Audio or Print Books?

Today at the library, I helped an older patron who was trying to figure out the best way to download audio books. Specifically, he wanted "access to all of the good books and none of the bad ones." I resisted getting drawn into that conversation (good or bad is so subjective, and it depends entirely on your personal and idiosyncratic needs as a reader; many times books I find horrendous are other patrons' favorites), but then he asked me what we call that.

"If you listen to a book instead of reading it,” he asked, “do you call it reading? Did I read that book? Or just listen to it?”

Which really is an interesting question. “To read” is defined as the act of receiving or understanding something, especially by way of letters or numbers. So in theory you don’t really “read” an audio book. But you do receive or understand the story, just through your ears, not your eyes. And when the person performing the book says the story out loud, he or she is reading it. So in theory, you do “read” an audio book.

I guess it doesn’t really matter if you say you “read” an audio book or you “listen” to it. You’re ingesting story, you’re making your life more interesting, you’re using your imagination and your brain cells and your intelligence.

I do think I have a different experience with the books I’ve read in print versus those I read in audio. (As audio?) I’m even pickier with audio books than I am with print books. The reader’s voice has to be exactly right for me to enjoy it. One of the first audio books I tried listening to was Swamplandia!, for example, but I only lasted about ten minutes as the reader’s voice was so overpoweringly little-girlish I couldn’t stand it. And I recently attempted The Witch Elm but that reader’s voice was just far too smug. I mean: the main character himself might also be smug, but I was overwhelmed with the smugness.

Last year, I read half of The Power as an audio book. My Overdrive checkout ended when I was halfway through, and I was desperate to find out how it ended, and luckily there was a print copy at the library. So I checked it out and finished it. I loved experiencing that story in that way. There are two readers for the story, and their voices were both perfect, powerful and with a hint of an accent I couldn’t quite describe. Their voices stayed with me as I finished the print copy and it made the entire reading experience much richer somehow.

Some books I can finish easier when I listen to them; if there’s something frustrating or annoying about the book, I can deal with it easier by listening (so long as the voice feels right to me). What Should be Wild is a book I’d likely have started but not finished in print, but it matched the atmosphere of when I was listening to it (late October) so well that I continued until the (fairly disappointing) end.

Last year, when I was training for my marathon, I decided to listen to The Hunger Games trilogy during my long runs. I got so sucked in that I also listened to them while I was gardening, cooking dinner, and a few times even hiking. Maybe this is my favorite way to read audio books, as stories I’ve already read in print version. I know the outcome, so I can follow the story much easier, and then I start to notice different things. I’ve read that series three or four other times, but listening to it made me feel things I didn’t expect. The violence seemed more startling, the wrenching decisions more difficult. In fact, when I listened to the very beginning of the first book, when Katniss takes Prim’s place, I had to stop running because I was crying so hard.

At any rate, I told the patron that yes: he can say he reads audio books. He seemed relieved, as if there was a subtle sense of shame at the fact that he was listening. And while audio books will never take the place of regular print books for me, I love having access to them. Reading, after all, is about stories, and humans have told stories aloud for far longer than the printing press has been around.  

What format do you prefer?


on Purging My Reading Desires, Part One

In January of 2018, I read four books and listened to one on audio. I didn’t LOVE everything I read but I enjoyed all of my reading experiences.

I’m not sure what happened, though, because in February I finished exactly zero books. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the last time that happened. Or if it’s ever happened since I learned how to read. I’m a person who is always reading something. And while I guess it’s true that I tried to read several things, I wasn’t able to finish a single one of them.

I don’t think it had much to do with the books I chose. They were each well-reviewed, with interesting stories and a literary style I could appreciate. I just didn’t finish any of them.

This experience—and here it is, by the way, almost the end of March, and I’ve only finished two books, one of them a slim poetry book that I checked out in February—has caused me to consider my approach to what I read, and I’ve had some flashes of understanding that have brought me to some solutions that will, I desperately hope, help me to start reading like normal again (ie: start a book, finish a book, write a blog post about the book, move on to something else).

