Currently Reading: The Widows of Malabar Hill

Mysteries are one of my defaults when I’m looking for a new book.  I had started Michelle McNamara’s nonfiction about the search for the Golden State Killer I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but while it was engrossing, it also gave me literal nightmares.  I shelved it a little over a third of the way through.  Not the right book for right now.

Fortunately, Modern Mrs. Darcy had a blog post with a list of gentle mysteries (not too gruesome or disturbing) that came out right as I was casting about for new reading material.  On the list was The Widows of Malabar Hill (by Sujata Massey) centering on a female solicitor in 1920s India.  Truthfully, I picked it up initially because it was the first one on the list available at the library for e-book borrowing, but I was pulled into the story almost immediately and glad that I had been able to nab it.

Protagonist Perveen Mistry is a young Parsi woman who studied law at Oxford and now an associate in her father’s law office.  While she cannot present cases in court as a barrister, she works as the first female solicitor in Bombay.  When the law office is presented with three Muslim widows who wish to put their inheritance into a specialized trust, Perveen is sent to speak to the women who live in purdah, an enclosed life where no males outside of the family are permitted.  Within the house, Perveen finds secrets, simmering rivalries, and, eventually, the murder of the women’s male protector.

One of the qualities I really enjoyed about The Widows of Malabar Hill was author Massey’s deft ability to make India’s pluralism and society in the 1920s comprehensible to someone like me who knows relatively little about India.  Perveen and her family are Parsi: descended from Iranians who fled religious persecution to India somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries CE and practicing Zoroastrianism.  Massey also brings Muslims, Hindus, and the British into the story, picking through the social distinctions and interactions.  These differences bear heavily on the story as Perveen must understand Muslim law surrounding inheritance to work with her clients, navigate the social conventions around her friendship with Alice Hobson-Jones (the daughter of a high-ranking British official), and the Parsi marriage laws that have personal significance for Perveen.

Perveen is a compelling character to anchor the story.  Massey gives her protagonist realistic strengths and weaknesses – Perveen is upper class, well-educated, and intelligent, but Massey doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of being a trailblazer or the exhausting, constant explanations Perveen has to give around what she does for a living.  Perveen doesn’t fall entirely into the “plucky heroine” convention that often happens with women in novels.  Her path to becoming a solicitor is more complicated and the triumph of becoming a solicitor is more muted than just the usual sexism and misogyny to overcome (though these certainly factor in).  Massey also makes Perveen’s sex an asset as well as a liability; as a female, she is the only solicitor who can go behind the screens to meet the women clients in purdah.  I also really liked the fact that Perveen has a genuinely supportive and kind family who love her and want to see her happy and successful.

The novel had two distinct plotlines: the mystery itself, which kept me guessing, but also Perveen’s backstory.  While sometimes fleshing out a character as an equal storyline can detract in a mystery, in this case, it blends well with the central plot.

I really enjoyed The Widows of Malabar Hill and am excited to pick up the second book in the series, The Satapur Moonstone.  It’s wonderful to find a new series that is as promising as this one!

Currently Reading: The Splendid and the Vile

My library system has long done e-book borrowing, but in the last few months, they carried a program they’ve long used for print books over to the electronic borrowing system.  High demand books are available for a seven-day borrowing period with no renewal possible (instead of the usual 21-day borrow) but with no waiting on the long hold lists.  As someone who reads fast, I’m enjoying this program and have been able to get several books on my to-be-read list that I hadn’t anticipated reading for several months.

One of these books is Erik Larson’s new nonfiction The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.  I was engrossed by several of Larson’s previous books, including his contrasting saga of serial killer H.H. Holmes/architect Daniel H. Burnham during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair The Devil in the White City (there are true crime stories and then there are the ones that give a person nightmares, and for me, this was definitely the latter) and Dead Wake, Larson’s account of the sinking of Lusitania.

While I’ve read a fair amount of WWII history over the years, my history work in that era has largely focused on central to Eastern Europe/Russia, so other than mild familiarity with Churchill’s endless quotability and the basic outlines of Britain’s perseverance through the Blitz, I went in knowing relatively little about the details of this particular battle.

