Thursday, January 12, 2017
I'll admit it. For the first time in my adult life I experienced a reading slump.
Has this ever happened to you?
Slumps occur occasionally in my life, but always with other things. I've experienced times when I didn't feel like writing (this happens often with my journals and I can always tell when I look back through them the time of year when I hit my writing slump. The entries are sloppy or just a few lines of daily drudgery before they start to sing again with my writerly self), or I didn't have the energy to cook creative meals for dinners, or even when I lived in London, I went through a span of two weeks when I didn't feel like experiencing anything new and longed for the familiar.
But reading has always been a friend to me, and I've always lived with a stack of books at my bedside (one to four of them that I would be actively reading and one to four of them that are on deck to be read next), a pile of books on reserve at the library, a list of recommendations from friends that I keep in my journal, and a few books on the office bookshelf that I bought and want to read but will read when I get the opportunity. I have a book with me at all times just in case I'm stuck in traffic (which never happens in my life here because almost all of my driving is within a 5 minute radius from my house), or I'm at one of my daughters' activities waiting, or I have an appointment.
In my life, all down time is reading time.
For the past three months, though, not one book that I started really called to me. I read a few that interested me, one that really creeped me out, and plenty of yoga books to inform my teaching and my own personal practice, but nothing that I really felt like curling up by the fireplace with for hours. Nothing that drove me to bed an hour early just so I could read more before falling asleep. Nothing that took my attention away from holiday festivities or pulled me away from holiday movies on Hallmark.
Fall is usually the time of year that I hunker down with my stack-o-books, but this year, it didn't happen. Thankfully, though, two things occurred: 1) My husband and daughters recognized that my reading life was suffering and gave me two books for Christmas. 2) My best friend let me borrow two books that she loved while we were visiting PA after Christmas. I am happy to report that I am no longer in a reading slump and I've spent a few afternoons and evenings curled up by my fireplace during the brutal cold of Chicagoland January with my books and my pug puppy.
Balance has been restored to my life.
If you have ever gone through a reading slump, or if you are looking for a good book to read, pick up
'On Living' by Kerry Egan. Don't let the premise scare you away, because I truly believe this is one of those books that every human being should read. Kerry Eagan works as a hospice chaplain which means that she spends her time with people who are dying. Sounds sad, doesn't it? It's actually quite beautiful when she recounts the stories her patients tell her. When people are dying they strive to make meaning of the lives they lived.
In 'On Living' she recounts her work of sitting and holding space with people at the end of their lives. She considers herself a "story holder"and how she "listen[s] to the stories that people believe have shaped their lives . . to the stories people choose to tell, and the meaning they make of those stories." Through her time as hospice chaplain she realized that every single person she has ever met has a crazy story to tell and that "every one of us will go through things that destroy our inner compass and pull the meaning out from under us."
People in Kerry's (forgive me for using her first name, but after reading this book, you will be on a first name basis with her as well) life (friends at book club, professors, and her fellow moms) have questioned what she does for a living. Often they shy away from her sharing stories of the patients she sees, but her discovery is that the situations she witnesses, the stories people tell at the end of their life are breathtaking and sometimes even funny (one of her patients asked her to take her outside so she could feel "the wind on her pussy"). Her patients speak of regret, of hope, of angels, of demons, of shame, of forgiveness, of suffering, and mostly about their families. All of the stories are wrapped in a warm embrace of love because Kerry approaches her job with loving intent.
I was particularly touched by the story of Ellen who in her dying focused her energy on being "loveful" and disclosed to Kerry that she needed more love in her life because she was old and dying, but she didn't receive as much as babies and children. Because Ellen suffered from short term memory loss, she didn't remember sharing anything with Kerry or even who Kerry was after a short nap. As Ellen questioned Kerry about her intentions in her home, Kerry put both of her hands on Ellen's cheeks and said, "'I just came to tell you that I love you so much. And God loves you so much. You're surrounded by all the love you need.'"
It was exactly what Ellen needed to hear.
Kerry asks big questions about life in this book: How do we know what is real or what to believe? What does it mean to live in the gray instead of the black and white? Who do you believe yourself to be? How do we make meaning out of the lives we have lived? Can life be both beautiful and crushing at the same moment?