Library books in a row

First off, I’m kind of a promiscuous book lover. There’s a difference between reading a book and reading about a book. Because of the nature of my work as a librarian, I am always reading about books. I read about something, I think “Oh, that is perfect for me, I must read it!” and then I either put myself on the hold list for it (if the library already has it) or request the library to purchase it. Or I just buy myself my own copy if it’s something that I think I won’t just love but really, really love. I probably fall in love with five or six books every single day. More on days when I’m at the library.

So then I have piles of books everywhere. Literal piles: books I’ve checked out, books I’ve recently purchased, books I purchased weeks or months or even years ago but still haven’t gotten around to reading. Also figurative piles: the books on my hold list on my library account (I’ve sometimes had more than fifty books on my hold list), the “I want to read this” list on my One Note app, the little snips of paper with titles written on them. The blog posts about books I want to read.

Recent book purchases

I think part of my problem is that I tend to fall in love with books that aren’t necessarily bestsellers. I could care less about the next John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Michael Connelly, Jodi Picoult, or Danielle Steel novel. The vast majority of the books I want to read might be known around the literary blogosphere and maybe even reviewed by the New York Times, but they don’t have long hold lists. The books I love (and let me be honest here: if I am a book slut, I am also a book snob, in the sense that I really don’t read the most popular fiction) have beautiful writing and complex characters, tell stories about situations that push me to think about my own experiences in different ways, avoid simple answers and stereotypical figures. I want to be challenged when I spend time with a novel; I want to feel like I am engaging not just with a story but with a dilemma. I don’t read to escape but to experience. But I also know that this is not what many (most, even) readers want from their reading experiences. That is fine—there is a book for everyone. I just want everyone to love the things I love, because I love them and think they deserve more love than they get. So I almost feel an obligation: I want to reward the author (who I envy for actually finishing and publishing a novel!) by reading and loving and interacting with his or her book.

So I end up in this space which is crowded with books that are all crying for my attention. Read me, read me, read me! And though I try to manage it by spacing out my holds, I still fall victim to the tyranny of my hold list: it’s my turn for this book that I want to read and that is begging me to read it, except I also have 27 other books I want to read.

So instead of reading all of the books, I’ve been reading none of the books!

My moment of epiphany came when I was cleaning out my scrapbooking space. In my scrapbooking world, I am a brutal purger. I no longer hold on to any supply I “might” use one day. Or anything that feels dated or out of style, or is impractical for my current approach. Or even things that are beautiful but I just won’t ever use. I have learned that if I have too many supplies, they drain my creative energy. This is because each of the items I want to use holds a little bit of my creativity, and if I use the item that little bit gets fed back into the greater whole. But if I don’t use something, it just sits there, holding on to a piece of my spark. I can only get it back by using the item, or donating it and getting it out of my room. (Or not buying it in the first place, which is a whole other topic!)

I’ve also learned that if I am organized with my supplies, I can find my creative spark faster. It’s taken me a few years to really get my stuff organized in a way that works for me (I organize by color), but now that my set up is functional and lean, I both make more layouts and enjoy the process much more.

As I was putting a sheet of half-used stickers into my “donate” box, it hit me: I need to do a similar purge, but with books. No, not exactly books—although my personal collection could probably use a good weeding. What I need to purge is my reading desires. I need to not invest my reading energy into every single book I want to read, and I need to not have literal piles of books everywhere. But at the same time, both because I will always be a reader and because I am a librarian, I need a way to organize the things I want to read.

I did a little bit of soul searching, and a little bit of Internet searching too, and I think I have come up with a new process that will help me keep my reading desires from overwhelming me. Check back on Wednesday when I will share the details. But until then, tell me: How do you keep your reading desires in check?


Why I Love The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Last night, the library where I work hosted a book club meeting. I had chosen the book, so I led the discussion. I was a little bit nervous that no one would come, as I’d picked a book I know would seem scary in my community, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. (It’s fairly amazing the quaking, the way faces blank and pale at the mention of the word “feminism.”) Only a few people came—six or seven—but we had a lively and passionate discussion anyway. What surprised me, though, is that only one person loved the book; everyone else told me that they hated it.

