25 Bookish Facts About Me

  1. When I read to myself I mouth and vocalize the words I’m reading.
  2. I’m a slow reader.
  3. I wish I was a fast reader.
  4. I’m a literary snob.
  5. I judge people who don’t read.
  6. It bothers me that it’s so hard to find blogs that focus on literary fiction on WordPress.
  7. Finding typos in published books drives me crazy.
  8. Barnes & Noble is one of my favorite places to be.
  9. I like it when books make me cry.
  10. I used to be really in to books about abused children but then it became too much for me.
  11. I was resistant to Kindles at first but now I love reading on the Kindle.
  12. I love looking at lists of books. Sometimes I think I spend more time doing that than actually reading books.
  13. I’m a sucker for Kindle daily deals.
  14.  There was this advertisement that was constantly on my Kindle for some trashy book about a vanishing fetus and I hated looking at it.
  15. I refuse to see a movie based on a book  if I have not read the book first.
  16.  There’s usually a reason for why I’m reading certain books at certain times. For example I started The Good Earth yesterday because it was Earth Day. The book I finished yesterday was about a boy on the autism spectrum and I chose it because it’s autism awareness month. The 13th Tale was the 13th book I read this year.
  17. I used to always look at the last page of a book before I finished it.
  18. I’d like to join a book club but I’m shy.
  19. Even if I don’t particularly enjoy the book I’m reading I enjoy the act of reading.
  20.  I hate it when there’s no summary of what the book is about on its back cover or jacket.
  21. One Child by Torey Hayden is the book that has had the biggest emotional impact on me.
  22. I’m good at certain types of writing but I’d be terrible at writing a novel.
  23.  I hardly ever read nonfiction aside from memoirs and I’d like to change that.
  24. I find it difficult to pick favorite books and to assign books star ratings.
  25. I’ve read several books all the way through without realizing that I’d read them before.

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 If you need further proof that we’re haunted by the ghosts of our past, you’ll certainly find it in A Little Life. My feelings about this book are very mixed. I was torn between thinking it was tragically beautiful and thinking it was tragedy porn. I decided it is tragedy porn but it’s well written tragedy porn with literary merit.

Jude Fawley of Jude the Obscure is regarded as one of the most tragic characters in literature. Well, when it comes to tragedy, Jude Fawley has met his match in Jude St. Francis, the main character in this novel. This Jude was abandoned in a dumpster as a baby. Throughout his entire childhood and adolescence he is horrifically physically, emotionally and sexually abused by many people, several of them people he trusted to care for him. When he grows up he attends a prestigious college, becomes a successful lawyer and finds a group of good friends. A law school professor and his wife legally  adopt him as their own child (this professor lost his own son to a devastating disease when he was a little kid.  Pretty much everyone in this book experiences great tragedy in their lives.)

Yet Jude remains a tortured soul who is left with many physical and emotional scars as a result of the abuse he endured. The man who deliberately ran over him with his car left him partially crippled and his condition worsens over time. Throughout his life he endures traumatic flashbacks to his past. He suffers from low self esteem and has relationship issues with his friends, his lovers, his adoptive parents, his co-workers and his doctors. He has trouble opening up to people, believing that he’s deserving of their love and trusting that they’re not going to abandon him. To cope with all of this he regularly engages in self mutilation.

The tragic events don’t end with his childhood either. The poor guy just can’t catch a break in life. As you may know from my previous book reviews, I’m pretty morbid in my tastes in literature. Not only do I have a high tolerance for tragedy in literature, I have an appreciation and a craving for it. Yet even I have my limits and this book pushed me past them. I can only endure so many graphic descriptions of childhood sexual abuse and self mutilation before it becomes overwhelming and I start feeling nauseated.

I think the harsh realities of life should be depicted in literature and I certainly don’t want them sugar coated in order to avoid making the reader uncomfortable. However there’s a difference between tragedy that is plausible and endemic to the story, and tragedy that is artificially manufactured to create melodrama. There’s a difference between tragedy for the sake of illustrating a point or a truth and tragedy just for the sake of tragedy. Too often it felt like this book fell in to the latter categories.

Yet overall I did like A Little Life.  It was well written and it was emotionally gripping. It provided a lot of good insights, reflections and food for thought especially on subjects such as the nature of trauma, grief and friendship. I could feel the pain of the characters to the point that it became my own pain. Jude is such a tragic, vulnerable character, one that generates a lot of sympathy and compassion. Sometimes you just want to reach through the pages and hug him, to take away his pain, to convince him that he’s a good, valuable person who’s worthy of love and happiness.

