July 2018


So, I need to transition away from non-fiction for a while after this… although Heart Berries is certainly not to blame for my slowed reading pace — that honor falls to The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far: Why Are We Here by Lawrence Krauss. Which I will discuss only to say that I am wildly unqualified to discuss this book. The one thing I can tell you is that I feel the title is misleading. This isn’t exactly about why we’re here. It’s about the history of particle physics (i.e. our understanding of particle physics). And I guess Krauss’ point is, if the universe worked differently, we, humans as we are constructed, wouldn’t be here. I kept reading this book because I refused to allow it to defeat me, not because I actually found it to be an accessible book on physics. Although, to be fair to this book, there may not be a book on physics which I would find accessible… Thanks for nothing public school education!

Heart Berries is a pretty different book. It’s a memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot, who grew up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation and is Native American. It’s a little awkward to read this book because Mailhot was one of Sherman Alexie’s students, and I always loved Sherman Alexie, but now, with the #MeToo allegations he faces, it’s hard for me to know what to think about him. Obviously, he himself was the victim of violence and sexual abuse. But that’s not a free pass to sexually harass or abuse others. Fortunately, Mailhot does not seem to have had a negative relationship with him and she thanks him for his support in this book.

The book itself is very odd, which if you’ve read Sherman Alexie, you may not find surprising. Mailhot doesn’t tell a straightforward story, rather tells the reader about the last few years, while also flashing back further. Much of the book is written to her significant other (so it is addressed to ‘you’), but it is BRUTALLY honest, like if I were him I wouldn’t be thrilled about how I’m portrayed. Also, Mailhot is bipolar/has PTSD/has a lot of different diagnoses, and one full chapter is written from a stay in a mental hospital. Her style is hard to convey, it’s not exactly flowery, but there is a sense of poetry in her words.

The book is largely about Mailhot’s pain, which sounds dismissive as I write it, but I don’t mean it that way, Mailhot has a lot of pain, and she writes about it beautifully:

In white culture forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don’t even know that white people see transcendence the way we do. I’m not sure their dichotomies apply to me.

I like the idea of framing pain as something other than a problem, although I certainly don’t live that way. Mailhot’s description of herself and her pain is interesting, because she understands when she’s behaving in a way that isn’t socially acceptable, she just doesn’t really care because she doesn’t accept that if she behaved in some other way that would be ‘right.’

I didn’t agree with Mailhot, or I didn’t identify with her on a lot of things, but I agreed with her about dying right:

Indians aren’t always allowed to rest in peace. I want to be buried in a bone garden with my ancestors someday. I’d like to belong to that. ‘If we can’t die right, how are we gonna live right?’ my mother would have asked.

I love the phrase “I’d like to belong to that.” The sense of belonging in death, is kind of beautiful. Even if you don’t think there’s anything else, to know that what’s left of you, is in the right place. I think there can be a peace in that.

This is a hard book to summarize. It is beautifully written. It is only 123 pages long. If you enjoy short, painful, beautifully written memoirs, this is for you. And hey, even if it isn’t, at 123 pages, it’s not going to take you long (certainly not as long as a pop science book on particle physics!)

Currently reading: Call Me Zebra and still A House Full of Females.

Oof. July hasn’t been a great month for reading, although that is partially because I’ve been spending some time working on non-fiction (A House Full of Females by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far: Why Are We Here by Lawrence Krauss) and coming nowhere near finishing it.

But, I did read An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, earlier this week, and in about 10 minutes (okay, like 2 days). I just couldn’t put it down.  I felt sort of consumed by it, or like haunted by it in a similar way to Fever Dreams. The two books are nothing a like, but it was that same, I just can’t put this down because I have this ominous feeling about what is going on. Which is kind of weird because the objectively horrible thing (and this is on the dust jacket, so I’m not calling it a spoiler) that happens is that the husband, Roy, goes to prison for a crime you the reader are sure he didn’t commit.

BUT FROM HERE ON OUT THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS, MOSTLY MINOR.

