Catching Up

Things have felt busy since the last time I posted here: we went camping for a few days at Lake George in New York, and then I was busy with summer classes (online ones, but still). But I have been steadily reading and have found some books I’ve really loved. Here are some very, very brief thoughts about what I’ve been reading lately:

  • The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu: I’ve been in the mood for novels that are plotty but solidly literary fiction at the same time, and this was perfect. I read it while camping, which was also perfect. It’s about a group of five girls who get lost on an overnight trip and something happens. We get this story along with the lives of the girls as adults, and it was fun to watch the consequences play out.
  • Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley: This book made me laugh. I actually wanted it to be deeper and meatier, but still, it was fun, and I always appreciate a breezy but smart voice. These are personal essays — yes, about someone living in New York City, which I’m a little tired of, but still, I enjoyed it.
  • Katalin Street by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix: This is by far the most serious book I’ve read recently, and I struggled with it now and then, although I appreciated it at the same time. It’s the story of how World War II affects three families living next to each other in Budapest. It took me a while to figure out that one character is speaking as a ghost, but once I figured that out, I thought her story was moving. It’s a grim read, but it’s powerful in the way it illustrates the ravages of war.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Braithwaite Oyinkan: What do you do if you love your sister, but she keeps killing the men she dates? This is a real problem for the narrator who loves but doesn’t understand her beautiful, flirtatious, fun-loving sister who has lived without consequences her whole life and doesn’t see why having to kill off a few inconvenient people is a big deal. I loved this novel; it was odd and amusing and moving all at once, a thoroughly enjoyable unconventional crime novel.
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori: I loved this last book too. It tells the story of Keiko, a 36-year-old woman who has worked at a convenience store for the last 18 years. She’s happy there — she has trouble functioning in environments that are less structured than the store is — but the people around her don’t understand why she doesn’t want a career and/or a family. I liked being in Keiko’s mind and seeing the world through her eyes. Watching her try to navigate a world that doesn’t know what to make of her was hard at times but I enjoyed rooting for her.

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Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything

I loved this memoir so much! It’s O’Connell’s account of being pregnant, giving birth, and getting through the early years of being a parent, and so much of it either matched or echoed my own experience. I sighed and winced and laughed my way through it. The first section — which does not match my experience at all — is about her unexpected discovery that she’s pregnant and the decision she and her fiancé had to make about whether to go forward with the pregnancy. Then she describes her childbirth experience, and what a harrowing account it is! My own birth story is much shorter and simpler than hers is, but I still related to so many of her feelings and worries. My favorite part was her description of what it’s like to have an infant, particularly how it’s possible to have post-partum depression and not fully realize it, even while being fully aware that post-partum depression is a thing one should look out for. So many little details resonated with me, like the way she made a point of doing the dishes every day so she could listen to podcasts and get a break from the world of babies. And how hard it is to leave an infant in daycare but how absolutely necessary it is to do so to keep oneself sane — and to keep one’s job.

I loved how honest O’Connell is about how hard it is to be a new parent — how wonderful, yes, but also how hard. I think there’s a little more space these days for women to be open about the difficulties of motherhood, but there’s still not nearly enough. I felt relief reading about O’Connell’s struggles, which tells me there aren’t enough voices out there telling these kinds of stories.

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The Recovering, by Leslie Jamison

Recovering Leslie Jamison cover The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison had a lot of good things about it, although I had a lot of questions at the same time. It’s part memoir, part discussion of addiction in literature and society, and Jamison moves back and forth between the two throughout the book. I found the personal story compelling: Jamison’s narrative is not that dramatic, as she herself acknowledges, at least compared to what many addiction narratives are like, but she makes it interesting because she’s a good storyteller. I like her writing and her voice; I’m happy to listen to her tell personal stories no matter what they are.

Many sections of the literary/cultural discussion of addiction were interesting, but these began to feel repetitive after a while, and towards the end, I began to skim through these. She brings back authors again and again, and I know she has different points to make about them each time, but it still felt like too much. The book is around 450 pages, and it began to feel too long. It doesn’t help that we learn she wrote her dissertation (or is writing, I’m not sure) on the topic of recovery narratives, and the historical material in this book came from that research. There nothing necessarily wrong with this, but these sections felt significantly less interesting to me than the personal ones. At one point she drops an essay that didn’t get picked up by a magazine into the book, and I think presenting the material this way to the reader is a mistake.

