June 2018


I really enjoyed this book (by Aminatta Forna);

someone is definitely getting it for Christmas. I don’t know whether it’s good or insufferable, but reading lots of books makes it really easy for me to Christmas shop. I only give books, gift cards, and charitable donations. It really simplifies things. Well, that’s my lifestyle blog tip for the day, on to the book.

Here are the basics. This is the story of two people, who meet on the street in London randomly and the first week and a half they spend together-ish in London. Attila is a large African man (from Accra, Ghana), a psychiatrist who works with genocide/war/atrocity survivors around the world and is in London to give the key note address at a conference; Jean is an American (New Englander) who runs studies of urban coyote and fox populations working in London. The two meet on a bridge when Jean, following a fox, bumps into Attila. The two then fall into friendship, Jean (along with a small army of Africans mostly from Ghana and Sierra Leon who work as garbage men, doormen, street performers, in hotels in London) helps Attila find a friend’s little boy and take care of him, Attila also deals with a close friend/former lover with Early Onset Alzheimer’s (THIS WAS NOT ON THE BOOK COVER BLURB BUT IT JUST REALLY FIGURES), and Attila also consults as an expert on a case where a woman is accused of arson and her lawyers are trying to get Attila to get her off by saying she has PTSD. It’s much more complicated, but you get the point. There is also quite a bit about urban foxes, coyotes, and wolves.

What is difficult to describe is how much this book delves into grief (and happiness), recovery, how humans treat one another, what humans expect from him, how life experiences impact each of us. Some of it is quite depressing, Attila tells Jean:

I’m not being cynical, just realistic. War is in the blood of humans. The kind of people who torture and rape during war, they’re always among us, every time you walk down a busy street you’re passing killers waiting to kill. War gives them license. We tell ourselves people are ordinarily good, but where’s the proof of that? There are no ordinarily good people, just a lot of people who’ve never been offered the opportunity to be anything else.

Gah. I mean. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I want to. Attila has quite a few REALLY depressing insights, but he also manages to be a confident problem solver, so I’d want him by my side were I looking for a small boy lost in London, dealing with a dying woman, or helping with a kidnapping hand-off in a war torn country.

Attila thinks a lot about how people react to the difficulties in life; he’s a psychiatrist so he recognizes some people are mentally ill, but he pushes convention a bit, in a way I agree with — sometimes you’re not experiencing PTSD or depression, or anything clinical, sometimes you’re experiencing emotions. Sadness, grief, these can be appropriate to the situation, even if they are long lasting, that doesn’t mean that you’re damaged — it’s the difference between someone who has a major depressive episode, and someone who’s husband dies and they’re sad, they’re not themselves exactly, they will become a new slightly different person, but they’re doing it, they’re dealing with their emotions (Attila, explaining the forty day mourning period to a Brit says “It is the end of formal mourning, not the end of sorrow”). It takes time certainly, but you can come out stronger on the other side:

There is nothing inevitable about the impact of trauma, except perhaps the way the victim is going to be treated by professionals like us, who will then ascribe every subsequent difficulty in their lives to what has happened to them in the past. We don’t blame victims any longer, instead we condemn them. We treat them like damaged goods and in doing so we compound the pain of whatever wound has been inflicted and we encourage everyone around them to do the same. The fact of the matter is that most people who have endured trauma do so without lasting negative effects, be we overlook the ones who cope because we [psychiatrists] never see them. It’s a simple logical fallacy. You already have the answer, so you construct the supporting argument. Trauma causes suffering, suffering causes damage. But what we don’t know is whether the absence of adverse life events creates the ideal conditions for human development. We just assume it does. … What is life without incident? Is such a life even possible? How do we become human except in the face of adversity?

Sorry, that’s rather long, but it’s sort of the point of the book as far as I’m concerned. And I think this quote helps make clear I am BY NO MEANS belittling mental illness. But, not every bad thing that happens causes mental illness. No one can live a life where nothing bad happens, the bad things make you who you are. Sometimes, they are truly terrible things. A life without sadness of some sort is impossible, and yet, so many of us get up every morning and face the day.

