Being Mortal

Image result for being mortal“If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.” (Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande)

If I ever won the lottery, my first order of business would be to purchase hundreds of these books. I’d hand them out at the slightest opportunity. Greet me in the park? Book in your hand. Stop next to me on a red light? Book through your window. I’d mail them to family members – no matter how loose the relation – with cajoling notes scrawled onto the covers. I’d scatter them throughout my neighborhood in the hopes they’d get picked up.

I assure you, this is not a morbid fantasy. Though the book may be about death and dying, it is one that every single person needs to read. We do not think enough about getting old or about being seriously injured or falling ill, about what kind of death we would like to have. We assume that, when it inevitably happens to us, we will know what to do; but Gawande shows that it isn’t that simple. Death in modern times is full of complexity that neither we, nor our doctors, are trained to face.

This is a brave book, and beautifully written. Find some way to procure it as soon as you can, and then talk to your family – to anyone you know – about it.

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Liane Moriarty

Image result for liane moriarty

There is a phenomenon (someone somewhere has probably named it) where kids always want to do what their slightly older peers are doing. Pre-teens want to read YA lit, young kids want to play minecraft, preschoolers want to go to kindergarten. I have a bit of a ‘younger kid’ crush on Lane Moriarty’s books. She writes almost exclusively about 40-something women with kids in kindergarten. Though I’m a thirty-something woman with tiny tots, I’ve read almost all of her books over the past six months (they are wonderful for keeping you awake when you’d rather be sleeping). I suppose this means I’m looking forward to the next stage of my life, which will apparently involve lots of murder and scandalous family drama.

It’s rare that I enjoy multiple books by the same author (let alone the 4 or 5 of Moriarty’s that I’ve somewhat thoughtlessly read), but Moriarty has a light, friendly writing style and a clever eye for unspooling drama. Though her characters tend to run on a theme from book to book – imperfect extroverted women, beautiful socially awkward ones, women who either have children, can’t have children, or suffer from secret post-partum depression – she throws in enough details to keep the women realistic and individual. Plus, you get to do a bit of armchair traveling, since all of her works are set in Australia.

Though mostly meaningless, here’s my Moriarty preference list : 1) Big Little Lies, 2)  What Alice Forgot, 3) The Husband’s Secret, 4) The Last Anniversary, 5) Truly Madly guiltily

The Millionaire Next Door

The Millionaire Next Door avoids both opposing pitfalls for practical nonfiction: it is neither poorly written nor filled with excess author-centric material. The authors escape these common mistakes by sticking to the facts. They’ve done their research and they put it down in dry language, without any cringe-worthy attempts to bribe your interest. They trust that their subject material will be of sufficient interest to their target audience and they center it in your attention throughout.

Though this book may be intended for readers looking to better their financial situation, I also found it fascinating on a wider field: challenging assumptions about how wealthy people look. We’re handed down the image of wealth melded with a high consumption lifestyle so casually that many never question it. The book, while still giving sound practical advice, also stakes a claim that the frugal life is the better life, no matter your financial situation. Like their financial advice, they back up this moral claim with research – people who live below their means are less fearful, happier, and more likely to take risks. Who would have thought?

Recommended Action: Buy –  Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 272
Ending: predictions for future stable jobs -eerily accurate
Incidental Learning: How to be frugal
Further Reading: I’ve never read anything similar in terms of subject material.

Lincoln in the Bardo

All the synopsis writers and book reviewers seem to be in cahoots to convince the innocent reader that this book is somehow about Lincoln. What they get out of this deception is beyond me; perhaps it’s the power of name-dropping, or an attempt to anchor a largely indescribable book to something known and comprehensible. Lincoln does make an appearance, and his life and times are briefly described, but he merely provides a framework for the true characters: a collection of ghosts in denial about being dead. If there is a plot, it’s not about Lincoln’s life, but rather about these ghosts and their attempt to save the soul of a boy from eternal imprisonment in a torturous, morphing cocoon.

Secondly, to even call it a novel is more than a little misleading. The reading experience is more akin to a play, with character attributions interrupting a smooth reading process, mixed with a modern stream-of-consciousness poetry. Because of the way Saunders sets up his cast, as ghosts in various states of awareness and sanity, he can insert beautiful monologues about any kind of life and in any writing style or accent or dialect that he desires. So, read this book for its poetry and originality, but don’t let the title lead you to expect ordinary things like presidents or novels.

Recommended Action: Buy –  Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 368
Ending: satisfying
Incidental Learning: Some information about Lincoln in 1862
Further Reading: The Tenth of December

4321

41taqb9lbsl-_sx341_bo1204203200_I usually associate experimental fiction with young authors hoping to break boundaries. Some of the brave effect of exploration is inevitably lost to youthful writing blunders, so I generally find myself fantasizing not about the current book, but about future authors who will use the groundbreaking techniques with more poise. With Auster, you get the best of both worlds: a mature, sure-footed author who still delights in twisting old genres to suit his needs.

