May 2018


Someone recently sent me this list of 46 Books By Women of Color To Read in 2018, so I don’t think that I’ll read all of them, but I’ve been working my way through the ones that sound interesting to me (see Summertime Reading – The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore  and Pachinko and When They Call You a Terrorist and I’m currently working on Everything Here is Beautiful and An American Marriage).

Sadly, I have to say I didn’t care for this one, Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik. Which I feel pretty terrible about because well, I know have a bias towards books with American or European main characters, and here’s a beautiful book set in Iran. It’s just so amazingly depressing. Which, if I’d learned anything about Forugh Farrokhzad prior to reading this book wouldn’t have been a surprise, but well, my American public school education followed by an English major in college where I took lots of British and American Literature classes did not lead me to discover her work. It is a beautifully written book and I enjoyed how snippets of her (translated) poems were mixed in.

Farrokhzad was a poet and documentary film maker born in Iran in the 1930’s and Darznik has essentially novelized her life. So… can one spoil a novelization of a life? I mean, my sister-in-law is Brazilian and she went into the film Lincoln with NO IDEA that he got assassinated. She was shocked, like why were you guys so excited for this movie WHEN YOU KNEW HE WOULD DIE??? So maybe she would have liked it better if we’d “spoiled” it for her, and maybe I would have liked this book better if I’d googled Farrokhzad… Anyway, this is me telling you dear reader SPOILER ALERT!

Spoiler alert, this was a depressing book. Being born a woman in Tehran in 1935 and not being that interested in doing exactly what society wants you to do, it doesn’t work out great. Farrokhzad was married off to a cousin because (at least in the book) she met him ONE TIME in public. I’m very glad I’m not married to the first guy I dated as a teenager… Her husband, not that fond of her. She also has affairs (she is eventually divorced by her husband, resulting in never seeing her son again, also, ugggg), and those guys don’t treat her well either! She gets involuntarily committed. She dies much too young for really, no reason.

That is not even every bad thing that happens to her! Maybe this just wasn’t the right Memorial Day weekend book? If this book weren’t beautifully written, if I didn’t come to really like Farrokhzad and enjoy her voice, I would have put it down. But, I liked her, she’s a dreamer, a thinker:

It seems impossible to me now that my neighborhood in Tehran, with its many houses, alleyways, and passages, has disappeared, but I know if I returned after all this time, after the war and revolution, I wouldn’t be able to fine it. Still, I only need to close my eyes to return to my father’s house in Amiriyeh. For year, that house was my only country and the square above my mother’s garden was all I knew of heaven’s blue sky.

And of course, she’s a reader: “[I]t was my preference for books and for the world inside my head that left me so incapable of accepting the usual and the ordinary. The more I read, the more I longed to let loose the words inside me.”

And, she’s a poet. I don’t know how good the translations are, but I really liked her poetry rendered in English, from “Conquest of the Garden”:

We found truth in the garden
in the shy glance of a nameless flower,
found eternity in the moment
when two suns faced each other.

I’m not talking about
fearful whispers in the dark.
I’m talking about daytime
and open widows and fresh air
and a stove where useless things
are left to burn,
a land fertile with different plantings:
birth and evolution and pride.
I’m talking about how our loving hands
built a bridge forged of scent and breeze
across the night.

I also thought it was very interesting at one point, one of Farrokhzad‘s lovers publishes a story that is not at all thinly veiled as being about their love affair, she begs him not to publish it, it’s not going to help her notoriety… He tells her “You don’t own the stories that happen to you.” I think we all feel like we own our own stories (what are human beings but story telling machines, telling ourselves narratives about ourselves all day long every day?), but of course, Farrokhzad didn’t own her story in life — not only does this lover essentially monetize their relationship by telling her story, she was perceived as being a whore, a radical, a bad woman by the press. And now, she’s “telling” the story written by Darznik, but of course, it’s fiction. Farrokhzad told her own story through her poetry I guess, but others felt (and feel) that they can tell it too.

Currently reading: Everything is Beautiful and An American Marriage. Also sort of working on Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin but haven’t really gotten into it.

 

No books finished yet, but here’s my recent library haul:

Happy long weekend everyone!