Attila has a rather pragmatic view of the world, he explains near the beginning of the book, “You know, a lot of people nowadays believe they’re owed a happy ending.” The nice thing about this book though, is that it does have lots of happy endings. Lots of sad things happen, but many people end up okay.

There are many other things I could say about this book, many other passages that touched me or made me think. But I’ll spare you and suggest you read the book.

Currently reading: And Then We Had Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready by Meghan O’Connell. And currently taking 10 books on vacation with me next week. So… no posts for a while, but I’ll have plenty to talk about when I’m back on June 30.

A rather odd pairing of books last week and this weekend – Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead and The Haunting by Shirley Jackson. I think Whitehead’s Underground Railroad would have paired better with The Haunting. I read The Underground Railroad last year, and enjoyed is the wrong word, but I was enraptured and terrified by it. If you lived under a rock last year, it’s a sort of magical realism version of a young woman escaping slavery in the deep south traveling on the underground railroad through several different states. It is incredibly creepy, and pretty horrifying because although it is not exactly historically accurate, everything the young woman suffers did in fact happen to African Americans, just not exactly in that time period. I’m always really confused when people say they ‘enjoyed’ it. But, it’s a great book.

 

Sag Harbor is a very different book. Essentially, it’s a collection of short stories about Benji/Ben’s (he’s trying to dump his childhood nickname) summer in Sag Harbor when he’s 15. There’s a narrative arc in each chapter, but not much of a narrative to the book as a whole, it’s just the story of Benji and his summer, no climax, no catharsis really. I really enjoyed Whitehead’s writing — Benji is funny and sad all at once, for example talking about visiting the orthodontist:

He was an okay guy. I like the way he said, “You might feel a slight pressure,” as if this were a rarity and not a constant state of being.

And telling us his plan when all the teenage boys are having a battle with their BB guns:

I was going to wait for one of the [other team] to recon my way and then ambush them, a favorite tactic of mine to this day. Wait for the right moment in an argument with a loved one and then ambush them with some hurt I’ve held on to for years, the list of indictments nurtured in the darkness of my hideout and say, “Gotcha!” See how you ruined me.

The book is really only similar to The Underground Railroad in that it discusses race and racism in complex ways. Benji is a middle class African American, someone who’s parents own a summer house, who goes to prep school, doctor father/lawyer mother, but he’s still black. The most interesting part of the book for me was reading about how all the characters negotiate race. The book also touches on domestic violence, Benji’s father is emotionally abusive towards his wife and his children, and physically abusive to Benji at least once that we hear about. Perhaps like life, this situation never resolves or really changes:

This was how my mother disappeared, word by word. … Something happened to my mother in her life that she never defended or protected herself. That she never defended or protected us, when it was our turn. I don’t know what it was. I suppose it was the same thing that prevented me from defending or protecting her, once I was old enough. I kept my mouth shut and watched TV.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson kind of disappointed me; I wanted it to have a crazy surprise horror like The Lottery, and it kind of doesn’t. It isn’t your typically scary story though, because Jackson leaves everything hanging at the end. I sort of feel like, can I really spoil a story for you that was published more than 50 years ago and has been made into two movies? But, hey SPOILERSSSSSS!

The story is about Hill House, which has been the site of two tragic deaths, two unhappy childhoods, and one suicide in the eighty years it’s been standing. Also, the guy who built it (and lost two wives there) built everything slightly wrong, none of the angles of the house are right angles, all the doors are slightly off center, the rooms are kind of arranged so that many have no windows. Dr. Montague hears about the house and decides he will try to scientifically investigate the paranormal there (although he never really seems to do any science other than trying to measure a cold spot?). He invites a number of others who have shown paranormal abilities and Eleanor and Theodora take the invitation. The party is rounded out by Luke, the heir to the house. The four of them do experience a ton of creepy stuff in the house, but it never resolves into a coherent narrative. Are the ghosts the wives? The women who committed suicide? Something else? I have no idea.

