Ramblings


Oh gosh. This book guys. This is a great book. I have definitely become the kind of person that forces books into other people’s hands — I used to hate lending books around, but then I cleaned out my parents house and donated more than four Toyota Corolla’s worth of books (yes, I filled my car with books four times, I traded another few bags at my local used book store turning books I didn’t want into fewer books that I did want, and ultimately donated another few bags to the library after the Savers near me went out of business, possibly due to my many book donations…).  And I realized two things –(1) it may be possible to have too many books and (2) man I wish I had kept those books and opened my own used book store.  Since I gave up my easiest chance to become a used bookstore owner, I probably don’t need to hold tight to every single book I own (it is a lot), I should share the great ones.

Sadly I took The Animators out of the library (okay not that sadly, I have a lot of books already…) but suffice it to say that someone is getting this book for their birthday/Christmas/Arbor Day/whatever.

The basics, this is a book about two women (Sharon and Mel) who work together as an artistic partnership and create adult cartoons.  It is sort of a coming of age, although it mostly covers the two-ish years after they begin to be a little bit famous.  You get a sort of short story (the prologue) that sets up their meeting in college, and then the book opens with them finishing their first big project to modest acclaim and winning a grant to make their next project. It is told from Sharon’s point of view.

I thought this book would be about how once you make something great, there can be a real question about whether you’ll ever make another great thing. And it sort of was, but there were also a lot of twists on that. It was kind of, to me at least, a story about feeling very lost, and then coming out on the other side, in your 30’s and realizing that you’re not clueless, that you have some advice to give to the 20 year olds following you, but maybe you’re never going to have quite the clarity you want.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS ARE COMING! IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE PLOT OF THIS BOOK BEFORE YOU READ IT! ABORT! ABORT! LOOK AWAY NOW! OKAY YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

I marked so many passages of this book because I loved them. I will say, it was kind of a hilarious moment for me in that Mel’s mom dies on page 38. Oh geez, of course. Although I found myself relating a lot of Mel’s thoughts and Sharon’s observations, though not all of it.

There is a second death in this book, and even though I have warned you, I feel bad revealing exactly who it is. But I found the discussion of that death very realistic as well — it is so hard that everyone else goes on living when someone you love has died.  Nothing stops the way it should, you have to go back to work. You have to keep being alive, but suddenly you’re just different. I also really identified with Sharon’s resentment that the person she loves “now exists only in my head. . . It is idealized [name], cheap, ill-made. And that cuts most of all. In my heart of hearts, I know how much she would have hated that.” She hates that this complete person has become “a series of anecdotes.” It is so difficult to integrate that someone is gone, and to figure out how they can be gone, and to figure out what your relationship is with this new gone person.

There’s a lot about Sharon’s past as well (her past ends up being the focus of their new project) — she grew up in Kentucky, as sort of an odd duck and got a scholarship to an elite school. I enjoyed the scene where, after she’s won this scholarship, the local librarian says to her:

“‘This place,’ she said, ‘is a bucket of sand crabs. One tried to climb out, the others’ll reach up and pull him back down. Climb out of here. Don’t you dare come back.'”

I love this image, although fortunately this isn’t a simplistic, get out of hick town narrative. There ends up being a lot of complexity about Sharon’s relationship to where she’s from and who that makes her.

There are additionally just some beautifully written sentences in this book –

“And it is during lovemaking, sometimes rowdy enough to be called fucking and sometimes gentle enough to be called prayer, that we loosen our holds on ourselves enough to confess that this has never happened before, to either one of us, maybe not to anyone else ever, and we hope against hope, with gritted teeth, that there will be no end.”

This book lost, immediately, in the first round of The Morning New Tournament of Books this year. But, as one of the commenters said when people were kind of raining on Fever Dreams (which won, and I get it, because it is powerful if not delightful), we all won the tournament of books because we made all these new book friends, which for me includes my new book friend The Animators.  (This is almost enough to make me not bitter than Manhattan Beach, Sing Unburied Sing, and The Animators all got knocked out. Almost. BUT CAN YOU BELIEVE LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE WAS NOT EVEN PART OF THE COMPETITION??).

