Ramblings


Richard Power’s The Overstory felt like kind of a slog to me. I liked the book, but at over 500 pages, it is not a short novel. Although it took me a while to get through, I did like this book and would recommend it to all the nature lovers out there.

The novel is the intertwined story of nine strangers (well, eight strangers, two are married to each other and their story is pretty much always told together) in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Some of them end up coming together, some of them never meet or meet only briefly, but all of them are part of this larger story about deforestation and trees.

The novel opens with a section called “Roots” which fittingly, gives us a chapter on each character — (1) Nicholas Hoel a Midwesterner who grows up with a family Chestnut tree and does amazing tree-related art work, (2) Mimi Ma a second generation Chinese-American engineer who loves a specific little grove of trees, (3) Adam Appich a boy interested in science and psychology who goes on to research group think, (4) Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly who are married and start planting in their yard each year on their anniversary, (5) Douglas Pavlicek a Vietnam veteran who is disguised to find out that all the time he spends planting seeds is really hurting the environment (because companies can then log more older trees – “What do I do now, for the next forth years? What work can’t the efficiency of unified mankind chop into pure fertilizer?”), (6) Neelay Mehta an India-American who loves computers and is inspired in his programing by trees/nature, (7) Patricia Westerford a scientist who discovers that trees communicate and writes several best selling books about trees (which all the other characters read), and (8) Olivia Vandergriff a girl who after not doing much has a life changing experience that causes her to devote her life to activism for trees. Man, and that’s the first like 100 pages.

Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Douglas, and Olivia all end up engaging in eco-activism together, and their stories kind of provide the plot. I still enjoyed Ray and Dorothy and Neelay, but I kind of felt like, this book didn’t really need those plot lines, I’m not totally sure what they added, other than that they are interesting characters. Although I guess having Patricia be the only one who doesn’t join everyone else would have been weird.

This novel is definitely a downer in a lot of ways, not only is it about deforestation (not uplifting, as Olivia explains, “Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it.”), but lots of horrific things happen to each character basically from the word go — dead parents, near-death experiences, severe on-going health issues.

Much of the book is really beautifully, if densely written, here’s Nick talking about working in a warehouse:

The aisle rises on girders into an endless chasm of books. Dozens of aisles in this Fulfillment Center alone.  And every month, new Fulfillment Centers across several continents. His employers won’t stop until everyone is fulfilled. Nick squanders a full five precious second of his time-motion gazing down at the gorge of books. The sight fills him with horror inseparable from hope. Somewhere in all these boundless, compounding, swelling canyons of imprinted paper, encoded in the millions of tons of loblolly pine fiber, there must be a few words of truth, a page, a paragraph that could break the spell of fulfillment and bring back danger, need, and death.

I love this passage, while also feeling like, Powers could have killed a couple fewer trees himself to make this particular book if he’d been more able to convey and idea in a paragraph instead of ten pages.

I will also say that, not unlike The Sixth Extinction (non-fiction by Elizabeth Kolbert), this book conveys a sense that humans are only going to win for so long. It’s not the earth that’s in danger — we are. If (when?) we make the planet uninhabitable, the planet spins on, trees will be a big part of the environment recovering from the big species die-offs that are happening now. Give it 65 million years or so, some new cool stuff might be happening on the third planet from the sun.

Currently reading – Still working on Not that Bad and now starting N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (time to get some lighter reading in).

Oh man. October was a bad month for reading books. Which was due in part to the fact that I am DEDICATED to reading all of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer (it’s the book you would want to have with you in a situation where you had to defend yourself with books) which is kind of good because although it’s slow going, I’m really enjoying the book and it’s good to mix things up and read 600 page books about science sometimes.