Obviously, Jackson intended to leave everything open. And she hints that the house is making the characters into unreliable narrators. The story ends with one character maybe killing herself? But Jackson doesn’t even definitely tell us that! I did think, as I was reading it, wow this isn’t that scary. But I will say, while this was no Fever Dream, it did stick with me and ended up being extremely creepy to think about.

Currently reading: Trying to finish Happiness before going on vacation. Trying to decide how many books it is reasonable to take on vacation… Erp.

So I’m starting to get into some books that I’d picked as potentially good summer reads (although I still haven’t decided what to take on vacation…) — The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich and Sociable by Rebecca Harrington.  I got Sociable because it seemed like a Bridget Jones style fun summer read that might not be completely idiotic. The Fact of a Body falls on the other side of summer reading – true crime.

 

I’m just going to tell you, I don’t think Sociable is worth your time. I wouldn’t have finished it if it were any longer than 236 pages. This is a novel about a young woman who moves to NY to work in journalism but ends up at sort of a BuzzFeed type organization writing “Top 15 Things Only Coffee Lovers Will Understand.” Honestly, the premise of this book was fine, some of the threads were interesting, but nothing was really developed and pretty much all the characters are insufferable. I’m thinking that was the author’s intent, and really, I guess many 24 year olds are insufferable. But man, I did not want to read any more about their terrible inability to understand or connect with other humans. Even beyond that, these characters were just stupid. The women’s dialogue is full of verbal filler (like, oh my God) and uptalk, which just gets annoying to read. And their conversation about feminism made me want to kill myself — two women talking about their terrible relationships with men (pretty much the only thing the two EVER discuss) debating which one of them is behaving in a feminist manner??! Ug.  This book may fail the Bechtel test. Maybe that was the point, but, I don’t blame you for leaving this one on the shelf.

The Fact of a Body is VERY different. It’s a pretty dark book, as much true crime is — the crime here is a murder and possible child molestation (it’s clear the perpetrator is a pedophile, less clear exactly how that fits into this crime). And, the memoir aspect is ALSO about child molestation! Marzano-Lesnevich is the child of two lawyers who went to law school because of her deep revulsion for the death penalty and her desire to help defendants in death penalty cases. In her first job, she immediately runs into the man who is guilty (tried three times and found guilty each time) of the murder  at the heart of the book. His story challenges her feelings on the death penalty and brings to the surface her unresolved issues with herself being molested as a child by a family member. The book tells the story of the crime, of the man’s life up until the crime, of the mother of the murdered child, of the many trials, and also the story of Marzano-Lesnevich’s life and how she begins to deal with her abuse differently.

One of the main threads of the book is how people, perhaps particularly lawyers, are storytellers:

My father is a storyteller. He tells stories to juries for a living, and he tells them to us around a thick white Formica table…

Marzano-Lesnevich at first loves this about lawyers:

Standing in front of an enormous three-part blackboard, [the law professor] raps the board with the chalk and begins. “Imagine . . .” she instructs the students, and begins to describe a set of circumstances. I don’t know yet to call what comes out of her mouth a hypothetical, the quick situations sketched by law professors to teach students to analyze how a principle applies to different circumstances. I recognize it for what it is: a story.

But ultimately, although Marzano-Lesnevich tells a very compelling narrative story about what has happened in her life and in this crime, she rebels against that:

What I fell in love with about the law so many years ago was the way that in making a story, in making a neat narrative of events, it finds a beginning, and therefore cause. But I didn’t understand then that the law doesn’t find the beginning any more than it finds the truth. It creates a story. That story has a beginning. That story simplifies and we call it truth.

