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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.

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 😦

This is the first time I’ve felt compelled to give you a spoiler alert, I guess I read a lot of books that don’t have many key twists. SPOILERS BELOW REGARDING PLOT POINTS in The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.

I read this book in just over one day.  I was stuck on an Amtrak train significantly longer than I was meant to be stuck on said train, leading me to read the first 300 pages of this novel.  I had almost picked this up and then not picked it up and then finally decided to read it, and I will say it is a very compelling read.  I’m not going to read it again, but I don’t read that many books twice anyway (Station Eleven and The Sixth Extinction being recent exceptions to that rule), so take that as you will.

Basically, this book is about a widow and a divorcé (which I have just learned is the male version of divorcée) who fall in love, but have teenage children, a girl and a boy, who don’t get along nor are they supporters of the new relationship.  I wanted to put all these characters in therapy.  It was in fact maddening to me that the teen daughter does go to one session.  BUT I really wanted to put them in therapy later in the book because SPOILER, the teenagers don’t keep hating each other, instead, they start banging each other. AND SURPRISE, teenagers are terrible at birth control.  Which I think it also pretty accurate to life.  The main take away from this book for me really was, if I have a daughter, I’m really going to encourage her to get an IUD.

The book is also about different styles of parenting, and how you can manage (whether you can manage?) being a parent and a person at the same time. The widow asks the divorcé this, Do you think we’re being punished for being people? For those of us without kids (but plenty of time for reading!) this question is still abstract. But I’m hoping that you get to be both.  The book ends not happily exactly, but hopefully, raising the possibility that you can be a parent and a person, but maybe the timing has to be right.

Currently reading: about 100 pages into Amy Tan’s memoir and planning to read The End We Start From today or tomorrow.

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…

 

 

I thought that I had posted about this. But maybe I decided it was too depressing? I guess I thought I had posted about a few things but really maybe I spoke to actual present people about them.

In July or August, it had been a while since my Mom had said my name. She is, without a doubt, the best faker in the world. That woman’s social intelligence. She doesn’t really fool me, but she does.  Because when you say “Hey Mom, how are you?” She has never said to me: Who are you weird stranger, I’m not your mother.  Which leaves open the possibility that she does not think I am a weird stranger who thinks I am her daughter. She thinks I’m her daughter. But she wasn’t saying my name.

And then suddenly, we were packing to go to Rhode Island for the engagement party. And my Dad and I are debating what to pack for my Mom — a bathing suit? And my Dad says he doesn’t know where her bathing suit is. I say, it’s in the closet. And my Mom says, “See Katie knows where it is.”  Reader, I wept.

And there was another time in the fall, I was leaving and she said “Bye Katie.” I turned to Greg on the way out the door, crying, “She said my name.”

And then in February I realized, I had to admit to myself. It hasn’t happened in a while. I’m getting much more of that, hello friendly stranger thank you for this hug it is fine vibe.

It shouldn’t hurt so much. It’s not like you don’t know this day is coming. And it’s not like she’s violently attacked me or even pushed off my hug. But you know, looking at your mom and seeing just a placid acceptance rather than recognition. Turns out it sucks.

And it sucks that I’m not really sure she doesn’t know who I am. I’m hopeful every time I see her — will she say my name? Will she do something that shows she’s not being polite, that she knows who I am, or even that I’m her kid?  Did that already happen for the last time?

So, sometime in June I decided to make a summer reading list and actually read books this summer. What I discovered is, I can pretty much pick one thing (running, baking, reading) and I can fit that in plus working. I cannot fit in more than that one thing as evidenced by the lack of running this summer.

If you read any of these books, you should tell me and then we could talk about books. Sometimes I miss that. Remember when I was an English major and I paid lots of money to learn about book and talk about them? Me too.

  1. All My Friends are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman

I was really displeased when I finished this because I felt like the plot never really got going. Or there was really no plot. It could have been a short story about superheroes. But at the same time, the characters were fun and I would have liked this if there had in fact been a plot.

2. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This is probably my favorite book I read this summer. It’s not Shakespeare or James Joyce, but I found it really excellent. It’s about a post-pandemic world. There are a number of characters who you follow and their lives overlap tangentially, but the main character is girl. Also, they do in fact perform Shakespeare in the book, so you can feel smart when you read it like, Oh yeah I know all about King Lear. Also also, there is a Star Trek quote. Really, this book was written for me. And, for a post-pandemic novel where 99% of the world population dies in the beginning of the book, it had a pretty happy ending.