Not just surprised. I was stunned, because The Handmaid’s Tale is one of My Books. You know how you happen to come across a book at a specific time in your life, and it is exactly what you need, and in one way or another changes everything?

That’s what this book did for me.

When I was 17, rebellious and angry and full of fire to make my life something incredible, I discovered an amazing thing: buying books. I'd always owned my own books, courtesy of my mom, but there is a huge difference between being given a book and buying a book with your own money.

One of the very first books I ever bought for myself is this one:

20160317_120546-1

I can't remember, now, exactly why I bought it. Likely it was a recommendation of the Quality Paperback Book Club (anyone else a member?) and maybe it even came on autoship. But I read The Handmaid's Tale.

And I was completely, utterly changed.

I'd been a reader all of my life, of course. I read widely, across almost every genre. I'd read Steinbeck and Bradbury and Fitzgerald, Steven King and Danielle Steel and Rosamund Pilcher. But I had never read anything like The Handmaid's Tale. It was brutal and puzzling and unimaginable. It was unforgettable not just for the story—a totalitarian regime overthrows the American government and creates a society based on Old Testament stories, stripping women of all of their rights—but for the way the story was told.

I was sitting in the bathtub, reading The Handmaid's Tale after something that felt tremendously and hugely brutal had happened in my own life, and I read this:

You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter.

And then I got out of the tub and found a green highlighter, and I highlighted those words. I wrote in a copy of a book I owned.

It changed me because it turned me into an annotater, but it was much more than that. After The Handmaid's Tale, mediocre books would never again do. I wanted that rush of beauty and difficulty and brutality and trueness in every book I ever read again. I wanted to learn how she did it. I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to make sure I wasn't the only person who knew such things made of words could exist. Do exist.

The Handmaid's Tale made me an English major, which made me a teacher, which made me a librarian. I'm not sure I would be who I am as an adult without it.

But those are just the personal reasons I have for loving The Handmaid's Tale.

It's bigger than just me of course. 

Like every real dystopia, it gives a warning: if we keep choosing this, then look at what could happen. If we are apathetic to cultural change that limits freedom, we make it easier for change to progress. If we are entirely enmeshed in technology, others can control us in ways we might not expect. If we don't stop damaging the environment, we will damage ourselves.

Mostly the warning is this: We are never not in danger of losing whatever advancements we’ve made in equality, so we cannot become complacent.

I love it for that warning, even if the threats have (somewhat) changed.

I love it for the writing, too. As much as the story. For the descriptions of flowers, for the repetition of the word “flesh,” for how Offred stumbles in telling her tale, circles around, tells it in different ways.

And for the way the shadowy “us” (every bit as nebulous as the “they” who created Gilead) try to rise up. Ofglen kicking the man at the reaping in the head so he didn’t have to suffer. The passing of the term “May day” like a thing the handmaids who knew could hold in their hand. “I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow,” Offred thinks, “or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.”

This was my sixth or seventh time reading the book, and this time I was drawn to the character of the Commander. We aren’t ever inside of his head so we have to read his motivations only by his actions, but with this reading I could see that he wasn’t the antagonist. “Men are sex machines,” Aunt Lydia taught the handmaids, “It’s nature’s way. It’s God’s device. It’s the way things are.” And yet, the Commander sneaks Offred into his room so they can play Scrabble. I think the Commander, while quite possibly a jerk (that comment about women wearing different clothes in order to trick men into feeling like they were always with someone different), is more than just a sex machine. I think he wants companionship, a relationship of some sort. He is in certain ways as bound by this new society’s rules as Offred is, flattened down to the only seemingly-essential part of himself, which is semen.

I love that after reading a book six or seven times, I can still find something new in it to think about.

If I ever get a tattoo, it will be of words from this book: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” In a pidgin-Latin sort of way, that means “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I’ve never forgotten reading that, either; quite often it is the barbaric yawp I make in my head, out of protest of whatever.