But, reading has also been down because civic engagement has been up! Which is also good, but it’s so freaking depressing. I’ve had some good experiences knocking on door and phone banking. Some great conversations that have given me so much hope. But, ug. I’ve also had some terrible interactions. There are so many people in America who think that everything that keeps me up at night is fine (war in Yemen, global climate change, women’s bodily autonomy, families torn apart at our border). And there are so many people who just don’t seem to care at all about other people (literally, all anyone wants to talk about is property taxes). Case and point, I was walking around in a neighborhood about 10 minutes from my house today, knocking doors, being super friendly!, and carved into the sidewalk on one block, a swastika. It just really, really upset me. Because who just lets that sit there? Who doesn’t do anything about having a symbol of such powerful hatred carved into their sidewalk? I mean, Pittsburgh tragedy ringing any bells?? I’m not Jewish. I’m powerfully white. Like, I accept that I have many privileges because I’m that sweet looking white girl, and also my skin could burn your eyes in winter. Possibly also summer. But the idea that there are people out there who think it’s cool to put swastikas on things, and the idea that there are people who just don’t care that there’s a swastika on their sidewalk? Well, frankly it makes me seriously consider a long winter of solitude with book and no human interaction…

So, rant over, back to books for now. My last October read was This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us by Edgar Cantero. This is Cantero’s third book in English, and you may recall that I’ve read the other two and LOVED Meddling Kids and liked The Supernatural Enhancements, and I’m going to say I actually really really liked This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us. Yeah, it’s a very refined rating system I have going.

Cantero’s third novel is another pretty big departure, you know how some authors really have a style or write like fifty books about the same character (whether openly or not), yeah, Cantero isn’t like that, other than maybe his focus on the supernatural, although that’s less at play in this book.  First, he wrote The Supernatural Enhancements which is VERY supernaturally focused and told entirely via letters, journal entries, transcripts, etc. Then he wrote Meddling Kids which is very obviously based on the Scooby-Doo Gang, but a sort of, what if one of their cases really WAS a ghost/supernatural thing. And now, his third novel is the story of A.Z. Kimrean, private eyes. And yes, the grammar is confusing because A.Z. is actually Adrian and Zoey who both inhabit the same body. A.Z. isn’t mentally ill, rather, they are chimeric twins — so sort of like Siamese twins but they only have one of everything (but say the left leg belongs to Zoey, the right leg belongs to Adrian). Adrian is all left brain, logical, and Zoey is all right brain creative.

Honestly, this book is enjoyable because Adrian and Zoey are interesting characters and the plot isn’t much better than your average PI novel, but it does zip along pretty well. There’s also some fun genre bashing:

“Femme fatale? It’s an archetype: the devious, beautiful woman with a dark past and compromising knowledge, playing other characters like chess pawns and getting the hero into trouble. That’s who you are now. Innocent but dangerous.”

“But I don’t want to cause you trouble.”

“Oh, please – trouble is necessary. It’s what moves the plot forward. And your presence is a breath of fresh air; this case oozes testosterone. Drug cartel, undercover cops – this would be a sausage factory without you girl. Don’t worry about us, you’re doing great. You do you.”

Essentially, A.Z. is called in to try to stop a gang war — there’s a undercover cop imbedding in a gang, the police want to take out the ringleaders, but fear that a gang war will just result in lots of bloodshed and new gangs rising up, negating all the work they’ve put in. The gang leader’s son has been killed and the police want A.Z. to figure out who it was/convince the gang leader that it wasn’t the fault of the rival gang. Yeah, it’s not the best plot ever. But it’s a fun book!

And for a book written by a man with like 1.5 female characters, this book actually said some interesting things about women (and well, a lot of interesting things about gender). Primarily this is through the eleven year old girl who is smarter than everyone else in her family (her dad is the gang leader):

“I used to be everyone’s favorite; the staff, the bodyguards, everyone complimented me. . . . I’m supposed to be proud of all the new things going on in my body, but if I talk tampons, everyone’s embarrassed. I cuddle with my friends, everyone stares; I bump against my PE teacher, he jolts like I’m toxic. Everyone’s all happy I’m turning into a woman but freaked out I’m not a child anymore. Like I’m in the gray area, and anything can happen.”

It’s been a while since I was an eleven year old girl, and Cantero never was (as far as I’m aware), but this says such interesting and terrible things about how society sees girls and women. Zoey actually turns out to be pretty great with pre-teen girls telling her, “You will take the reigns. You will write your own story.”

