Books

We Don’t Sleep Around Here

Davey has not been sleeping lately.

Correction: Davey has been sleeping in two- to three-hour intervals, often interspersed with 2-hour awake periods, all night long. Thankfully, Micah is taking up the slack in the sleep department by going to sleep easily and sleeping soundly all night. So we only have one yo-yo baby to deal with. I’m not sure how I survived the newborn weeks when we did this all the time with both babies.

Small Great Things

28587957So in the moments when both twins are actually asleep and the house is mostly together, I often light a couple of candles and collapse on the sofa, only to realize I have no idea what to do with that precious nugget of time. Clean? Do the dishes? Read? Write a blog post? Knit? It’s rough, folks.

In my last post, I mentioned that I picked up Small Great Things and intended to start reading it soon. Since then, I have indeed finished the book. Because I don’t trust myself to formulate a coherent few paragraphs about it, I’ll boil it down.

Things I Liked

This book made me uncomfortable. It forced me to question my own attitude about race issues, and it left me thinking that I might not be as unbiased as I’ve always thought. I haven’t read many of Picoult’s books, but I am finding that she forces her readers to ask themselves some pretty probing questions. That’s a hallmark of a great read, as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, there’s a twist at the end. I remember reading once that a fiction writer should put her characters in the hardest possible situations, just to see how they react. Well, Picoult does this in a very unexpected way at the end of Ruth’s trial.

Things I didn’t like

The ending. The ending and the epilogue both seem a little too deus ex machina, happily-ever-after, Disney storybook perfect for my taste (sorry if that’s a spoiler). As much as I wanted to see Ruth, the protagonist, win her court case and come out on top, I didn’t expect it to be handed to her with a cherry on top.

Overall, I loved it, and I did end up reading it in just a few sit-down sessions after the babies were in bed for the night and before Davey’s nighttime wakefulness sessions began. Small Great Things definitely has a new home in my home library.

Dabbling in Minimalism

In other news, I’ve been throwing stuff away like crazy. Basically, tossing or donating as much *stuff* as possible–the things that fill up nooks and crannies with “I might need this someday” intentions. Baby clothes, unused cooking gadgets, clothes that don’t fit me anymore, half-burned candles, trinkets that I’ve held onto out of a sense of obligation to whomever gave them to me. It’s all going.

The progress is slow–sometimes painfully so–but I’m simplifying, because life is so much more enjoyable when you’re not tripping over accoutrements while trying to live it. Also, when you have fewer things, there’s less to clean.

I’m thinking I might add a few books on simplifying, minimizing, and decluttering to my reading list in the next few weeks, so if anyone has suggestions on excellent books of that sort, please let me know! I will streamline and minimalize many things, but my library isn’t one of them.

Go Set a Watchman won’t ever be a classic, but I love it anyway.

Go Set a Watchman Cover

I’m just going to be the odd man out that defends this book as totally worth reading.

Fact: Go Set a Watchman was never intended to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman was written first, and Lee’s publisher suggested that the back story would be a more viable read.

Fact: The Atticus of Watchman is not the same as the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. You could say he changed (for the worse?) with age and time, but it makes more sense to acknowledge that Watchman Atticus wasn’t the same man at all. He’s a rewrite, a different story, based on the assumption that Watchman would never be published.

Fact: The plot isn’t primarily about race, and if you start reading it thinking it’s all about race, it’ll infuriate you. Though race is a key element, the plot (and yes, I will argue there is indeed a plot, though many reviewers have rather vehemently said otherwise) is about Scout returning home after years on her own and dealing with the suffocating feeling that she never really knew the people she loved and trusted.

Fact: For some reason, I couldn’t put this book down. I read it through in one day.

I know that many readers who read Watchman walked away disappointed (inevitable for a sequel) and disgusted (inevitable in light of an honorable protagonist who looks at segregation as anything but clear-cut). In it, Atticus–a character we’ve long loved and respected–plays down the KKK and holds some fairly segregationalist views.

