reading recap: november 2017

I had a wonderful “vacation”… from my semi-permanent “vacation”… in Wisconsin the whole month of November! I spent a lot of time with family and friends, drove all over the Midwest and Wisconsin, saw some great shows (and not-so-great Packer games), and was just reminded yet again how much I love it there and it’s where I truly belong. Sigh. Anyway, as usual on my trips, I didn’t read much, so here’s a monthly recap and mini-reviews post all in one!

It has been too long since I had any nice, day-long drives all to myself, and I downloaded two for my drives in November back home. First up was Michael Finkel’s True Story, a non-fiction about his disgraceful fabrication in his The New York Times story about child slavery in Africa’s cocoa colonies, which resulted in his embarrassing firing. But then, he discovers an American man in Mexico, Christian Longo, has stolen his (Finkel’s) identity in order to escape suspicion of the murder of his entire family. It was an interesting listen, especially the dialogues and cat-and-mouse interplay between these two narcissists and how they are sort of similar (the different levels of gravity to their separate errors notwithstanding). Fans of true crime will like it. I think Finkel may have redeemed himself… if not with True Story, then perhaps with his recent The Stranger in the Woods (review coming soon!). I fell asleep when I tried to watch the movie, so I’m going to give it another try soon. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich chronicles the medical and personal histories of Henry Gustave Molaison, the eponymous patient referred to by his initials in medical research to protect his identity, and whose status as H.M. revolutionized our understanding of the brain. After a serious bike accident when he was a child, Henry later developed seizures as a teen. After drugs and other standard treatments didn’t work, Dr. William Beecher gave Henry, then 27 in 1953, a lobotomy, after which his behavior and memory drastically changed, transforming him into the prime human test subject for brain study. This book also covers Beecher’s life and career and the history and controversy of lobotomy procedures. I learned a lot about the brain, memory, and lobotomies from Patient H.M.—it’s easy to understand with minimal technical medical jargon—and the lives of Henry and Beecher were equally sad, shocking, and fascinating. Like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, treatment and understanding of patients in mental health facilities of the 1950s was horrific, and the human rights issues surrounding Henry’s situation are staggering. It’s an eye-opening look for non-medical and non-sciencey people like me at the sometimes uncomfortable and ugly side of medical progress. Sometimes Dittrich goes off on familial tangents (Dr. Beecher was his grandfather), but overall this is an awesome book in the vein of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

This might seem strange to include with a couple of non-fictions, or to review at all, but I did read it cover-to-cover last month! I bought Girl Power: 5-Minute Stories as a gift for my 3-year-old niece, for her baptism in Madison last month. It is a collection of ten short, newer children’s stories focusing on smart, fearless, determined, interesting, fun girls. It caught my eye because I wanted to get my niece the first story as its stand-alone book version, I Like Myself, but this collection was an even better choice. I also enjoyed Flora’s Very Windy DayPrincess in TrainingElla Sarah Gets Dressed, and Wow, It Sure is Good to Be You! I identified with some of these stories, of course, and wished I had these growing up! I loved how diverse the collection is, too, with girls of different ethnicities, ages, families, adventures, and more. [Read in November 2017.]

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mini-reviews: the bell jar and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I’m not great at reading classics. There are some I remember from high school and just loathing (Their Eyes Were Watching GodThings Fall Apart) that I would definitely like to give a second chance. But there are some classics that weren’t in my school curriculum that I’ve always wanted to read, but have had trouble starting. Thank you, audiobooks! This year I’ve listened to a few, and these two complemented each other nicely.

I just finished Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal) a couple days ago. I really wish I had read this in my late teens or early 20s—I think I would have been obsessed! It’s an eerie, affecting book especially knowing Plath’s life story and her suicide. The writing is beautiful but also unemotional, if that makes sense. I didn’t quite get “insane” from Esther, but her mental illness does come through from knowing hints in the beginning to growing paranoia and intense questioning of her own thoughts and actions by the end. The electroshock therapy scenes were horrifying. I was really moved by Plath’s use of being trapped in a bell jar to describe Esther’s mental state—the distorted view from the inside looking out. It’s obvious why this is a time-tested classic. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

Many years ago I “borrowed” my mom’s copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and surprise! never got around to reading it. The audiobook version, though, read by Tom Parker, was fantastic and engaging. I saw the movie years ago but didn’t realize the book is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden. McMurphy is quite a character—he’s likable, obnoxious, and a troublemaker, but it’s a fight-the-power kind of trouble that I liked. Kesey’s no-nonsense writing makes you think more about societal roles, authority, mental health, and its healing and treatment practices in psychiatric institutions, at least during the 1950s and 60s. I’m still not sure if McMurphy really had a mental illness or not. This was a great, complex story that I’m glad I finally took the time to experience. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

dear committee members

Rehearsals started back up and you know what that means—audiobook time! I was able to get through Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher in just a few days. Edited from Goodreads:

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby. In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies.