 

I can once again say that I’ve read the entire Curtis Sittenfeld oeuvre now that I’ve completed her latest, a collection of short stories called, You Think It, I’ll Say It. Two of these stories actually previously appeared in The New Yorker and so I’d already read them (“Gender Studies” and “The Prairie Wife“). I don’t typically like short story collections that much; I’m the type of person that, when I love a book, I want ten sequels. So, a short story can feel far far too short if I really like the characters. I actually felt like Sittenfeld’s stories here were sort of the perfect length, so I don’t know if her characters aren’t likeable enough to me or what, but I was perfectly happy with the length of my time with them. Maybe it’s just that most of these characters feel exactly developed enough for a short story and I’d need a little more to want a novel.

 

This collection includes ten stories, and the style and subject matter are pretty similar to the rest of her writing. The Prairie Wife, like her novel American Wife, takes a real world person and imagines a different story for her (like… what’s the real woman’s thing? The Pioneer Woman? I guess that woman is famous enough that defamation would be hard for her to prove…). And a few of these stories include sort of awkward college age women where the style starts to remind me of Sittenfeld’s novel Prep.

Only two of the ten stories are written from the perspective of men, and even then, both are about those men’s relationship to a woman who also features prominently in the story. I think that’s okay; although most of these stories have something to do with romantic relationships, I think almost all of them pass the Bechtel test (so many women! with names! talking to each other about things!). I mean, unless you’ve never heard of Sittenfeld before, I assume you sort of know what you’re getting into here. I’m going to term it, women-centric literature that isn’t as idiotic as most ‘chick lit.’ I’ll work on a catchier name.

Currently reading: Also finished A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith, haven’t started the next book yet, but maybe Song of a Captive Bird because that is a two week library book… challenge accepted library. Challenge accepted.

 

I read a lot of books last year about grief and death. Preparing, like my mom’s illness was a test I could study for, and then ace. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t work that way. But, I still learned some useful things.

I recommend The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs because it is beautiful, the flip side of that (in that Riggs was herself dying and Didion is grieving), The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is a beautifully written book about her grief. I recommend both of Caitlin Dougherty’s books (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and  From Here to Eternity) because they will remind you that dead bodies aren’t dangerous and that our remove from death is both, a recent-ish development in the US and different from other practices around the world. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is also worth your time, and may be the best to open conversations with the people in your life about what they want. Grief is a Thing With Feathers (Max Porter), the only fiction book in this list, is weird, but somehow perfect. Honorable mention to Promise Me Dad, which I did read after I started blogging about books.

But in February this year (after I lost my Mom) I decided, you don’t actually have to think about death all the time, and maybe it’s okay to escape a little. Of course, I am always picking up books I think will be escapes and then the mom dies or someone has Alzheimer’s. But, all this to say, I meant to read Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters last year, didn’t get to it, and then it slipped down the list. Maybe it wasn’t focused enough on death and dying and grief…

Recently I decided to pick up both No Time to Spare and Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. Mercifully, both books really aren’t about death, dying or grieving. Certainly, there’s a certain thinking about mortality element, but both are really more about living.

 

I’m surprised to report dear reader that I actually enjoyed I Am I Am I Am more than I enjoyed No Time to Spare. I was drawn in by the subtitle to No Time to Spare (“Thinking About What Matters”) but really, this book is a collection of book posts written by Le Guin over several years, not exactly an essay collection that she created to be published as a book. Parts of the book were delightful — I loved reading about her cat, her witticisms (“Old age is for anybody who gets there”), her thoughts about Greek tragedies, her memories of John Steinbeck (who was a friend’s uncle). And I just get this feeling that Le Guin lived more than some people do — the title of the book comes from a survey from Harvard asking grads about themselves including what they do in their “spare time.” Part of the list of spare time activities is “creative pursuits.” So Le Guin is sort of musing on the idea that all her time may be “spare” in this reading, and thinking about spare time, and she reasons:

I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always have been and it is now. It’s occupied by living…. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with constructing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and with traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing  the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-claves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it.

Le Guin’s book really isn’t concerned with death at all. She was clearly focused on living her life, and really living it, into her 80’s (she passed away at age 88 in January 2018). In this book you’ll also find her thoughts about writing, her thoughts on fantasy, her thoughts on politics and the state of the nation, her thoughts on science and evolution, her thoughts on answering fan mail, and her interactions with friends and family including watching a two year old discovering the world:

What it made me think about above all is how incredibly much we learn between our birthday and last day — from where the horsies live to the origin of the stars. How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires all of us.

O’Farrell’s book has more of a narrative and is more clearly the story of her life although it is not told linearly and jumps around so that you see her young and then older, younger again. It is pretty literally 17 brushes with death, which seems kind of excessive — O’Farrell has had some pretty crazy things happen to her (a larger number of people have intentionally tried to kill her than I feel is typical in the average life…). And she tells the stories well, in a compelling way. For her at least, these stories explain who she is and became. She writes that there’s nothing particularly special about brushes with death, but

If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, buy they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not. They will take up residence inside you and become part of who you are, like a heart stent or a pin that holds together a broken bone.

