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.