As with his other books, Larson is good at taking a sprawling story and lasering in on a few characters in it to explore the whole.  Churchill himself, of course, is the main focus and a colorful character, but Larson also brings in Churchill’s daughter Mary, son Randolph, daughter-in-law Pamela, wife Clementine, as well as advisers such as Frederick Lindemann, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and Jock Colville.  Larson also throws in some fascinating snippets of ordinary Britons to round out the picture, including the tragic story of the Café de Paris bombing.

One of the stories Larson covers – that I’m a little baffled I had never heard in years of history classes – is that of high-ranking Nazi Rudolph Hess parachuting into Scotland, being arrested by a farmer, and Hess stating that he had a message for the Duke of Hamilton.  It’s a thoroughly bizarre tale that historians can’t quite explain, but Larson’s recounting of it is fascinating and vivid.  The careful look at Churchill’s advisors also really distinguish this book, as many of them are quite noteworthy in their own rights and incredibly key to many of Churchill’s accomplishments.  Larson fleshes out their personalities and quirks – for example, Lindemann was a teetotaler, vegetarian, and an ascetic – making them less grim historical personages and more human.  Larson’s a gifted storyteller, taking all the strands and weaving them into a very readable narrative.

It’s either a fantastic or awful book to read in the current moment, because there are times the situation feels eerily familiar with everything that’s going on today.  A passage about the bombings during the Blitz resonated deeply with me: “The raids generated a paradox: The odds that any one person would die on any one night were slim, but the odds that someone, somewhere in London would die were 100 percent.  Safety was a product of luck alone.”

I found it a good read overall.  Larson doesn’t sugarcoat the very real death tolls, destruction, or the ongoing concern that Britain was going to be invaded by Germany throughout.  Churchill’s anxiety and that of his advisors is palpable at times.  At the same time, Larson manages to also highlight the resilience that helped Britain persevere through the bombings.

Currently Reading: Wolf Hall

I’ve had Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel Wolf Hall on my bookshelf for years.  With Tudor history as an interest (my pen name here derives from one of Henry VIII’s queens) and this being one of the most hailed historical fictions about the period in recent years, it seems strange that I’ve never gotten around to reading it, but as I progressed through infertility, it got a bit too pointed to read about women who suffered awful fates for not bearing the required (male) child.  With the final book in the trilogy having recently come out and my last infertility treatment finished, I decided to give it another try.

The novel centers on Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers – more what I’d term one of Henry VIII’s “fixers”.  Cromwell, a clever lawyer most famous for his take-down of Anne Boleyn, is a tricky historical figure typically portrayed as a villain (often in contrast to his contemporary, literally canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More).  Like More, Cromwell paid for his service to Henry VIII with his head – though Henry later regretted Cromwell’s execution.  Mantel, instead of focusing on More, uses her imagination and history to rehabilitate Cromwell’s reputation, making him a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character.

Mantel has written about her own infertility and endometriosis, most notably in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost.  It’s incredibly fascinating to see how she tackles having, losing, and wishing for children in this story that turns so sharply on birth and heritage.  In modern times, when having children is (sometimes) more of a choice one way or the other, Henry VIII is sometimes seen as a bit of a curiosity in his desperation for a male heir.  Historically, however, Henry’s own father Henry VII won the crown of England through combat, defeating Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth.  Henry VII (Lancaster) then married the leading lady from the rival house, Elizabeth of York, to try to bring together the warring factions.  Civil war was not a particularly distant memory, there were still members of royal clans in England with some claim to the throne, and Henry VIII was well aware that war was a very real possibility if he did not produce a male heir.  Mantel keenly allows all of these to intersect early on in a meditation from one of Henry VIII’s cardinals, Thomas Wolsey, speaking to Cromwell: “’Imagine this.  You are a man of some thirty-five years of age.  You are in good health and of hearty appetite…your joints are supple, your bones support you, and in addition you are King of England.  But.’  He shakes his head.  ‘But!  If only he wanted something simple.  The Philosopher’s Stone.  The elixir of youth.  One of those chests that occur in stories, full of gold pieces…Now the chest of gold I have hopes of, and the elixir, all the rest.  But where shall I begin looking for a son to rule his country after him?’”

It is possibly one of the best bits I have ever read on the difficulty of not having the children one wishes.  Mantel sums it up so neatly, pointing out that even magical elixirs are easier to come by than children in some situations.