Whereas some people might take one lesson from these near death experiences, O’Farrell seems to always come away appreciating being alive, but with no new sense of caution –

Instead of an intimation of mortality, what is solidifying, taking root inside me, is something else, a welding together of this place with the sensation of a near miss, an escape from something beyond my control. The feeling of having pulled my head, one more time from the noose becomes intermingled with, indivisible from, the mimosa trees, the goats, the wave that turned me over, the toasted-resin smell of cinnamon bark.

O’Farrell’s tells you what seems to me the most important story closer to the end of the book — as a child she had encephalitis, ended up in a wheelchair and for the rest of her life has some trouble with orienting herself and controlling her movement (i.e., she needs to be looking at the pen to pick it up, her brain doesn’t just map where things are well and she almost drowns … a lot… because she’s not really clear on up v. down once she’s under water). It seems to be this early near death experience that led to many of the others, because she didn’t get timid, instead,

Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. … It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. … I viewed my continuing life as an extra, a bonus, a boon: I could do with it what I wanted.

O’Farrell spends a lot of time in this book almost dying, but like Le Guin, I feel like she really lives every day of her life (though… not sure she’s going to make it to 88 at her current rate…).

Currently reading: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, and got a bunch piled up after that. Starting to think seriously about vacation books. Summer reading suggestions???

I think I’m happy that I discovered Meg Wolitzer just recently, because I’m hoping that I’ll enjoy all of her books as much as I liked The Female Persuasion, and I have so many of them ahead of me, unread! I heard a lot of good buzz about her book The Interestings when that came out, but for some reason never picked it up. So, now maybe I will. After I plow through the other million books I have…

 

I really liked this book. I typically mark a few passages so I can blog about specific parts of a book I liked, but about 100 pages in I had to slow down my passage marking because it was getting out of hand. This novel tells the story of Greer, a college freshman who meets Faith Frank (a sort of Gloria Steinem figure) at her college after being sexually assaulted (I considered written “sort of” sexually assaulted, but I’m just going to say that what happens to Greer isn’t rape, I think in this #MeToo era I’m not going to pretend someone touching you sexually when you’re not interested or consenting isn’t “real” sexual assault). The novel goes on to focus on Greer’s post college years, also flashing back to her childhood/teen years. Her long-term boyfriend, college best friend, and Faith Frank all also get some sections of the book told from their perspectives.

I identified tremendously with Greer, although I enjoyed getting in the other character’s heads and was glad to see all of them get some closure/growth/whatever to their story-arcs. Greer and I both worked emergency hotlines, we both love marking passages in books “things that stir me” as she says. Greer’s love of reading sounds like my childhood:

At night she stayed up in bed reading by a flashlight, its beam quickly dwindling. But even as the light bailed, Greer read until the very last minute, consuming a yellow circle of stories and concepts that comforted and compelled her in her aloneness which went on year after year.

And, weirdly I met Gloria Steinem in college, although sadly I did not end up working with her and being mentored by her. I guess there’s still time… The book, like The Ten Year Nap, did depress me a bit at times because Greer ends up at 31 in a place that I am not. (Although I feel like the timeline is a bit rushed, I think Wolitzer didn’t want to write too much into the future, but I would have found Greer’s ending a bit more believable if it took her a few more years).

Additionally, Wolitzer just keeps hating on the lawyers (not that I blame her per se… we aren’t a happy bunch), Greer’s college friend Zee really doesn’t want to be in the legal world:

I know how much I don’t want to be a paralegal – it doesn’t excite me – and I know how much I don’t want to be a lawyer, at least not the corporate kind. I see these young associates, the ones who work really late and do corporate law, and they’re on call like doctors, except their work isn’t in the service of humanity, unless it’s the pro bono stuff they’re allowed to do once in a while. I mean, they’re like the opposite of Doctors Without Borders. Lawyers Without Souls, I think of them. … [I]t all takes too much away from you, and doesn’t give you fortification. Or a good feeling. Or a sense that you’re actually doing something decent during your two seconds on earth.

So… I guess reading Wolitzer is how I’m going to remind myself not to go back to being a lawyer in private practice?

