The semester ended a few weeks ago, which is when I dig into the books that have been on my “when summer comes” list. Truth be told, reading right now is a productive procrastination strategy – let’s read instead of doing all that pesky writing you’re supposed to be doing, my brain says. But I’m turning over a new leaf, if you’ll pardon the book-related pun: Here in Abu Dhabi, the week begins today – Sunday – and with that, my newly made resolutions will kick into effect. I can’t mention those resolutions out loud for fear of jinxing myself (or sending you into paroxysms of laughter at my unrealistic goals) but suffice it to say, threats have been made,
bribes incentivizing structures have been put into place, and pleasure reading will have to wait until I’m visiting the wilds of Indiana later this summer.
Before I read and wrote about the books listed here, I read Lauren Groff’s wild and wonderful novel about a commune, which I reviewed for The National. You can read that review here, and then do the newspaper a favor, and go all social media on them: twitter, like, recommend, use all those cute buttons at the bottom of the article. Thanks.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming:
Probably you already read Half the Sky, which Sheryl WuDunn wrote with her husband, Nicholas Kristof, and so you already know that the book puts you on a pendulum that swings from outrage to exhilaration, often in the span of a short paragraph. The statistics WuDunn and Kristof present seem impossible, incomprehensible: more girls have been killed in the last fifty years than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century; in sub-Saharan Africa, a woman stands a 1-in-22 chance of dying in childbirth; in India there are 2 to 3 million prostitutes (many of whom are young girls and/or women who are little more than slaves)…the list of horrors is endless.
If the book were just a statistical compilation of the ways in which women are systematically beaten down, however, it would not be so powerful. What WuDunn and Kristof bring equally alive can only be called the triumph of the human spirit: women who have crawled, begged, fought, and screamed their way into better situations – women who have, basically, refused to die. There are women who escape from sexual slavery to start safe houses for other runaways; women who use micro-loans to start tiny businesses that provide enough income that a daughter can go to school; a woman in the US who wrote a letter asking people to donate a dollar to the US Committee for UNFPA, after Bush II cut the funding and eventually raised more than 4 million dollars….The list of triumphs also goes on and on – it’s easy to say that a book is “inspiring,” but there are very few books I’ve read where I actually got chills as I read about what these people have accomplished for themselves and for others.
Half the Sky isn’t all rosy-eyed about NGOs and governmental intervention; WuDunn and Kristof offer a candid assessment of well-intentioned Samaritans. The book offers pragmatic advice – lists, websites, addresses – for anyone who wants to get involved on the ground or for anyone who wants to make donations to worthy causes. You owe it to yourself to spend some time with the women in these pages. Their stories need to be heard.
II. Fiction: dysfunctional families, and a smattering of witches
The Lunatic Parlor brought to mind a joke that I heard from a comedian a long time ago – it’s a perfect joke and for me separates the wheat from the chaff: if you laugh at this joke, we’re probably going to be friends. If you look at me with a slightly furrowed brow and a “wha…?” on your face, then it’s going to take us a while to click. So the joke goes like this: “I just started therapy…” long sigh, head shake, pursed lips. “…because I come from a family.”
Get it? Get it?
Eggzackly. Everyone’s family has something, but the family in this novel has a whole lotta something: two alcoholic parents, termites (a lot of termites), unwanted pregnancy, prescription drugs, OCD, really bad parenting, inappropriate boyfriends, Elvis impersonators, and suicide. And it’s funny, funny, funny. The kind of funny that bubbles up from those dark moments when it’s either laugh or crawl into a hole and block up the exits. Parlor is the story of Anabel, who returns to her parents termite-infested house after three years at Cal just in time to deal with her mother’s imminent death due to alcoholism. Anabel copes the way she has always coped – popping pills and dating wildly inappropriate men (her current beau is an abusive philanderer and way too old – plus he’s gotten her pregnant). Anabel wishes she could find an “instruction book that would show [her] how to live like normal people” even though she knows such books don’t exist.