I was completely captivated from the beginning to the end of this book and I feel like I learned more about living because I read it. I'm mostly grateful that not only am I out of my reading slump, but I am also starting the year off with an amazing book to recommend to others that I believe will change the way they view life and death. Not a bad start to 2017.
Monday, November 7, 2016
“He can guess, but he won't ever know, not really. What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she'd never told him. Whether she thought he'd failed her, or whether she wanted him to let her go. This, more than anything, makes him feel that she is gone.”
Sometimes parents love their children so deeply and so much that they don't realize that they are smothering them. The expectations we place on our kids are often from our own missed opportunities or things that we learned in life that we believe our kids need to learn in order to survive.
We don't mean to hurt them, but sometimes we love them too hard and just need to let them live their own lives by making their own mistakes and creating their own stories.
Celeste Ng's debut novel "Everything I Never Told You" adeptly studies the life of one family as they struggle to understand what happened to their daughter Lydia. The book opens with the sentence "Lydia is dead." Although it might seem like an overdone opening to a cliched story line about the disappearance of a teenage girl, Ng's skillful writing is anything but cliche, and her characters are heartbreakingly flawed people who seem to be doing all the right things in a small Ohio town in 1977. They are Harvard educated. The parents are dedicated to the success of their children, Lydia, Nath and the often forgotten third child, Hannah. The dad, James, is a college professor and he wants nothing more than his daughter to be well liked and for his son to get into Harvard. The mom, Marilyn, devotes herself to helping her daughter stand out academically - to be the best and the brightest and to pave a path of academia for her future. She tells her "You have your whole life in front of you. You can do anything you want."
Unfortunately, though, both James and Marilyn want too much for Lydia and never really see Lydia for who she might want to be. Instead, both of them burden their daughter with what they always wanted in their lives. James wants his Asian American daughter to fit in and not stand out, to be well liked and normal even amid the blatant racism in their Midwest small town. Marilyn wants her daughter to be the best and the brightest just like she was before she sacrificed her own happiness to raise her three children. She doesn't want her to settle.
Neither parent understands how putting their own struggles and past on their daughter essentially takes away her identity.
Selected as Amazon's Best Novel of 2014, and on NPR's and The New York Times' Best of 2014 list, Ng's novel glides through the aching landscape of a family torn apart - not just once by the disappearance of the mom, but twice due to Lydia's death. It shows that some wounds don't heal and that even when we believe we are doing everything right, when our actions come from a place of past hurt, we often are doing more hurting than helping or healing.
This book was unanimously loved by our book club for the attention to details, the descriptions and the way the plot carefully unfolds. We learn the depth of secrets, how quickly a family can grow apart, and the sadness that resides inside of each of us. All of us liked, as well, that even in the melancholy and upheaval, hope exists.
To me, though, this novel sends a powerful warning to parents to let their children live their own lives and create their own stories.
Friday, October 14, 2016
"We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas: One Family's Struggle with the American Dream and Alzheimer's
My best friend Cari and I have similar tastes in books. When we taught high school together, one of us would rave about a book and the other would read it and then we would rave about it over lunch, or on a sushi date. I saw her over the summer and explained that I was experiencing a reading drought meaning that no books that I read over the summer had really moved me enough that I could rave about them. She shook her head and said, "Oh. I have a book for you. It will for sure move you." Although she forgot to give it to me before I drove back to Illinois, she mailed "We are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas to my house. I had a few other books to finish, before I tore into the 600+ pages of Thomas's highly acclaimed debut novel, but I couldn't wait.
The book begins slowly with the protagonist, Eileen Tumulty's hard life. She's the caretaker of her Irish parents who succumb to alcoholism. It isn't until Eileen meets Ed Leary, a promising scientist, that the book starts to wake up. He seems an unusual choice for the hardworking Eileen, but when he kisses her at a New Year's Eve party, she knows she has found the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with. After years of unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, Eileen and Ed have a son who they name Connell.