Of course, SPOILER ALERT, someone dies in this book. Someone dies in a lot of books; you never notice until you’re looking always for someone to put into words how you’re feeling. This is Greer’s long-term boyfriend Cory’s story arc — he’s a hot shot Princeton grad, off to make bank as a consultant and hoping to do some programming work of his own someday, but instead someone in his life dies and he ends up stuck at home, picking up the pieces and taking care of everyone. So, I guess I identified with him too:

How was it, Cory kept thinking, that when a person died they were no longer anywhere? You could search the entire world and never find them. It was one thing for a body to stop working and be carted away under a sheet; it was another thing for the sense of that person to evaporate.  The textural and indisputable sense, as strong but as hard to pinpoint as a gas.

It is impossible to explain to anyone who doesn’t feel this way how, I was with my Mom when she died, I sat with her after she died, I sobbed as they took her away. And I still feel like – But how can she be gone? But I think anyone who has lost someone recently knows this feeling exactly, like your lost person might just turn up. Can’t really be gone. Does not compute. I’ve come to feel that this is some sort of human brain failsafe; the loss is too much and so you just can’t believe it even though you know it’s true.

Finally, before this gets too long, I’ll say that Wolitzer’s style reminds me a bit of Celeste Ng — sometimes the characters get together and say things to each other in a way that I don’t think real people always do. Real people don’t always have those heart to heart moments where they try to understand, really understand this person they love. Greer and her Mom do come to understand each other more:

Greer – “Why didn’t you and Dad ever find something that you really wanted to do? Something you could throw yourselves into?

Laurel got quiet, her mouth a little wavy. “Some people never do. I don’t really know why… We never had an easy time. We both had a way of retreating. Though we did do some things. And we did have you. That’s not nothing.”

If you’ve enjoyed other books that I’ve enjoyed, I think you will like this book.

Currently reading: No Time to Spare and I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death (jeeze, she is NOT going to be able to get life insurance, she obviously partakes of many risky activities…) Also on deck – An American Marriage and You Think It I’ll Say It. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

I picked up The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu on impulse at the library for two reasons – (1) there’s a blurb on the back from Celeste Ng (who I love see Ex 1 and Ex 2) and (2) I’m pretty much always

th
You can buy this book from Powell’s

willing to give a 200-300 page book a try, even if I hate it, it’s not going to take up too much time, especially if it turns into something I don’t want to finish. Also, well there’s a bit of summer feeling in the air.

I thought the book would be more of girls version version of The Lord of the Flies, and based on other reviews on Goodreads, many others were thinking this too — as the dust jacket sells it, this is a story about five girls who “set off on an overnight kayaking trip to a nearby island. But before the night is over they find themselves stranded, with no adults to help them survive or guide them home.” In fact, very very little of the book is spent on that experience. The book opens with the girls at Camp Forevermore, and then jumps and tells the story of Nita from before the kayaking trip into her 30’s. Which is a bit jarring when you’re expecting to read a story about a bunch of nine to eleven year old girls lost on a island. I feel like the book jacket is really responsible for a lot of people not liking this book on Goodreads, unless the author kind of wanted to destroy the reader’s expectations?

The book continues to jump back and forth, each girl gets a section so it goes (1) Camp Forevermore, (2) Nita’s story, (3) Back to where we were at Camp Forevermore, (4) Andee’s story, (5) Back to where we were at Camp Forevermore, etc. Eventually things do get a little Lord of the Flies at Camp Forevermore, and there are some connections between the bad things that happen to the girls during their Camp Forevermore lost kayaking experience that you can see exactly how it later haunts them in life. The end of the book, which finally tells Siobhan’s story (the Camp Forever more sections are told by nine-year old Siobhan) really pulled that together for me.

This is a well-written and engaging book, I didn’t necessarily identify with all the characters, but I was interested in them. I will say, it seemed sort of needless that terrible things kept happening to these girls, Isabel in particular has a really crappy life. But maybe that’s not completely unrealistic, sadly in life you can’t say, BUT BAD THINGS ALREADY HAPPENED TO ME!!! It’d be nice if you could though right?

I will also say I specifically enjoyed the reference to the play Our Town (Isabel goes to see a high school version and the “revelations about life and death – however hammily played – … made Isabel bawl”), which happens to be my favorite play. I don’t think you can “spoil” something that was written many decades ago, but SPOILER WARNING. Our Town is about life and death, and one of the main characters dies but she gets to go back a relive a day in her life. Everyone tells her, don’t pick a special day, pick a regular one, and ultimately she’s so upset by how cavalier everyone is, how they don’t notice life while they’re living it that she runs back the cemetery to you know, keep being dead. So… I have this thing in my life that I call an “Our Town day” a day where it’s not your birthday or your wedding day, and nothing really happens, but you just feel good, and if you died, you’d want to relive this day because you did in fact, feel alive and you noticed it.