But this is a different Atticus. And though today’s America tends to make everything all about race and injustice, the story isn’t about race or injustice. It’s about a little girl who idolizes her father and thinks at least somewhat highly of most residents of her hometown. And when she returns as an adult, it all looks heartbreakingly different.

You can argue that’s not enough of a plot to spin a novel, and Lee’s publisher would have agreed–at least the first time around. That’s why we have Mockingbird. But novels have been spun on far less.

For what it’s worth, I loved seeing the way Lee made the story evolve. It’s a look into an author’s mind. What would we find if we could go back and read the stories Dickens discarded? We might not see the same Dickens we’ve been studying for years, but there might be a controversial gem in there somewhere that gives insight into the way a great writer thought.

And that’s what Watchman is–a controversial, insight-giving gem. Of course, most people don’t pick up a novel for its academic insight. And on its own, Watchman would never have been a bestseller. If it had been published in 1960, it would have faded into oblivion by now. As a standalone novel, it’s in dire need of a good editor. It will never attain classic status in the mainstream literary canon.

But Watchman strays from contemporary norms and controversies and deals instead with the struggle of moral betrayal and growing up as a very real, heartbreaking issue. Today’s audience sees those issues as worthy only of an eye-roll or addendum, not a novel. Watchman looks at race relations as a complex issue, with insight that goes deeper than the oversimplified everyone-was-just-unenlightened attitude we tend to cop about the South today.

We’d do well to look past the controversy (and our own assumptions) and into the human truth of this story.

This one is going to fall firmly into the 2015 reading list category as “Book with Bad Reviews,” but I certainly don’t regret the few hours I spent on it.

Rereading, and an Uncomfortable Bookstore Experience

To Kill a Mockingbird Cover It was almost closing time and I was browsing the “Favorite Bestsellers” rack at Barnes & Noble, wondering whose favorites could have possibly made it onto that shelf, when an older teenaged guy walked up. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

I glanced up from the back cover of The Girl on the Train and squinted at him.

A thick lock of black hair fell in front of his left eye and a thick swirl of improbable, artfully-cut sideburn approached his right. I almost asked him how he could stand to blink with that much fur approaching his line of sight, because that’s about how socially appropriate I’ve felt lately.

“Have you ever, uhm, like, picked up a book, and just couldn’t put it down?”

“Yes, that’s happened to me a time or two.”

He was so earnest and looked truly desperate for something, anything, to keep his mind occupied before Barnes & Noble kicked him out.

“Do you remember any of the titles?”

And then my mind went blank. I had nothing for him. There’s the junk reading I’ve been doing recently, but I couldn’t bring myself to recommend Cassandra Clare to that kid. And my (possibly unreasonable) judgment was that he wouldn’t appreciate any Dickens or To Kill a Mockingbird recommendations. And… what else was there?

Of all the books I’ve devoured and loved, I couldn’t figure out what to tell the kid. I asked him which genres he liked, to which he responded (most unhelpfully) that he liked them all fairly equally. Blah. Either the kid was truly desperate for a page-turner, or he was doing one of those freshman-psych social experiments in which you have to survey random people, and I was the failed experiment. He wasn’t quite awkward enough for that, though.

I need to make a list, I thought frantically. How can I not have an answer to this question? It SHOULDN’T BE THAT HARD. 

The thought made me think I need to revisit some of my favorites and reevaluate them. I did recently break my general practice of NOT rereading books to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. While reading it, it struck me that it’s a different book than I thought it was the first time around.

Many of the times I’ve tried to revisit a childhood book, I’ve been disappointed. Narnia doesn’t have quite the same magic on a second read-through as an adult when you already know what happens. It still has magic, but the magic has changed as much as I have. And it takes a special kind of mood to want to deal with that.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a different book at my ripe old 24 years (hah) than it was at 18. Scout is wiser now, less like an annoying kid. Atticus is nobler. I wanted to cry for Tom Robinson, and I wanted to cry even more for his wife and kids. I wanted to walk through the streets of Maycomb, which suddenly seemed like it must still exist somewhere in Alabama as the book describes, complete with its flying-buttressed mini-jail.

