August 2018

Two pretty quick reads this week – White Tears by Hari Kunzru and The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson. They are very different books, but I recommend them both. No idea where I got the recommendation to read The Language of Kindness, but White Tears was part of the 2018 Morning News Tournament of Books – which is an AMAZING place to get book recommendations from (I’ve read 10 of the 16 from 2018 and while not all were my favorite book of all time, I have no regrets about reading any of them). And they’ve been doing it for more than a decade, so if the 2018 books don’t excite you, you can look at all the books that have competed starting in 2005.

White Tears is a quick read because after about the first fifty pages it took a turn I was not expecting and became a magical realism/thriller/horror-ish story. This book reminded me of so many other books — Fever Dream (not quite as horrifying, but that same sense of pacing being a little out of your control, confusion about what’s going on) as well as The Underground Railroad (dealing with complicated issues of race while also being somewhat entertaining, although it feels terrible to say that either book was entertaining in some ways).

Essentially, this is the story of Seth and Carter, two white kids who enjoy African American music. Seth is awkward (“I often suspect that I make no impression on others. Gestures that ought to have an impact seem to fade before they reach their audience, before they bridge the gap between me and world of the living”). Carter is super, super, super rich and sets the pair up with a recording studio after college. They make a living basically helping white artists appropriate African American sound. Seth is the sound engineer and the protagonist of our story, for the most part. Seth accidentally records an unknown singer, the two release the song pretending it’s a long-lost recording of a 1920’s blues singer. Everything starts to get kind of weird from there. People, one man in particular believe that the song was really that of a 1920’s blue singer, and the magical realism begins to creep in. Seth and Carter’s cultural appropriation is layered on top of the racism, abuse, and violence faced by African Americans in the 1960’s and the 1920’s.

The whole book is really sort of this thought experiment about the many blues musicians who are lost to history (most familiar to me is Robert Johnson, but obviously there are many people we know even less about), this is sort of a, we can never know so let’s imagine one possible story:

The names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about them. No information, not a scrap. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.

I read a couple reviews that said something along the lines of, I saw the twists coming in this book. I DID NOT see the twists coming. Which is maybe why I found it so hard to put down, because I felt like the book really didn’t follow the trajectory I was expecting. If you’ve read it, what did you think – surprising, or not so much?

The Language of Kindness is a memoir covering Christie Watson’s (who also writes fiction) twenty years working as a nurse in the UK, mostly in London. If you are an easy crier, DO NOT read this book in public. Earlier today I had to like wipe my entire face clear of the tears into my sweater at Starbucks; somehow I felt going to get napkins would be even more obvious?? Watson did all kinds of nursing in her twenty years – ICU, PICU, mental-health, and working with an emergency crash team going all over the hospital whenever called. Her stories are heartening, and devastating. She also writes about losing her father to cancer in her late 30’s, which hit me hard although she writes about it beautifully:

Dad is dying in his bed at home, with my mum holding him, my brother holding him, and me holding my mum. There is no pain. There is dignity. There is comfort. I cannot imagine a better death. We have had time to say the things we needed to, and to leave unsaid the thing we didn’t…. We cry and laugh. He is totally himself until the last second. Dad is excellent at dying, it turns out.  It is Mum who teaches me how to live a full life: with joy and emotion and forgiveness and truth. But my Dad teaches me how to die well. He dies with humor and dignity and a complete lack of fear.

There is so much in this paragraph for me. It is a punch in the chest to be reminded of all the things that weren’t possible for my Mom — she did not die at home, she was not herself for years before she died, I can never really know whether she was afraid or in pain because she had no ability to communicate. But, she wasn’t in a hospital, she was with me and my Dad, we were talking to her, we were with her. And I pushed hard to make sure she got pain medication. Lots of people said nice things to me when my Mom died, but one person told me that I’d done everything I could to help my Mom to a peaceful and relatively pain-free death, and that that wasn’t a small thing. Oddly, it was nice to hear this.

Watson’s book could be boiled down to this: “Human beings are capable of such kindness. And such cruelty.” She tells vivid stories about the patients she’s cared for, the abuse suffered by some, but also the man getting chemo therapy who causes her to weep on her first day back at work after her father has died of cancer:

The crying that I’ve held in for days comes out in a rush that is so violent I know over the glass of water next to his bed.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry.” …

He pulls me toward his arm and tucks me there, next to his rattling chest, his ribs pressing against my cheekbones, my tears free and fast. It must have been only a few seconds, but it felt a lot longer, with him the nurse and me the patient.

