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.

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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.

Meditations on Moving

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One of the few authors I’ll spring for straight up (instead of waiting at the library or until I find it on sale) is Louise Penny.  I’ve written a few (okay, okay, probably more than a few) times about how much I love Penny’s mystery novels here.  She’s one of the authors writing today that I really want to meet, though I’ll admit that I’m a little terrified that if I did, in fact, meet her, I’d just fan-girl all over the place and embarrass myself.

In any case, Penny’s latest, Kingdom of the Blind came out last week and I’ve spent the last few days reading.  Yet again, I’m struck by Penny’s ability to get to the heart of life, living, and human emotions.  One of my favorite parts of the books are the author’s note at the end, where Penny writes so evocatively about her own life and struggles.  For a number of years, Penny’s husband Michael suffered from dementia and died in 2016.  Penny has also been open about being a recovering alcoholic and the incredible loneliness, anger, and sadness she felt for so long as well as many wonderful things she values in her life now.

“A funny thing happened on my way to not writing this book,” Penny notes, “I started writing.”

“How could I go on when half of me was missing?  I could barely get out of bed.” She continues.  “But then, a few months later, I found myself sitting at the long pine dining table where I always wrote.  Laptop open.”

I relate to that in such a big way.  While I’ve never lost a spouse, I have lost loved ones, as well as other, less tangible bits and pieces along the way.

It’s hard, losing, whatever that loss comprises.  Especially at this time of the year, when everything seems suffused with traditions and the place at the table seems all the more empty than usual.  When it’s impossible not to remember and the commercials and pictures and expectations are designed to evoke emotions that often I’d rather leave in the background or unexamined.

Sometimes living, moving, feels a bit like a betrayal.  With an ache that has the sharpness of a gunshot echoing from 2015 and holes that rend the threads to keep weaving it all together, it feels impossible to tie the knots and work to keep creating.  To set the empty place and also hold the feast.

That’s been a struggle for me lately, even though my grief isn’t new.  I’ve reached that sort of half-mourning stage, where the sadness doesn’t seep into every moment or corner, but comes out at both expected and unexpected times with a startling strength.

I’m grateful to Penny for not denying the darkness, but also for the joy she takes in how moving forward encompasses her loss: “Far from leaving Michael behind, he became even more infused in the books.  All the things we had together came together in Three Pines.  Love, companionship, friendship.  His integrity.  His courage.  Laughter.”

In so many ways, that’s what I’m seeking.  Not to leave behind, but to hold the love and live.

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

Everyday Miracles

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Despite the many shortcomings of modern medicine (and there are obviously plenty, alas), I still find myself drawn in by so many things that are routine in many healthcare facilities.  I can’t help but be slightly awed every time I see antibiotics work in clearing up an infection.  I’m struck by the fact that brain surgery and cardiac valve replacements are everyday procedures in plenty of hospitals.  Even something as run-of-the mill as x-rays or ultrasounds where the bones or organs can be visualized to direct treatment is amazing in its own way.

My Facebook feed this weekend was full of nursing memes and videos that ranged from the somber to the humorous.  National Nurses’ Day (in the United States) was on May 6, and as many friends and colleagues celebrated, I thought about an article I had come across last month on NPR.  The article features another sort of everyday miracle: waking up after a general anesthetic.

I was totally fascinated by Dr. Shafer’s perspective on the profound moment as a person wakes up after a procedure and her awareness of the awe-inspiring trust the patients place in her and other health care professionals to help them get safely through surgery – or, by extension, any health care experience.  Having worked as a nurse in both recovery (post anesthesia care) and neuro/trauma ICU over the last several years, I couldn’t help but think that Dr. Shafer has captured the essence of the humanity and beauty of the “ordinary” events in modern nursing and medicine.

Want to read more Microblog Monday posts?  Please check out Stirrup Queens’ blog.  Thanks to Mel for originating and hosting.  

The Almost Ending

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Over the last year or so, I’ve found myself curiously obsessed with the endings of stories. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the ending of Deep Down Dark, and even before that, I critiqued the ending of the Harry Potter series. I’ve started a couple of drafts considering the endings of the Hunger Games series and also The Lord of the Rings, and that’s not counting the drafts I’ve started in my head about the endings of other novels or memoirs.

I spent a good deal of college reading, critiquing, and deconstructing literature. Rarely, however, did my essays involve a heavy focus on the endings. Instead, I was generally more interested in various bits of symbolism, feminist critique, or delving into specific characters. I began to wonder where I’d developed this newfound fascination with how and at what point authors choose to end their stories.

After some consideration, the best reason I can come up with as to why I’m examining the endings of stories so closely these days is because I’m convinced that if my life were contained to a novel or memoir, it would start with trying to conceive and probably end with E’s birth or perhaps when she came home for real from the NICU. I’m at a natural sort of ending point for the journey. I’d like for that to be the case: write “the end”, thank all the lovely people in my life, and close the book.

It’s the neat, tidy ending to complete the infertility story arc.

But it’s not an honest one.

It leaves out the fact that infertility still affects me. It leaves out the wholly-predictable resurgence of my old nemeses depression and anxiety as the dust surrounding my pregnancy and my daughter’s prematurity starts to settle. It leaves out the tension-filled question of what we do with our two frozen embryos and whether or not it’s advisable to even seriously consider another pregnancy at some future point. It leaves out a body that still has issues from PCOS that need addressed. It leaves out so many things, some of them more serious, some just small wisps of half-formed thoughts.