I had forgotten, until I re-read it, what comes after. Offred finds the Latin words scratched out of the paint on the back wall of her bedroom closet. “I don’t know what it means,” she thinks, “but it sounds right, and it will have to do, because I don’t know what else I can say to God.”

Sometimes I don’t, either.

I understand the objections of last night’s book club members’ discussions. It does only offer women a very few choices (which is sort of the point). It is a horrible place to find yourself in, the Republic of Gilead, whether you are Offred or you are reading Offred. Execrable things happen. It is maybe hopeless, and oh! that ending!

But I will always love it.

What books have changed your life, in small ways or large?


The Golden Name Day: A Reading Memory

One of my clearest reading-associated memories has to do with summer reading. For a few summers at the library in my little town, you could go in once a month and talk to a librarian about the books you'd read, and then you'd get something—a coupon for a shake at the Polar King, maybe, or one for a donut at Happy Days Market—for reading over the summer.

My first grade teacher, Mr. Averett, was a librarian there one of the summers, and that is my memory: the papery smell of the library and how cool it was after the heat of riding my bike there; the relief of taking off my full-of-books backpack and then sitting together with a tall stack to talk about. He always stopped me after three or four because of course, I'd read too many to talk about them all.

I read a lot of books.

I wish I'd kept a list of the books I read as a kid, because most of them have faded into general reading memories. But a few stick out and will never be forgotten, so long as I have a memory, and one of my favorites was The Golden Name Day ​by Jennie Lindquist. Golden name day coverIt tells the story of Nancy, who comes to the country to live with the Bensons when her mother is ill and in the hospital. Grandma and Grandpa Benson, who emigrated to America from Sweden many years ago, take care of Nancy, making her a part of their lives with their extended family. They share their animals (Karl the Twelfth and Whoa Emma!, both horses, and Oscar the dog and Ciciley Ann Waterspout the cat), wallpaper her bedroom with little yellow roses, and teach her about their Swedish traditions.

The one Nancy falls in love with is the Swedish Name Day.

Every day in the Swedish Almanac has a day associated with it. On a Swedish name day, the honoree bakes a cake, and then there is a party with friends and family. There are some surprises or gifts, too, and singing of traditional Swedish folk songs. Grandma's name day is just a few days after Nancy arrives, and she is enchanted by this idea. She decides immediately that she wants to find out when her name day is—except "Nancy" isn't a Swedish name. How her new friends and family try to come up with different ways to give her a name day, but none of them quite work. The name-day problem and how the solution is found is the book's main plot line.

But it is such a delightful story.

Truly a girl book, I have to say, even though Nancy becomes friends with a boy named Alex. It is a story about a girl from the city discovering what living in the country is like, and what it feels like to be an only child but suddenly be included in a family. It is about Grandma's unconditional love for Nancy (even when she is being difficult). It is about flowers, and friendship, and family traditions and history. It's also about reading and how stories influence our choices.

I've sort-of wanted to reread this for ages. "Sort of" because I was worried. It is out of print (even though it was a 1956 Newbery Honor book), so I wasn't sure: what if there was something in it that I hadn't noticed as a child but that would make it offensive to me as an adult? Or what if it just wasn't as good as I remembered? Plus, since it is out of print, it seemed impossible to get a hold of a copy without spending a bunch of money.

But then I had the brilliant idea of using inter-library loan. (I know! It only took me seven years of being a librarian to think of this.) One of my library friends processed my request and voila: a few days later, I had my hands on a copy. It was perfect: just like I remembered, with the same end papers as my childhood library's copy and the same cover (there is also a red cover, but red is entirely the wrong color for this book).

And rereading it was not disappointing.