3. The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Also a great book. Sort of reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith (part of it takes place in Africa, main character is a really smart woman who solves problems). It’s totally bizarre, but I really enjoyed it.

4. Sandition by Jane Austen

When I started this, I knew it was unfinished. And I was holding a physical copy, so I could tell it was short. But it was REALLY short. You meet all the characters, and it ends. So while I very much liked it, I can’t really recommend it because you’ll be sad when it ends. (And yes, I’m still counting this as a book read despite how short and unfinished it is).

5. Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriaty

Look, if you want to read a book that’s kind of like Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, but is not that book and takes place in Australia instead, this is your book. But if you don’t really want to read about teen angst in letter form, yep the whole book is letters, don’t read this book. I didn’t hate it, and in fact some parts of it were quite funny, but generally, nothing special. Life is only so long! I can only read so many books! I could have read Station Eleven twice instead…

6. Hello From the Gillespies by Monica McInerney

I do recommend this one, even though it is really silly. General premise: what if you sent out a true Christmas letter by accident to 100 of your nearest and dearest, you know, actually telling people how you feel about your family and what they’ve been up to that year. Also set in Australia. Overall, a great summer/vacation read.

7. Casebook by Mona Simpson

I really disliked this book until about 200 pages in, and then I couldn’t put it down, but then I didn’t really like the ending. But now I can’t remember the ending…hmm. The narrator is a boy who ages from 9 to 18ish during the book. Basically, his parents get divorced and they deal with it and he deals with it. Moves really really slowly. Then gets kind of exciting, then slow again.

8. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

The only non-fiction I read. I liked it. I like Amy Poehler. But it doesn’t seem like she really liked writing a book. Mostly she says at multiple points that she didn’t like it and it was hard. Solution: don’t write a book, just be an awesome lady who makes a great tv show, etc.

9. World War Z by Max Brooks

I don’t want to sound like I hated every book I read, definitely not. But I didn’t really love this either. I think I just thought it would be a more cohesive story. It’s not. But it is well written. I haven’t seen the movie, have you? I found the book pretty hard to read at bed time.

10. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I liked this a lot. The two main characters were a modern day foster kid and a child who was on the Orphan Train in the 1930s (who is also a character in the present). It was also not Shakespeare, and I think the foster kid’s situation worked out WAY TOO WELL to be realistic. Everything worked out too well to be realistic. But, you know, I’m okay with a book that has happiness in that is maybe disproportionate to real life. Also, the parts set in the past were interesting. Also, also, thinking about it, there were plenty of sucky things that happened in the middle of the book, just the end seemed like, well that extremely nice.

11. Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Okay…so I haven’t actually finished this book yet. But I am about 50 pages from the end. I like it a lot, it’s the first book in a trilogy. Each chapter is a year, so the first book includes the drought, depression, WWII, and the beginning of the Cold War. The characters are all members of a family who live in Iowa on a farm (though the kids grow up over the course of the book and some move). Also, it was reviewed in The New Yorker. So I don’t even feel ashamed of reading it.

I have been waiting on, but have been unable to get ALL SUMMER At the Waters Edge. So it better be amazing when it comes in… Also I had been planning to read The Luck of the Bodkins, but that also proved quite difficult to get.

That’s what I’ve been up to this summer 😀 How about you?

In case you were wondering,  yes,  I feel mixed about father’s day too. It is a very different relationship I have with my father now compared to before my mom was sick.  But I solved this problem by skipping the card and just making my dad a cherry pie and telling him I love him.

Also,  I gave him part of my sanity helping him set up his new computer. Did you know that Google Chrome is  an Internet browser,  while Google.com is a website? Some people don’t get that. . .

Moreover,  I did want to update my mother’s day post and say,  I think my mom had a good day.  Most people like being handed flowers and told they’re loved,  even if they don’t understand why.  And I can’t remember whether it was mothers day or another day,  but within recent memory,  she told me she loved me by name. Which means a lot to me. I feel like I’m sure she knows who I am when she calls me by name.

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