The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

bright hour

Wow, this is a book you definitely have to prepare yourself for.   Written by an actual descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this memoir is a beautiful, almost poetic reflection on dying.   Not only does the author contend with the death of her mother from multiple myeloma (a form of cancer), but then she has to face her own impending mortality, as she battles her own aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer.  As we follow her through her musings and her fears, we glimpse into her very heart — sometimes full of self-deprecating humor, sometimes of abject sadness, and sometimes of sheer tranquility.

There is, of course, a lot of sadness here.  You cannot escape that when you’re talking about cancer.  But there is a lot of sweetness and humor as well.  Nina did not have a polyannish view of life at all – on the contrary, she was fairly sarcastic – but she did keep a faith and a hope for her future that was positive while still being realistic.  Her discussions with her 2 boys are honest and yet often comical, maintaining the innocence that young boys deserve.  She includes some details of her pain and suffering without dwelling on these.  She chooses to appreciate the days she has rather than lament those she has not.  This is something I think we can all learn from!

So while your heart will inevitably break from this book, it will also be touched in important ways, if you choose to read this one.

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

how to start a fire

Anna, Kate and George (short for Georgianna) could not be more different from each other – and yet, they inexplicably become fast friends in their college dorm.  Unfortunately, life moves them beyond their usual frolicking to a shared traumatic experience that alters the trajectory of their respective life journeys.

I should have loved this book.  It had all the right elements.  I loved the characters.  They were colorful, complicated, and clever.  I liked the overall story and the intertwining of events.  There were multiple layers of stories, which kept things interconnected and engaging.  And the dialogue was witty and occasionally made me giggle out loud.

The problem was that it was extremely choppy.  I love when the voice changes or the time changes – but the transitions must be smooth so as not to lose the reader.  It was not done smoothly here.  Every time a new chapter started, I felt like I was starting a new book over again – just with the same characters.  There were such different scenes in such different locations with the characters in such different times of their lives, that it took a long time to figure out where we were in the story and how this part connected to the whole.  I feel as the reader, I should definitely not have to work that hard.

Ultimately, though, I am glad I read this book – I did like it overall.   I’d love to know what others think!

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

italian bulldozer

This is an example of a great idea poorly executed.

Paul is a successful writer of food and wine books who has just been jilted by his girlfriend of 4 years.  In a bit of depression and in a rut, his agent (who of course, happens to be single, intelligent, and attracted to him) sends him to Italy to work on his next book.  In a bizarre set of circumstances, he ends up with a rented bulldozer as his means of rented transportation during his stay.  On his first foray to explore his new town, he happens upon a beautiful, intelligent woman who has run her car into a ditch and lo and behold (!) a bulldozer just might do the trick!

There are a few tiny plot strands that are started in this book that could make the book so interesting that unfortunately are never pursued.  There is the evil-looking man that Paul is jailed with on entering the country (yes, jailed!), there is the boyfriend of the beautiful woman who has a port wine stain, and there are other towns folk who might be more involved in a more interesting plot than they are.  But no, the author chooses to make his former girlfriend as truly shallow and predictable as she is (then why would he have spent the past 4 years with her??), and the ending as neat and predictable as it becomes.

There is so much potential here.  I did finish it, but I spent most of the book waiting for something of substance to happen.  I think I’m still waiting…

 

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

becoming nicole

This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that is told with a clinical detachment that is utterly unfortunate.

Nicole, who begins her life as Wyatt, an identical twin to brother Jonas, feels from day one that she is a girl.  Already identifying with female characters in movies they’d watch, she, before even turning 3 years old, told her father that she “hated her penis.”  She consistently yearned to wear girls’ clothing and to play with girls’ toys and fortunately for her, her mother, Kelly, was sensitive to her yearnings and did what she could to support her.  Wayne, her father, had a much harder time accepting this side of her and while he loved her, he took many years to mourn the loss of the second son he thought he had.  Finally, though, he did come around and rallied to her support and both parents fought for her legal right to use the girls’ bathroom in her school (although it did not save her from being horribly bullied by a boy in her school throughout middle school, egged on by his nasty grandfather).   Nicole and her family bravely fought to set legal precedents to protect future trans children from prejudicial and ridiculous harassment because of gender identity, at least in certain states.  Hopefully, they will lead others to continue the fight for equality for these people who only want the freedom to be who they are inside.