The novel never rushes anywhere – at around 600 pages, it’s not a quick read – but Mantel has a way of mixing descriptive passages with short spurts of action.  She lingers on sumptuous fabrics as well as gory executions, inviting the reader to witness both.  Many characters given more sympathetic portrayals elsewhere in fiction, in this novel are presented in a less than flattering light – More as a torturer of innocents, Katherine of Aragon as a deeply stubborn woman who refused to yield, and Anne Boleyn becoming a shrill and deeply unpleasant woman*.  All this carefully contrasted to the coolheaded Cromwell, who, in addition to his historically recorded calculating nature, given a genuine love for his children, his wife, and his wards.

It’s a fascinating reversal and goes to show how history and reputation often depend heavily on the writers in charge.  While Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and desperation for a male heir was a major reason for Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, another component of that schism was the wealth of the monasteries and RCC in England.  Henry, having spent his parsimonious father’s wealth and perennially broke, got the almost irresistible chance to take over the immense properties when he declared himself head of the church.  Cromwell was instrumental in making that happen.  Mantel takes Cromwell from a ruthlessly greedy schemer to a believer in church reformation that sees the monasteries as places of corruption, preying on the faithful.

Even though there are no mysteries or spoilers in that all is well-worn history, with her choice of one of the most unlikely protagonists in the historical record, Mantel keeps the story fresh.  I just purchased the next installment, the ominously titled Bring Up the Bodies, covering the fall of Anne Boleyn.

* Anne Boleyn is a tough historical character to tease out accurately in terms of personality.  Historical records tend to see her as either the martyred, saintly mother of Elizabeth I and tout some of her better deeds, particularly her well-known strength as she came to her execution, or they tend to see her as a terrible woman who sent good people to their deaths, broke the Church, and generally a nasty, temperamental piece of work.  The best source material for Anne’s life come from the ambassadors to the court, particularly Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was a staunch supporter of Katherine of Aragon.  There’s no denying that Anne did alienate key supporters and appears to have been quite cruel toward her step-daughter, Mary.  It’s hard to say, though, whether or not some of the other behavior attributed to her was quite as malignant as certain accounts give.  There’s also very little doubt that Anne was murdered on trumped-up charges, and as Chapuys notes, showed great courage, admirability, and grace in the face of her impending death.  Perhaps Anne was all of these things. 

Currently Reading: “Followers”

When I finally came up in the library queue to borrow and started reading Followers (by Megan Angelo), my mind immediately jumped to a technological dystopia I read several years ago called The Circle (by Dave Eggers).  The novels definitely have some similarities: young, ambitious female protagonists, social media manipulation, a backlash, and a futuristic bent where it all goes out of control in ways that explore society’s current use of technology/social media.  Initially, I almost found myself less interested in Followers because of the similarities, but I’m glad I kept reading.

In The Circle, main character Mae goes to work at a social media company representing a sort of mash-up of Face.book and Goo.gle that has forced people to use their real names/identities for the product and keeps going further and further, finally launching a campaign using Mae as the face that insists privacy is a form of theft (if you happen to have seen the movie version, it has an entirely different ending from the book).  In Followers, Orla and her roommate collaborate to make the roommate social media famous, leading to all kinds of issues for them personally and when worldwide events overtake their personal lives, there’s a huge loss of privacy.  Both novels describe a sort of Faustian bargain for their protagonists.

However, there’s a really crucial divergence between the novels that made Followers ultimately more compelling to me than The Circle.  In The Circle, Mae is what I’d refer to as a true believer – despite her qualms at times, she’s a convert, a zealot, and ultimately believes in what she’s selling.  Orla in Followers is far more cynical, aware of what she’s doing, understanding that she’s giving up pieces of her soul in return for pursuing fame and fortune.  That deep, gnawing unease, along with Orla and other character’s ultimate fates, give Followers a certain messiness and emotional resonance that The Circle lacks.

One place I think Angelo really nails an idea is when she talks about loneliness and the way social media can sort of exacerbate it, despite the seeming connection.  At one point, Angelo speaks through Orla, who has a history of painful isolation and a longing for real friendship to describe this: “Every scheme they brought to life together, every drink they shared without wiping the other’s spit from the bottle, every drunk ride home with their feet in each other’s laps – to Orla, it had been everything, an end, but to [other character] it had only been means.”  Angelo masterfully throws in small but realistic details to illustrate the way some of the relationships are a performance, down to the food purchased seemingly kindly but the character it is purchased for can’t eat it, something that would have been considered if the gesture had been truly thoughtful rather than just window-dressing.