This is a book where the silences are just as powerful as the words. It’s a cradle to grave biography written about four different versions of the same person; Auster covers segments of their lives within sub-chapters (1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 cover the same years for each). As each version of the character dies, Auster forces the reader to keep confronting the death by leaving their sub-chapter heading suspended on a blank page during each successive epoch of life. The blank pages come as a shock each time you turn to them, negating the tendency in your head to blur the different versions, to take away their individuality and meaning. Auster’s silence brings a reality to a book that otherwise might have felt academic or untethered.

Do not let the page count deter you – I could easily have read another 800 pages of Auster’s detailed, flowing account of the various versions of Archie.

Recommended Action: Buy –  Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Length: 880
Ending: mind-bending
Incidental Learning: New York in 1950s and 60s
Further Reading: More Auster. Also, American Pastoral by Roth.

Genre Reading Spree

Before I realized I had to ‘match my reading to my life’, I thought that the problem with my discontented reading was a simple lack of variety. I tend to be a literature and fantasy/sci-fi fan (strange combination, I’m aware), so I originally thought that all of my problems could be solved through reading romance, mystery, historical fiction, etc.

I envisioned a sort of border between being a genre initiate and a veteran, and thought I wouldn’t see any of the formulas or tropes of the genre until I reached that magical line. The newness of the pacing or writing style would simply overwhelm my critical faculties and I’d be able to read in a state of suspended discernment, happy with anything the author saw fit to write. This was a pipe dream. It turns out that formulaic writing is the same no matter the genre – and always just as easy to spot.

Although not all of these books are formulaic, I read them all on my genre spree stage. They were all moderately satisfying reads – but I’m sure they would have been much more satisfying had I read them in the appropriate life context, instead of under an incorrect pretext.

genre spree book covers

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See:

Learning about the large-scale facts of a time period – its wars and names of its rulers, its inventions and its major crops – from a dry history-class textbook is nothing compared to reading a luxuriously rendered story. When I used to think of early 19th century China, my memory would have nothing to cling to, but now I will forever envision See’s description of foot binding, of women living their lives in the confines of one room.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase:

This romance started out promising, with excellent tension and character introduction, but the characters lost all of their sharp, interesting edges once the hero and heroine got married. After that, Chase ceased character development, simply allowing them to walk through the plot, unencumbered by thorough examination.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch:

This book has the a kind of gorgeous writing that has very little to do with the classically beautiful prose of, say, Austen or Trollope. Though poetic, its beauty lies in its realism and specificity rather than its grand generalities. It mixes up the once-ugly, the mundane, and the absurd, to lend a sense of immediacy and authenticity to an otherwise far-fetched science fiction story.

Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie:

The most surprising thing to me about this mystery was that Miss Marple, the ostensible main character of the series, was more of a secondary, or even tertiary, character. I felt like an excited tourist glimpsing a famous person from afar whenever she stepped onto the page. I vaguely wonder if the whole Mrs. Marple series is written from a non-Marple perspective… but not enough to look it up or even necessarily read another one.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee:

More vivid historical fiction spanning the majority of the 20th century in Korea and then Japan. You’ll never look at white rice the same way again – but historical side notes may be all you remember from this book, for Lee holds the characters at a distance, never allowing the reader to form an emotional attachment.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry:

This is not a book for everyone: it’s as meandering and serpentine as the title suggests. The characters careen around the story, completely unconcerned with little things such as Points or tidy endings. And yet, they make a beautiful story while going off in their own ways, one that highlights a little seen side of Victorian England: one filled with curiosity and emerging sciences.

Book Lion Birthday Awards: Year 8

Let your life guide your reading. A busy life calls for quick, stress-free reads. A practical, to-do list life calls for non-fiction. A laid back life wants long, luxurious novels. An unpredictable life calls for all of these and more, waiting simultaneously for the slightest shift in mood. Don’t let your genre biases constrain your book selections or else you’ll find that you can only read during certain moods and conditions. You’ll be a ‘feel-like-it’ reader, instead of a committed, every-day one.

This year, I went through a time (some might call it third-trimester nesting) where fiction was repugnant to me. It all seemed stilted, impractical, irrelevant. I had a list of things to do before the baby came, and if I wasn’t reading something directly related to one of my projects, I was wasting my time.

It was a nonfiction period of life, though it took me a while to label it as such. Once I stopped trying to force myself through my comfort or reach genres and matched my life to my reading, everything fell into place again. So now every time I go through a major life change, I’ll think – “what kind of reading life is this now?” – in the hopes that I never feel such a long stretch of dissatisfaction with my reading again.

So, without further ado, here are the mostly meaningless, yet still fun, year 8 Book Lion awards:

Best book: Old Man and the Sea

Best Post: A Room with a View

Best beginning of trilogy: Powder Mages

Best book I forgot to post on: American Gods

Best non-fiction: The Art of Fermentation