I wanted to rail at Atticus’s ridiculous tolerance of injustice against himself and his proclivity to walk in the shoes all the prejudiced, inexcusably self-serving people of the county–as much I wanted to rail at the challenging fact that he’s terribly, hopelessly right.

In a conversation with his daughter, Scout:

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”

My 18-year-old self would have had something virulent to say about the names certain Maycomb citizens called Atticus, as well as his doormat-esque attitude. My 24-year-old self is confronted with the fact that Atticus is terribly, unarguably, biblically right. And realizes that ten years from now, To Kill a Mockingbird will be a different book yet.

So, rereading. Not as much for artistry (though there is that) as for wisdom.

I don’t think I’d gain much by rereading anything Cassandra Clare wrote, which is probably one of the reasons (along with acute literary shame) that I hesitated to recommend The Mortal Instruments to my furry bookstore friend. But I could stand to reread Bleak HouseAnd Vanity Fair, which I’m sure would mean something different now than it did when I was 14 and enamored with Thackeray’s turn of phrase.

So I guess I need to make a list of page-turners worth rereading, and then actually reread them. Later, after I finish Go Set a Watchman

Neil Gaiman …and 19 Weeks Pregnant

American Gods CoverI thought I liked Neil Gaiman, and then I tried to read American Gods.

Actually, I might blame the previous month of blogging silence on the psychological trauma that constituted the first two hundred pages of that book.

I tried. Wanted to love it. Realized that every time I sat down, ostensibly to read and relax, I felt a tension headache taking form and a slight, but unmistakeable, wave of nausea.

Was Shadow supposed to be a dimensionless, remarkably boring character? Was the mishmash of mythology intended to be more irritating than it was interesting? What’s with the hallucinogenic-ish rabbit trails thrown in for free?

I’m guessing it makes more sense if you actually finish the thing, but really, you couldn’t pay me to go there again. Well, I guess you could pay me. But the price would be steep.

This ridiculousness makes Samuel Beckett’s style look eminently reasonable, believable, and optimistic.

Giving myself permission to give up on that psychedelic road trip was akin to the guilty pleasure of ordering a venti Frappuccino before breakfast. Sooo ridiculously good.

Maybe I’m just not cut out for the whole contemporary literature thing. That’s actually not unlikely.

Twin Pregnancy 19 Weeks Or maybe it’s hormones. This week, I’m 19 weeks pregnant with twins, more or less halfway through this crazy pregnancy.

One day, I felt like I could pretty much pass for a disproportionate, somewhat overweight person. The very next morning, my belly was preceding me everywhere, announcing to the world that I’m indeed expecting.

It’s getting hard to tie my shoes, roll over at night, and load the bottom shelf of the dishwasher. And I believe my toenail-painting days are over. Cue the wealth of well-meaning comments everywhere I go.

My favorite question: “Do you know what you’re having yet?! Are you going to find out?”

Um, human babies? I hope?

Next week’s ultrasound should give us the much-anticipated gender answer. Though I still don’t understand why relative strangers care so much. I mean, I’m not holding my breath to find out whether distant relatives and strangers in the grocery store are having boys or girls.

Next favorite question: “Wouldn’t it be AMAZING if you had one boy and one girl?”

I think it would be pretty awesome if I had two healthy babies. That would be miracle enough for me. Though I must admit, I’m hoping for at least one girl.

If I said every snarky thing that came to mind these days, I’d be well on my way to making the entire population of Springfield, MA hate my pregnant guts.

The poor hubster.

One extra rant that hits particularly close to home this morning: The baristas at my local Starbucks have proven they are more than slightly ignorant about the contents of a London Fog. Isn’t this relatively common coffee shop knowledge? Clearly not. Because the unsweetened fruity (!) tea-ish thingy I got last time I ordered one didn’t even come close to the right ball park.