Angelo also manages to invoke the way trauma can create a permanent mark on people.  At one point, she writes: “He thinks it is an old story.  But for [character], the story never ends.”  Along with that, Angelo also explores the impact of what it looks like to live with the very real carnage the virtual can invoke.  A moment when one character looks at another and explains that they’ve been attempting to humanize the other character and find some sort of grace had me considering the way we forgive (or don’t) and how we can so easily reduce people to caricatures, stereotypes, or the sum of their virtual profiles – and how social media can sometimes make this far easier.

Ultimately, though, it’s the strange sort of hope Angelo has in humanity that pulled even the clunkier bits of the novel together for me.  As one character puts it, “…she knew, from having a mother who knit, that an experienced purler could change her design, if she just changed her mind in time.”  I really like the idea that a fresh start isn’t necessarily starting over, it’s figuring out how to live a full life with the mistakes and regrets and unfulfilled wishes, changing the design without throwing away the material.

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Content notes for this book, though trying to be vague so as not to spoil: those in the adoption triad may find this one has some tough moments.  Also for suicide.  

Currently Reading: Midnight in Chernobyl and The Radium Girls

Sometimes, when I read nonfiction history – particularly well-known history – I find myself sort of wishing that I didn’t know how badly the story is going to turn out for various people or places.  It’s hard not to wish there was some way to sort of tap the people on the shoulder and tell them not to go or stay or do whatever they’re about to do.  The last two books I read were heavy on this particular sense.

In a weird sort of reading twist, I wound up reading both Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Adam Higgenbotham) and The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Kate Moore) within a couple weeks of one another.  Both were excellent, well-researched, and truly fascinating – though, fair warning, also pretty gruesome at times.

While Chernobyl has become sort of shorthand for nuclear disaster and I knew from taking some Russian and Eastern European history classes in college (the Chernobyl power plant is located in what is now Ukraine) that what had happened was terrible, I never really appreciated the true impact of the meltdown.  Higgenbotham’s book walks through the major design flaw in the Soviet RBMK nuclear reactors of the time, the technicians and workers on duty at the time of the disastrous test, and then, of course, the aftermath, including the Soviet government reaction.  As someone who grew up as the USSR was crumbling (the Berlin Wall fell when I was 7) and who often heard Mikhail Gorbachev hailed as a champion of openness, Higgenbotham’s dissection of how much cover-up was done by Gorbachev’s government in the wake of Chernobyl was particularly eye-opening.

I was surprised at how well Higgenbotham managed to translate complex nuclear concepts into something even a very non-engineering/physics person could reasonably understand.  He definitely describes the scenes vividly – the descriptions of the incredibly radioactive chunks of graphite from control rods being thrown everywhere around the plant and people touching these as well as the meltdown of the core of the reactor are evocative and horrifying.  I also hadn’t realized that Chernobyl had continued to produce electricity until 2000 when the final reactor was turned off and the plant decommissioned.

The Radium Girls was no less interesting.  A biography of the women employed by two plants from 1917 to the 1930s who were hired to paint glowing dials on clock and watch faces, many of the women eventually suffered extreme health complications and death from radium poisoning.  Women were taught to put the brushes they used to paint the dials in their mouths to get the point fine enough to do the detail work on the clock and watch faces, which meant they absorbed a considerable amount of radium through just their daily work.  I found myself (with a modern appreciation for the dangers of radium) blanching when I read accounts of how women would wear their best dresses to the factory so that the dresses would get coated with radium dust and literally glow during evenings out.

Unfortunately, radium tends to collect in the bones for a variety of horrifying effects, ranging from bones riddled with holes, bone marrow that no longer produced blood cells correctly, sarcomas, and terrible dental abscesses.  As well, infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth were also ways the radium girls suffered.  I remember reading at one point about a tumor that had grown to 45 cm, double checking because 45 cm?!  I could barely imagine it, but I had, alas, read it correctly.