Revisiting childhood favorites is sort of strange for me. I love re-discovering the details I'd forgotten, but I also am surprised by how certain parts of the books have influenced me. Rereading The Golden Name Day reminded me of what a flighty, flower-loving, prone-to-looking-for-fairies-in-the-morning-glories kind of little girl I was. I wanted to live inside of Nancy's world, which is grey when she arrives but slowly changes color, via flowers, as the spring progresses. Reading about a girl who was so influenced by flowers reinforced my love of flowers, and I think there is a tiny bit of Nancy and her adventures in my yard. But the flowers weren't the only thing. The Golden Notebook introduced me to several of the tropes that still influence my life:

  • A love of pretty fabric. Even though there's not any quilting that happens in the story, Nancy does have a pretty quilt, made by Grandma, in her room, and then there is the violet fabric in Wanda's sewing box. Just a hint...but I already loved fabric so reading about it made me feel like I wasn't the only one.
  • Old treasures. Nancy finds an old, worn-out book in a box in an attic one day. Ever after reading that, I wished for an attic with boxes I could search through. I loved snooping and sifting through old stuff when I was a kid.
  • Poetry. The book Nancy finds is a poetry anthology. She reads Nashe's "Spring, the Sweet Spring" and is never the same. I don't remember when I discovered poetry, but not many children's books mentioned poems. Reading about Nancy reading poems helped me to be ready to read poems.
  • Family history. Nancy has a conversation with Aunt Martha when she realizes that Grandma actually left​ Sweden, a place she loved, to come to America. She looks around and realizes that without Grandma's choices, she couldn't have the experiences she was having. Those ties to places where my ancestors lived—England, Scotland, Ireland, mostly, but I do have one line from Sweden—tug at me. They are the places I most want to visit, partly because they are not here. Nancy's moment of realizing that Grandmother's life was completely different before she came to America was a little ah-ha moment for me, too, when I read it as a kid.

 I loved rereading this, and am now on a hunt to find my own copy.

 In homage to how I used to read when I was a kid—entire afternoons spent outside on a comfy chair—I read the book outside. Golden name day reading
Of course, I didn't ever have entire afternoons, but I did sit out in my backyard, reading in the sunshine, quite often. In fact, I confess to rereading it several times before the ILL due date came up. It added a series of peaceful, introspective, happy moments to my summer.

Have you ever heard of The Golden Name Day?​ Or do you remember a book from your childhood that you'd like to own a copy of?


Book Note: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

​One day during the late autumn when I was 16, I was hanging out on the couch and watching MTV (which is what I did instead of going to school), and a piece came on about the new album by The Bangles, Everything.​ I started paying attention because even then I couldn't get enough music by women (even though at that point i was deeply entrenched in my Depeche Mode fangirlyness) and I'd very recently bought my own copy (a cassette tape which yes, I confess to still owning; it's in my box o' tapes in the closet under the stairs). At one point, the VJ (I'm pretty sure it was Martha Quinn, but I could be mixing up memories; I watched a lot of MTV back then, when it was good) started talking about the song "Bell Jar," which I already loved because it had the line "she dresses in black because sorrow is a magnet." I just didn't really know what it was talking about. (Other than the obvious, which is suicide.) Who was the girl, why was she one of the world's seven wonders, what was a bell jar anyway?

The VJ (let's just go ahead with my Martha Quinn image) asked the band about the song, and Vicki Peterson explained. (At least, I'm pretty sure it was Vicki. It definitely wasn't Susanna Hoffs, who sort of annoyed me.) The song was a tribute to the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who had committed suicide, I learned, in 1963.

Maybe because there was also sadness hidden in my bizareness, I was immediately intrigued. I checked out The Bell Jar (Plath's novel) and Ariel (her second book of poetry and the one she is known for). I didn't understand the poems, although the last two stanzas from "Edge" lodged themselves irrevocably in my memory ("The moon has nothing to be sad about/Staring from her hood of bone.//She is used to this sort of thing./ Her blacks crackle and drag.") But the novel—I read it straight through, two times, before returning it, and it, too, lodged itself into my psyche.

Reading The Bell Jar at sixteen just when I was transitioning into my life's darkest period? Totally changed everything for me.