“Normal,” in a family with two alcoholic parents, is an impossible goal but what the novel shows us is that normal doesn’t exist in any family. Even the apparently perfect family who lives across the street from Anabel has problems that eventually explode. The novel focuses on Anabel’s mother’s slow decline in episodes that are brutal – and hysterical: Sigrid falls, cuts off half her ear, and goes to the ER; Rudyard, Anabel’s father joins them at the hospital but remains in the hospital parking lot, wearing his erstwhile kilt and smoking his pipe, his two Irish wolfhounds in tow, bellowing about the rule that forbids smoking within eight feet of the hospital entrance. He holds up a sign saying that “SANCTIMONIOUS NON-SMOKERS DIE EVERY DAY TOO.”
In the hospital, the doctors don’t believe Anabel and her sister when they say they don’t know their mother’s ethnic origins: she has kept all but the barest outlines of her life a mystery to her daughters. Anabel’s therapist, Dieter, is also amazed at what Anabel doesn’t know about her parents, and in her sessions with him, Anabel confronts what it means to have her mother’s story be a blank, just as Anabel is searching for some kind of road-map with which to navigate adulthood.
It’s not a plot spoiler if I tell you that Anabel’s mother dies – you know it’s coming pretty much from the get go – but what did surprise me is how sad I was when that moment arrived. Sad, and then giggling when Anabel’s father manages to get the entire funeral assembly waltzing in the aisles to Sigrid’s favorite tune, “The Blue Danube.”
The Lunatic Parlor isn’t perfect – there are characters I wanted to get to know better, and Anabel’s shift to acceptance at novel’s end seemed abrupt – but it offers a funny, moving, insightful tale about how we love our families, no matter how dysfunctional that family might be.
(one small thing: The Lunatic Parlor, written by one of my favorite “mommy bloggers,” – or as I like to call her, an online writer – can be found on lulu.com)
And mood shift again: ghoulies, ghosties, and things that go bump in the night
What if Twilight were well-written and had heroine who did more than just wait to be rescued? What if vampires had real jobs, and what if witches might be found in same-sex marriages, living in small New England towns?
What if you were an award-winning professor of history who on a lark, about four years ago, started to write a novel that drew on your expertise in the history of science in the middle ages, particularly alchemy and magic? What if, unlike so many academics, you could actually, you know, write?
Then you’d be Deborah Harkness and the book would be A Discovery of Witches, which a friend suggested to me (thanks Bertie) and which kept me up waaay past bedtime for too many nights in a row. Diana, the heroine, is a historian, the daughter of a powerful witch and wizard who were killed in Africa when Diana was a child. She’s succeeded in her field without recourse to her powers but when she requests an ancient manuscript called Ashmole 732 from the reading room at the Bodleian Library, strange events are set in motion.
Yes, there is a mysterious stranger in the novel who turns out to be a vampire, and yes, of course, he’s rich and handsome and Troubled – but he’s also a brilliant scholar and researcher. And yes there is a romance, but there is also meticulous and lively history, alchemy, politics, family drama, genetic testing, daemons, mysterious societies, and…Halloween. The relationship between Diana and Matthew is a relationship between equals: he has all that groovy vampire stuff going on, but she is a powerful witch; they’re both highly educated and intelligent. Their romance, however, is not necessarily the absolute center of the novel – there is more going on then the question of when, or if, they will consummate their attraction. I won’t tell you what happens (there is a twist) but I will say that it’s wonderful to read about a relationship that occurs between two consenting adults rather than experienced-guy-and-trembling-virgin, ala Twilight or Shades of Grey.
No, Witches isn’t brilliant literary fiction, ala Mantel, but it is what they call “a good read:” smart, engaging, clever.
What are you reading these days? Now I’m looking for suggestions that I can use as a reward if I do the writing I’m supposed to be doing for the next few weeks. The sequel to Discovery of Witches comes out next month, so that’s going on the list…what else?