a little life

After seeing many, many rave reviews and landing on numerous best-of lists at the end of 2015, I decided to give A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara a try despite my reservations due it to being a major chunkster. From Goodreads:

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

I will agree with most reviewers: A Little Life is an emotionally taxing book; the story is affecting, complicated, and distressing, to say the least. I found the word “devastating” in a lot of comments, however, I’m not sure if it’s because I’m naturally attracted to dark, disturbing material sometimes, but I wasn’t so upset and “destroyed” as some readers were after finishing.

My issues with A Little Life are less with the bad stuff that happens (and I agree they are truly horrid, unspeakable, unfair abuses). Let’s be honest—these (and worse) things really happen to people every day all over the world. The characters’ unwavering commitment to and deep, often unrequited love for Jude baffled me at times. I also had trouble buying that all four friends became rich and wildly successful in their highly competitive careers. And fair warning: apologies occur frequently in this book. The words “I’m sorry” appear pretty much on every single page. I started rolling my eyes at each utterance after a while. Despite being 720 pages, the vagueness throughout the story must have been intentional, too: how are 9/11 and HIV never once mentioned in a book set in New York City spanning several (seemingly recent/current) decades featuring gay characters? It bothered me while reading but on reflection I suppose to give the story a timeless atmosphere.

Much of Yanagihara’s writing is lovely, though, even hinging on poetic at times. You do get a sense for the trauma and sorrow the characters experience, as well as their happy times. I really enjoyed the backstories for JB and especially Willem in the first part of the book. I think she does a fantastic job of making these relationships all feel tangible. While there is a lot of writing here, it never felt too dense or difficult to pick up wherever I left off. Bottom line: I would recommend A Little Life to anyone interested. Give it 100 pages and see what you think at that point.

Read from January 9 to February 18, 2016.

brain on fire

I know it’s only the first month of the year, but I’m on track so far for my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge! The first book I decided to read from my list was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. From Goodreads:

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened? In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

In August 2013 I actually attended Cahalan’s appearance in Kansas City for an author event sponsored by Rainy Day Books. She was bubbly and personable, and there was a particularly sweet moment when, during the Q&A, a mother expressed her gratitude at Cahalan’s book raising awareness for neurological diseases such as these, of which her young daughter suffered as well. The girl was there too, and Cahalan took her up on stage to sit with her.

Brain on Fire is an interesting read—her descent into “madness,” to the bafflement of many doctors, was harrowing and shocking. The best part is that Cahalan brings to light the prospect that perhaps those with undiagnosed “mystery” illnesses, or illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism, say, may actually have a disease that’s treatable and curable. How many people have died in situations like the one Cahalan faced? The brain is a fascinating and enigmatic subject.

While I do think the pacing and layout was done well, the writing lacked in places for me. Some of it was repetitive and some of it felt like trying to hard to be literary, like the book couldn’t decide whether to be a narrative memoir (too many adverb…) or an investigative scientific research piece—admittedly I glazed over many of the scientific descriptions. I also didn’t get a great sense of who Cahalan was before the onset of the disease. A bizarre behavior manifests seemingly out of nowhere, and we just take her word for it that it was uncharacteristic? I mean, yeah, I guess so… I just wish we would have gotten to know Cahalan better beforehand so the unusual symptoms could carry more cause for alarm. I didn’t feel emotionally invested or connected to her.

But, if you like the TV show House and have an interest in books about science, health, and mysteries, I think this one is worth a read.

Brain on Fire is my first of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from January 23 to 25, 2015.

men we reaped

Here’s another I put on hold at the library, which came through this week. I considered buying a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped a while back, but was nervous it was going to be emotionally tough to read. I was right, but it was worth it. From Goodreads:

In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth—and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

Men We Reaped left me a little breathless. Ward’s grief is raw and palpable… practically oozes off the pages. It just hurt my heart, reading about her brother—I almost dreaded reading the final chapter dealing with his death. I too have fierce, unshakable feelings of love, pride, and protectiveness for my brother. I’ve often said I can’t imagine who I would be without him. I just cannot even imagine the agony of losing a sibling. Ward eloquently describes these important, special people in her life that tragically left this world all too soon. Her articulate prose is full of pain, love, and grace.

I ended up rating this a 5-star on Goodreads because I found it so affecting, and of course timely considering the recent national attention to deaths of young black men like these in Men We Reaped. This was an excellent complement to The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, which I read earlier this month—urban and rural, Northeast and South. Men We Reaped was even more potent for me, though, probably because it was written in first-person by someone who was born into these race and socioeconomic issues. While she does state these issues have a damaging effect on so many lives and communities, it’s kind of treated as a given, not too deeply examined… but perhaps that’s for a different, more research-based book to accomplish. Men We Reaped is for the heart.