After the first 100 pages of this book, I was captivated enough by the writing which is crisp and at times poetic, to keep going even though nothing significant happened. These were rather ordinary people dealing with rather ordinary things in life. But what I loved about Thomas's slow methodical storytelling is that the characters didn't need to impress me for me to be invested in their lives. I could feel the build up to something in the plot. I could tell that the characters would change.
Eileen's chilly and tough demeanor reminded me of many women in my life. She's kind to a point, but doesn't reveal much. She works hard unapologetically, but she dreams of a more cushy life and urges her husband to strive for greatness at work - get more titles, take a promotion, switch universities. She wants to move into a better neighborhood and becomes obsessed with finding a dream home for her family. Ironically, once she finds the dream home (which is described as less than dreamy even though the location is ideal), her whole life unravels. Ed is equally as perplexing as a character. He is so soft and gentle with his son and so caring with his wife even when she is hard and unfeeling, that he creates a lovable foil to her.
About half way through the novel, Ed's memory is slipping. He gets calls from the college where he works because students have started to complain. He'll sit with headphones on for hours because his brain is "hazy" and he wants to get back to basics. When Eileen finally has had enough and takes him to the doctor, they receive the cruel diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease. Ed is only 51 at the time of diagnosis, and Eileen wants to fight to keep him well and at home for as long as possible. She hides it from his boss and even when she knows that keeping Ed safe is beyond her capabilities despite the fact that she is an amazing nurse, she still fights to keep him at home with as much dignity and grace as she can allow.
At this point in the journey with the Leary family, my heart broke for all of them. Connell was too young and too selfish and too unskilled with emotions to deal with the care that his father needed. Eileen was too unyielding to give in to the complete dissolution of her life dream. Thomas meticulously describes each failing memory, each loss of human dignity that Ed suffers. We see this largely from the perspective of Eileen, but one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel is when Connell tries to take care of his father for the day while his mother is working, and his father soils himself. Connell cleans him and again tries his best to deal with not only the physical and demeaning work of the clean up, but also the emotional toll that his father's illness has taken.
It isn't just the slow insidious decline of Ed's mental faculties that kept me reading. I wanted to know how an ordinary woman would deal with the tragedy of losing her husband to Alzheimer's. I wanted to know how her son would deal with the guilt and the loss of his father. Although I have read many books about Alzheimer's, Thomas's novel delves deeper because of the slow build up to the life that Eileen wanted. We get to know her American Dream, and how she was so close, but how quickly life can change. As the reader, we get to see the daily discoveries of loss, the daily hope and the daily disintegration of the future that was in reach, but will never be fulfilled.
Ultimately, though, in all the bleak of this novel, it does not end up feeling like a tragedy. Eileen changes. Connell changes. Ed, well . . . poor Ed.
It took me longer to love this book than I thought I would, but I will be thinking about the Leary family for quite some time even though I finished reading it today. To me, this book has all the makings of an American classic and it deserves the distinction on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.
Friday, October 7, 2016
Some people want to remain in their hometowns and follow the same paths that family and friends chose before them. Live close to the home where they grew up. Marry someone who is from the same community. Create a family and hope that their children will want to grow up close to home.
Twenty year old Eilis Lacey, the protagonist in Colm Toibin's novel "Brooklyn" (made popular by the highly acclaimed movie of the same name), does not want an adventure, but her dutiful yielding to her older sister, Rose, and her widowed mother sends her away from her beloved Enniscorthy in Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in 1951.
The beauty in Toibin's novel stem's from the fact that he chose a very ordinary girl whose life moves at a normal pace under ordinary circumstances. There are no huge twists and turns or breathless dramatic action scenes in this novel. The quiet subtleties of the novel, though, are what make it so readable and lovable. Even Toibin's writing is subtle and quiet without the flair of overt descriptions and highly emotional characters. Everything in this novel has a dim glow about it rather than a sharply lit room. It reminds me of my grandmother's home in Highlandtown, Baltimore which was old fashioned, impeccably clean, unsentimental and very straightforward. Everything had a function. Nothing was whimsical or dramatic. Life happened in that basement, though. Friends and family gathered there for holidays and celebrations. Conversations were never dull and everyone left feeling a semblance of home.