Currently reading: When They Call You a Terrorist and weighing whether to start another non-fiction or go pick up Pachinko from the library.

This past week I read The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman and Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. I didn’t necessarily intend them as a set, but both are about magical sisters. Both happen to be books by authors that I’m fond of — Sisterland was the only Sittenfeld book that I hadn’t read although there’s a lot of Hoffman that I  haven’t gotten to yet.  I loved Hoffman’s Faithful and definitely recommend that to you, and you may recall that I read Practical Magic last year (The Rules of Magic is a prequel).

Sittenfeld has only written five novels so far, previously I’d read Eligible, American Wife, and Man of My Dreams, and last year I finally read Prep.  I really loved Eligible (a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice) and I loved American Wife. Sisterland, like Man of My Dreams, was okay. Didn’t care for Prep — I felt like it went nowhere and I wasn’t really invested in the main character.  Sisterland is about twins who both have some psychic abilities — the main character doesn’t want to have ‘senses’ as she calls them, and her twin sister becomes briefly famous predicting a major earthquake will occur in St. Louis and she makes her living as a medium/psychic. The novel deals with the two sister’s lives coming up on the predicted earthquake, while frequently flashing back telling the story of the women’s past up to the present moment. I didn’t love how this book ended, but after about 150 pages it became hard to put down. I was invested in the doesn’t want to be psychic twin and her life took some crazy turns.

The Rules of Magic has a very different feel — this is a world where magic is unquestionable real, whereas you could sort of read Sisterland either way. I want to say that if you liked Practical Magic, you’ll like this, but I think that’s only true if what you liked about Practical Magic was the feel, the flow, the style of the book.  This seemed very much of the same world to me, but this novel doesn’t touch much on Sally and Gillian don’t appear until almost the very end, so if it was those characters that you loved, you may not be satisfied. Basically, this is a coming of age novel for the aunts who appear in Practical Magic, you learn about how they grew up, discovered their magic, lost and found love, and ended up being the aunts of Practical Magic. It is a fairly sad book (so is Sisterland) in terms of plot, but the magic keeps it feeling sort of not so sad despite all the sad things that happen.

Currently reading: Haven’t started the next book yet, but have Spineless, When they Call You a Terrorist, The Animators, and Eat the Apple out of the library right now. (I know, only four library books??) And I keep meaning to start Future Home of the Living God so… who knows what’s next.

Also, where I work we tend to be very focused on quarters, so I’ve just about wrapped up a quarter of this year, and I’m on track (actually ahead of schedule) to read 100 books, here’s the completely Q1 list :

Books Read in 2018

January
1. The Power – Naomi Alderman
2. Lab Girl – Hope Jahren
3. How To Fall In Love With Anyone – Mandy Len Catron
4. The Awkward Age – Francesca Segal
5. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death – Caitlin Doughty
6. The End We Start From – Megan Hunter
7. Where the Past Begins – Amy Tan
8. Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

February
9. Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
10. Our Lady of the Prairie – Thisbe Nissen
11. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
12. A Distant View of Everything – Alexander McCall Smith
13. The Last Girlfriend on Earth – Simon Rich
14. The Double Comfort Safari Club -Alexander McCall Smith
15. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – Michael Wolff
16. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser
17. The Largese of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
18. The Owl Killers – Karen Maitland

March
19. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding – Alexander McCall Smith
20. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures – Ben Mezrich
21. The Bride Wore Size 12 – Meg Cabot
22. My Dream of You – Nuala O’Faolain
23. How to Stop Time – Matt Haig
24. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – Alexander McCall Smith
25. Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward
26. Fever Dreams – Samanta Schweblin
27. The Rules of Magic -Alice Hoffman
28. Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

Current favorites of the year: Little Fires Everywhere and Manhattan Beach.