If any of you have worked or taught in higher education, especially in the arts and humanities… yeah. I had a lot of great laughs from Dear Committee Members—several statements in Fitger’s letters nail life in academia right on the head. Fitger bemoans the seemingly endless pile of recommendation letters he’s asked to write, even from students he doesn’t know, as well as cuts to his department (English) while other departments (Economics) get perks and upgrades.

Presented entirely in epistolary form, the letters start out being humorous and to-the-point, and as Fitger slips in (ridiculously inappropriate for recommendation letters) more and more personal information and woes, the book takes a few minor twists and turns I didn’t see coming. The underlying commentary on the state of academic affairs nowadays is ever-present through the funny and serious parts of the book; both the sentiment and the cranky professor character are recognizable. Dear Committee Members was brief, silly, and bittersweet.

Listened to audiobook from February 23 to 27, 2016.

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.

pilgrim’s wilderness

I saw Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia pop up a couple years ago when it first came out and decided to give it a listen on audio when it became available at the library.From Goodreads:

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the bizarre and utterly fascinating story of how Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale and his 15-child self-named Pilgrim family came to settle deep in one of the most remote parts of Alaska, motivated by a belief that a simple pioneer life could be lived there in the twenty-first century. Celebrated by locals for his anti-establishment ways, Hale was eventually exposed as a cult leader-like sociopath with an extraordinary criminal past who brutalized his wife and children and kept them isolated, ignorant, and under his control.

Whoa, what a fascinating read! I could barely stop listening, it just became more and more twisted as components of Hale’s life fell apart. It went from bizarre to icky to downright frightening. The story is interesting on many levels, from the in-depth look at this family’s interpersonal dynamics to the external factors working against their lifestyle. I loved how McCarthy, Alaska was basically another “character” here. I’m not sure I dug the author’s infusing himself into the story, but, with investigative journalistic non-fiction, I understand it. Just maybe didn’t work for me so well in this case.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a great read for anyone interested in off-the-grid lifestyles, religious extremism and cults, environmentalism, small town community, and more. At first blush it does seem like an unbelievable tale, but it’s all darkly true. It was complementary to a recent novel I read, too, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Listened to audiobook from June 25 to 29, 2015.

still alice

Still Alice by Lisa Genova has appeared in my recommended lists on Goodreads for years and has received rave reviews. Now with the movie out I figured I should give it a chance. From Goodreads:

Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life—and her relationship with her family and the world—forever.

Still Alice didn’t live up to the high accolades for me. I never connected with Alice or any of the other characters. The writing was just a bit too clinical in parts, like, interruptions in the action to explain scientifically what was happening in Alice’s brain instead of the reader experiencing it through Alice. Know what I mean? And I don’t want to spoil it, but Still Alice doesn’t quite convey the sheer devastation an illness such as Alzheimer’s will wreak on a person’s lives and family. While the usual emotions and reactions one expects upon this diagnosis were expressed—like frustration, anger, confusion—the book merely stayed at the surface, just touching on certain actual, harsh realities of a disease such as this without going the full mile on them. It all ended a little too conveniently for me. [Hover-over spoiler]

I felt the secondary characters were all rather one-dimensional, for example we only really learn one aspect of their lives and personalities (acting, baby-making, or… I can’t even remember what the son did. Something in medicine). They weren’t very likable either, just came off as ungrateful and self-absorbed. Honestly, and this will sound so awful of me, I know: I didn’t find Alice to be particularly likable, either. Not terribly unlikable, though. I just didn’t connect with her, so the deterioration of her memory didn’t affect me like I expected or hoped. This could be me—books where the protagonists are well-off and act rather entitled are not really my cup of tea. [Hover-over spoiler]

All that said, there are some excellent, affecting scenes in Still Alice, especially once you get into the last third of the book, like when she starts doing things twice in succession without realizing it (introducing herself to someone, repeating her input on a presentation at work), when she gets lost in her own house, and when she is losing recognition of her daughter. I thought Alice’s list of basic questions to test out how she’s regressing throughout was one of the most potent features of the book.

I would love to see this movie and think it may be one of those books that actually translates better on film. (And I love Julianne Moore 🙂 )

Read from April 22 to May 2, 2015.