Of course as the reader you are powerless to do that. Unfortunately the characters in the book who love him and try desperately to help him are also powerless to do that. There’s this notion that love is all you need, that love is always enough, that love can overcome anything. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. Sometimes the victims of trauma will struggle with and be devastated by their trauma for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the loved ones of the trauma victim will struggle with and be devastated by the pain of desperately wanting to save someone who cannot be saved.

There’s also a tendency to want to sort people who have suffered severe abuse and trauma in to two separate categories, two distinct dichotomies: those who were able to overcome their demons and achieve success and those who succumbed to their demons and failed at life. As Jude proves, it isn’t always that black and white. One person can fall in to both categories. Jude is very successful in some areas of life but struggles greatly in other areas as a result of his past. He is both a victim and a survivor.

Usually when a character commits suicide, it is at least somewhat surprising to the reader. I was not the least bit surprised by Jude’s suicide. I would have been surprised if he hadn’t committed suicide. When I read about it rather than being shocked by something I didn’t see coming, I sarcastically said to myself “Oh darn, and here I was thinking they were all going to live happily ever after.”

As saddened as I was by Jude’s suicide. I couldn’t help but consider it a miracle that he lasted as long as he did and I couldn’t help but feel glad that he had finally been relieved of his suffering.

 

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

This is my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. It’s about a woman named Mae who gets a job at a powerful internet company called The Circle that’s rather Google-esque and Facebook-esque. At first it seems like her dream job and everything is perfect. This is a company that really seems to care about the well being of its employees, that goes above and beyond to make sure they’re happy, healthy and having a good time.

There are all kinds of lavish parties and social events, special interest clubs, visits from celebrities, exquisite food, fancy decorations, comfortable dorm rooms in which employees can spend the night on campus and doctors to check up on the employees. The Circle even agrees to put Mae’s ailing father on her healthcare plan. Yet there’s also a dark side to The Circle and working there gets very stressful.

There’s a lot of pressure exerted on Mae to get perfect scores on her customer service reviews, to get lots of views, smiles and zings ( the equivalent of likes) and to rise in the company’s PartiRanks, which is based in her performance in those areas. Then there’s the pressure exerted on Mae to participate in The Circle’s social events, especially those that match up with her interests and experiences (her supervisors know all about her interests and experiences since they’ve searched through her social media profiles.)  In their efforts to connect people from all over the world together, to make information readily available to everyone and of course to grow their business, The Circle becomes very controlling and overbearing. They are invested in the lives of their employees not just in the workplace but outside the workplace as well and the boundary between the two soon becomes very thin.

Some of Mae’s family and friends resent the intrusion on their privacy and at first Mae does as well but after her supervisors admonish her for going kayaking without posting about it on the internet she quickly becomes brainwashed to the point that she agrees to go transparent, meaning she wears a recording device that broadcasts almost every second of her day in real time for the world to see. With the help of her supervisors she develops three central tenets to represent The Circle : Sharing is caring, secrets are lies and privacy is theft.

After that the novel becomes rather Orwellian. It is a novel that is both creepy and hilarious. What makes it so creepy is that as ridiculous as everything that happens in the novel is, it doesn’t seem all that far fetched. With the way things are headed in the real world, someday living in a society that resembles the one in this book doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility.

I’m a big fan of the internet and an avid user of social media but I recognize its inherent creepiness and I’ve noticed the levels of creepiness steadily increasing as time goes on. It’s gotten more invasive, more in you face, more stalker-y. Things that used to be private are now public.

It always freaks me out when right after I’ve read or talked about something on the internet ads geared towards that subject start popping up everywhere. No matter how many times I tell the internet that I don’t want to give it my phone number so that it can secure my account or my location so that it can serve me better, it won’t stop asking me for it. I think the use of the like button and emjois has become rather excessive.

There were several instances in this book that reminded me of my own real life encounters with the internet. When one of the founders of The Circle introduced a kind of universal social media profile with one log in across all social media sites I was reminded of something I encountered on WordPress called Gravatar. I asked a friend of mine who had it how she got it and she said she had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently she had been signed up for it without her knowledge or consent because the internet is creepy like that.

In this book multiple tragedies occur as a result of the invasive cyber crazed dystopian society The Circle is creating but the leaders rationalize the tragedies and continue on in their quest to take over the world. Maybe Mae couldn’t have been expected to realize that her ex-boyfriend would be driven to suicide as a result of her having The Circle and the networks of people connected with them track him down and pursue him after he’d gone off the grid to escape their influence but I thought it was foolish of her not to realize he would be horribly distraught by it.

At the end of the book the mysterious man who has been pursuing Mae throughout the novel reveals himself to be one of The Circle’s founding fathers. He tells Mae that The Circle has gotten out of control, that it’s become different than what he planned, more than what he bargained for, that it’s a destructive force that must be stopped. At first I thought that Mae might listen to reason and prevent The Circle from reaching ‘completion’, that the book might have a happy ending. Being the morbid thing that I am, I was disappointed because I wanted it to have a “He loved Big Brother” type of ending.