She does have fascinating ideas on the problem of how to make addiction and recovery narratives interesting. Addiction stories are so often the same, more or less; they have the same structure even if the details vary. This is part of the point of Alcoholics Anonymous, the telling of one’s story and listening to the stories of others to understand that they are fundamentally the same. But this doesn’t always make for originality and uniqueness, if those are one’s goals. Jamison was trained to value the new and different, and AA taught her the value of the familiar, and even of the cliche. Other questions are about whether one loses creativity in sobriety (no one doesn’t, is her answer) and whether narratives of recovery can be interesting. The answer to this one varies, but her own story of recovery is interesting, her attempts to find joy and excitement in what seem at first to be the horribly mundane details of everyday life.

The other question this book brings up is one of privilege: Jamison’s experience of addiction as a white woman is very different from a white man’s, on the one hand, and from men and women of color, on the other. She addresses this directly: she writes about how a certain kind of artistic drunkenness is tolerated and even admired in men, while it is not in women, and also about how people of color are vilified and imprisoned for their addictions. I found her discussion of her own privilege satisfying, but it seems a fair question to me whether this is the addiction story we want to spend 450 pages reading about. I can see why some readers might want to focus on other kinds of stories from different types of people.

But, obviously, this book offers so much to think about. Jamison is a weirdly provocative writer, as I know some people felt her previous book The Empathy Exams was troublingly self-absorbed, although I loved it. I guess I like self-absorbed writers as long as they write well and are interesting. And, as Jamison does, as long as they recognize their own self-absorption in some way. You can’t like personal essays and memoirs without being able to tolerate a large degree of self-absorption, and I do love those genres.

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The Library by Stuart Kells + current reading

The LIbrary Stuart Kells coverStuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders was a quick, fun, quirky look at libraries. At 220 or so pages, it’s not comprehensive by any means, but it’s packed with interesting information. It has a loosely historical structure, but it mostly proceeds thematically and skips around in time to make interesting connections among libraries and librarians throughout history. Its chapters are short and focus on topics like library disasters, rapacious book collectors, libraries in fiction, changes over time in how books are stored and displayed, and a lot more. It has chapters on the Morgan library and the Folger library, on the development of the codex and how the printing press changed libraries. In between each main chapter is a short piece telling a story or exploring a topic about books or reading (for example, “Books in Bed” and “Library Fauna.”) This isn’t the book for you if you want an in-depth look at the subject, but it’s perfect for those of us who love libraries and want an entertaining introduction to libraries past and present. The book is great as a celebration of the importance of libraries and all the good stories associated with them.

Now I’m in the middle of two books, first, LaBrava by Elmore Leonard for my mystery book group, and second, Leslie Jamison’s book about addiction, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. The Leonard is fast-paced and kind of fun but not really my thing. The second IS my thing, and I’m enjoying it very much. It’s a mix of Jamison’s own experience with addiction and a cultural and sociological look at the subject. It’s a longish book, but thoroughly absorbing.

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There There by Tommy Orange

There There Tommy Orange coverI finished There There by Tommy Orange last night and what a great book it is! It tells the story of a group of Native Americans living in or heading to Oakland, California. You hear early on about a big Oakland Powwow that’s going to happen soon, and the novel moves steadily toward that event. Along the way we meet a range of people: 12 characters of various ages and experiences, each of whom takes a turn being the focus of the story. There are children trying to figure out what it means to be Native, grown-ups dealing with alcoholism and destructive marriages, parents and grandparents worried about or estranged from their children and grandchildren, young people trying to pull their lives together, or feeling pressure from their parents to do so.

I found each of these stories compelling, and as I figured out what was likely to happen at the Powwow, the book became hard to put down. I cared about every one of Orange’s characters. So many of them were struggling with what it means to be Native American — some are mixed race and are uncertain how they feel about being a mix of white and Native. Some don’t know much about their heritage, don’t know what tribe they are from, for example, and some feel awkward claiming Native heritage, particularly if they look “white.” One character learns Native dances by watching YouTube. We see these characters struggle with uncertainty about identity but also how that identity has shaped their lives in profound ways. It’s very moving.