Currently reading: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and From the Corner of the Oval

So my September reading has been a little slow, it’s not been the best few weeks and I let myself do some re-reading and possibly watched the BBC 5 hour Pride and Prejudice mini-series multiple times. Until I started challenging myself to read a certain number of books a year and arbitrarily decided re-reads wouldn’t count, I definitely re-read a few books many, many times. It’s an odd mix —  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all the Harry Potter books, the Outlander books, The Thurber Carnival, perhaps most embarrassingly, the Gracelin O’Malley books. Oh geeze. If you like historical romance like Outlander, you will like those books.  So, I let myself re-read some books.

But, never fear, I also read three new books – Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neal Hurston, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes
and The Position by Meg Wolitzer.

You should read Barracoon, it is very short, and I think it’s a helpful reminder that slavery both wasn’t that long ago and that slavery was a choice, made by white people. Literally, Cudjo Lewis became a slave because a couple white guys made a bet that even though it was at that point illegal to import slaves from Africa, they could get away with it:

[Tim Meaher] bet ‘any amount of money that we would import a cargo in less than two years, and no one be hanged for it.’ It was Meaher’s dream to own land and become wealthy and to use slave labor to do it. He believed it was his birthright.

It is a very depressing, but very short book. I think if I’d been feeling less sad, I would have read this book too quickly, I’m actually glad I read it over a few sittings. The book doesn’t actually talk too much about Lewis’ time as a slave, I think at least a third of the book is his stories about his family and growing up in his village in Africa, and then a good chunk is about the decades he spent in America after he was free.

Insomniac City is a very different book, although also sad, and also a memoir. Bill Hayes was Oliver Sach’s partner for many years and book is about Hayes love of New York City and his life there, but it is also about Sach’s illness and death. And I knew that was coming for the entire book, so the whole thing made me sad. Hayes is actually pretty upbeat though. I’ve read a lot of memoirs, a lot about grief and death this year, and I actually though Hayes’ postscript made the most sense in terms of “what is the point of all this?” The point of life is to be alive. And so, we live. Sadly, I got the second most comforting thing of the year from Hope Never Dies, although I think Biden actually wrote something along these lines – it will never make sense that someone is dead, that they are gone, that they aren’t here. You just learn to live with that feeling. So, those two pieces are kind of my philosophy for moving through grief and trying to live your life: it’s not going to make sense, just focus on being alive yourself. And alive is a pretty low bar. Like, when people start talking about living your best life, about not wasting time, ug, that stresses me out. Just be alive. That’s the point.

That doesn’t really tell you much about the book. Basically if you like New York, Oliver Sachs, or memoirs, you will enjoy this book. Hayes is also a photographer and there are many interesting pictures of New Yorkers. The book actually reminded me a bit of the Humans of New York.

I won’t say too much about The Position. I continue to enjoy Meg Wolitzer, this wasn’t my favorite of her books. It was a little different than others I’ve read by her because there were significant male characters who got to narrate.  Basically, this is a book about the four adult children of a couple that in the 70’s (when their children were children) wrote a very famous book about sex. The book is sort of a, where are they now, how did this impact everyone story set as they are considering re-releasing the book in a 25th anniversary edition. The four adult children were all interesting characters, I was invested in them, I found the sad stuff that happened in the book a little much for my current emotional state.

Currently reading: So You Want to Talk About Race and The Supernatural Enhancements, still waiting on many hold books from the library 😦

Also, should I read Bob Woodward’s new book? I feel like I should because you know, everyone is going to. But, ug. I kind of don’t want to – I read Michael Wolff’s book and I feel like my time could have been better spent. But hey, maybe you were hoping I would summarize it for you?