I can’t believe I’m reading this nonsense.

City of Bones CoverI did it. I ventured into the shady world of popular young adult fiction.

I don’t usually read YA stuff. Or sci-fi-ish stuff, unless the husband somehow talks me into it. I guess this falls more into the realm of fantasy?

If anyone recommended these books to me with any seriousness, I very well might have rolled my eyes inwardly and made a mental note to forever after question their taste.

But once I read the first book in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series–City of Bones–I was hooked. Not because there’s anything particularly amazing about the books. As a matter of fact, I wanted to hate the series and rail against its inconsistencies and its hopelessly twisted agnostic worldview and its typical young-adultish melodrama.

Digression: One Goodreads viewer actually wrote that she wants to believe this world exists. What kind of messed up person wants to live in a world where the only thing keeping us ordinary humans from the whims of demons is a team of narcissistic dagger-wielding teenagers and a group of even less-trustworthy adults who can’t get their act together?

Regardless. Instead of embracing my inner critic, I just picked up the next one. And then the next. Repeat like 7x.

They’re unlimited on Oyster, so why not? And why take the effort to get to know a whole new set of characters in a book I may or may not like when I’m already addicted to these and have. to. know. what happens to them next?

I guess Cassandra Clare must have done something right.

I’m claiming these as the trilogy on my 2015 reading list, since I have to claim it as something and technically the entire series is made up of three trilogies. I’m dismissing the critic in me, because I needed some junk food reading in my life, and all my pregnant self wants to do is sit on the sofa and do nothing, and for the month of May, this has been my nothing.

I feel like I should read War and Peace and then Moby Dick back-to-back next to make up for this indiscretion. And to clear my mind of nonsense like demon hunters with superhuman powers and angels with iridescent wings.

Bleak House, house buying, Hawthorne, Melville, and Bryant…

Bleak House CoverIt took me a month to read Bleak House, mostly because moving from Guam, buying a house, and generally not feeling great has been monopolizing life lately. The book itself is classic Dickens–brilliant and impossible to review. Everything that can possibly be said about it has already been said by more well-spoken readers than me.

Somewhere around page 300, I laughed out loud at something (this happened a lot while reading this book). The hubster looked up from his computer. “Good book?” he asked.

“It’s brilliant.”

“What’s it about?”

And for the life of me, even though I was already a third of the way through the thing, I couldn’t really say what it was about or where it was going. The action really starts around page 700, which is probably why so many people find BH such a daunting read.

Nevertheless, it’s brilliant. You should go read it now.

The hopeless situation of that Chancery lawsuit was a nice break from househunting and moving stress. Dickens takes effort to read when all you’ve read lately are more modern, American-authored books, and I needed something to keep my mind occupied.

So there was that, and it took forever to read, and it made me feel like I needed to go read every single Dr. Seuss book ever written to catch back up with my 52-book goal on the 2015 reading list. Although BH would qualify for several different items on the List, I’m counting it toward “a book that I own but never read,” because it really has been collecting dust for a while.

I found Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose!

I found Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose!

 

Side note: Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was born in Springfield, Mass–the same town in which we’re buying a house. There’s even a memorial sculpture garden, and it’s kind of awesome.

This weekend I learned a little more profoundly just how much literary history is EVERYWHERE around here. The hubster and I went to hike Monument Mountain, just west of town, on Saturday. Google revealed that a picnic on that mountain once spawned a friendship between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, that one of their conversations supposedly inspired Moby Dick. 

 

Poet William Cullen Bryant also waxed rather eloquent on the subject of that mountain’s rocky crags.

Let thy foot
Fail not with weariness, for on their tops
The beauty and the majesty of earth,
Spread wide beneath, shall make thee to forget
The steep and toilsome way.

Read the entire poem here, if you’re feeling dedicated.

Monument Mountain

The views up there were beautiful. But I’ve seen unquestionably more spellbinding mountains than that one. Did William Cullen Bryant ever visit the Rockies? That bears research, but I doubt he would have been as impressed by the Berkshires if he had.