Luckily for me, it did end up having that kind of ending.  It ended the way I originally predicted it would, in the best and most (in)appropriate way it could have ended.

When I went to review this book on Goodreads and post my review on Facebook I was asked to give the book a star number rating. Then I was asked to review a number of places I had visited recently, places that had been tracked through my Facebook activity. That’s exactly the kind of thing that happened in The Circle.

Some More Books I Read This Year

A Dog’s Purpose ( W. Bruce Cameron)- If reading about a dog dying once isn’t sad enough for you try reading about a dog dying over and over again. That’s what happens in this book as the dog keeps getting reincarnated as a different dog with a different purpose in life. In addition to the sad moments there a lot of funny and sweet moments. It’s not great literature by any means but it’s an entertaining, big hearted book that shows all the ways in which dogs enrich our lives and we enrich theirs. Any dog owner or dog lover will be able to relate to and appreciate the story.

 

A Dog’s Journey (W. Bruce Cameron)-This is the sequel to  A Dog’ Purpose and it’s more of the the same except the dog’s owner is more psychologically disturbed this time. Eating disorders and suicide attempts come in to play. It’s not surprising that the girl has issues since her mother is one of the worst fictional narcissists I’ve ever encountered and a real piece of work. In most of the dog’s incarnations it’s a big dog but in this book he becomes a little dog with attitude at one point. That was his funniest incarnation. I was also amused by the dogs’ opinions of and interactions with cats in both books.

 

The Turner House ( Angela Flournoy)-  I chose this book in honor of Black History Month and I was pleased with my choice.  This book did a great job of portraying racism and the African American experience (not that as a white person I can ever fully understand that experience) but it was about so much more than that. It was about poverty, urban decay, addiction, mental illness, physical illness, family function, family dysfunction, the ties that bind us and the ties that sever us.

This book goes back and forth in time focusing on the lives of various different members of a 13 child family. It pays particular attention to the man who is in therapy because he’s seeing a ghost (called a haint) and his sister who’s struggling with a gambling problem. Meanwhile, all 13 of the siblings are arguing over what to do with the family house now that their sick mother is no longer living in it and it’s putting them in to financial debt.

By the end of the novel the house situation is not resolved and it’s not made clear whether or not the haint is real but I was satisfied with the ending.  It ends with a family gathering and it has a “Circle of life” feel to it. Regardless of whether or not the haint is an actual ghost, it’s made clear that the ghosts of our past will always haunt us and regardless of what happens to the Turner house, it’s clear that home is where the heart is.

 

 

 

Some books I’ve read this year

It Can’t Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis)-As we all know, unfortunately it did happen here. This is a novel written many years before Trump came to power about a president named Berzelius Windrip who bears a remarkable similarity to Trump. He even decides he wants to live at a hotel rather than at The White House. The results of Buzz Windrip’s presidency are disastrous just as the results of Trump’s presidency have been and will be disastrous. Many people are killed or put in concentration camps as a result of going against Buzz. I hope it doesn’t come to that with Trump but I wouldn’t put it entirely out of the realm of possibility. Things don’t end too well for Buzz or his supporters either and I’m sure that’s how it will go for Trump and his supporters too. There were no winners in the 2016 election.

In the beginning of the book the protagonist is reluctant to take part in the resistance against Buzz Windrip but by the end of the book he has become one of the leaders of the resistance. Resistance is what we need in our real world that is unfortunately emulating this novel and fortunately I’m continuing to see a lot of people resisting against all the bullshit of Trump and his administration.  While I’m not an active member of the resistance, I am rather fond of my Resist t-shirt that features a picture of Smokey the Bear (brought to me courtesy of the National Park Service.)

Since this was billed to me as being representative of Trump and the clusterfuck that surrounded his election, I found myself frustrated that certain relevant points pertaining to it were not included in this book but I had to remind myself that the author didn’t actually intend for it to be representative of him, as it was written before he was even born.  I’ve heard this is not one of Sinclair Lewis’s best books but I haven’t read any of his other books and I liked this one well enough.

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)– This YA novel is a quick read. Some editions include illustrations. The plot concerns a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and the monster that comes to visit him. This book made good use of allegory. Fantasy and reality were well blended. The painful, complicated, conflicting emotions that are experienced when a loved one is dying were explained in a way that young readers could understand.