An American Marriage is a story about one marriage, but it’s also the story of lots of marriages and the relationships between people made by blood and by choice. Roy and Celestial are married for only a little over a year when Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The novel spends little time on the months he spends leading up to the trial, the trial itself, or the time he spends in prison — about 2/3rds of the book takes place immediately after he’s released. Roy is from a poorer African American family, Celestial was raised in a middle-class African American family, but her parents became wealthy due to an invention patented by her father.  She’s trying to make it as an artisan/artist — she makes very elaborate dolls which she sells, although she also makes some that are dolls but also more serious art pieces. There is also a love triangle, as Celestial falls for someone (Andre) else while Roy is in prison. The story is alternately told from Roy, Celestial, and Andre’s perspectives.

There is a lot of philosophizing about marriage in the book, as Celestial’s father tells Roy while he’s in prison (and Celestial is starting to visit less), “Marriage is between two people. There is no studio audience.” This book is really about how true and how not true that is. What is between two people, it is just between them. But, each person is part of a family, they have friends, everyone is part of this complicated web, and all these other people have opinions. And everyone in the book has strong opinions about marriage:

Celestial says she doesn’t believe in marriage anymore. “Till death do us part” is unreasonable, a recipe for failure. I asked her, “So what do you believe in?” She said, “I believe in communion.” As for me, I’m modern and traditional at the same time. I, too, believe in intimacy- who doesn’t? But I also believe in commitment. Marriage is, as she says, “a peculiar institution.” My parents’ divorce made it clear what kind of raw deals are brokered at the alter. But right now, in America, marriage is the closest thing to what I want.

This quote is from Andre, and it is striking to me because there’s so much packed in here. Celestial is still married at this point to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned, largely due to his race. She’s implicitly (explicitly??) comparing marriage to slavery (a peculiar institution), and yet Andre is saying that, as a black man in America, limited although not himself wrongfully imprisoned, marriage is the choice he wants to make for himself. Marriage certainly has been a form of servitude for many, and there are a lot of badly treated women in this book, Roy’s mom and Andre’s mom have both been left with children too feed.

Celestial doesn’t really fit into that, although I don’t disagree that maybe “till death do us part” is trickier when you’re living as a well-to-do black woman, and yet your husband can be arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison on the basis of nothing. As she puts it, “This isn’t what I signed up for.” And I think there are a lot of people in the world in marriages feeling this way, in all sorts of situations. I haven’t personally gotten there, my husband may have felt like my Mom’s illness wasn’t what he signed up for, but I’ve had a few people say something along these lines to me. This book, and its characters pull you back and forth across the line — on one hand, there isn’t a sign up sheet, promises were made, and love isn’t always easy, but on the other, you only have one life to live, do you have to spend it with someone just because of a sense of obligation?

There’s also plenty in this book about motherhood and mothers, which I always mark, because it always hits me, because I miss my Mom. Roy’s mother dies while he’s in prison, and he’s dealing with a lot of other things, but he’s missing her:

The draft in the room collided with the neatly folded clothes, releasing the scent I’ll always association with Olive. If you were to aske me what it smelled like, I couldn’t answer any more than you would know what to say if someone asked you to describe the fragrance of coffee. it was the scent of my mother and it couldn’t be broken down into parts.

I also have to discuss one more line, Andre is musing about how he’s not sorry about his relationship with Celestial, but he is sorry for so many things, he’s sorry for Roy, who was so robbed of his future by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he also says “I was sorry for everyone in the world because we all had to die and nobody knew what happened after that.” I have spent a lot of time in the last year thinking about death and dying and looking into the abyss and freaking out, but wow. I have never had this thought, and now I am unable to stop turning it over in my mind. It doesn’t exactly give everyone a free pass, but it really makes me think about how much I have in common with every human being who is now, or who ever was.

I marked a lot of pages in this book… there is SO much that I could say, there’s A LOT in here about fatherhood and much more about race that I haven’t touched on, but the main thing is this: you should read this book. It’s wonderful and terrifying and, it even has an epilogue, which (per a discussion I had with someone last week) is the neatly tied bow that some people are looking for in their novels.