I read everything I could find by her after that, into my twenties. Which means I've read her short story collection, her children's book The Bed Book (acquired through an interlibrary loan when I was in college, as it is long out of print, sadly enough), her journals and her letters. Plus various books about Plath and her works. I understand her poetry better now and tend to re-read The Bell Jar every five years or so.

I love other writers, but Plath holds a special place in my heart. (And yes, before you point it out or even really think it: I am aware that this a totally cliched part of my life. Depressed, wears-all-black, poetry-loving teenage girl adores Sylvia Plath. I know. It's a weakness. But it's also undeniable that her writing changed me.)

BelzharAll of which is a super-long explanation for why I was excited to read Meg Wolitzer's YA novel, Belzhar. I enjoyed (but never finished) her novel The Interestings​, but what grabbed my attention was its connection to Sylvia Plath. It tells the story of Jam Gallahue, ordinary (and maybe slightly boring) 16-year-old who has a short but intense relationship with a foreign exchange student from England, Reeve Maxfield. Short because 41 days in, he dies. This sends Jam into a tailspin that eventually lands her at The Wooden Barn, a private school for teenagers suffering from emotional difficulties.

One of Jam's classes is Special Topics in English, which only a few students each year are allowed to take. She didn't request it and isn't sure why she is enrolled. There are only four other students, and this semester they will focus exclusively on one writer: Sylvia Plath.

Special Topics in English is a sort of a legendary class at The Wooden Barn. All of the students who take it grow extraordinarily close, and even though they won't tell the other students how or why, they talk about how it changed their lives. Jam is reluctant, but as she's out of places to start over, goes to class anyway.

How and why it changes her life—a slightly magical and mysterious process—is why you read the book.

I want to give this a glowing review. And I did love some of it, especially the overarching concept. Especially watching Jam as she transforms and finds her footing again. Part of the process of healing is being forced to re-experience what really happened to her, and what that was surprised me. It made me look back at my own experiences and wonder how much perception influenced them. I loved the mini-rant that Wolitzer, channeling Jam's voice, takes about the decline of studying English and the focus on STEM. I loved the setting (boarding schools always get me).

But what disappointed me is that they don't really ever talk much about Plath. There's an excerpt from "Mad Girl's Love Song" and some references to The Bell Jar...but not enough. Maybe Wolitzer was trying to avoid that teenager-girl-loves-Plath cliche by not bring up Plath's actual work, but then why bother including Plath anyway? Without some specific pieces of her writing, the fact that they're studying Plath almost doesn't matter to the story, aside from some general thematic connections. The poem is an obvious choice, but there are so many other snippets that could add depth. How, for example, can such a book not reference "the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am."

Of course, it could just be me and my historical connections to Sylvia Plath. Maybe if you were never a Plath fangirl, it won't be a thing for you. I just...I really wanted to see the characters truly interacting with her writing, because I think it is powerful and life changing; I think there are reasons that teenagers of a certain persuasion are drawn to her. Partly it is the drama and darkness of the story. But that would eventually lose its appeal if the writing didn't also resonate. So to include almost none of it in a book about how studying Sylvia Plath (among other things) changes a character? Well, it's very nearly obscene to me.

Ridiculous at the very least. Or just not very brave. (Because it does take a certain kind of courage to include lots of poetry in a YA novel.)

The New York Times says that Belzhar "celebrates the sacred, transcendent power of reading and writing." It does​ do that, and that is its transcending grace. But I couldn't love it. It disappointed me by feeling cowardly. 


Reading Memories: Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

In the summer when I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was to sit on the comfy lounge chair on our shady patio, reading books and eating snacks. (I’m sure I snacked on other things, but my clearest memory is of eating peaches while I read.) In the summer we’d have our gymnastics lessons early in the morning, and then we’d sometimes go on a hot, hot one-mile run around the grassy track at a nearby school. So I’d be hot, and tired, but fresh from the shower and feeling like I had accomplished something.

Sitting in a comfy spot with a book and something delicious to snack on, without any of the nagging guilt or “you should be doing something productive” feelings that adulthood brings, is one of the true but fleeting joys of childhood.