My recent reads both involve time travel without any actual time travel — How to Stop Time by Matt Haig and My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain. My Dream of You is a more straight forward story within a story type of time travel — the main character is considering writing a book about a love story which occurred in Ireland during the famine so the book takes place both in the early 2000’s and we get excerpts of her book set in the 1860’s.  How to Stop Time involves traveling through time by just continuing to be alive — the main character is over 400 years old.

I didn’t love My Dream of You.  I did grow attached to the main character, but the story itself is sort meandering as she deals with the death of a dear friend and the more remote deaths of her parents by like, being in Ireland, researching her story, and thinking back on her life. I did identify with her constant thoughts about what to make of the rest of her life, but there’s no real answer to that. The book ended suddenly to me, I was invested in her getting somewhere, but the book ends just with her leaving Ireland and deciding she isn’t going to finish her book. I wanted more of a resolution of her relationships with her friends and family outside of Ireland, and heck, even her relatives in Ireland it was like….so it just ends like this??

I really liked How to Stop Time — it was fun, and it gave me most of the resolution I was looking for.  The story is all about Tom Hazard who is born in 1581 and stops aging normally in his early teens.  We are told early on that unlike us regular humans (mayflies), he is an “alba” short for albatross and ages at about 1/15th the rate of the rest of us.  Although Tom doesn’t travel in time and has lived his life linearly, the reader jumps back and forth from Tom’s past to the present in London (which appears to be set around the actual present). There’s a bit of gimmicky-ness — he works for Shakespeare, sails with Cook, dines in the same place as Charlie Chaplin, has a conversation with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that didn’t really bother me.  Essentially we learn that Tom’s early life was difficult (they killed witches in 1581, guys who don’t age = witches, sons of witches, demon, Satan, etc.), and that he had a daughter who, like him, stopped aging normally, so the story arc is learning more about his past and who he is, while in the present he’s still trying to deal with who he is while also hoping the find his daughter.

I thought some of what the book said about love was a bit simplistic, but what it said about time, I found quite beautiful although I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of it — Tom who has so much time, still feels trapped by it. There’s kind of a random passage that I think captures a lot of the spirit of the book:

And, just as it only takes a moment to die, it only takes a moment to live. You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

I definitely recommend How to Stop Time.  Unlike most books, which I get out the library, I actually bought this one, and while it is not one of the rare books I will immediately be reading again (looking at you Station Eleven), I will definitely be forcing my copy upon people telling them they must read it.

Currently reading: Sing Unburied Sing and I’m going to give Fever Dreams a shot although the reviews make me think that it’s an amazing book that I’m not going to like.. If you love books and you’re not following The Morning News Tournament of Books (The Rooster) you MUST. Much thanks to my friend Jaclyn for turning me on to it, and I knew I would love it because THEIR 2015 WINNER WAS STATION ELEVEN. Have I mentioned that you should read Station Eleven? Although I will say the tournament this year has been crazy! Manhattan Beach and Lincoln in the Bardo were knocked out!

I recently finished Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen and A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith (for those of you keeping score at home, that puts me at 12/100 books for the year).

As you can perhaps tell by the title, my favorite of the bunch was Little Fires Everywhere, although I enjoyed the other two as well.

Little Fires Everywhere is a frame novel, it opens with a house on fire and you know within the first sentence that teenage daughter Izzy has set the fire, but you then find out through the course of the book how this came to occur. Although I first expected that you would mostly hear form Izzy, in fact she’s not really the central character and is jointed by a cast of other women who you learn about, her mother, who is mostly referred to as Mrs. Richardson, her sister Lexie, and the Richardson’s tenants/friends Mia and her daughter Pearl.