A friend asked me if I thought the book was too predictable. I didn’t think it was too predictable. The parts that were predictable were that way because they had to be and there were parts that defied expectations. I liked the part where the monster told the boy a fairy tale in which it seemed pretty obvious who the good guy was and who the bad guy was but the boy was shocked when the monster punished the person he thought of as the good guy rather than the person he thought of as evil. The monster then explained why the man he thought of as good deserved to be punished.

Lily and the Octopus (Steven Rowley)– After I read a book about a human dying of cancer I decided to read a book about a dog dying of cancer. I was drawn to the book because the dog had the same name as my dog.  I didn’t realize that the octopus in the title symbolized a tumor growing on the dog’s head. Like A Monster Calls, this book makes use of metaphor and allegory, blends fantasy and reality.  It’s a sweet story and it tugs at your heartstrings, especially if you’ve  ever loved and lost a canine friend. Make sure to have plenty of tissues handy when you read this.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)– I read my first Neil Gaiman book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane a few years ago and I was blown away by it. Ever since then I’ve been vowing to read more Neil Gaiman books but I didn’t get around to it until this year. I chose American Gods because I’d heard good things about it and there’s a show based on it coming out soon.

I find it kind of challenging to describe this book. The plot involves a guy who has just been released from prison and experienced the death of his wife taking a job as a bodyguard for a mysterious conman. They then embark on an epic supernatural journey that involves the old gods of mythology trying to fight against the new ‘American Gods’ that are taking their place. These new gods reflect America’s preoccupation with things such as celebrities, media, technology and drugs.

This is a book full of symbolism, a lot of which I’m sure went completely over my head. It is a blend of fantasy, mystery and horror. I don’t like any of those genres on their own but when they’re all blended together in a literary way, it works for me. I found this book creepy and unsettling. Since I’m a morbid person I can appreciate a book that leaves me feeling that way. Neil Gaiman is an author unlike any other author I’ve read.

My Stroke of Insight (Jill Bolte Taylor)– This book was assigned to me by my therapist. It is a memoir written by a neuroscientist who experienced a stroke. Given her profession, she obviously had some special insights in to what happened to her neurologically. While reading this book it was often unclear to me whether these were insights she had while she was having/recovering from the stroke or insights she arrived at after the fact.

I had no idea that a stroke could be in any way pleasurable so I was shocked by the feelings of deep euphoria she experienced when the stroke hit. She described it as a feeling of being at one with the universe, of there being no boundaries between herself and the rest of the world. While I would never wish to have a stroke, that does sound like a pretty cool feeling that I wouldn’t mind experiencing. I think the closest I ever came was that time I was on a (legally prescribed) Ketamine trip.

The euphoric feelings were a result of the damage the stroke did to the left hemisphere of her brain. Before she got into the details of her stroke in the book she spent some time describing the differences between the right and left brain. Among those differences is that the right brain tends to be peaceful, accepting, interconnected with the world and living in the moment while the left brain tends to be judgmental, focused on the past and views the self as a separate entity.

Of course the left brain also performs some vital functions and the stroke left Jill Bolte Taylor severely impaired. It took her 8 years to recover. The decision to recover was a conscious choice for her. I applaud her decision because my lazy butt would have been very tempted to remain impaired and floating on cloud 9, rather than put in the hard work towards recovery and get back all the negative emotions associated with the left brain.

One of the main reasons Dr. Taylor decided to recover was that she wanted to share the insights she had gained from her stroke to help not just other stroke victims but people in general. She believes people can lead  more peaceful, fulfilled lives if they allow themselves to tune in to the propensities of their right brain.

She does provide some valuable insights. She noted that while recovering from the stroke she was drawn towards people who gave off positive energy and who focused on her accomplishments rather than on what she could not do, that those were the kind of people who were instrumental in her recovery. Whether you’re recovering from a stroke or not, it’s best to surround yourself with those kind of people and limit contact as much as possible with negative people who point out your faults.

The insight she provided that I found the most valuable and that spoke to me the most was when she pointed out that when a negative thought or feeling floods the brain, it only has a natural biological lifespan of about 30 seconds or so. If it persists after that it’s because the person is choosing to focus on it and we can learn not to focus on it, to shift our focus to something else. God knows I have a tendency to perseverate on negative thoughts and emotions. After reading this book, now more so than ever, when I experience a thought or emotion that is causing me distress, I make an effort to say to myself “Enough already, brain!  Let’s stop thinking about this for now.”

The Rest of the Books I Read in 2016

Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple)- I loved the last book of hers that I read, “Where’d You Go Bernadette”so I had high expectations for this one. It managed to exceed those expectations. It was hilarious and had me cracking up but it also had emotional depth and substance to it. The premise of the story is that a rather quirky woman who’s led a rather quirky life makes a resolution to start living her life differently today. Today will be the day she starts being present in the moment, makes eye contact, doesn’t curse, initiates sex with her husband, etc,. The entire book takes place in one day and let’s just say it’s a day that doesn’t exactly go as planned, a day that throws everyone for a loop.