The idea that I’m still somewhere lost in the plot driven by infertility and PCOS scares the h*ll out of me. Some part of me thinks I can remedy this by essentially writing “the end, the end, the END!”, shoving the book on the shelf, walking away, and pretending it’s the decorous ending I described above.

Yet, almost in spite of myself some days, I keep writing.

Clearly, the story isn’t over.

If you want to read more Microblog Mondays posts, head over to Stirrup Queens.  Thanks to Mel for originating the idea and hosting.

“Apart at the Seams” Book Tour Stop

I had been looking forward to this book since finishing Melissa Ford’s previous novel “Measure of Love”. “Apart at the Seams” looks at the same events from the perspective of Arianna, but easily stands alone if you haven’t read “Measure of Love”.

“Apart at the Seams” did not disappoint. It’s a book that explores the things people say – or leave unsaid – in relationships. I loved the believable interplay of the characters and how an idea or thought that seems to make perfect sense in one’s head doesn’t always translate to the thing another person hears. I also enjoyed getting to know Arianna better after the first two novels. I’ve always wondered what her story was, and it’s fascinating to see her come to life in these pages. I could relate to her difficulty balancing work and her personal life.

Three questions from the book, and my responses:

It feels as though Arianna would become irritated with Ethan for not doing things she needed him to do yet she often wouldn’t verbalize clearly what it was she wanted or needed. Why do you think asking for exactly what you need makes you feel so vulnerable?

Throughout the story, Arianna would make a lot of assumptions about Ethan, or look at his actions and ascribe a specific intent to them without clarifying further. I felt one of the problems Arianna had with verbalizing her wants or needs to Ethan was her perception that his values and priorities were so different from hers that he simply wouldn’t step up and meet those needs.

I think there are a couple of reasons asking for what you need is such a vulnerable state to be in. For starters, the person you’re asking can say no to something deeply important, and when that happens, the relationship changes. Sometimes it’s easier to just not ask and hope the need will be met. If the need isn’t met, then there’s an out: “But I didn’t say anything or actually ask”.

I’ve often perceived in my culture (American/Western) that there is an unspoken rule about asking lovers/spouses/romances or even close friends for what one needs openly. There’s an assumption that if the person really knows you, really loves you, they will meet those needs without being asked. That person will just somehow know what you need. Having to ask, straightforwardly, for what you want is taken to mean that the person doesn’t love/know you as well, and that’s a really scary thought in a serious relationship.

There’s also a taboo in society about being seen as “needy” or “high maintenance” if you ask for things openly. So not only could the need not be met, but there’s the additional possibility of being mocked in some way for just asking. With those deep needs where I’m truly opening myself to the other person, the possibility of that kind of rejection is terrifying. I thought this was perhaps why Arianna didn’t want to ask Ethan for what she needed, because she worried her needs would be rejected, or even possibly belittled – even in the most offhand or accidental way – with Ethan’s different values.

Throughout the story, Arianna slowly develops a non-romantic relationship with a man named Noah. Although the two are attracted to each other, they maintain the status as friends due to Arianna already being in a relationship with Ethan. Arianna, along with myself as the reader, compares Noah to her boyfriend Ethan and it’s obvious that Noah and Arianna have much more in common. They both share the same views about marriage as well as the importance on advancing their own careers. Is it possible to nurture and maintain a platonic relationship between a man and a woman despite the attraction the two share?

I think it’s completely possible, but I also think it’s key to identify the attraction up front and be honest with oneself about it.

When my then-boyfriend, now husband went to college, he had a roommate freshman and sophomore years. This guy – I’ll call him Samuel – was good looking, sensitive, a very smart English major who could quote and discuss poetry beautifully, play the violin, and was a genuinely nice, decent person. Most of the women I know who met him had at least a small crush on him – including me. It was that instant sort of pop or spark of attraction (at least on my part). We had a lot in common and he was definitely my type.

But I was in a relationship and when I felt that spark, I knew I had to make a decision whether or not to nurture it into a flame. Letting the spark grow into flames meant my romantic relationship with Arthur would be over – whether or not Samuel responded to my attraction in kind. I chose to acknowledge my feelings, and then chose to walk away from it and deliberately view Samuel in a platonic light. Over time, the spark went out, and Samuel was simply a friend. Arthur keeps in touch with him to this day, and Samuel’s married to a very lovely woman. We’re all happy.  

What I think got Arianna into a difficult situation in the book was her refusal to acknowledge that she was attracted to Noah. Instead of being honest with herself and making a decision to either deliberately see Noah as a friend or pursue him as a lover, she’s in denial about her feelings. When problems surface with Ethan, that attraction to Noah becomes more pronounced and I felt like Arianna used that attraction to Noah as her “out” for not actually dealing with the problems in her relationship with Ethan.

Marriage is one of the main themes in the story. Do you think it is possible for a couple to share a long-term domestic relationship without actually being officially married?  Why is our society so keen on the expectation of marriage in a romantic relationship despite the high divorce rates?

A long term domestic relationship without being married is definitely something I’ve seen plenty of people manage. There are lots of reasons for couples not to get married. I know some who had financial reasons. I also know some who just were happy with where their relationship was and didn’t want to change anything.

I think one of the attractions of actually getting married is that it not only has social significance, it also has legal status.

To continue to the next leg of this book tour, please visit the main list at LavenderLuz.com.