After Eilis's journey to Brooklyn (which was one of the most tenuous scenes of the book when she along with the other passengers battled sea sickness), she is personally escorted by a priest to a respectable boarding house full of other respectable young women. She gets a job at Bartocci's department store and at the urging of the priest, studies bookkeeping. When she attends a local Irish dance, she meets and falls for an Italian American named Tony who despite his family's disdain for the Irish, has a "thing" for Irish girls.
Their relationship, like all the relationships in this book, is subtle. There are no dramatic moments when my heart beat out of my chest, but I was rapt to find out what would become of them. That is the true art of what Toibin's book brings. It doesn't go about shouting and showing off. It's the strength of the ordinary that draws in the reader and holds her there until the ending.
Eilis returns to Ireland to attend a funeral and finds herself in a few more dilemmas involving her mother wanting her to remain there and her mother's stoicism. She also begins a relationship with a charismatic man and puts herself in a situation where she needs to decide where her loyalties will reside. Where will home be? What in our lives is worth our attachments and what should we abandon to grow and move on? What is love and how does it pull us in different directions? Most importantly what constitutes home?
These are the questions that "Brooklyn" examines quietly in the ordinary life of an ordinary girl.
For me, this is the perfect book for a fall weekend with a cup of tea, and a nice big fuzzy blanket which may not sound like a big adventure but there is beauty in the ordinary days of our lives.
(credit given to Jo for so nicely giving me this book when I told her I was in a reading dry spell).
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
|Meet Basil, our new "office pug." He didn't quite understand the concept of sitting with a book, but he'll get the hang of it.|
"So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior." - Pema Chodron "When Things Fall Apart"
Avid readers of Glennon Doyle Melton's blog "Momastary" already know the ending to the story of Glennon and her husband Craig's marriage. In Melton's latest book "Love Warrior: A Memoir" (selected as Oprah's most recent Book Club pick), she delves into her painful past to make sense of the devastation of her marriage.
I don't want to spoil too much about this book because it's worth a read. Melton has legions of devoted fans that may have gotten hooked on her truth waterfalls from her popular blog or from her other New York Times Bestselling book "Carry On, Warrior." Melton has a way of connecting with her readers. She's an Amy Schumer Trainwreck meets Brene Brown's power of vulnerability meets Gloria Steinham. She's not afraid to write the whole ugly truth and she's not afraid to own her story of pain and renewal. She's a highly sought after speaker, and her TedTalk is one of my favorite of all time. I like that she is real and unfiltered. That she writes like a friend telling another friend about her pain and occasionally her joy.
Unlike the collection of essays about parenting in "Carry On, Warrior" that had a charming, playful parenting bent, "Love Warrior" is serious business starting with Melton's slide into bulimia and alcoholism. As a young girl, she finds bulimia in attempt to keep herself small and beautiful. Even after a stint in a mental hospital, she never shakes the habit of binging and purging. In high school and college she turns to alcohol to numb herself from intimate relationships. It's easier to be numb than to feel deeply.
When she meets Craig with his dashing smile and his charm and good looks, she can't believe he is truly interested in her. Their relationship is anything but simple. After she gets pregnant and he takes her to an abortion clinic, she leaves her alone to recover while he goes out for the evening with his friends. The second time she gets pregnant by him and she finds herself at rock bottom on the bathroom floor, she decides that she will have the baby with or without him and that she will turn her life around with or without him.
He decides to stay and marry her. She decides that the can stay and that she will marry him.
That should be their happy ending, but when you have two people - one that only communicates and feels with his body (Craig) and one that only communicates and feels with her head (Glennon), there are bound to be issues, especially when both of them have addictions and secrets and sordid pasts, but only one of them has chosen to be real about them.
What follows after the discovery of Craig's secrets is a story of how love can pull us together and tear us apart. How marriage can be lonely and hopeful all at the same time. How you can marry someone and be with them for years, but never really know them and when you do get to know them how you may not want "for better or for worse" with the person you thought you married. It's a story about finding yourself at rock bottom but finding a way back to who you were truly meant to be.