About 200 pages into this book, I realized how much it was about motherhood and what it means to be a mother, mother/daughter relationships. It doesn’t throw it in your face really until you realize each of these female characters is negotiating their relationship with their mother, to motherhood, or both. There are women who can’t get pregnant but want to, teenagers who get pregnant and realize they can’t stay that way, women who risk everything for their children, women who punish their teenager daughters because they are so afraid of losing them.

I think I enjoyed it partially because I so agree with this view that mothers are complicated. We all get one, maybe not for as long as we’d like, maybe it’s not the relationship we want, maybe you want to be a mother and you can’t be, maybe you don’t want to be a mother and you are. The world is so judgmental about mothers and how they should behave and what mothering should be and look like. And when, like me, you’ve lost your mother, you first feel so angry. But then you start to see this complexity — so few people have Hallmark card relationship with their mother or with motherhood.

As my mother died, the different people from hospice kept encouraging us to say anything we needed to say before it was too late. And I didn’t say this to them, but I was so sad because for me, there was nothing unsaid on my end. I hope that in her last days my Mom knew that I loved her, that she wasn’t alone, and I did tell her that. But the things that were unsaid between us were all unsaid by her. The advice that she would have given me about my career, about pregnancy, about my babies, about my 401K even. I didn’t value her advice enough when she was here to give it, I was only in my early twenties when she first became unwell and I didn’t want her advice.

SPOILER ALERT. Izzy spends the book finding a mother-figure in Mia, and Pearl and Lexie are also negotiating that relationship. But maybe I like this book because it ends with one mother realizing the error of her ways and vowing to search for her daughter:

They would find her and she would be able to make amends. She wasn’t sure how, but she was certain she would. And if the police couldn’t find her? Then she would look for [her] herself. For as long as it took, for forever if need be. Years might pass and they might change, both of them, but she was sure she would still know her own child, just as she would know herself, no matter how long it had been. She was certain of this. She would spend months, years, the rest of her life looking for her daughter, searching the face of every young woman she met for as long as it took, searching for the spark of familiarity in the faces of strangers.

I love that this passage also ends with a reference to fire — very fitting. And, although this may be a bit of a stretch, the end of this book reminded me of the end of Moby Dick (I know some people truly love Moby Dick, I’m not one of those people, but I do have a BA in English so I’ve read it more than once):

Buoyed up by that coffin [life-buoy], for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

If you have not read Moby Dick (no judgment, I’m putting it in the, I didn’t enjoy this, but I feel like culture and stuff column), Rachel is the name of a ship, the captain of whom earlier in the book losses his son to the sea. Rachel is also a biblical mother, sort of, in the Book of Jeremiah. So, also mothers who won’t give up searching (there are like no women in Moby Dick, and it still talks about mothers!)

The one thing that Little Fires Everywhere is Not Subtle about it that motherhood is fierce and consuming — you don’t stop looking for your children, you fight for them, maybe you make some crazy decisions where they’re concerned.

Our Lady of the Prairie is not entirely dissimilar — a mother of a daughter who is bipolar thinks that she’s finally reached a place where she can catch her breath, but instead she falls in love with someone who isn’t her husband, her daughter gets pregnant (and goes off her meds), and there’s an interesting divergence into her mother-in-law’s past in Nazi occupied France during WWII.

A Distant View of Everything is pretty dissimilar. Alexander McCall-Smith has a very smooth style, I like his books, and they do make you think with the many many references he makes. Particularly in this series, which focuses on Isabel Dalhouse a philosopher in Edinburgh. Technically, these are mysteries, although they tend to be less mysterious than his other series (The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency), and honestly pretty much nothing happens in any of these books. Like the plot of this one is, someone asks Isabel to look into someone’s background, she does, he’s okay. But, you have fun getting there. Somehow McCall-Smith manages to write 4-5 books A YEAR, and I am pretty much willing to read all of them.

Currently reading: Still Prairie Fires, and The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan — trip to the library tomorrow.