I think I’m happy that I discovered Meg Wolitzer just recently, because I’m hoping that I’ll enjoy all of her books as much as I liked The Female Persuasion, and I have so many of them ahead of me, unread! I heard a lot of good buzz about her book The Interestings when that came out, but for some reason never picked it up. So, now maybe I will. After I plow through the other million books I have…

 

I really liked this book. I typically mark a few passages so I can blog about specific parts of a book I liked, but about 100 pages in I had to slow down my passage marking because it was getting out of hand. This novel tells the story of Greer, a college freshman who meets Faith Frank (a sort of Gloria Steinem figure) at her college after being sexually assaulted (I considered written “sort of” sexually assaulted, but I’m just going to say that what happens to Greer isn’t rape, I think in this #MeToo era I’m not going to pretend someone touching you sexually when you’re not interested or consenting isn’t “real” sexual assault). The novel goes on to focus on Greer’s post college years, also flashing back to her childhood/teen years. Her long-term boyfriend, college best friend, and Faith Frank all also get some sections of the book told from their perspectives.

I identified tremendously with Greer, although I enjoyed getting in the other character’s heads and was glad to see all of them get some closure/growth/whatever to their story-arcs. Greer and I both worked emergency hotlines, we both love marking passages in books “things that stir me” as she says. Greer’s love of reading sounds like my childhood:

At night she stayed up in bed reading by a flashlight, its beam quickly dwindling. But even as the light bailed, Greer read until the very last minute, consuming a yellow circle of stories and concepts that comforted and compelled her in her aloneness which went on year after year.

And, weirdly I met Gloria Steinem in college, although sadly I did not end up working with her and being mentored by her. I guess there’s still time… The book, like The Ten Year Nap, did depress me a bit at times because Greer ends up at 31 in a place that I am not. (Although I feel like the timeline is a bit rushed, I think Wolitzer didn’t want to write too much into the future, but I would have found Greer’s ending a bit more believable if it took her a few more years).

Additionally, Wolitzer just keeps hating on the lawyers (not that I blame her per se… we aren’t a happy bunch), Greer’s college friend Zee really doesn’t want to be in the legal world:

I know how much I don’t want to be a paralegal – it doesn’t excite me – and I know how much I don’t want to be a lawyer, at least not the corporate kind. I see these young associates, the ones who work really late and do corporate law, and they’re on call like doctors, except their work isn’t in the service of humanity, unless it’s the pro bono stuff they’re allowed to do once in a while. I mean, they’re like the opposite of Doctors Without Borders. Lawyers Without Souls, I think of them. … [I]t all takes too much away from you, and doesn’t give you fortification. Or a good feeling. Or a sense that you’re actually doing something decent during your two seconds on earth.

So… I guess reading Wolitzer is how I’m going to remind myself not to go back to being a lawyer in private practice?

Of course, SPOILER ALERT, someone dies in this book. Someone dies in a lot of books; you never notice until you’re looking always for someone to put into words how you’re feeling. This is Greer’s long-term boyfriend Cory’s story arc — he’s a hot shot Princeton grad, off to make bank as a consultant and hoping to do some programming work of his own someday, but instead someone in his life dies and he ends up stuck at home, picking up the pieces and taking care of everyone. So, I guess I identified with him too:

How was it, Cory kept thinking, that when a person died they were no longer anywhere? You could search the entire world and never find them. It was one thing for a body to stop working and be carted away under a sheet; it was another thing for the sense of that person to evaporate.  The textural and indisputable sense, as strong but as hard to pinpoint as a gas.

It is impossible to explain to anyone who doesn’t feel this way how, I was with my Mom when she died, I sat with her after she died, I sobbed as they took her away. And I still feel like – But how can she be gone? But I think anyone who has lost someone recently knows this feeling exactly, like your lost person might just turn up. Can’t really be gone. Does not compute. I’ve come to feel that this is some sort of human brain failsafe; the loss is too much and so you just can’t believe it even though you know it’s true.

Finally, before this gets too long, I’ll say that Wolitzer’s style reminds me a bit of Celeste Ng — sometimes the characters get together and say things to each other in a way that I don’t think real people always do. Real people don’t always have those heart to heart moments where they try to understand, really understand this person they love. Greer and her Mom do come to understand each other more:

Greer – “Why didn’t you and Dad ever find something that you really wanted to do? Something you could throw yourselves into?