During those blissful summer afternoons, I would read my book. But sometimes I’d daydream, too. Imagining forward, when I would be the grown up, and I’d have my own daughters, and I’d know exactly what books to check out from the library for them. They seemed so entirely real to me, those future moments with future people. The conversations we’d have over books, or the times we’d spend just sitting together, reading. I could very nearly see their faces, and so one of the things I looked forward to the most about being a mom was sharing books.

Except, as usually happens, life didn’t give me exactly what I imagined.

I still have shared books with all of my kids. And we have had those moments of sitting together and reading. But my kids’ relationships with books and reading are entirely different than mine. They don’t need books like I did (like I continue to do) and they aren’t always reading. Haley’s reading tastes have always been different from mine, too, so we never bonded over Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie like I thought we would. (We bonded over different books instead.) At first this was hard for me, but as my kids got older and became more and more themselves, I started learning they are, each of them, who they are, not just smaller copies of myself, and that they need different things from the world, and that is OK.

A couple of years ago, my library friend Julie went to England, and I asked her to buy me a copy of Noel Streatfeild’s book Circus Shoes.  20150619_234215-1All of the other books in that series—one I read many, many times during those summer afternoons—are still in print in America, except Circus Shoes. She brought it to me, and then I waited for the perfect time to read it. That time came in February, when my mom was in the hospital and then long-term rehab after her spinal fusion surgery. The thing I’ve learned about taking care of someone in the hospital is that a book is an absolute necessity, as there are a lot of empty hours to fill. But the type of book is equally important. It has to be what I think of as “comfort reading”—books you’ve read before and so know the story, and the characters are liked old friends, and their adventures don’t give you any anxiety because you already know how they will turn out (a thing that isn’t true with the “adventure” you’re having the hospital).

So I took my copy of Circus Shoes, a book I hadn’t read since I was ten years old, and read it while I was with her. I read most of it at the hospital, in fact. I was a little bit worried that the story wouldn’t hold up to my memory of it…but it did. Especially I was glad to read again Santa’s transformation from sheltered girl to a tumbler, and how she fails to practice but then is motivated to improve on her own. I fell right into the story, even though I could feel that reading it at 43 was definitely different than reading it at 10. But that was part of the pleasure of it—a sort of rediscovering of how I used to feel, a little time travel via book.

I read most of the book at the hospital with my mom, but I finished it one night, late, in my living room with everyone else at home but asleep. When I closed it, I thought of myself all those years ago, reading alone on the patio and imagining my future kids reading the same book. How real those future daughters felt to me! It was one of my first instances of feeling just the very edge of how time seems to fold in on itself, sometimes. And I realized with a start: it wasn’t my future kids who I would connect with over those books I loved. It was me. My adult self, looking back at the kid I used to be. And just for a second, I was filled with a feeling I don’t have a name for, a sort of string-like feeling, like the thread on a strand of pearls, and that Amy reading so long ago was just along the thread that connected me to the current Amy reading.

Which sounds a little bit crazy, written like that. But It brought me such peace—like I took a deep breath for the first time in more than thirty years. Like I found a missing part of myself.


Reading Memories: The Book of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon

(I have been wanting to add a new category to my blog for awhile now. Reading Memories will be posts about books I didn't read recently but am still thinking about.)

I read an article the other day about how, when you are writing a novel, you should think about your audience and tailor your writing according to what that audience generally expects. I was frustrated by this article, because it made some fairly sweeping generalizations (for example, suggesting that women in their 40s are drawn to mysteries, and I'd rather poke my eyes out than read most mysteries), but it did make me think: 

What kind of reader am I the audience for?

While I am not the most snooty of readers, I do have my own kinds of book snobbery (as has already been established here!). Just like my tastes in music are a little bit strange, I like offbeat books. Collections of essays, books with tidbits of story that eventually connect (or don’t), even, yes, poetry. I like novels that stretch me outside of my current ways of thinking. I like books with plots that surprise, characters who change or learn, and writing that makes me stop and think ahhh, that is beautiful. I will read any genre, so long as the book expands something for me.