The only benefit of the “clinical” aspect of the writing is that there are segments of the book devoted to the scientific evidence for brain differences in transgender individuals.  I think that in addition to being extremely interesting from a clinical point of view, it also fuels the argument that these people are not going through “phases,” nor are they “seeking attention” as they are often erroneously accused of doing.  It gives more objective data for those who cannot just support people for who they believe they are – rather it gives medical justification for those who require this.

On the other hand, it is a shame that the writing could not be as beautiful and as engaging as the story itself was.  There was certainly the material there to work with.  The characters were certainly heroic and beautiful, the setting was pure Americana, and the story was definitely dramatic, culminating with a huge and wonderful courtroom win.  The only tragedy was that the telling of this young woman’s triumph was so terribly dry.

I hope that Nicole and her family know how much we all admire their bravery and hope that she and they do not have to fight any further for her to be accepted for who she is.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

we are okay

This is a sad but sweet, young adult novel that was recommended to me by my daughter.  It is the tale of Marin, named after the county in California from which she came, who is stranded, alone, in a dorm room in NY, during Christmas break.  As she anxiously awaits a visit from her friend, Mabel, the memories of her recent, tragic life events come back to her in waves, and she is forced to reconcile what she thought were the circumstances of her life with what was real.

This is a story in which sensuality is very striking.  The cold, stark setting really creates a mood for the whole book.  Descriptions of the freezing snow create a palpably silent backdrop for the awkwardness between the two old friends.  The cold blowing onto their faces as they trek through the snow freezes any attempt at conversation between them.  And when they finally break through, they start to feel the heat come back on – and warmth starts to emanate from one character to the other.  They are in a shop in which Mabel picks up bells, and the reader can almost hear the tinkling of those bells as if we are in that store with them.  Light is used also, contrasted with darkness, such as the stark darkness on a beach on a moonless night, when one’s eyes cannot adjust to the darkness and one has to give up trying to see.  It’s a beautiful way to pull the reader in to each scene.

What initially appears as a simply melancholic book ultimately reveals itself to be a complicated and intimate tale that leaves one thinking about it for days after closing its covers.

 

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

option b

So as you can see by this blog, I am not a huge reader of self-help books.  Not because I am not in need of any help (!), but there are just too many other books that I’d rather read.  This one, however, captured my attention.  Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, experienced the tragic, sudden death of her husband, to whom she’d only been married for 10 years.  In trying to cope, she speaks with her psychologist friend, Adam Grant, who suggests that since she can’t have her husband back (Option A), she has to just kick the s–t out of Option B.  And there is the birth of this book and her finding her way out of her despair and learning the basic building blocks of resilience.

I think there are many useful and inspiring lessons here.  I love her 3 P’s, most of all.  She teaches that when we have a crisis, our first inclination is to assign it the 3 P’s:  Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.  That is, everything is personal – ie. it’s our fault.  We might have been able to prevent the catastrophe that has occurred, even when rational thought would have us know that this isn’t true.  That the issue is pervasive – that everything is terrible and bad and that this will affect everything.  Most of the time, this, again, is not true.  And that the catastrophic event will have effects that will last forever.  Of course, if you are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is permanent; nevertheless, the affect of this on your life will evolve over time and your life goes on even if that of the loved one does not.  These are probably much easier to read about than incorporate into one’s life, but certainly they are important concepts and seemed to have been extraordinarily comforting to her as she was going through her crisis.

I found that the vignettes and stories that Sandberg uses to illustrate points are also useful to drive home her points.  She uses others’ stories as well as her own to generalize the concepts that she discusses, so that it is not all about her.  But she also bravely reveals a lot of herself in this book as well.  I am hoping it was somewhat cathartic for her to write about her experience – I’m sure it was extremely painful as well.

I think since life throwing curveballs is a universal experience, this book can universally be appreciated and utilized.  We can all learn how to catch those curveballs more gracefully and more resiliently!