I didn’t finish this book. I didn’t like it for the first fifty pages — the style is very different, it’s written sort of as a play without stage directions, all dialogue.  And, about half of it is quotes from historical sources about Lincoln.  It owes a debt to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town — although the concepts of death in the two are a bit different, there’s the same idea that the dead we bury may simply be waiting in the cemetery, talking with each other.

I started to get into this book around 100 pages in, the format wasn’t bothering me as much, I was starting to like the characters that are in the cemetery with Willie Lincoln. But I’m not going to finish this book any time soon. Because the same day that I got into reading it, I got the call that my Mom was dying.  And she did.

So I will say, Lincoln’s grief in this book as written by George Saunders felt very accurate to me. His comfort with the body of Willie Lincoln resonated.  The hard thing is not being with the body of your loved one.  The hard thing is letting this last thing that you have go.  The hard thing is trusting your loved one’s body to strangers, and knowing that you won’t see her again.

So, although this week has been a bit slower reading wise, I think I’ve decided to go for it and attempt to read 100 books this year (for reference, last year was 68).  I think it’s completely doable… assuming I can keep up my current pace — so far I’ve read 6 and I’m nearly done book 7, leaving only 1.33333 books to read in January with a whole weekend still to go, also I tend to read significantly more in the summer so I should be able to read more than 8/9 books in June, July, and August depending on when I take vacation.  What are your reading goals for this year?

I did read The End We Start From by Megan Hunter on MLK Day, and I recommend it to you, especially if you’ve impulsively decided to read 100 books this year because at 160 rather small pages, it can be read in just a few hours.  It’s also a rather beautifully, although sparsely, written book. In a nutshell — this is sort of a Noah’s Ark story about a mother and her son born just before a massive flood in London.  So basically, a book about living/mothering through crisis.

I found the fragmentary writing a bit frustrating at times, I wanted to hear more about what was going on and what had happened, and what’s told is really just what is directly experienced by the mother/main character in this story.  That was certainly a deliberate choice by the writer, who explained to NPR:

[t]he form really seemed to fit very nicely with both the experiences of new motherhood and the experience of being affected by an environmental crisis in this way. I mean, she doesn’t have time to write long things, and it’s very much written, you know, as though she is writing something. Sometimes she’s consciously reflecting on the writing experience, and so the fragmentary-ness of the narrative, I hope, has a sort of naturalness about it. It’s not too forced because it comes very naturally from her situation.

Despite the sparse narrative, and perhaps because you’re so in the mother’s head and only as aware as she is of everything else going on in the world, I did identify with her.  Particularly here:

A secret: I though having a baby would stop the fear.

When I was a child, my mother told me she would die for me, of course.

I asked her all the time. Tested her.

The fear of ending woke me up, it choked me.  It rendered me incapable. I thought a baby would stop it. Give me something to die for.

When you have a child, the fear is transferred, my mother could have told me.

In a way, it is multiplied she could have said.

I love that the narrator puts it this way — she’s not afraid of death, she’s afraid of ending.  She thinks a baby will change this feeling, give meaning and purpose and a sense of immortality maybe.  But it’s not that way exactly, certainly being a mother is central to this character as she’s written, and she learns that motherhood doesn’t fix things exactly although I think it’s also clear that her having this child does give her a sense of purpose through the biblical flood-like crisis.

Currently reading: Amy Tan’s memoir (almost done! LOVE it), just started Lincoln in the Bardo, not loving it so far 😦

I really enjoy reading the kind of book that is a memoir, but also not exactly a memoir, books written by people about particular moments in their lives or sort of a how I got here book by people who aren’t 80 yet and thus are sort of telling you about their lives, so far.  Generally these books are about something else as well as the person’s life, so Lab Girl by Hope Janren also taught me a lot about trees and academia, and How To Fall in Love With Anyone by Mandy Len Catron told me a lot about Catron’s family, but also about love in America more generally.

