reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

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Yesterday I spent an embarrassing amount of time on Overdrive hunting for new audiobooks to listen to (seriously I think I had 100 tabs to different books open at one point). Gratitude by Oliver Sacks caught my attention, as I remember enjoying reading Musicophilia several years ago. (Although looking back at my review, I was pretty critical of that book at the time!) Edited from Goodreads:

No writer has succeeded in capturing the medical and human drama of illness as honestly and as eloquently as Oliver Sacks. During the last few months of his life, he wrote a set of essays in which he movingly explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death. Together, these four essays form an ode to the uniqueness of each human being and to gratitude for the gift of life.

This is a very brief collection (36 minutes on audio) but it was filled with profound insight into a life lived, and lived well at that. All the pieces are lovely and moving. In “The Joy of Old Age” (or “Mercury”) from July 2013, Sacks looks back at his professional accomplishments and looks forward to his ninth decade of life. “My Own Life,” from February 2015, is his announcement of having terminal cancer, which began as a melanoma in his eye nine years earlier but had metastasized in his liver. Though the end is near, he has not given up on life and is determined to make the most of the few months(?) he has left.

When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

In “My Periodic Table,” July 2015, he talks about his interest in minerals and metals, and how they relate to his life and cancer treatments, and how the treatments were making him feel physically and emotionally. The final essay, “Sabbath,” published just a couple weeks before his death in August 2015, is a tender reflection on purpose and meaning in life. I was inspired by his positivity and gratefulness, his wise perspective and unwavering curiosity, and his gentle voice in this collection.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Oliver Sacks was a remarkable human being who made a difference in the lives of his patients and their families, his colleagues, and his readers. I should definitely read more of his books in the future.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

i am, i am, i am

I saw I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell on one of the what-to-read-in-February lists online last month, and immediately put it on hold on my library app. I love memoirs and I was intrigued by this unconventional look at very specific experiences in this writer’s life. Edited from Goodreads:

I Am, I Am, I Am is a memoir with a difference—the unputdownable story of an extraordinary woman’s life in near-death experiences. Intelligent, insightful, inspirational, it is a book to be read at a sitting, a story you finish newly conscious of life’s fragility, determined to make every heartbeat count. A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital. Shocking, electric, unforgettable, this is the extraordinary memoir from Costa Novel-Award winner and Sunday Times bestselling author Maggie O’Farrell. It is a book to make you question yourself. What would you do if your life was in danger, and what would you stand to lose?

I hadn’t read Maggie O’Farrell’s work before (confession: hadn’t heard of her before) reading this memoir. I was really spellbound by her beautiful writing, which simultaneously conveys rationality and an emotional rawness in these often harrowing vignettes. The first story was easily my favorite and one of the most chilling. Here’s the first sentence: “On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.” NOPE. My heart literally raced while listening to this opener. As a woman, this resonated so deeply with me because things like this have happened to me. Granted and fortunately, no man ever interacted with me the way O’Farrell describes she was in this piece, but that doesn’t make my feelings when I’ve seen a strange man staring at or following me any less frightening.

I realized quickly that perhaps my expectations were too high going in—seventeen brushes with death?? O’Farrell’s either extremely lucky or unlucky (or a bit of both). But some experiences were definitely more true to near-death than others: a machete held at her neck during a robbery and almost bleeding out while delivering her first baby bring a person much closer to death than taking an STD test. The momentum lulled just slightly for me in the middle, as there was a little repetition (more than one drowning story), but the last few chapters were utterly heartbreaking and captivating, especially the final one about her daughter’s anaphylaxis and life-threatening allergies. Despite the brief ebb in the middle, I thought this book was a perfect length—easily devoured in a sitting or two.

There are so many amazing-looking books coming out this month and I Am, I Am, I Am definitely lived up to the hype for me. I really admired O’Farrell’s resilience, gratitude for her life, and generally optimistic outlook, all things considered.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

mini-reviews: bailed! lincoln, spaceman, game of thrones

I thought talking about a few books I DNF’d would be a fun change! Here are three books I bailed on in the last year.

I got about an hour into the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders before ditching it. Yeah, not for me. I borrowed this one from the library to see what the hype was about and I couldn’t get into it. I think with Lincoln, there are so many characters, so many different voices, living and dead, and it doesn’t read like narrative fiction—it’s almost like a play—that it was way too confusing on audio. I’ve heard that Lincoln is better on paper, but I don’t think I’m going to try a different format, though. I wasn’t crazy about Saunders’s Tenth of December either, though I did finish that one (wasn’t bad, just, again, not for me). And of course, now Lincoln has won the Booker Prize! The cheese stands alone, I guess. [Bailed in March 2017.]