“You let it out, girl.”

“I’m sorry. It’s unprofessional of me. I should be helping you.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “We should all be helping each other.”

Sometimes, more often than I’d like, I get so down thinking about how many of the problems that people face are caused by people (violence, war, poverty, just to name the over-arching themes). Watson’s book will make you cry, but it is also full of heartwarming moments that are powerful without being (to me at least) saccharine.

Currently reading: I’m a few pages into a few books (still only two chapters into A Full House of Women…), but I’m thinking this weekend I will focus on Barracoon although maybe I’ll veer into something lighter.

Book update: The Language of Kindness was book 75 for the year, so 100 is definitely within my reach. I said to someone yesterday, I’m reading 100 books this year, and he was just like, good for you, read 120! So…maybe.

Well, August has been better than July for reading I think, in the past couple weeks I’ve read, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I didn’t write last week about The Magicians because, and I’m sorry to say it, I just didn’t really care for it. It just seems really derivative of Chronicles of Narnia, but it’s trying to be an adult book, and it just didn’t really work for me. I will say, it was a pretty fast read, so heck, maybe I’ll give the second book in the series a try.

The Princess Diarist was also not my favorite book; it was a bummer, and not just because Carrie Fisher passed away. The book includes excerpts from diaries that Fisher kept during the filming of the first Star Wars movie as well as Fisher’s writing about the time, but there are no real stories about the filming. Rather, the whole book is about Fisher’s affair with (then married) Harrison Ford, who was fifteen years older than her. The affair wasn’t really a happy one; Fisher was only 19, and while it doesn’t sound like Ford took advantage of her exactly, she clearly felt not in control of the relationship. All the excerpts from her diaries are about how uncertain and basically unhappy she is because of the relationship. You do get the story about the creation of Princess Leia’s hairstyle.

indexFreshwater on the other hand was an amazing book. It’s the story of a young Nigerian woman named Ada. You can either read this book as a story about a woman born with one foot on the other side, gods trapped inside her, or the story of a schizophrenic woman as more and more personalities appear. The book is variously narrated by Ada, by the “We” group of gods inside her before any distinction occurs, and by Asughara a god that separates and has the ability to control and to speak with Ada in her own mind. There’s also another personality, St. Vincent, who isn’t as powerful and thus (I guess) doesn’t get to narrate.

Asughara appears after a traumatic moment, “I had arrived, flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh. I was here.” Honestly, at first I was like, I wish everyone had a personality like this to take over, to protect them, but as the book progresses, I leaned more towards reading this as being about a severely mentally ill woman, and I really wanted her to get help.

This is a really beautifully written book, you should read it.

Currently reading: White Tears, and still working on A House Full of Females.

This weekend I started and finished Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shafer, “An Obama Biden Mystery.” I am kind of hoping that this subtitle means there will be more such books, because I really enjoyed this one.  I definitely recommend the book if you’re missing the Obama years, or if you just like mysteries and aren’t like a super right-wing Obama hater — it is actually a much more well written book than I had anticipated.

Hope Never Dies begins with Obama and Biden, now having left public service and with their friendship going through a tough time (Biden, like the rest of us, jealous of Obama’s amazing looking vacations…). An Amtrak employee Biden knows well (they don’t call him Amtrak Joe for nothing) dies under mysterious circumstances, and Biden and Obama reunite to investigate — SPOILERS ! ultimately solving the case 🙂

The novel is narrated entirely by Biden, and I actually think that Shafer must have spent a good chunk of time reading Biden’s books. I’ve read a bit of Biden’s work, and this was certainly a little off (the plot is a bit far fetched), but there was certainly similarity to the real Biden’s voice. The far fetched-ness is hilarious though:

Barack placed one of his oversized ears on the door. Political cartoonists loved to mock Barack’s elephant ears. If only they could see him now, using them for their God-intended purpose.

I’m not a huge mystery reader, I’ve considered giving Sue Grafton a try, and I did read some Val McDermid last year, I just find most of them to be a bit too straight-forward (everything is wrapped in a neat bow at the end) and almost too untaxing to read. But this was a great, funny summer read.

Once I finished Hope Never Dies, I decided to treat myself to another Meg Wolitzer. I hadn’t read anything by her until this year, and so far I’ve loved everything (Speaking of Sleep – The Ten Year Nap and Meg Wolitzer Strikes Again – The Female Persuasion), including this book, The Uncoupling.  The plot is pretty straight forward — there’s a bit of magical realism, but just a very little bit, as a suburban New Jersey high school is putting on the Greek comedy Lysistrata and suddenly a ‘spell’ is cast and all the women involved, the high school teachers and students, stop having sex with their husbands and boyfriends. Lysistrata, in case you don’t know, is a play about women in Greece refusing to have sex with men until they end the Peloponnisian war.