Currently reading: deep into The Female Persuasion and loving it, also working on Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare.

 

At first, I didn’t really care for Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten Year Nap — I felt like it was judging me. But, ultimately, I think the book makes you recognize there are lots of ways to live, lots of ways to be happy, that being a woman (and a mother) is complicated, being married is complicated, and you may surprise yourself with your capacity to change your life when you need to.

 

The book centers on four women (although their mothers and few semi-famous women get short chapters from their perspectives as well) — Amy, Jill, Karen, and Roberta — all around 40, all mothers, all stay-at-home moms who thought they would be doing something else. Plot-wise, not too much happens, but there’s a lot of growth of the women throughout the book, which is what I think redeemed it for me. It would be a much more depressing book if it were about four women who aren’t exactly where they thought they would be who are incapable of making changes…

I almost gave up on the book because on page 11, it made me feel like a bit of a cliché:

Amy was among the block of English majors in her class who gamely applied to law school. They knew, these English majors, that literature was an open field and law school was an enclosed pasture, but they were practical too. No one would take care of you forever; the world would not love and protect you. You had to know how to do something well. This was different from a passion for your work, and while it was always best to have one of those, no one could give it to you or tell you how to acquire it.

Well, that’s me in a nutshell. AND I decided to become a lawyer the year this book was published, so who knows what my life would be like if I’d picked this book up in 2008 when it was published? So, as I said, I was feeling a little judged. But, like the characters in the book, well, life took me places in the last decade I did not expect. Ultimately, their ability to make change was kind of if not inspiring to me, it was reassuring — there’s still time to change your life. And change it again. And again. At one point one character tells the other, dealing with her unhappiness living in the suburbs, maybe it’s best to think of this as part of your life story, chapter 8: Jill’s Suburban years. Nothing is forever.

The book doesn’t just say like, you can change your life, don’t be sad. As one character puts it – “Life was difficult and strange; the was obvious to anyone who really paid attention.” The book says, there are different ways to be happy, there are different compromises that you can make, there is still time to make changes, even when you feel you’ve left yourself behind.  Amy’s mother sums this up when she asks Amy why she hasn’t found something to do that “would matter and would also make you feel good.” And Amy says she doesn’t know why she hasn’t, she thought she would, and her mom replies: “Well, you’ll keep figuring it out.”

It is very much a story about mothers and the hopes they have for their daughters. Amy’s mother is a second wave feminist who doesn’t love the fact that her daughter has given up being a lawyer; Jill’s mother kills herself leaving her mark and her absence forever, Karen’s mother is an immigrant who doesn’t understand why her daughter would want to work if she doesn’t have to, and all of the characters are dealing with their own personhood and motherhood.

There is a depressing moment (for me), where the former-English major husband seems to have lost his love of reading:

It was as though he, who had always been a great reader, had forgotten how to read. Like most people, he’d somehow recently lost patience for the slow unraveling that took place in novels, the need for the reader to wait in order to find out what happened in the end. Oddly, she realized, the boys were the ones who could still read long novels; this was the one trace of the previous world that they had inherited and  that their parents were starting to shed.

I will concede that having kids must make it a lot harder to get 100 books read in a year, but not that people can stop being readers. I do spend fewer nights under the covers with a flashlight than I did as a kid (I now know how important sleep is!) — but I find reading as enrapturing as I did then. Fortunately, towards the end of the book, as the characters start making some changes, dad gets some of his reading mojo back.

I also read What to Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter this weekend, which is more of a graphic advice coffee table book (so it doesn’t count in my book count), but I would say if you know someone who’s lost their mother, they might get something out of this book. The illustrator came up with the idea because in her twenties she became worried about how she would cope without her mother’s advice if her mother were to die. The happy part is that her mother isn’t dead, and the two are clearly close. I think anyone who loses their mother in their twenties or thirties will identify with the idea captured by this book (I say that because the book sort of assumes that you’re not a kid but you’re haven’t had kids yet/made big life choices yet) — if you can’t have your mother’s wisdom, you can have some hilarious wisdom from Hallie Bateman’s mom. The book made me laugh, cry (a lot), included some recipes I need to try, and I like Bateman’s illustrations.

Currently reading: The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore and trying catch up on my issues of The New Yorker.

 

 

 

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