In the end, she writes that one person — even a convicted murderer — can never be all one thing or another, “Only a story can be that. Never a person.” And I whole-heartedly agree — this is a compelling story that she’s telling, but of course, she has her own view of the situation, the frame that she imposes on these stories. We humans are storytellers, we fit things into narratives. But ultimately, people are more complicated than the stories they tell or the stories told about them.

If you’re able to deal with the subject matter of this book (pedophilia, murder of a child), I actually recommend it as an interesting and captivating summer read. I read this very quickly once I started (in about 2 days??) and it was a bit more academic and thought provoking than perhaps the standard true crime.

Currently reading: Still working on Tiny Beautiful Things and about to start Happiness.

 

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch is a weird book… it is another one that I picked up because of The Morning News Tournament of Books (it got knocked out in the first round).  I won’t say that I don’t recommend it, and I think it’s a very interesting book, I just feel like I didn’t get everything the author was doing and I would have actually liked it to be a little longer so I could get a better grasp on this sci-fi dystopian world.

Essenti9780062383273ally, this is a retelling of Joan of Arc, but Joan is a sort of magically powerful young woman (there’s a song in her head that’s the song of the universe? she’s closer to matter than human? I didn’t totally get it) who tried to save earth, but was also kind of an eco terrorist? And she gets burned after all the wars that lead to all the rich people going to live on space stations in the sky while continuing the suck the remaining life from the earth to sustain themselves. The story begins and is told maybe 50/50 with Christine (Christine is also based on a real medieval woman), who is a woman living on one of those space stations, but at age 49 she has only one more year before she’s basically put to death due to like… water shortages and stuff. Through Christine we learn Joan’s story. The book also very quickly builds to a climax, which I won’t really get into or give away.

A lot of the book is about the power of storytelling – in this future, the new literary form is skin grafts, they tell stories literally with their bodies:

[Christine speaking of the two gifts she will give herself for her birthday] The first is a recorded history. Oh, I know, there’s a good chance this won’t attract the epic attention I am shooting for. On the other hand, smaller spectacles have moved epochs. And anyway, I’ve got that gnawing human compulsion to tell what happened.

I am an expert at skin grafting, the new form of storytelling. I intent to leave the wealth of my knowledge and skill behind. And the last of my grafts I intend to be a masterwork.

I didn’t totally get all the references to story telling, but I do agree that people are storytellers, and they stories we tell matter and they shape us and our societies:

At the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, you said that cave life was like an entire epoch made of womb logic. I though about that for an entire year. I decided you were more brilliant than anyone I’d ever known. I decided you meant that Earth carried other meanings than the ones we used to make culture. That we’d misinterpreted ourselves and taken the story in the wrong directions.

She’ll live. She’ll become. Whatever that ends up meaning. Some story we don’t know yet, untied from all the ones that have come before

Ultimately, oddly because at times this book reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale (dystopian futures always seem to come back to the power of women’s bodies!), this book is fairly uplifting. The passage I actually marked is all about devastation though…

Earth is a cemetery. There is nothing to say. Nothing to say about all of this empty. There was no proper eulogy. I think of all the so-called lifeless planets out there floating in space. Was this really the end of our story? To join the galaxies of spinning, floating planets home to nothing, to no one but the elements that comprised us? We deserve it. For what we’ve done to each other. For what we did to this orb we found ourselves inhabiting. This beautiful, godforsaken place where once there was life.

This particular story doesn’t end that way.  Although I sort of very much identify with this as the story of where we as humans may really be going — our current story seems to lead to environmental devastation. But Joan’s story suggests the possibility of re-birth. Of course, without magical people, the best we may be able to hope for is an amazing speciation event (shout out to The Sixth Extinction! The Earth might be really cool and will definitely be different in another 65 million years if we don’t totally blow it up with nuclear weapons!).