As with many Meg Wolitzer books, I just found the characters to be very compelling — perhaps because Wolitzer frequently writes about people who remind me of myself (middle class, well-educated, women). Much of the book centers around Dory and Robby Lang, high school English teachers, and their sophomore daughter Willa, although other women teachers at the high school get some time narrating as well.

This book said so much that I found interesting and relatable about sex, relationships, about men and about women. The teenage parts seemed pretty accurate, and pretty depressing to me:

Then he said, “Now we’re on the same page here right?” and she said yes. “Okay,” Ralph said. Then he nodded gravely and cast his eyes downward towards his fly, which he unzipped with a loud single syllable, revealing an anatomical part that was pretty much as Marissa expected . . . . Marissa was shocked by his action, but abstractly interested. . . . They sat unmoving, and then he nodded again, encouragingly, and dipped his head in suggestion.

It doesn’t really get better from here… Not a wonder some of the teen girls give up sex. Not a wonder.

There’s also quite a bit about parenting:

They lived in a time in which it was tremendously difficult, as parents, to let children endure any pain. If you sensed their despair, you took it on as if it were your own. You let it ruin you, imagining that they, somehow, would be spared. They would live and thrive, while you would die of their transferred misery.

Seems like a pretty accurate description of parenting in 2018 to me… And Dory struggles with how to advise her daughter:

There was no way to know, thought Dory. You bumped stupidly ahead through life, and you couldn’t know if starring in a play, or sleeping with someone, or marrying someone, or picking a particular college, or even taking a walk down the street, was going to lead to happiness or sorrow. How could you know? A mother couldn’t advise her daughter in such matters, except in the most nebulous and anemic way.

I was raised Presbyterian, so grew up with the sense that God had a plan for me, that the big things in my life were predestined. I don’t really feel that way anymore, but either way, it’s true that as many pro/con lists as you make, there’s just no way to know what the results of your actions will be – and that much more terrifying when you want to protect your loved ones from any bad decision and realize you have no way of knowing for sure whether any one decision is ‘bad.’

Currently reading: Why Time Flies, thinking about giving The Magicians a try — decided to keep August reads a bit light.

July wrapped up as a slower month for reading for me, just seven books read, and honestly, other than An American Marriage, this wasn’t my favorite month of books.  The last book of July, Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, and the first book of August, The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, ended up being an interesting pair (both about grieving, but written in such different styles) — and here’s hoping that finishing my first August book on 8/2 will send me into a better reading month for August (both in getting them read, and in getting more out of reading them).

I almost gave up on Call Me Zebra — I started it three times before I really got past the first couple of pages. While reading it, I felt like, this is the kind of book that you either absolutely love, or absolutely hate, there’s not going to be a lot of middle ground. Similar to The Idiot, this novel is told by a very bright young woman in a very dense style with MANY literary references. Dense is really not even a strong enough way to describe the book. At less than 300 pages, it somehow still felt interminable.

Zebra (a chosen name) is a young woman who fled from Iran as a child refugee with her parents. Her mother died during their escape from Iran, and her father raised her as the last in a line of a family of Anarchists, Atheists, and Autodidacts with more than a love of literature: a sense that literature is the only thing that matters, the only way to make sense of the world (“Love nothing except literature”). The book briefly covers their flight from Iran, but mainly gets going as Zebra’s father is dying in America. What made me keep giving this book a chance is that, as dense as it was, as annoying as I found Zebra, this is really a book about how she deals with the death of her only family member and the year after his death as she grieves and figures out how to live — all on top of her existing grief of having fled her country and home, and lost her mother, as a child. You will feel for Zebra, even if you don’t like her:

Easy to be calm about life, I thought, but not so easy to shuffle between life and death, between the persistence of memory and oblivion, like a lost pilgrim, an exile, neither here nor there. At least the pilgrim [from Dante] was midway through the journey of our life when he found himself banished into the dark forests of exile far from everyone. I was not even halfway through mine when its infrastructure, meager to begin with, was extinguished in a two-pronged blow. I felt the toxic fumes of my parents’ deaths rise through the void.