Anyway, I was so moved by this beautiful book, a testament to love, loyalty, community, family… and a heartbreaking account of some of the harsh, tragic realities of life for millions of Americans, particularly in the rural South.

Read from January 19 to 22, 2015.

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.

five days at memorial

I recently finally read one of the books from my 2013 retail therapy bender, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. From Goodreads:

In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs five days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.

After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

It took me forever to get through this one, and it took me forever to write this review! I’m not sure what the deal was with Five Days at Memorial for me. This kind of subject matter is usually right up my alley—survival, tests of humanity and society, etc. I just had trouble becoming completely immersed. I may have been in a bit of a slump in September, though—my schedule and workload really amps up when summer ends, and I admit to being overwhelmed with the shift this time. Anyway, it was interesting and well written enough for me to finish.

I found the first and last thirds to be especially fascinating, first the harrowing situation the people found themselves in, and finally the tense legal battles. The middle section dragged for me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why (my “real life” stuff could easily be the culprit). I remember noticing quite a bit of repetition, but it did make sense to repeat some things in context (differing accounts of the same act, etc.).

Fink’s research is exhaustive and apparent, and for the most part fair and balanced. The book delves deeper into the history of the hospital, the lives of the individuals involved, and the aftermath of the disaster than I would have ever expected. However, I’m not sure it was entirely without bias… it could just be how I read it, but I felt like Dr. Pou was portrayed at times as heroic and other times was demonized for her alleged actions.

I learned so much about disaster preparedness for places like hospitals, and I did get a sense that the doctors and nurses truly were doing everything they could to help their patients in the face of little resources. I did appreciate that Fink doesn’t drive home any specific conclusion or “lesson” here, especially on the topic of human euthanasia. The main point, I think, is that life is not all black and white, strictly right or wrong—it is all grays and subjective and feelings, and that’s what these people faced during Katrina in Memorial. It’s a great read—powerful, gut wrenching, informative, and thought provoking. I definitely recommend it, but only when you have the time to really dig in (unlike me, ugh)!

Read from September 7 to 28, 2014.

the botany of desire

The August selection for my Stranger than Fiction book group at the Kansas City Public Library was The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, one I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time. From Goodreads:

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

I’ve been a fan of Pollan’s for years, ever since I first read The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I’ve also read Food Rules and In Defense of Food before this). The Botany of Desire has been on my list forever, so I was really excited to see it selected for book group! Unfortunately, I missed the previous month’s discussion, when we get the next book, so I had to hunt a little bit for a copy. By the time it came in on loan to my school library, I was on my Hawaii trip, and then only had two nights to read after work before the discussion. I was only 70 pages in by then… oh well! I still went to the discussion and enjoyed it, and ended up finishing the book by the end of that week.

The Botany of Desire‘s four chapters offer interesting tidbits and brief histories of these four different plants, and clearly outlines the reasons we are captivated by them. I agree plants and humans enjoy mutually beneficial arrangements, but I’m not sure I buy Pollan’s statement that “plants are using us as much as we’re using them,” since I’m sure plants would prefer NOT to be ravaged by chemical poisons and genetic experimentation. I was aware that wiping out diversity among plants what not good and mostly done to profit corporations, but Pollan really drove it home and explained exactly why diversity is a necessary, good thing in agriculture and nature.

Brief thoughts by chapter:

Apple: Too much Johnny Appleseed, not enough apple. It was interesting and entertaining, but not nearly as much as the rest of the book. Lots of people get stuck on this chapter and give up. At least skip ahead to the next section, I promise!

Tulip: Wow. The Dutch were crazy about this plant! They ruined their whole economic system over it. Incredible. I wish Pollan had included pictures of the tulip varieties discussed. (Oh well, hooray for Internet! The black tulip is stunning.)

Marijuana: Fascinating, especially the war on drugs synopsis and how this plant, that has so many useful applications and is by and large incredibly safe, could be so demonized virtually overnight in the United States. Same for the people who grow/use it. I was just a little kid when it started, I remember D.A.R.E. units in elementary school and thinking they were silly.

Potato: By far my favorite chapter (kinda has to be—one of my grampas was a potato farmer, the other an Irishman!). I was blown away by exactly how horrific conditions became in Ireland due to the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century (the catalyst for my Irish ancestors to come to the States). I was really interested in the contrast between farming potatoes in the Andes vs. Ireland, and how variety and diversity makes everything better. And the farmers having to deal with Monsanto—ugh. Terrible. Frightening. I’m lucky (and make a point of it) to eat as much local, seasonal organics as possible.

While I wasn’t quite as captivated by Botany of Desire as I was by Omnivore’s DilemmaBotany is still an eye-opening read in Pollan’s signature blend of personal and historical/factual narrative. Looking forward to reading his latest, Cooked, in the future!

Read from August 25 to 31, 2014.