Despite the fact that factory owners deliberately buried or manufactured evidence when suspicions began to mount that the radium paint was toxic, laws were not in the workers’ favor, and the women’s illnesses were dismissed through judgmental (and incorrect) diagnoses such as syphilis, a group of five women led by Grace Fryer in New Jersey were able to bring a lawsuit that proved the first crack in the dam to bringing the truth to light.  A lawsuit by the Illinois women, led by Catherine Wolfe Donohue (fired after many years of service because she was beginning to limp and the company perceived this as potentially frightening to the other women who were starting to worry about radium poisoning) and attorney Leonard Grossman finally prevailed in 1939 after years of fighting all the way up to the US Supreme Court.  These cases helped form the basis for occupational protection laws.  The suffering of the radium girls was enormous, the corporate malfeasance immense, and I was very struck by how hard these courageous women fought to make sure others would not face their fate.

Both of these were excellent, though I probably wouldn’t read them back to back again.

The Space

If you have ever spent time in a hospital, you will detect a rhythm.  Under all the bustling of the doctors, the nurses, the respiratory therapists, the entire infrastructure of acronyms that keep the thing running, there is a quality of silence, stopped time as people wait.  Even in the direst moments when everything is moving at full speed, there are pauses – waiting for lab results, specialists, OR rooms to become available, 30 seconds here, a breath there.

I didn’t really understand that rhythm until I became a patient myself, an object of all the bustling as opposed to performing it.  Sitting in the space, waiting, is hard, especially when you know that the result, the consult, the surgery, could change everything.  I often filled the spaces with books and blog posts and articles.  It’s strange how book or words can become a sort of friend in those places, buoying my spirits or just holding the space with me and affirming the mixed emotions in those moments.

Waiting was what I was doing in spring of 2014 after an unexpected result from my FET.  Pregnant but with far too many worrisome signs for confidence, Arthur and I had to decide whether or not to go ahead with a long-planned trip to attend a writer’s festival at our alma mater.  Several authors I admired were on the schedule to speak, we’d shelled out the money for tickets, hotel, and time off.  My RE gave his blessing to go ahead since we’d only be a few hours away and I knew where to go if the symptoms became more concerning.  So we went, hoping for a distraction from the seemingly interminable wait.

It was definitely the right decision, as hard as it was to make at the time.  I listened to lectures by James McBride, Ann Lamott, and so many others.  I went to the English department reception where I smiled, listened, reconnected with people, and shared stories.  All while simultaneously gritting my teeth as I’d feel the blood seeping out and the panic rising, then be blessedly inspired and challenged by new words, new books to read.

That’s how I wound up in a session with an author named Rachel Held Evans, who wrote a blog (and books) on faith, Christianity, and wrestling with (and eventually leaving) evangelicalism – a process both Arthur and I were going through, though in different stages -as well as a heartfelt and surprisingly funny second book on the meaning of “biblical” womanhood.  Arthur and I had read the book and had some good discussions.  After the session, there was a meet and greet and I told her how much I had enjoyed the book and admired her openness writing about faith, life, and menstruation.  I came closer than I want to admit to bursting into tears and confessing that I was really excited to be here but also probably going through a miscarriage and that I was really grateful for some of her writing, that the presence of her and these other authors had made this waiting just a little better.  Thankfully, my sense of manners and decorum kicked in to save me from serious awkwardness and oversharing, but I also suspect she would have been very kind.  The moment ended, we moved on.

One of her books kept me company a year or so later in the NICU as I waited beside my daughter’s incubator.  Arthur and I read it aloud as we put our tiny baby on our chests, sleep deprived, and needing healing words.  Her words kept me company in the empty space when my brother died.  Her words again encouraged us when we walked away recently from the denomination that married us and baptized both our children and were there for us during infertility and the NICU after a decision made at the denominational level to further exclude our LGBTQIA+ brothers, sisters, and non-binary in faith that Arthur and I found cruel and wrong.

Rachel Held Evans died on Saturday, May 4 after a sudden illness that led to complications at the age of 37.  It is for the people who actually knew her in her real life to mourn her in that intimate, deep way that comes with relationship and they are the ones that are truly bereft in this moment.  My heart aches for them as they move forward without her daily presence and grieve her great loss.

As simply a reader of her books and not someone who knew her personally, I’m just grateful for her words and quite sad that the lovely and luminous person behind them is gone from this world.  Those words held my hands and abided with me in some awful spaces.  They are and were a source of presence and balm.

While the many articles and obituaries have quoted Rachel’s final blog post on Ash Wednesday that is unexpectedly apt and poignant in the wake of her passing, the words from her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again are ones I remember now and as a fellow reader they resonate deeply: “I know I can’t read my way out of this dilemma, but that won’t keep me from trying.”