I loved so much of this book especially that Glennon has a way of writing that speaks to her reader's soul. There were also parts of the book that felt a bit sermonized for me. You need to be okay with all of her God and Spirit talk to fully appreciate her journey. At times the dialogue is so stilted that it was painful. I can only imagine that those real life conversations were just as hard between her and her husband as they tread the delicate path of finding true intimacy with each other after almost losing each other and the family unit that they built.
As she tries to heal from her brokenness Glennon finds yoga as a way to get present in her body again. She finds God as a way to reconnect with her spirit. She learns to breathe. She learns that she is a warrior - a love warrior.
The first 75% of the book had me completely hooked, but at times the long sermonizing and repetition of the second half of the book felt like too much. It's not that I think she is wallowing in her misery (because she's definitely had a hard go of it and she has so much to teach the rest of us), but I wish there could be some joy from time to time. Yes, the story is one of hope and overcoming incredible sadness to try to reconnect with yourself and your marriage, and so that entails a bunch of questioning without a bunch of answering. I get it.
If you are like me, by the end of this book, you are rooting for both sides of the marriage - Glennon and Craig. You hope for them individually and hope for them together. Avid readers of Glennon's blog, "Momastary" already know what becomes of their marriage, but I'll save that for you to find out.
Friday, September 2, 2016
|Hamlet does not enjoy taking photos with books. |
Our new "office pug" will be joining our family on September 11th. We can't wait for our new baby!
"Girls today thought they could do anything. Girls burned bright, knew what they wanted, imagined they could take it, and it was glorious and it was terrifying."
It's Labor Day weekend which for many of us marks the last burst of sunshine laziness that we'll revel in before the sky gets dark earlier and then we descend into the gray days of fall through winter.
When you go on your last grasp of summer fun vacations, be sure to take along a page turning book to enjoy while you bask in the September sun.
I devoured Robin Wasserman's first adult novel 'Girls on Fire' which is the latest "It Girl" in a long line of psychologically deranged thrill rides about girls with big issues: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Good Girl - just to name a few of the "Girl" books I have read.
The novel takes place in the early 1990s in Battle Creek, Pennsylvania and centers around three girls: Hannah (who becomes Dex) - a non descript outcast whose loneliness draws her into an obsessive friendship, Lacey - the intriguing, Kurt Cobain worshipping, rebel, new girl, who does what she wants despite an abusive step father who she nicknames "The Bastard" (I kept imagining the girl version of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club), and Nikki - the beyond popular, mean girl that everyone wants to please despite the fact that even her boyfriend's recent suicide hasn't softened her hard edges.
Wasserman's writing is as vicious and seductive as the girls in this book. She captured my high school experience in the early 90s. I had friends who worshipped Kurt Cobain. I ate Snack Wells cookies believing they were good for me. I thought Kirk Cameron was hot. I remember mall dates when walking into Express to buy jeans felt grown up. I remember Benetton back packs (Nikki's dog's name is Benetton), and I remember Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign. The undertones of Satanic cults were everywhere in my small rural, PA town, so much so that I chose the topic Satanism as my 9th grade term paper topic. I remember the advent of the grunge scene. Wasserman's cultural references took me back to that uncomfortable time in my life, but to the darker side that I never succumbed to, or that never existed, or that I never knew existed.
I know teenagers are messy (and were messy), but are they this mean? Did Wasserman merely take the stereotypes of girls and present the dystopic vision of what really goes on at high school parties, or out in the woods, or in their beat up used cars, or down by the lake, or behind the closed bedroom doors?
As a high school teacher for 15 years, I know that high school girls are intense, but these girls are violent, horrifying train wrecks that I like to think are not the rule but the exception.
'Girls on Fire' never lets up. It burns with a hungry, dark insatiability as Wasserman switches the perspective - past and present, Lacey to Dex and even throws in some thoughts from the parents who might even be sadder stereotypes than their desperate daughters. The power of the novel comes from the suspense that builds and the "truth" of Craig's suicide as well as the fate of Nikki, Dex and Lacey. It would be cruel of me (crueler than the attitude of the girls in this book) if I revealed any of the unraveling.