I had the pleasure of meeting Maria Semple when my local Barnes & Noble hosted a discussion and signing of the book. She’s as awesome in person as she is in writing. There was laughter at the event and there were also tears from her and from the audience. She said that people often expect her to be like Tina Fey and are surprised but how serious she is. That doesn’t surprise me because I’m the same way. I can be quite the comedian but I have a dark, sad and serious side.

I Am Malala (Malala Yousafzai)- If the fictional A Thousand Splendid Suns wasn’t enough to show me the horrors of the Taliban, there was this autobiographical account of a girl who lived under it. Shooting a child in the head because she advocated for girls to have access to education is just beyond the pale, not to mention all the other atrocities the Taliban is responsible for. I’m sad that Malala had to endure all that hardship but I’m glad that through it all she persevered and fought hard to achieve her dreams and help others.  She is a brilliant, amazing person and her story is an interesting and inspiring one but I have to say it didn’t have the kind of emotional impact on me that A Thousand Splendid Suns did. It was told in a rather detached manner but I have to remember that as remarkable a teenager as Malala is, she is still just a teenager.  I heard that she recently spoke out to say that she is devastated by the immigration ban that Trump has instituted. I am devastated for her.

Furiously Happy (Jenny Lawson)– This is a series of humorous essays written by a woman who suffers from depression and anxiety. The premise is that when life gets her down, instead of being sad, she’s going to be furiously happy in irrational, outrageous, bizarre and fun ways. The humor in this book might be too silly and ridiculous for some but I appreciated it and found it funny. My favorite essays were the ones about the arguments with her husband that ended with a score card. Humor aside, she has some wise and comforting insights in to depression and anxiety. The part of the book where her readers reach out to her, share their own experiences with depression and anxiety and realize they’re not alone is rather touching.

Well, that concludes the books I read in 2016. GoodReads just gave me a summary of my 2016 in books. It ended by saying that I read 31 out of 50 books and wishing me better luck in 2017. I’ve once again set a goal of 50 books and so far I’m on track. Maybe this year I’ll reach my goal, maybe I’ll fail at it it once again. Regardless of the outcome, I’ll experience the joy of reading and you can look forward to more book reviews.

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Book Review: Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

This is a memoir in which a Harvard educated woman writes about the time period when she was pregnant with her son who has Down Syndrome and the spiritual awakening she experienced. This is not a book I would have picked up on my own. It was recommended to me by a friend. Someone in my mom’s book club decided she wasn’t going to read the book club’s selection because it wasn’t the kind of book she was interested in and I thought to myself “Way to miss the point of a book club, lady!”My friend and I have an exclusive 2 person book club that is open only to the densest most literal readers so even though the book isn’t my cup of tea, I decided to read it.

A book about having a kid with a disability is actually right up my alley but the spiritual/supernatural element is not. I’m a skeptic who doesn’t believe in that kind of thing. I ended up having mixed feelings about the book. I liked it more than I thought I would but I also disliked it for the reasons I thought I would. When the author reflected on having a child with a disability and society’s attitudes towards it, I found it interesting and insightful. When she got in to the spiritual/supernatural stuff she lost me. I was particularly unimpressed when she decided not to go to the hospital while she was bleeding, vomiting and had a high fever because she had a feeling the magical Japanese puppets in her head had her covered.

This woman and her husband were both in academia at Harvard and their world was a very high pressure, achievement oriented one.  It was a world in which you were expected to take business trips from Massachusetts to Japan every other week, to put your children on waiting lists for elite preschools before they were even conceived and to attend class while your wife was in labor.

Such an existence sounds awful and intolerable to me. It is certainly worth speaking out against the kind of people, society and institutions that would perpetuate, encourage and demand such an existence. I see that kind of thing in the school district I attended as a child. Having straight A’s, perfect SAT scores and a zillion extracurricular activities are valued above all else. About a year ago changes were put in place in the district to decrease the pressure on students as it was noted that it was taking a toll on their mental health. Some people were upset by the changes and worried that it would decrease the students’ chances of getting in to elite colleges but I was among those who applauded them.

I do not blame Martha Beck for having a grudge against Harvard considering what it put her and her husband through but at times I think she took that grudge too far and reading what essentially felt like a revenge piece was off putting. I do not doubt that the atmosphere at Harvard can be rather cut throat and unpleasant. I do not doubt that there are a lot of unpleasant, insufferable people at Harvard but I do doubt that everyone at Harvard is like that. As much as it fills us with envy to think that there are some people who “have it all”, I imagine there are people at Harvard who manage to be kind and compassionate while also being demanding and ambitious, people who manage to relax and have fun while also being hard workers, people who manage to appreciate the simple things in life while also keeping their sights on lofty goals.