Currently reading: Almost done with Heartberries, and still working on A House Full of Females and The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far. 

 

I’m going to mostly talk about The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith, but I also read The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (which I’m shocked to report you can buy at Powell’s).  The Spellman Files I picked up at a book sale for $1 last year, and I’ve been kind of on and off reading it every now and then and finally finished it this week. So yeah… I can’t strongly recommend it.

But I’m thinking about both books because I was talking to someone about books generally last week and she told me she hates books without epilogues. She wants absolutely everything wrapped up in a bow. I kind of agree with her and I kind of don’t, and I actually disliked the endings of both of these books for that reason. Smith’s Windermere leaves you hanging, with no clear cut ending at all, whereas Lutz, as far as I’m concerned, takes things too far having not only an epilogue but also another chapter AFTER the epilogue to tie things up even further. Both frustrated me. I want a beginning middle and end, but I also don’t need to know what happened to every character until the day they died.Where do you stand dear reader?

 

The Maze at Windermere is actually five stories, wrapped into one novel with intersecting themes and all five stories take place at different times in Newport, RI. First, the story of Sandy Alison, a retired tennis pro working in Newport in 2011. Then back to 1896 for the story of Franklin Drexel, a gay man trying to social climb by marrying well in Newport and keep his real preferences secret. Then 1863, to see a young Henry James (the novelist) practicing the art of observation and working on being a writer during the Civil War. Fourth, the story of Major Ballard, a British officer stationed in Newport during the Revolutionary War. And finally, in 1692, the story of Prudence Selwyn, a Quaker settler.

I most enjoyed Alison, Drexel, and Selwyn, although the young Henry James had his moments as well and I marked several of his (fictional) thoughts (I couldn’t stand Major Ballard, who is much less sympathetic than the others):

[T]here was between us, I felt, a fellowship silently acknowledged, and which did not partake of romance but rather of a yet rarer quality: the colloquy of two souls who recognized one another, who found themselves in the ordinary world to be obscurely trapped, yet in each other’s presence to be free.

Young Henry James’ story begins when he starts hanging around a resort hotel to observe human behavior there as material for possible stories. While there he meets a young woman who turns out to be much more than the stereotype he crafted of her, but there’s no romance between them, James is sort of asexual.

Maybe because Selwyn was the only female voice in the book, I marked a number of passages from her.  Selwyn’s mother and father have died, and at 15 no one is quite sure whether to try to have another Friend adopt her and her younger sister, or try to marry her off to a man more than twice her age. I enjoyed the chapters with Selwyn the most, having lost my own mother, I identified with some of what she was feeling:

We talk’d of our old Selves, and Jane said it was as if they had been set adrift and lost over the Horizon. This Picture work’d on me greatly, as I think it did her. Our old Selves as if in a Tub, set upon the Waters and drifting vanishingly away even as watch’d from the Shore. O! to what unknown Countries, and to what Centuries hence?

It does sometimes feel like you’ve traveled away from yourself, become some new person after you’ve survived something life changing. And yet, somehow your old self is still out there, gone, but not forgotten. How simple life would have been for that girl.

Everyone in the novel is trying to live within society, but all five characters struggle with a desire to live outside, Drexel for example, faced with few options for living within the role he’s created for himself in Newport considers what and who he is without the mask:

[W]hat was he if not gilding? He was the very soul of gilding – Frank Drexel the Gilded Man! And yet, and yet . . . Might it not be possible even for a gilded man? If there was, after all, nothing else! To step into the shadows of the demimonde and stay there. To step behind the arras, to be done with duplicity, to enter the maze of who one was never to leave!

In the end, there’s a lot left unsaid about the characters, but for the most part they’ve either figured out how to get what they want within the bounds of what Newport society of their time allows, or they’re contemplating real escape. I had a bit of hard time getting into the whole, five stories switching around style of the book, but ultimately enjoyed this read.

Currently working on: A House Full of Females and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Time to find someone more fiction; everything I have out of the library right now is non-fiction.