Swimming with Sharks, and The Worst Hard Time

It’s hard–really, really hard–to put yourself in the perspective of a homesteader in the Texas panhandle when you’re surrounded by views like this.

Swimming with Sharks at Spanish Steps, GuamThere are sharks in that water. Black-tipped reef sharks. And I got pretty close and personal with a few of them this afternoon.

Swimming with sharks is one of those things that divers and snorkelers around here shrug off: “Oh, sharks? Psssh. I punched one in the face last week. No biggie.”

Though I’ve done a pretty good chunk of diving and snorkeling in my two years here, I’d never seen one up close until today. And even though most Guammies don’t think it’s a big deal to see them in the water (and even though I must admit that the sharks I swam with today were pretty small by most standards), I’m unreasonably happy.

Anyway.

Soaking up the tropics–and having cool bragging rights like swimming with baby reef sharks in the wild (cough)–makes it hard to imagine a different time and place where clouds of dust rose more than 20,000 feet into the sky and smothered little homesteads and towns in the Great Plains. But that’s what I’ve been reading about.

The Worst Hard Time tells the story of the American Dust Bowl–a period of intense drought and dust storms that hit a vulnerable area at the very worst time possible.

The Worst Hard Time CoverI think it’s interesting that many Goodreads reviewers make comments like, “I didn’t finish this book. It was too depressing.” Um, the title didn’t tip you off?

You can’t read an honest book about the Great Depression in general, and the dust bowl in particular, and expect it to be anything but depressing. You just can’t.

The Worst Hard Time reminded me of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, though the two are dramatically different. Hiroshima compresses the pain of the most devastating manmade disaster in history into 152 dense pages (pages that, if you’re me, make you want to throw up at times).
The Worst Hard Time also covers a devastating manmade disaster, but in this one, you become far more invested in the lives of the homesteaders and in their dreams for the future, which makes it even harder to watch them struggle.
I can’t help but sympathize with the homesteaders’ plight. But. Their attitudes are overwhelmingly irritating. Why didn’t they just leave? I wish I could ask them if their stubbornness to stay on the land was worth the lives of the children they lost to “dust pneumonia.” All those babies sleeping with wet sheets over their cribs and Vaseline in their nostrils to filter out the dust, only to die slowly because their lungs filled with dirt.
The homesteaders couldn’t afford to leave, but they couldn’t afford to stay, either–not with banks foreclosing on their properties and the ground unwilling to grow even a carrot during the worst of the drought years. Why not go someplace where there may not be jobs, but at least the very air isn’t trying to kill them? Even though I’m baffled by the stubbornness to stay in a place that was killing them, the stories of these sturdy homesteaders did break my heart.
Though I’m miles away from West Texas now, the story of the Dust Bowl hit particularly close to home for me since I grew up near the southern end of the dust bowl at the bottom corner of the Texas panhandle. I saw the desert that was once fertile grassland, and have heard Grandma talk a little about her family who took on the (derogatory) title “Okies” with pride and made a home for themselves.
Much of The Worst Hard Time follows the folks of Dalhart, TX. I’ve been there. Really makes the history come alive when you realize that those little wide-spot-in-the-road towns have such deep (and, in this case, painful) histories.
 Dust-storm-Texas-1935
I love the way Timothy Egan weaves together the story of this time from the lives of people—German, Irish, and other settlers, including the Comanche Indians who called the land home, the old cowboys of the XIT ranch, African Americans who had the misfortune of passing through those racist communities, and those of mixed ancestry who loved the land.
Egan also covers the media’s reports of the phenomenon to the rest of the States and their not-so-sympathetic response to those living in the dust bowl during the Depression. Lots of new perspectives from newspapers, personal diaries, and interviews that we never hear about from the history books.

I kept finding myself putting the book down so I could research. A Google image search yields some mind-boggling photos of dust storms burying homes under layers of silt.

Books like this make me love non-fiction and wish there were more books like this.