Oh and of course, there was a dead mom in this book. There’s always a dead mom:

Joan walked straight back into the fray that day, her hand still bloody with dead mother muck. … Joan put her lips to the earth, almost like she was giving the earth mouth-to-mouth. Then everything everywhere burst into flames. … “There are no more mothers,” Joan said, and in her voice was rage as old as Earth’s canyons, cut by erosion and place tectonics and the force of water. And yet her emotions were still those of a teen , unable to contain what raged inside her body.

As you, I think, can tell, this is sort of an interesting and beautifully written book — I didn’t totally get it. But I love the way this particular moment is written, Joan having lost her mother saying “There are no more mothers.” It resonates with me so much; her innocence and her childhood are gone, and suddenly she sees that everyone’s innocence is gone, and this is how she phrases it.

So, read it if you like dystopian novels of good quality and UNDER 300 pages! Which considering the length of many sci-fi books, makes this one quite unique.

Currently Reading: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar and about to start The Haunting of Hill House. Although I have so many books out of the library right now, who knows what I’ll finish first…

After finishing up Song of a Captive Bird I was like, okay now on to something lighter — a novel about two sisters, one of whom is bipolar/schizophrenic (different diagnoses received through out the book) making their way in the world after the death of their 9780735221963_p0_v1_s550x406mother! But actually, despite the fact that many sad and depressing things happen in Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee, I really enjoyed this book.

The book is told from several points of view, which is really interesting with one character suffering from mental illness because you really see how everyone is trying their best, everyone is doing what they think is right, but it just doesn’t always work out well or result in people understanding each other. I really rooted for all the characters, particularly the sisters of course, at the beginning of the novel I marked the passage where they are cleaning out their mother’s house:

We burst into tears. Twelve cycles of chemotherapy, three surgeries, three course of radiation, two clinical trials, three remissions, four reoccurrences, over nine grueling years– yet the permanence of Ma’s absence still came as a shock.

I’ve said this before, I say it a lot, but I think there’s this fundamental human safeguard that you never really completely come to terms with someone’s death. Or maybe you come to terms with their death, but, even if you don’t believe in heaven and you’ll see them again on the other side etc., there’s this fundamental rebellion in your mind against the idea that someone who was her and present and alive can be gone.

I also really identified with the older sister, Miranda. She’s just finished taking care of her mother, and now her sister’s mental health is taking a tailspin. And there’s no map with mental health. There’s someone close to me who suffers from sever mental health issues and it is so hard to remember that you can’t make this person “better.” It’s so hard not to be angry with them for their irrational behavior. And it is so stressful to feel like, but I handed this problem over to the ‘grown ups,’ you have a therapist, a psychologist, a social worker — how is it that no one really knows what to do to make this “better”?

I loved the younger sister as well, although I identified with her less. But her love of language was fascinating to me:

Later I learned there’s a Spanish word for this: querencia. It refers to that place in the ring where a bull feels strongest, safest, where it returns again and again to renew its strength. It’s the place we’re most comfortable, where we know who we are- where we feel our most authentic selves.

There’s a word for this in Portuguese: saudade. It’s not exactly nostalgia, there’s more of a longing in it, for a feeling or way of life that may be impossible to recapture- that may or may not have even existed in the first place.  ‘An indolent dreaming wistfulness’ is how I’ve seen one writer describe it. Now that’s a great word.

There is a word for this, a beautiful word that unfurls from the tonge: velleity. The weakest form of volition. A mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it. This has never been [Lucia’s] way.

I haven’t said much about the plot, so I’ll say it’s really about these things. About trying to find querencia. About feeling saudade. It’s not really about velleity — because these women are fierce. They wake up every day and try.  They are both immigrants (although the younger sister was born in America, her mother flew from China to America while pregnant with her). And I think that is also key to the story (most of the characters are first generation immigrants): “immigrants are the strongest, that we leave our homes behind and rebuild. Everywhere we go, we rebuild.” 

Definitely recommend. Might even say that, despite the sadness, you could take this book on vacation and not be like, OH GOD I AM SO BUMMED OUT RIGHT NOW.

Currently reading: The Book of Joan (it is weird!)