I definitely recommend Lab Girl, although I will say it’s one of the rare books I’ve read where I was like… I do not identify with this person very much at all.  I’m not Norwegian or mid-western, I’m not good at science and I’m not bipolar.  I don’t think Jahren and I have quite the same sense of humor and she seems much braver than I am, although she does let you in on her fears and her mental health struggles.  Her relationships with people are kind of odd, she describes her marriage in this way:

We love each other because we can’t help it. We don’t work at it and we don’t sacrifice for it. It is easy and all the sweeter to me because it is so underserved. I discover within a second context [the first being science] that when something just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work– and similarly, there are some things that you just can’t screw up. I know that I could live without him: I have my own work, my own mission, and my own money.  But I don’t want to. I really don’t want to.

Yeah, I love my husband, but sometimes marriage is work or not work exactly (or not yet), but it’s not this amazing lark that takes no effort on my part. I love being part of a partnership, but partnerships by nature require compromise, you don’t always get what you want (but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need).

I loved reading about a woman succeeding in science, and I loved reading about Jahren’s life, which has had some crazy adventures which will have you laughing out loud.  Her best friend/fellow scientist who she employs in her lab, is  a very odd duck.  There’s not really a nice short passage that illustrates this, so you’re going to have to read the book.  There is, of course, the death of a parent!

“Oh, I’m not worried about him,” returned Bill. “He’s gone. It’s not any more complicated than that. Honestly, if I admit it, it’s me that I feel bad for… There’s nothing like having a parent die to make you realize how alone you are in the world.”

There were so many things that I wanted to say. I wanted to tell Bill that he wasn’t alone and that he never would be. I wanted to make him know that he had friends in this world tied to him by something stronger than blood, ties that could never fade or dissolve. That he would never be hungry or cold or motherless while I still drew breath. That he didn’t need two hands, or a street address, or clean lungs, or social grace, or a happy disposition to be precious and irreplaceable. That no matter what our future held, my first task would always be to kick a hole in the world and make a space for him where he could safely be his eccentric self.

First this makes me very jealous of Bill, but then this makes me think — how can I spend more time carving space for people I love to be their (slightly less eccentric than Bill) eccentric selves? Things to work on.

I identified much more with Mandy Catron, although she is from Appalachia and now lives in Canada and is a professor (I’m not, I don’t, I’m not).  But, her book How To Fall in Love With Anyone is really the story of her relationship and breakup, her parents divorce, and her research into love as she tried to make sense of it all.  The book is related to a piece she wrote for the New York Times – To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.  And the book indeed ends with her in a new relationship with they guy she this experiment with — they asked each other 36 questions stemming from a study by psychologist Arthur Aron that designed to determine whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other these specific personal questions.

When I picked up the book, I thought it would involve a lot more science or social science (like All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister).  It does not. It is mostly the love stories of Catron’s grandparents, parents, and herself.  She doesn’t really answer the question of how to fall in love with anyone, she raises another question later — if you can fall in love with anyone, how do you choose? Which, she also doesn’t really answer beyond her own choices.  She does include this thought about marriage, which honestly, I have never thought of in exactly this way:

Only in the face of death does commitment -in this case I am thinking of marriage- really become meaningful. We have one life, limited in its duration; to really invest in another person is to simultaneously sacrifice all the other potential people or investments of time.

Honestly, this gave me some serious ennui when I read it.  My husband is so good and kind and I love him.  And I certainly knew that we were mortal, and I was kind of aware that the happy ending to marriage is that one of you buries the other in sixty years, but jeez. I realize I’m not the first person, facing the death of a loved one, to spend a lot of time thinking, what is it all about? Am I wasting my life? Oh God, the world is going to go on without me someday and I just don’t want it to! (You really need to read Vacationland because he faces these things and somehow makes them hilarious).

That’s probably all the ennui you need for today reader.  I’m currently working my way through yet another memoir — Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan, and I also have a bunch of great fiction out of the library.  Although at this rate I may have to take a detour into something light and fluffy to get through February…

 

 

« Previous PageNext Page »