Yet to hear Martha Beck tell it, you’d think everyone at Harvard was snooty and obnoxious, completely focused on material accomplishments, while neglecting the really important things in life. When she wrote about how wonderful one of her professors was, I was glad to see her acknowledging that not everyone at Harvard is evil. Then she said she didn’t think it was any coincidence that that professor quit teaching at Harvard six months later. My eyes, they rolled.

When Martha found out that the fetus she was carrying had Down Syndrome, many people pressured her to have an abortion. The issue of aborting/carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome is a controversial one, as is the issue of abortion in general. My controversial opinion is that any woman has the right decide for herself to have or not have an abortion for any reason. I was glad to read that Martha Beck was of a similar opinion. She resented the people who shamed her for not aborting for Down Syndrome and she realized that shaming a woman for aborting for Down Syndrome is just as bad. There’s a part of the book where she describes medical professionals who do the former as well as those who do the latter. She essentially says that those people can shove it up their asses. That was a rather satisfying moment.

There are several satisfying moments in the book. As much as Martha Beck irritated me at times, she’s smart, she’s funny and she’s a good writer.  And the book’s essential message is an important one. There’s something to be said for slowing down in the rat race, taking the time to appreciate the little things in life and realizing before it’s too late that those little things are actually the big things.

I really dislike the idea of intellectually impaired people being little angels who are full of joy and innocence, sent to earth to teach neurotypical people how to live life to the fullest. Martha Beck dislikes this idea too and she speaks out against it but at times I think she’s guilty of perpetuating it.

You know the phrase”Stop and smell the roses”?  There’s a scene where a stranger approaches Martha in a store to compliment her on the fact that her son Adam literally stopped to smell the flowers, while the other kids just walked by them without noticing their fragrance. I would roll my eyes so hard at a scene like that in a novel and it was pretty hard for me not to roll my eyes at it when it was being touted as a true story.

I suppose it’s pretty silly of me to be questioning the veracity of a flower smelling incident, considering all the bizarre supernatural phenomena and eerie coincidences that occur in this book. Of course I’m skeptical of them but in the end I guess it doesn’t really matter that much whether some divine spiritual presence was at work or there’s a “logical” explanation for the things that happened. The important thing is that the author’s belief in a spiritual presence brought her comfort during a difficult time in her life, that it led her to reevaluate the way she was living her life and to learn valuable lessons that would help her and her son lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

I can relate to some of the experiences Martha Beck had and the realizations she came to. I don’t have kids of my own and I’m not intellectually impaired but I do have a developmental disability and I live a life that’s devoid of many of the accomplishments that many people consider to be essential. Many people consider me to be a loser, a failure, a burden to my parents and society. I often see myself that way.

I’ve realized that a lot of my emotional pain comes from caring about the negative judgments other people make about me, from failing to achieve the things I’ve been taught are important. Martha Beck says that during the time period in which she was expecting Adam she came to question everything Harvard had taught her about what is precious and what is garbage. I’m questioning those things myself and realizing that sometimes even smart, successful, well respected people get it wrong.

This realization has been aided and exemplified not just by this book but by the friend who recommended it to me. She said that she doesn’t think of me as a loser because I live with my parents and don’t have a job. She realizes some people think anyone in those circumstances is a loser but she rejects the idea that everyone needs to fit in to neat little prescribed boxes in order to have value. And, really, the kind of people who feel the need to judge me, to make cruel comments about me,to define worth by degrees from prestigious universities and money from high paying jobs are missing out on some of the important things in life. Maybe they should read Expecting Adam.

Book Review: Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

The title of this book made me dread the question of “So, what are you reading?”  The chapters of the book were divided by seasons and it took me an embarassingly long time for me to figure out that the book is thus titled because each word in the title is similar in sound to a corresponding season. This book is about a pariah named Ray (although his name is mentioned so seldomly in the book that I didn’t even remember that was his name until I saw it mentioned in book reviews) who adopts a one eyed dog he calls One Eye. Ray appears to have some sort of developmental disability or mental illness but a specific diagnosis is never given. His mother died when he was young and he was raised by an abusive father. He’s been isolated and ostracized his entire life. When he does interact with people he often gets himself in trouble, as his actions and behaviors generate fear and misunderstanding.

One Eye the dog has also been feared and ostracized by people because of his appearance and his aggressive streak. Ray and One Eye form a strong bond. When One Eye attacks another dog, Ray realizes that they are once again in trouble and decides to flee with his new pet.