In other words, most of the books I love are not destined to be best sellers, and let's face it: that is probably the kind of book I am likely to write. Expanding books aren't always appreciated in droves.

Aleksandar Hemon's collection of long essays, The Book of My Lives, is an expanding book for me.

I read it two years ago, right after it came out and I discovered it on our New Book display the library. Read it, and fell in love, but didn't ever write about it because, I think, I needed to let it age a bit. Today I thought about it, then found it and put on my display shelf. It'll sit there for a while, until someone brave takes a chance on a book with a blue alien on the cover. Book of my lives

Most of the essays are about Hemon's younger life in Sarajevo, his response to the war in Bosnia, and his experiences as an immigrant to America. These were moving and memorable to me because it that is not a part of the world I am very familiar with, and yet I have a clear picture of it in my mind, even two years after reading this. The way he writes about Radovan Karadzic (the man responsible for the killing of thousands of Bosnians) was startling and illuminating, a man turned into a killing machine by way of a book.

When he moves to America, he is able to find (after much walking) a sort of "geography of the soul," or at the very least a city he never wants to leave. (His "Incomplete, Random List" for why made me wonder if I could write something similar about my own little town.)

Perhaps because his way of thinking and his reactions are similar to mine, I responded with a sort of ache of familiarity to his experiences, even if we lived in entirely different settings. In his twenties, for example, when he was feeling anxious or depressed, he would retreat to his parents' cabin in the mountains. He writes that he experienced this malady as "a drought of thought and language. The purpose of going to the mountain was to replenish my mind, to reboot the language apparatus." Depression as drought is not a connection I have drawn for myself, but it feels entirely right, and yes: the mountains replenish many things for me, including my mind.

One of the book's reviewers, Colum McCann, says that the writing here fulfills a function of storytelling: "to get to the essence of that which might eventually break our hearts." Nowhere is this more true than the final essay in the book, "The Aquarium," which is about his infant daughter Isabel, who has an incurable brain tumor. The whole experience is related in a language that is simultaneously stiff (that tone you use when you are trying to speak around the lump in your throat) and moving (yet never sentimental). At the end, Hemon writes something I will never forget:

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling, that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel's suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. The only result of her suffering that matters is her death. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody. And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there has never been a place better for her than Teri's breast, Ella's side, or my chest...Isabel's indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.

When I read that, I thought about my mother-in-law's death, and about how angry I still am over it. Maybe she is needed where she is at. But she was also needed here. Kaleb needed her. Kendell needed her, in ways he maybe couldn't see but I could. I don't think I would have acknowledged that anger without reading that paragraph in Hemon's book.

Maybe I thought of this book today because my friend's husband died last week. One of those deaths where you have to decide: how much medical intervention do we want to put this body through? I have been thinking about what to say to her. "I'm sorry" hardly seems like enough, but I want to say—how sitting with my dad as he died was one of my life's most difficult and yet sacred experiences, and how deciding to stop with medical treatments that do nothing but prolong misery still feels akin to murder. (Even though it isn't.) I don't know how to say that to her, though, because it is a knowledge I gained from my dad's death. Maybe that same knowledge is harder to find with your husband. "There has never been a better place for her," and yet, people still die. Our bodies still fail us and the rest of us stay here, for awhile, surviving. But always with that new, dreadful organ.

This is a book that will never be a bestseller. It is too full of hard truths and lacks easy platitudes. Some sorrows you never recover from, and we are all a survivor of something. But he is wrong in his idea that his daughter's suffering did nothing for the world. It is a small thing that it did—the death and his willingness to write about it—and so is only cold comfort. But he brought to me a lingering sort of shared knowledge. We try to make peace with death with religious imagery, and while I believe some things that he does not, I think there is still something to be said for saying: no, I can't find peace with that idea because that person should, by every right thing in the world, still be with me. However they go—war or the ravages of an insane leader or old age or inexplicable illness—even if a death is a blessing in the end, it is still, even as we witness it, unimaginable.