Although the girls never rise about their labels nor do their character arcs give you any type of hero worth rooting for, more than likely you will find yourself caught up in the fire, burning through pages to see the inevitable, unrelenting destruction. I was seduced and saddened. Thrilled and let down. Disgusted and worried.
When I closed the book at the end, I uttered one word, "Damn."
I rethought my high school experience and my obsession with the movie 'Heathers,' how I loved reading Stephen King novels, how I listened to Metallica, Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush and Kurt Cobain. It reminded me that we all have a bit of darkness inside of us. Most of us, though, know how to stay in the light.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
It's been awhile since I posted a book blog.
Just so you know, I've been reading.
Just so you know, the pictures with our new pug puppy, Basil, posing with the books, instead of our cat, Hamlet are coming.
Just so you know, I've read a bunch of good summery books that I think you would love.
As I look over my summer reading stack, the most out of my usual reading zone is 'Before the Fall' by Noah Hawley, so I want to start my summer catch up blogs with that one. If you haven't heard of Noah Hawley, he's a big deal right now with huge accolades for his writing, executive producing, and show running of FX's Fargo. 'Before the Fall' is his 5th novel, but the first of them that I've read.
I'm not usually a suspense or mystery reader, but a good friend started reading this one and told me that it would pull me in and keep me turning the pages with good writing to boot. The story opens like a disaster movie would. A private chartered jet is about to take off from Martha's Vineyard on a foggy night which isn't ideal for flying, but not hazardous enough to question the safety of a short flight. The reader is introduced to a slew of characters which are hard to keep straight in the first several chapters:
David Bateman - multimillionaire owner of a right wing news network that sounds similar to Fox News (he is the one who chartered the flight)
Maggie Bateman - David's younger, former school teacher wife
Rachel Bateman - Maggie and David's 9 year old daughter who just happened to be kidnapped when she was 2
JJ Bateman - Maggie and David's 4 year old son who is sleeping during take off
Ben Kipling - multimillionaire WallStreet dude who is good friends with David, but who is also facing possible indictment for money laundering
Sarah Kipling - the one dimensional wife of Ben who wants her husband to stop working so much
Gil - the Israeli born bodyguard of the Bateman family who has served them for 7 years since the kidnapping of Rachel
Scott Burroughs - the mysterious passenger invited last minute by Maggie Bateman, a struggling (failed?) artist who might just be getting his big break in NYC when the flight lands
A pilot who seems capable enough with his co-pilot and their strikingly beautiful, expert stewardess
16 minutes after the flight takes off, it crashes into the sea and only two people survive: Scott and JJ. Even more amazing is that Scott swims hours in the dark with a dislocated shoulder, dragging JJ with him to save both of their lives. This heroic act brings him into an unwelcome media frenzy that starts with praise and morphs into suspicion and conspiracy theories under the loud mouthed rhetoric of Bateman's Right Wing News Cable mogul, Bill Cunningham who has questionable morals and bends laws to get his version of truth out to his adoring fans.
The novel starts at a breathless pace capturing the tenuous moments after the crash and delirium of Scott and JJ as they desperately try to survive. Then, the action slows down as Hawley takes readers inside the list of passenger names and gives the sordid details of their lives before the crash making each of the players a potential suspect to explain the reason for the crash.
Was it conspiracy? Was it an act of terrorism? Was there an illicit affair between would be hero, Scott and Maggie?
The backstory chapters are interspersed with chapters delving into the aftermath of the crash which might even be more dangerous than the shark infested waters that Scott Burroughs swam through in the pitch black.
Hawley shows us the ugly side of the media circus and speculation that so many of us are prone to believe after any disaster. Sometimes random things just happen. Random people come into our lives. Random disasters happen even when multimillionaires are involved.
Or do they?
That is the central question of this book, and it takes until the very end for everything to unravel and the truth to be revealed.
I liked it. I didn't love it. I thought some parts were brilliant, but others were boring and repetitive. Overall, though, it was suspenseful enough to make it a page turner. I'd be surprised if this one isn't made into a movie.