#BecauseofRHE

Infertility, Stigma, and Reading

Content note: Infertility portrayed in very problematic ways – possibly not the post to read if you’re in a tough place right now.

It’s old news now, but a month or so ago I read the Slate article that has been making the rounds in the infertility community – for good reason, it’s an excellent article hitting up a wide variety of issues and reasons infertility is particularly tricky when it comes to the workplace.  It also gets into how, despite more openness and acceptance for infertility, there’s still a very long way to go.

Since my own experiences with infertility/miscarriage, I’ve definitely noticed storylines or even short bits in books/films/TV relating to adoption/loss/infertility (ALI) far more than I did before.  While infertility is becoming more realistically depicted at times, I’m still somewhat surprised at how often I run across a particular trope that I strongly dislike: that women struggling with infertility/loss are scary.

Perhaps it’s because this came up in two books I read recently: The Alice Network (Kate Quinn) and Daughters of the Lake (Wendy Webb).

The Alice Network is largely about the female spy network that operated during WWI in France, interspersed with a young woman searching for her lost cousin in the wake of her brother’s suicide post WWII.  All the trigger warnings apply on this book both from the ALI perspective (unplanned pregnancies, abortion, loss) and generally (war, torture, Nazis, rape, etc.).  There’s a short bit, however, for a side character that includes infertility.

[Very minor spoiler ahead]

Spy trainer Captain Cameron went to jail because his wife decided to commit insurance fraud to provide for a child she couldn’t conceive.  Her infertility causes her to go to desperate, not entirely sane, lengths.  She conceives and recovers her mind.

[End spoiler]

Honestly, despite how much I was immersed in the rest of the story, this part almost made me put it down because it infuriated me so much.

Shortly thereafter, I picked up Wendy Webb’s Daughters of the Lake, a gothic suspense novel, on sale at some point and finally got around to reading it.  It’s definitely a ghost story, but in a mildly shivery sort of way that I enjoyed (I then promptly picked up a couple of her other books from the library and those descend into terrifying outright horror stories – this one I found much milder).

The novel had a baby/baby loss subplot, however.  Again, the theme of women deranged by loss and not having a child came up toward the end of the book.

Even setting aside artistic license and drama in novels, this Dear Prudence letter headlined “Help!  Sometimes I Worry That My Infertile Friend Wants to Kidnap My Baby” (I would not click over if you’re in a fragile place because yes, this accurately sums up the substance of the letter).  Prudie calls the letter writer’s comment to the friend unkind and gives the letter writer a thorough tongue lashing, but the letter itself definitely displays a truly alarming attitude toward those struggling with infertility.

I am so tired of women struggling to conceive or dealing with loss being portrayed as dangerous or harmful.  Infertility made me feel a lot of emotions.  Sad.  Angry.  Conflicted.  Anxious.  Frustrated.  Jealous.  Certainly these and many more, but while it’s true that I chose not to attend baby showers, disliked pregnancy announcements for the most part, and had to unfollow streams with lots of new baby/child pictures at times, I never wanted to harm anyone.  I never wanted to take anyone’s baby.  I never lost touch with reality.  I never wished that difficulty or sadness would befall anyone.  I’m not going to say that no one was ever disappointed in my reactions or that a few people insisted that I should be visibly overjoyed for pregnant women, but I tried – hard – to be kind and keep my feelings to myself in public.  Mostly because it wasn’t other people’s fault and I knew they weren’t having babies at me.  I just wished it was my turn and that conceiving had been easier (and – not going to lie – highly resented the amount of money we were shelling out for IVF).

This is why I write about infertility, in the hopes that reality will help to dispel some of the more pernicious bits of stigma surrounding this condition.  But it doesn’t help when a scene giving a picture so much to the contrary are popping up in a novel as widely read as The Alice Network.

2018 Year in Review: Books

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Every time I put on the Rent soundtrack, one of the ways I consistently answer the question “how do you measure a year?” is “In books I read!”  Naturally, there are plenty of others, but books are a marvelously quantifiable answer.

