between what Westover believes (she becomes more okay with getting vaccines,  going to the doctor, believing women can work outside the home) and what her parents believe (God speaks to her mother through her fingers?) and it’s not going to close any time soon.

Currently reading: The Ten Year Nap, heading to pick up Exit West from the library

 

I read Eat the Apple by Matt Young in what I think was three sittings. Although it’s a pretty disturbing book, it’s a fast read. It’s Young’s memoir about his three deployments to Iraq between 2006 and 2009 (so yes, a downer for sure). It definitely doesn’t convince you that the Iraq War was a great use of anyone’s life.

I found it slightly annoying that the book is unconventional in its structure, not exactly Gertrude Stein, but definitely a mix of different types of storytelling, not exactly linear, sometimes told in second person, there is one long hand drawn cartoon as well as several other cartoons (I actually really enjoyed the cartoons, the style is sort of XKCDish and the annotations are hilarious). But I understand that for Young, a straightforward I woke up, I did this, I did that, I came home, wouldn’t have conveyed the story of his deployments.

No one will enjoy this book, the topic precludes that I think, but I would still recommend it to those who understand what they’re in for. I am actually most fascinated by what’s not here — how did a guy with a drinking problem, PTSD, issues about masculinity, consistently cheating on his fiancé, etc. end up a stable writer who teaches writing, married to someone he loves? How did the person described in this memoir, who is very admittedly, not a great person put through a horrible ordeal for unclear reasons come out on the other side of this? Towards the end of the book there is a conversation between “Past Me” and “Me” which recognizes the chasm that exists between 18 year old Young and present day Young — but doesn’t really explain how he got from A to B.

For the most part instead, you get the story of Young enlisting, his training, and the three deployments as well as the time between when he was basically just continuing to self-destruct. Which, is also important, but left me very curious about how he transitioned from the person he was from 18-21 and who he is now, able to reflect back on these experience and contextualize them?

I marked a chapter called “Rapid” about killing rapid dogs where Young begins almost every sentence with “It’s important” to sort of demonstrate the tone of the book:

It’s important to remember that ‘dog’ is a loose term. It’s important to remember that we can say they probably most likely without much of a doubt and with the utmost confidence all have rabies or worms or congenital diseases or are overpopulated or are suffering from canine depression or have bitten a village child or whatever. It’s important to remember our boredom and lack of sleep and anger and sadness and youth and misunderstanding and loneliness and hate. It’s important to remember that we don’t want to, not really, not deep down. It’s important to remember that we’re just following order. It’s important to remember the Nazis and the Nuremburg Defense.

If anything, this book will convince you that we sent a bunch of very young men to the Middle East who didn’t have much of a sense of themselves, without having much of a plan and that for many people, this brought out the stupidest and worst parts of themselves (the amount of porn and masturbation mentioned in this book alone kind of depresses me).

At the same time, the book certainly doesn’t put marines down — another chapter, “Brothers,” discusses the way the men rallied around a fellow marine when he admitted to them he was gay after enduring all the ways that they have been just generally insulting gay men constantly in their conversations — “We think about this and we understand that he has been cast further than us, that he has been struggling and sinking in the desert sands for years alone and it is because of us. We enfold him and defend him and love him like brothers.”

Currently reading: Still Spineless, and now also more Alexander McCall Smith (THINGS WERE GETTING HEAVY UP IN HERE OKAY! Do you have a favorite author you turn to when you need an escape book instead of a “I learned something” book?)

Finished Pachinko last night, and I essentially stand by my prior brief summary and that you’ll like this book if you enjoy historical fiction.

Writing just to say, one criticism of the book is that the later characters seen rushed, and I can definitely see that. Having finished, I was thinking this book reminds me of the three book series by Jane Smiley (Some Luck, also covers about a century of one family, but in the American Midwest) and I kind of wish Lee had written this as a three book series.

Currently reading : Spineless, just finished Eat the Apple.

So, technically speaking I haven’t finished Pachinko (by Min Jin Lee) yet… It’s 485 pages and it hasn’t been a great week for reading, but unless it really falls apart, I think I can recommend it, assuming you like historical fiction.

Essentially, it tells the story of a Korean family living (so far) in Korea and Japan in the 20th century. As a fan of MASH, you’d think I’d know this wasn’t a great time for Korea, but this book made me realize I really don’t know even the basics other than the fact that the Korean War followed shortly after WW2. The characters are very engaging and I do feel really invested in what’s going to happen to them. Not quite as much of a page turner as The Animators was for me, but I think I will ultimately be glad to have read it.

The book does speak a lot about the racism faced by Koreans living in Japan, which isn’t necessarily something I’ve thought much about before (see, lack of awareness of Korean history, colonization by Japan…)

When They Call You A Terrorist (by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullorsis) about the racism I’m more aware of, that faced by black and brown Americans, but I’m so glad I read it. I strongly recommend it. Did you already know about racism in America? I hope so. But, Cullorsis’ story (the book is her memoir, written with Bandele’s help) is a powerful reminder to me that I should be thinking and doing more about it. It is a heart breaking book, but, also a book not bereft of hope. You should read it, especially if you’re a white American.

Currently reading : still Pachinko, also Spineless, and I have way too many books out of the library…