I have a habit of putting a book on my “To Read” list, and then maybe forgetting what it’s about or why I wanted to read it. I also often resist reading the book jacket once I’ve forgotten what exactly a book will be about. So, Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards threw me for a loop as I was reading it.

Essentially, the book is about Dr. Frankie Burk who, having just won a MacArthur, goes the The Great Ape Foundation to continue her work on understanding mating habits. The story is set just slightly in the future, when humans have become more technology dependent and have implanted bodyware that interacts with all the devices around them. Also, global climate change has resulted in more intense weather — a huge dust storm features prominently. Some of this is not so far removed from us:

Since ok had become the vocab that activated so many devices, the word had fallen out of use in normal human conversation, for fear a nearby oven might click on or a garage door shut.

I have a friend (“friend”?) who is always telling my Alexa to order 10,000 cans of creamed corn. Thankfully, so far he has not succeed.

The book taught me a lot of fascinating things about bonobos — did you know that they are like, the kindest of the animal kingdom? And incredibly smart, some of them understand thousands of English words. I did not. But now I can tell people about fascinating studies of how bonobos will cooperate with one another, how if you lock up two, and put food out, and then let one out, he will let the other bonobo out before then sharing the food. I think I may prefer bonobos to people…

The book also taught me a lot of terrible facts about endometriosis. I sort of knew that it was a really painful disease, but I had no idea how much it could destroy your life, or how life threatening it could become, or how few (none?) treatment options there are. Frankie has severe endometriosis, and just before the book opens she uses part of her MacArthur grant to pay for her hysterectomy, which does finally give her relief. I’m just not going to detail all the fun endometriosis facts here okay?

I should also say, the bastards in this title are literal bastards — Frankie develops a theory about the evolutionary benefit which flows from sex outside marriage and the bastards that result. (Although legally, if the mom is married, those kids aren’t bastards, they’re presumed children of the husband. Also, we should really get beyond putting labels like this on kids, but Frankie is obviously not using the term in a pejorative manner).

SPOILERSSSSS!

The twist comes a little more than halfway through the book, as this turns into more of a sci-fi novel. After the dust storm, things never go back to normal. All the bodyware ceases to work, all the technology. It started to feel a bit like Station Eleven, which I loved. Although Station Eleven also takes place partially decades after the killer flu, when civilization is just beginning to rebuild a bit. Theory of Bastards kind of leaves you in the muck. And of course, Frankie and another scientist are walking through this dystopia with 14 bonobos that they’re very attached to (as will you be dear reader) and trying to keep safe. Which is a fun twist on dystopia to be honest. The bonobos, and all of their personalities, were really what kept me reading the book.

Also Frankie, despite being left by the reader in a dystopian waste land, is pretty upbeat:

Throughout her life she’d been accustomed to waking each day in her own bed, knowing she would be warm and dry, assured of her morning shower and time on the toilet. Now without any certainty, each object she passed became worth noting, worth exploring. … She knew now the experience of loss was a prerequisite to holding anything tight enough to feel it.

I don’t know if I totally agree with this sentiment. Certainly, if you never experienced loss, you might appreciate your blessings less, but sometimes, things are just so terrible it’s hard to feel like, wow this will really help me appreciate things later… I would sort of think this would be especially true in a world without ready access of clean drinking water. Not sure how much I’d be walking around thinking about how great it is to really feel the things I still have. But, the human experience, life it is about adversity on some level. Hearkening back to my Happiness discussion now I guess. I think Frankie and Attila might be friends.

Currently reading: Debating between The Maze at Windemere and A House Full of Females… probably just going to start both.

 

I know, a whole eight days without knowing what all I’ve read 🙂 I’ll keep these a little short because I read quite a bit this week…

First, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready by Meaghan

O’Connell. I think the audience for this book is pretty specific — O’Connell is a kind of a stereotypical New Yorker in a number of ways and I could see that it might be difficult for women who have had very different lives by the time they are 29 to identify with O’Connell being unready for kids at that point. But this is a hilarious and honest book about one woman’s experience having a baby and getting through that first year. She really honestly shows you how difficult things can be even when they work out, and how difficult things can be when they do not work out. And she makes it to the other side of that first year.