I got halfway through Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia. I really tried—I had this as a borrow from the library on ebook! I’m the worst at reading ebooks! I was really disappointed to quit because I thought this was extremely interesting premise: Czech orphan grows up to be his country’s first astronaut, is assigned a dangerous mission to Venus, upon which he encounters a strange and mysterious giant spider with human features on his ship. Is this spider real; is it an alien? Or is it his imagination? Jakub’s personal history and relationships, as well Czech political history, dominate this book. I guess I was expecting more of an adventure story than philosophical novel about myriad topics… none of which were a giant, possibly imaginary space spider. Sadly, reading this just started feeling like a chore. [Bailed in April 2017.]

Sigh, A Game of Thrones. I love the show and I’m all caught up on it there. George R. R. Martin‘s masterpiece series is SO hyped and SO revered. I thought I’d give it a shot between seasons of the show. Again, I had this on ebook from the library and I really gave it a chance. 177 pages into this first book and I was bored to tears. The writing is just godawful, pure shit. Am I alone here? Maybe this will be my unpopular opinion of the month! [Bailed in December 2016.]

the end of your life book club

I picked up a copy of The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe several months ago when it was making the book blog rounds, but put off reading it in the wake of both my grandmothers’ recent deaths. I just thought it might cut too deep at the moment, but finally I decided to give it a read, despite my tender heart right now. From Goodreads:

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will [Schwalbe] and [his mother] Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.

I enjoyed The End of Your Life Book Club overall. It beautifully demonstrated how books can bond people together and open up a dialogue about the world, culture, events, and more that we experience in this life, and how books act as a bridge between the past, present, and future. I admired Mary Anne’s humanitarianism and accomplishments, even though she seemed like a pretty intense person in general (and some of her achievements and personality seemed too good to be true). I interpreted this memoir as a loving tribute, detecting nothing but love and respect from Will for his mother, if sort of extra carefully, from arm’s length.

There are a few parts of the book that made me raise an eyebrow. I didn’t personally need to know about Mary Anne’s struggle to decide what to do with her money, who was getting her frequent flier miles, etc. The privilege and elitism of this family was too much sometimes; it reminded me of the beginning of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (I DNF’d because of the elitism), which is also a book discussed in EoYLBC. However I think that Schwalbe described his family’s privilege much more delicately than Didion, palpable but easier to swallow. I also perceived Mary Anne as a person needing to be in control and have things go as planned, which was a bit off-putting for me.

Apparently, EoYLBC is a fairly polarizing memoir. It’s pretty specific and narrow in its focus—more about the relationship of Will and Mary Anne, the book club, Mary Anne’s life and less about books, which disappointed many readers. On one hand I agree with that sentiment, but on the other I wouldn’t want spoilers.

The ending resonated with me most of all, though, even prompting a few tears—the part when the family stands vigil by Mary Anne’s bedside in her last hours. I just went through this with one of my grandmothers last year, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Read from December 1 to 11, 2014.

tiny beautiful things

The second audiobook I listened to on my road trip to Wisconsin over Memorial Day weekend was Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed. From Goodreads:

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpusnow revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice. Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

So many great reviews (and enjoying Strayed’s Wild last year myself) prompted me to add this to my listening queue. I liked how Strayed tackled a wide variety of issues, from dysfunctional divorces to “does he like me?” queries, from deaths of children via drunk drivers to high school love triangles, and pretty much everything in between—it was a good balance between soft and hard.

As many other reviews I read mentioned, Strayed more often than not regales her readers with stories of her own life, making this much more of a memoir than a self-help book. It’s better that way, in my opinion, because Strayed’s advice usually boils down to “just do it,” in so many words. To her credit, she does admit she is not exactly qualified to dole out traditional advice, but says she offers more of a “alternative perspective” to her letter writers.

Because her replies are long and meandering, you lose yourself in her straight-forward yet warm and elegant prose, and more than once I completely forgot she was answering a letter. Her writing is sharp, lovely, rich, and stays with you—not afraid to get down there with the ugliness of life and work through it. I love the honesty and compassion in her responses, which was enhanced greatly in the audiobook version, read by Sugar herself.

Listened to audiobook from May 26 to 31, 2014.