Fiction:

Two Dark Reigns – Kendare Blake

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

Kingdom of the Blind – Louise Penny

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

Rapid Falls – Amber Cowie

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey – Alison Weir

Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror – (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg

Three Dark Crowns – Kendare Blake

One Dark Throne – Kendare Blake

The Young Queens – Kendare Blake

Origin – Dan Brown

The Family Next Door – Sally Hepworth

The Long Drop – Denise Mina

Small Great Things – Jodie Picoult

Nonfiction:

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start Up – John Carreyrou

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa – Adam Hochschild

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things – Jenny Lawson

Year of No Clutter: A Memoir – Eve Schaub

Between the World and Me: Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter – Margareta Magnusson

Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men – Harold Schechter

Siblings Without Rivalry: How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too – Adele Faber

In Bloom: Trading Restless Insecurity for Abiding Confidence – Kayla Aimee

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark – Addie Zierman

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy – Sheryl Sandburg

Life in a Medieval City – Frances Gies

The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock – Lucy Worsley

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith – Barbara Brown Taylor

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) – Mindy Kaling

The Blood of Emmett Till – Timothy B. Tyson

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again – Rachel Held Evans

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson

Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings – Alison Weir

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America – Alissa Quart

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster – Sarah Krasnostein

You’ve Been So Lucky Already – Alethea Black

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century – Peter Graham

Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident – Donnie Eicher

Infreakinfertility: How to Survive When Getting Pregnant Gets Hard – Melanie Dale

The Cross and the Lynching Tree – James H. Cone

When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith – Addie Zierman

Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess – Rachel Hoffman

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game – Mary Pilon

More Than Halfway Through, and Still Reading:

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down: Colin Woodard

World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made: Irving Howe

Reread:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande

Ready For Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood – Kate Hopper

Juniper: The Girl Who was Born Too Soon – Kelley Benham French, Thomas French

I’m looking forward to reviewing a few of the highlights on the list and looking forward to more books in 2019!

This post is a part of Microblog Mondays.  If you want more, head on over to Stirrup Queens!  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.

Reading: The Merry Spinster

Fairy tales have long fascinated me.  I grew up with Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales From Around the World and The Maid of the North (both compiled by Ethel Johnson Phelps) as well as a Hans Christian Andersen collection.  Growing up in the Appalachian Mountains, we had no TV and the internet wasn’t around yet, so I loved those stories.  I read them often and was completely shocked when I saw the Disney version of The Little Mermaid – I can very vividly remember telling my mother that the ending was wrong (the ending of the movie and the original story diverge pretty wildly).  More recently, I’ve been fascinated by how much fairy tales incorporate experiences of infertility and loss.

So when I read a review of (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg’s* The Merry Spinster: Tales of Every Day Horror, I knew this was a book I had to get my hands on.  I was a little apprehensive about the “horror” part as I’m not at all into scary stories, but having enjoyed Ortberg’s writing in the past, I was curious about the twists he might put on the fairy tales he incorporated into his short stories.

Besides, let’s face it, fairy tales are horrifying in the originals.  The Grimm Cinderella has parts of feet being cut off to fit in shoes and eyes being pecked out.  I figured I could probably handle Ortberg’s renditions, which turned out to be as gruesome as any Grimm story in places.  Blood runs freely throughout the book.

Like most short story collections, there are a few misses in The Merry Spinster.  I really did not get The Wedding Party despite having read it several times.  Some of the stories just didn’t pick up Ortberg’s usual wit or really pull me in.

The hits of the collection, however, made the book absolutely worth it.

Fear Not: An Incident Log is one of my favorite stories from this year.  Ortberg replays the incidents from the biblical book of Genesis from the viewpoint of an angel and the result is biting and also very funny.  Written like a dry technical support log, the angel starts off explaining why such appearances always begin with “fear not”: because “…appearing before [humans] without some form of reassurance is liable to result in total system overload, followed shortly by shutdown.”  Despite the humor, it’s also beautiful and profound in places and I don’t think I’ll ever read or hear the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel quite the same way again.  Ortberg’s background as a PK (pastors’ kid – both his mother and father) is on full display in this story, and I wasn’t expecting the humor or tenderness that Ortberg gives the original text in his retelling.

The horror promised in the title is on full display in The Rabbit, Ortberg’s retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit.  The quest to become “real” takes on a whole new meaning in this imagining.  An early conversation between the rabbit and the well-loved Skin Horse immediately tips into a creeping awfulness: “’Whose skin do you have?’ the Rabbit had asked him, and the Skin Horse had shivered to hear the excitement in his voice.”  Ortberg’s description of the rabbit’s voice as “… a crawling black thing across the floor…” is hideously evocative.

Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters explores a different – but no less terrifying – horror.  Examining the ways in which the character uses certain passages and beliefs to justify and even encourage the unspeakable acts at the culmination of the story feels timely and relevant as a reminder and a caution.

Finally, The Six Boy-Coffins holds not only a well-done recasting of the original Grimm tale The Six Swans but also an incisive discussion of power and consent.  The line “She was beginning to learn the danger of silence, and that someone who wishes to hear a yes will not go out of his way to listen for a no” feels particularly resonant in the #metoo era.  The ending packs the rarest quality in this volume: the sense of justice done.

Ortberg is very fluid with genders throughout the stories, and in fact, was in the process of exploring the beginning of his transition from female to male at the time of writing.  Daughters may be referred to with male pronouns or have traditionally male names and husbands and wives may choose which role they want, regardless of sex.  Initially a bit confusing, it took me a story or two to get used to this particular quality, but overall, it enhanced the stories and makes playing with the tropes of fairy tales sharper.

As a rating, I’d give it 4/5 stars.  It’s definitely a book that appeals to a particularly dark sense of humor and a tolerance for fairy tale type violence/gore is a must.

*Author is listed on the book as Mallory Ortberg, but he has transitioned and taken the name of Daniel Mallory Ortberg

Reading: “Crazy Rich Asians”

I finally got to the top of the hold list at the library for Crazy Rich Asians.  With all the hype from the movie coming out this summer and the gorgeous trailers and movie posters, I knew I definitely wanted to read the book.

It’s a comedy of romance, manners, and people from somewhat mismatched backgrounds coming together.  There are the obligatory parties, snubbings, and displays of wealth and power with the tension set up by the expectations of society and family.  I found a good bit of it fun and the gorgeous clothes and settings a lovely change from my own currently dreary, grey, wintery surroundings.

That being said, I have to confess that I…didn’t really like the romantic interest/hero, Nicholas Young.  I’m not really spoiling anything to say that the plot pivots on the fact that Nick is handsome, incredibly rich, but has made a life for himself in New York where he has distanced himself from his family wealth and glamour to present himself as a regular college professor.  I mean, he’s handsome (cool) and down to earth (also good), but he’s been in a relationship with his girlfriend for two years and still has not revealed his full identity.

In the Jane Austen novels I’ve read (or heck, even in similarly wealthy/escapist shows like Downton Abbey), one of the qualities I appreciate is that generally, everyone knows The Rules.  Society is fairly rigid and people know when they’re social climbing, the rules surrounding manners and expectations, and how social interactions work.  I mean, Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) knows that Edward Ferrars is out of her social range.  Charlotte Lucas (Pride and Prejudice) makes a very calculating decision surrounding the realities for women to marry the awful Mr. Collins.  There are definitely many surprises and tensions deriving from social mores, but while the players may not be evenly matched, everyone is governed by rules that are widely understood.

That’s where Crazy Rich Asians departs from Austen and company, because one of the major plot movers is the fact that Nicholas Young asks Rachel (and let me stress this again, after two years of romance) to go on a ten-week vacation to Singapore for the wedding of Nick’s good friend without telling her much of anything about his family or wealth.  In other words, a major time commitment for Rachel that implies the possibility of an even greater romantic attachment, with a huge piece of information withheld.

Basically, Nick sets the woman he purports to love up for some really severe cruelty at the hands of his some of his family and friends when Rachel inadvertently trips over all the social mores, norms, and gives various impressions that Nick’s family (predictably) interpret uncharitably.  While some of this may have been unavoidable, not giving Rachel at least some basic pointers on his social group feels unconscionable to me.  Oh, sure, Nick’s presented as ambivalent and somewhat troubled by his own wealth and social standing, but it didn’t code to me as “down to earth” when it came to bringing home the girlfriend.  It felt immature and selfish to throw his girlfriend into a pit of some not-very-nice people and social situations that would be challenging for even the most well-versed.

Rating this book, I’d give it a 2.5 stars out of 5.  The escapism and wealth-gawking part is really beautifully done.  The romance, though, didn’t gel for me.  It says something, though, that I’m curious enough to see some of the big conflicts resolved to be on the wait list for the sequel.