I empathized and related to Ray because I know what it’s like to be a weirdo and  a social reject, to be very different from most other people. I know what it’s like to be isolated and ostracized, to be misinterpreted and misunderstood, to inspire anger, fear, discomfort and disgust in others. It seemed appropriate that it was while I was reading this book at Barnes&Noble that someone decided to question me about my pacing, giving me yet another reminder of how abnormal I am ( See my “A Night at the Bookstore” blog.)

Ray talks about being called a troll. I’ve been called a troll as well. In my case the term troll referred to someone who messes with people on the internet but it all comes down to the same thing in the end. Someone posted a meme thing-y on the internet that says “Kira is a troll” with pictures of trolls in the background. As with Ray, people would often assume malice and ill intent on my part when there  was none. There’s no question that there was malice and ill intent on the part of whoever posted that troll meme and I’m sure the same could be said of some of the people who went after Ray.

There’s a scene in the book where it’s revealed that Ray witnessed his father choking on a sausage but just let him choke to death rather than trying to save him. I couldn’t condemn Ray too harshly for making that choice because his father was so awful that it seemed like a case where it may have been better to just let nature take its course. Then again, even though Ray’s father did some pretty horrible things to Ray, maybe he was deserving of some compassion because it sounded like he struggled with mental illness. Maybe he passed some of his mental problems on to Ray through nature, nurture or a combination of the two.

I could also relate to Ray because I form deep bonds with my dogs. I love them very much, I fear losing them and am devastated when I do lose them. As I mentioned in another blog, like many people, I hate seeing dogs die in fiction (or nonfiction for that matter.)  One Eye’s life was obviously in peril and I kept thinking ‘Please don’t let the dog die, please don’t let the dog die.” As I approached the end of the book it seemed that Ray was going to commit suicide and take the dog with him. I thought “Oh, please, anything but that.”

The actual ending of the book is rather ambiguous and open to interpretation. I’ll choose to believe that the dog lived.

Oh and I forgot to mention that it drove me crazy the way Ray kept giving One Eye chocolate. Don’t give your dogs chocolate, people. It’s toxic to them.

A Book I Read in 2016: Life, Animated

The 26th book I read in 2016 was Life, Animated by Ron Suskind. This book is written by the father of an autistic boy. It tells the story of how his son Owen learned to communicate with people and understand the world through lessons drawn from animated Disney movies,which he has an intense love for. The problem with many books by the parents of autistic children is that the parents are not professional writers and thus their books are not very well written. Ron Suskind is an award winning journalist so this book is well written. The story itself is pretty amazing. It warmed my heart and it broke my heart. I found the way Owen was able to connect with people and learn about life through Disney characters fascinating.

I read a New York Times review of this book that caused an intense negative emotional reaction in me because of my own personal issues but my personal issues aside, I found the way the last part of it was written to be rather obnoxious.  First it said that one of the flaws of the book is that there’s only so much talk about Disney characters a neurotypical reader can cheerfully take. Well, I guess since I’m not a neurotypical reader that wasn’t a problem for me.It said that the other flaw was that the book didn’t have the perfect happy fairy tale ending one would expect considering it centered around Disney characters. The review ended by saying that in real life, unlike in Disney, only some dreams come true.

Maybe I’m just smarter and more perceptive than the average reader but I was aware that real life is not like Disney before the reviewer so helpfully pointed that out and I harbored no illusions that this book would turn out like a Disney movie just because it dealt with Disney characters. Before coming to the brilliant conclusion that real life is not like a Disney movie, the reviewer pointed out that Owen has not achieved his dream of becoming a famous animator, his romantic relationship is unlikely to lead where a parent might hope, his time away at “college” does not correspond to what we think of as the typical college experience and he might never make it fully on his own.

So, at 25 Owen does not have a job that makes him rich and famous, his first romantic relationship probably won’t end in marriage, he has not received a bachelors degree from an accredited university that hosts a lot of drunken frat parties and he might need some help to get by in life. How very tragic. God knows there aren’t plenty of neurotypical 25 year olds in that same boat. There’s just nothing sadder than living a life that in some way deviates from the typical expectations that certain other people who are not living your life have! Then again, I don’t recall any of those Disney heroes going to college…

In case you couldn’t tell, that review hit a nerve with me. The movie did too. I didn’t like it nearly as much as I liked the book. It was presented mostly as a coming of age story and didn’t go in to great detail about the ways in which Owen used Disney characters to make sense of the social world like the book did. The movie also seemed rather exploitative of Owen and his girlfriend. Watching some of the recorded scenes between and about them made me uncomfortable. Owen’s girlfriend breaks up with him and I can’t help but wonder if the production of the movie had something to do with it. If my boyfriend’s brother was talking to him about french kissing me and those conversations were being broadcast to the world, I would have been out of there too.