I just couldn’t really relate to Zebra’s method of dealing with her grief — she decided to retrace her steps and go on a Grand Tour of Exile (so most of the book is set in Spain where she and her father lived before coming to America), she writes a manifesto in her notebook: A Philosophy of Totality: The Matrix of Literature, honestly I thought off and on that Zebra was really suffering from some mental illness beyond depression (which she is very clearly suffering from, barely eating, often sleeping for days, and attempting to kill herself). Although I’ve since seen this article (Orca Mother Carries Calf on Tragic Tour of Grief), so maybe Zebra’s Grand Tour is less weird than I thought.

There are some ideas in this book I really liked, Zebra’s father tells her, “The whole world is a mind. [Zebra’s mother’s] mind has been absorbed back into the mind of the universe.” Zebra, takes this a bit further however, by deciding that she has intercepted her father’s mind before it could be reabsorbed into the universe and she is sort of taking direction from him inside her head. I definitely understand wanting to get guidance from your loved ones who have died, but Zebra takes this (and everything else) farther than I would and have.  Zebra is often sort right, but still, her train of thought is often hard to follow.

The end of the book really redeemed things for me, although I’m not  sure Zebra becomes that much less crazy, but she does become slightly more optimistic:

The greatest revenge, I saw, lay in the simplest revenge of all: to love against all odds, to prevail, to persist in a world that fought tooth and nail to eliminate me. That’s all there was. That’s all there every had been. … My father had vanished from my void. So had my mother. They had joined the residue of the world. They were everywhere. They were in the very air I breathed. They existed in my inky veins as knowledge. What did it matter what streets I walked on? What did it matter where I sank my anchor when the whole world was a single surface, and infinitely unreeling roll of paper?

The Friend was a nice change for me, it’s written in a much more spare style, the narrator is a little crazy, but she hasn’t jumped the shark in her grief. I guess for me, grief isn’t verbose. Grief is spare. The world recedes. The nameless narrator of The Friend is a writer and professor who loses a dear friend to suicide and the book is about how she begins to heal from that loss, and how as part of that she takes care of his dog, Apollo (a Great Dane). The book is mostly written directly to the dead friend (although the friend in the title I think refers more to Apollo). That’s really all that happens in the book, so it’s not exactly a page turner, but I enjoyed spending time with this narrator.

Like Call Me Zebra, The Friend is full of literary references — quotes from authors, comparisons of different thoughts of authors, discussion of what reading and writing are all about, but it doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming. It is also full of facts about dogs and musings about dog/human relationships.  It is, of course, also full thoughts about suicide and its rightness or wrongness, how you might forgive someone for taking their own life and how you might not blame them at all. I enjoyed all the discussion of and facts about dogs. I think I actually appear in this book, the narrator, walking Apollo meets a woman who tells her about the horrors of pure bred dogs and tells her:

I shudder to think what it’ll be like in fifty or a hundred years from now, says the woman, looking very dark indeed. But by then, she adds, the whole earth will have been destroyed. And, perhaps consoled by this thought, she takes her mutts and moves on.

The Friend’s narrator goes on no Grand Tour of Exile or Grief, she doesn’t act crazy in the same way Zebra does, I found her discussion much more relatable:

Since I first heard about your death, haven’t I often felt like someone living with one foot in madness. Early on, there were times when I would find myself somewhere without remembering how I got there, when I’d leave home on some errand only to forget what it was.

This is certainly the story of my grief. For months after my mother’s death, my mind just didn’t work right. I made cookies, but left the sugar out. I knew something was wrong, but well, everything was wrong, so who could pinpoint what exactly was wrong.  The narrator of this book seems to have a much firmer grasp on her grief, she doesn’t really engage in the same fantastical thinking Zebra does, she seems to have a better sense of what is wrong — Zebra invests quests and tilts at windmills, but The Friend’s narrator knows:

It’s not that I can’t say how I feel. It’s very simple. I miss you. I miss you every day. I miss you very much.

I’ve spent a lot of time now telling you that I liked The Friend better than Call Me Zebra, but this book is also sort of rebuke to this blog as a whole — as a writer and writing professor, the narrator and others bemoan their students inability to discuss anything other than whether or not they like a book. As I former English major I certainly know, I could never submit one of these rambling posts as literary criticism. But, I don’t think there’s no value in telling you what I liked and why if we’re both clear that’s what I’m doing — maybe you’ll pick up The Friend and you’ll like it too and then we can talk. Or maybe you’ll pick up Call Me Zebra to spite me, and to prove to me how I’ve missed something. Let me know.

Currently reading: Why Time Flies and …Hope Never Dies (the Obama/Biden mystery), very excited! Finally a page turner 🙂