This book is getting a lot of attention right now, and I can see why. I hope it continues to do well and that we get many more novels from Tommy Orange.

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Jane and Dorothy

Jane and Dorothy coverJane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility: The Lives of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth by Marian Veveers was an interesting and enjoyable read. I think it’s best meant for casual fans of Austen and/or Dorothy Wordsworth (probably the former?) rather than for experts or those who have read in-depth biographies of these figures before. But, then, I’ve read biographies of both these writers and I still enjoyed this book, even though it didn’t have information I hadn’t read elsewhere. It’s relatively short for a biography of two writers — just over 300 pages, so for me, it was a quick review of these writers’ lives, plus some compelling points about how the two lives illuminate each other.

As you can tell from the title, Veveers works with the sense and sensibility opposition, in this case Austen being the one more reliant on sense and Wordsworth the one full of sensibility. Veveers complicates this opposition nicely, showing the moments Austen was driven by sensibility and Wordsworth ruled by sense, and she situates the ideas about logic and emotion briefly but effectively in the context of the beginnings of romanticism.

I particularly liked how Veveers uses these two women’s lives to show what life was like for women of their class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: they both came from privileged but precarious backgrounds and both struggled with money and status their whole lives, even though they reacted to the situation differently, Dorothy choosing to live unconventionally with mixed results and Jane dutifully but often unhappily following family members from house to house as was expected of her. Neither woman married, of course, and Veveers explains well what this meant: they were dependent on family members and not considered high priority enough for anyone to send much money or educational opportunity their way. Both women struggled to find time and solitude enough to devote to their writing.

After reading this and Sharp by Michelle Dean, I’ve decided I like group biographies and also biographies that aren’t particularly thorough, as these two aren’t. I don’t need to know — and will certainly forget — all the details that go into more comprehensive works.

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We Begin Our Ascent, by Joe Mungo Reed

We Begin Our Ascent coverI enjoyed this book so much! It’s perfect for me: a smart, thoughtful, well-written novel about cycling. I’m not sure what non-cycling readers will make of it: I can’t tell because an important part of the experience for me was reading great writing about what it’s like to ride and race, but my guess is they will find much to like in it too.

The novel (to be published on June 19th) tells the story of Sol, a rider in the Tour de France. It takes place over the course of a few days, with flashbacks to how he met his wife Liz, the birth of his infant son, the story of how he got into cycling, and what his years of training were like. Liz is a scientist trying to get some good results in the lab, and one thing I particularly liked about this book is how Reed makes connections between their two careers, both of them involving long hours of tedious work for an uncertain payoff. In both cases, people outside their respective fields don’t understand what they do. Nobody understands why Sol doesn’t try to win stages of the Tour — that’s not his job, which is to help their star climber win — and nobody really gets why Liz puts in such long hours for results that probably won’t revolutionize anything. Reed gets deeply into the nature of work, its meaning, its frustrations, its rituals and intricacies.

Reed’s descriptions of racing are fabulous. Of course, I have no idea what it’s like to ride in the Tour, but I’ve raced and ridden in a pack (the peloton, or the main group of riders), and he captures what it’s like to work together with your competitors, to navigate the elaborate etiquette of cycling: when you should help others (because that means you will be helped too) and when you should break from the pack and try to make a go of it by yourself, when it’s your turn to win the race and when you need to blow yourself up early so a stronger teammate can save crucial energy until the very end. I particularly loved how Reed uses the plural “we” to describe riding in the pack , as though it were a creature of its own, taking on different shapes as the race proceeds. The racing sequences got my heart rate up with the suspense, and I could feel the riders’ exhaustion as they pedaled toward the finish line with nothing left to give.

The novel is also about family life and what it’s like to be a professional couple with a brand new baby. I had to laugh at Sol and Liz’s confidence before the baby was born that they knew how their new life was going to be. The novel takes them in places they never expected to go, both personally and professionally.

Every cyclist who likes to read should pick this book up for sure, but it has a lot to offer for anyone interested in work, family, competition, and ambition, and for anyone who wants an absorbing, thought-provoking, exciting read.

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