Anyway, even though I wasn’t all that pleased with the movie or with some of the reviews of the book, I was very pleased with the book itself. Even though Owen is on a different end of the autism spectrum than I’m on, I could relate to a lot of his feelings and experiences. The book has inspired me to write a series of blogs about how I used animals to connect with the human social world but I have to warn you, my story doesn’t have a perfect, happy, Disney fairy tale ending wither.

The Books I Read in 2016: Part 3

21. A Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers)- I read this book because there was a movie coming out starring Tom Hanks based on it but I still haven’t seen the movie. The book was okay. The plot and the characters didn’t do much for me but I do have to give the book credit for the way it made me feel at the end. The book ends with a failed business deal. In the grand scheme of all the tragedies that have occurred in literature, a failed business deal is nothing but somehow this book managed to make me feel sadder about a failed business deal than other books have made me feel about untimely deaths. The other thing that sicks out in my mind about this book is a hilarious dirty camel joke. To be honest I’m not even 100% sure that I read that joke in this book. I might just be associating it with this book because it takes place in Saudi Arabia and there are a lot of camels in Saudi Arabia. Regardless, I’m finding myself amused by a dirty camel joke right now.

22. Me Before You (JoJo Meyes)-Usually my problem with liking a book is that I don’t like it as much as I want to like it but this was a case of me liking a book more than I wanted to like it. It was a fluff romance that was not particularly well written nor were the plot or characters particularly well developed. To top it all off it expressed ideas about physical disability that many people found offensive in a similar way to how I found the ideas expressed about autism in Love Anthony offensive. Yet in spite of all that, I liked it. There was something about it that was charming, touching and compelling. Voluntary euthanasia of the disabled was probably too heavy and complex of a subject to be tackled by a romance author who calls herself JoJo. I have some mixed and conflicting feelings about euthanasia. In theory I think everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether they live or die and no one else should be able to decide for them but in actuality euthanasia for reasons other than fatal illness makes me sad and uncomfortable. I felt sad and uncomfortable when Will made that choice in this book but I can understand why someone in his position might make such a choice and respect his right to make it. I saw the movie and had similar feelings as I had about the book. Objectively it was not a very good movie but I enjoyed watching it plus Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin are just so cute. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not understand the title Me Before You until I saw it explained on Goodreads. I read Me Before You as putting yourself before your partner in a relationship and that never really made sense to me in the context of the story. You’d think that the sequel being called After You would have clued me in to the fact that Me Before You means “how I was before I met you” but no, I really am that dense.

23. After You (JoJo Meyes)- I heard a lot of people who liked Me Before You say that they hated After You and that it ruined everything. I didn’t think it was that bad or at least it wasn’t much worse than Me Before You. Yes, the plot was contrived but it’s a romance novel, what do you expect? I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Me Before You but that was partially because reading the two books back to back made me get sick of the character of Louisa.

24. All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)-I can sum up this book in one sentence: War is hell. If anyone is under the impression that there is anything glamorous or desirable about war, this book should disabuse them of that notion. This book was recommended to me by my brother. He warned me that it was very gruesome and violent. I wasn’t put off by the violence in this case because it was intrinsic to the plot rather than gratuitous or sensationalized. I think I found the psychological toll the war took on the soldiers in this book even more disturbing than the physical toll it took. The last lines of this book are haunting.

25. H is for Hawk (Helen McDonald)- This is the award winning  memoir of a woman who after her father’s death adopts a hawk and trains it in falconry. When my mom’s friend saw me reading this book she was baffled and fascinated by it because she didn’t understand how a book about training a hawk could be good. It was very good. There are a lot of grief memoirs out there but I’ve never read one quite like this one. It’s combined with nature writing and some of the prose is beautiful. Training a hawk is not a traditional method of coping with grief but it seemed to work for Helen McDonald. I didn’t know much about falconry and thought of it as a mostly dead sport. It was interesting to read about and I’m glad it helped the author but I do find it kind of ethically questionable. She says that a hawk is not a pet and will never be fully tame. Why does a wild animal need to be kept in captivity so a human can have the pleasure of hunting with it? It seems better to just let them be wild, watch them from afar and enjoy the company of domesticated animals. A lot of this memoir is devoted to analyzing a memoir about falconry written a long time ago by an author named T.H. White.  He had some issues to deal with including being gay at a time and place when that was considered unacceptable and training a hawk seemed to be therapeutic for him as well. I enjoyed reading about his memoir from Helen McDonald’s perspective but I don’t have much desire to read his memoir in its entirety. Well, if it’s on sale as one of the Kindle daily deals I’ll probably buy it. I’m a sucker for those deals.)