Laurel got quiet, her mouth a little wavy. “Some people never do. I don’t really know why… We never had an easy time. We both had a way of retreating. Though we did do some things. And we did have you. That’s not nothing.”

If you’ve enjoyed other books that I’ve enjoyed, I think you will like this book.

Currently reading: No Time to Spare and I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death (jeeze, she is NOT going to be able to get life insurance, she obviously partakes of many risky activities…) Also on deck – An American Marriage and You Think It I’ll Say It. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker is a much scarier book than Spineless — jellyfish have nothing on a bad night of sleep apparently.

I actually read this book sort of by accident. I had read this book review in The New Yorker and when I saw this book at the library I assumed it was the book reviewed, The Mystery of Sleep by Meir Kryger. Although I think both books posit a similar argument — sleep is very very important. Also, I probably won’t read that book now because I feel like reading this book made my sleep objectively worse because, while I knew sleep was important, I now basically feel like every minute of sleep I don’t get takes ten years off my life…

I also thought this book would talk more about why people sleep, like, why did all life evolve to need to sleep? The first part of this book does talk about that a bit, but doesn’t come to much of a conclusion other than, it must be really good for us because natural selection wouldn’t waste so much on something that didn’t help us out…

The book is broken up into four sections: This Thing Called Sleep (covering general science of sleep), Why Should You Sleep (the terrifying part of the book that covers both how great sleep is for you and how bad not sleeping is for you), How and Why We Dream (discussing REM sleep), and From Sleeping Pills to Society Transformed (covering sleep disorders, how modern life impacts our sleep, and steps we should take to improve our sleep).

Learning about REM sleep and dreaming was pretty interesting, but parts two and four of the book are what are going to stay with me — even one night of six hours of sleep has terrible consequences for your ability to be you know, awake the next day. And we are wildly not good at recognizing our own impairment. Drowsy driving kills way more people than drunk driving, and we have the same sort of, I feel fine, I’m okay to do this. And drunk driving wouldn’t be good, but drinking just slows your reaction time, when you drive while drowsy, you actually experience microsleeps, so you’re just completely not reacting at all during that time. And if you manage not to kill yourself and others, even low levels of sleep deprivation increase your risk of cancer, dementia, infections, and all kinds of fun stuff.

Although, this book has also convinced me that our current president might just be really really sleep deprived:

Under-slept employees are not only less productive, less motivated, less creative, less happy, and lazier, but they are also more unethical … Previously, I described evidence from brain-scanning experiments showing that the frontal lobe, which is critical for self-control and reining in emotional impulses, is taken offline by a lack of sleep. As a result, participants were more emotionally volatile and rash in their choices and decision making. This same result is predictably borne out in the higher-states setting of the workplace. Studies in the workplace have found that employees who sleep six hours or less are significantly more deviant and more likely to lie the following day than those who sleep six hours or more.

So, next time someone brags about how little sleep they ‘need’ I guess you can evaluate for yourself… 🙂 If you want to dig in more on all the ways sleep is good for you, and not sleeping is bad for you, you should read this book. And although it is full of terrifying facts, it does also include lots of helpful advice for sleeping better (things you probably already know: cut caffeine, cut alcohol, set a bedtime, make your bedroom dark, cool and gadget free,  don’t take naps after 3, don’t exercise too close to bed time).

Well, off to bed to get my 8 hours in.

Currently reading: The Ten Year Nap and The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore.

Finished Pachinko last night, and I essentially stand by my prior brief summary and that you’ll like this book if you enjoy historical fiction.

Writing just to say, one criticism of the book is that the later characters seen rushed, and I can definitely see that. Having finished, I was thinking this book reminds me of the three book series by Jane Smiley (Some Luck, also covers about a century of one family, but in the American Midwest) and I kind of wish Lee had written this as a three book series.

Currently reading : Spineless, just finished Eat the Apple.

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.

« Previous PageNext Page »