 

Next up was Halsey Street by Naima Coster. This is another book from the list of 46 books by women of color to read in 2018.  This was not exactly a happy book, but it’s a great novel that really delves into mother/daughter and father/daughter relationships. It also has a lot to say about gentrification in NYC. The book alternates between Penelope’s (the daughter) perspective, and her mother Mirella’s as well as occasionally going back in time to the early days of Mirella and Ralph (husband/father).  I absolutely recommend this one, although its not one of my absolute favorites of the year (so far).

 

After this, I decided to read a few lighter books — The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
and The Book of Essie by Megan Maclean Weir. I’ve seen The Wedding Date on a few different lists, I’d passed on it due to the horrible title, and I have to say, I’m not really sure why everyone is raving about this book? It’s a pretty typical rom-com romance type novel, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. My best guess is that there’s just literally nothing else out there in this romance category that tackles race at all (girl is black, boy is white in this book and there are a few actual conversations about race) and includes an articulate woman?? I didn’t really like it.

I did like The Book of Essie which is kind of a combination of a few things that have really happened… The book is about the youngest daughter of a very Christian family 9780525520313who have been the stars of a reality tv show for her entire life. Essentially, the book is about how she escapes from her family and the very dark things that have been done to her by her family. There are some pretty dark themes in the book, but nothing ever really goes wrong once the plot gets going, which didn’t seem completely believable. But for a book I read on the beach, I’m letting it go. This may not be everyone’s idea of a beach read, there’s some pretty disturbing plot twists (sexual assault/child molestation – come on does that count as a spoiler? I told you it reminded me of several recent real scandals with very Christian tv families…).

 

After these two, I decided to transition back to less of a beach read but one that’s been on my list for a long time – The Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdich. Gosh this is a horribly depressing book. The comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are warranted, both are about how women’s bodies can become the property of others. Although TFHLG is almost a prequel? The Handmaid’s Tale brushes over the ‘how we got here’ part of the story, instead focusing on the life of Offred after she’s become a handmaid. If you haven’t read it, you must. And I really must get back to the Margret Atwood books that have been on my bedside table for… a while… TFHLG is all about the change over, how we go from a moment sort of like today  to the Handmaids Tale kind of world. This book says a lot of interesting things about the relationships between mothers and daughters — biological mothers and adoptive mothers. But be warned, do not make my mistake! This is not a beach read…

Thoroughly depressed, I finished out the week with How Hard Can It Be by Allison Pearson. This is a sequel to I Don’t Know How She Does It, which I loved long ago. I loved that book so much that, although I was doubtful about whether a sequel would really work, I bought this book in Hardcover. This is generally Not Done in my family. You get the book out of the library, if you really like it, you may buy the paperback. So I guess that tells you how much I loved the original book. The original is about a working mom trying to make it working in the cut throat world of London’s financial markets while also raising two kids with a husband who just doesn’t really help. Kate, the main character, has some of the same wit that so many women fell in love with in the Bridget Jones books, but I loved her because unlike Bridget, Kate is not an idiot. She’s great at her incredibly hard, stressful job.

How Hard Can It Be picks up about 8 years down the road, Kate’s taken some time sort of off work to take care of her kids and mom, and she’s trying to get back into work, dealing with teenagers, dealing with menopause, and there’s an old flame from the first book. It sounds a bit silly, and it is, but well, this is my idea of a beach read — not complete trash with a plot so thin you almost can’t bare to read it, but not so depressing that you have a panic attack when you’re on vacation. Although OF COURSE someone in this book has Alzheimer’s. I mean, just because it’s the 6th leading cause of death in America and about 5.7 million people are currently living with it, does it have to be in every book I try to escape in this year? Apparently there is no escape.

Currently reading: Started Theory of Bastards on vacation, not sure what will come after that yet — only four books out of the library right now! Back to work on Monday, but the reading will continue, if not another 6 books this week…

Also for those of you keeping score at home, I’m at 61 books for 2018 🙂