Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

It’s rare the people talk about the stage of life in which they exchange roles with their parents. This is surprising given how common it is for people to live into their eighties, nineties, or even hit the 100 year mark. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast shares the experiences she had in her parents’ last years in her inimitable style. Chast’s story is comic and sad and frightening and very, very human.

Even when they were younger, Chast’s parents were no picnic. Her father, George, was extremely anxious, becoming more so as he began to suffer from senile dementia. Caring for him meant calming him down, helping him through his confusion, and coping with his constant talking about everything that popped into his head. Her mother, Elizabeth, was an angry woman who would deliver “a blast from Chast” whenever someone had infuriated her. Elizabeth and George were completely co-dependent, Chast remarks at one point before growing angry at the pair of them for thinking it was a compliment.

Chast moved out of the family apartment in the 1970s, never planning to go back. She didn’t go back until September 2001, a few days before the Towers were hit. The state of the apartment made it clear that her parents were in decline. Until the very last years of their lives, George and Elizabeth were stubbornly independent. They only grudgingly conceded to Chast and only gave in step by step to Meals on Wheels, then an assisted living facility known as The Place, then to the nursing home.

Throughout those last years, Chast struggles with her sense of duty and the financial burdens and the fact that her parents drive her “bats.” The three of them had never had the best relationship, so what does a daughter who wants to do the right thing do? How much does she owe them? And what happens when those parents really want to be left alone instead of being cared for by nurses and doctors and other hired caretakers because they’re no longer well enough to be independent? Any answers to those questions would be platitudes or outright lies. Chast wisely does not even try to answer them for us. Seeing her struggles, however, raises important questions that everyone with aging parents needs to think about. (More ominously, it raises questions for people with children to consider.)

I’m glad Chast wrote and illustrated this book. Its immediacy and emotional honesty filled me with empathy for her. It’s rare to read something so honest; Chast does not hide her own anger and anxiety and turmoil no matter how she might be judged by readers.

I am really looking forward to discussing this book with the group.

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Untitled-3
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters

I probably should have warned my book group about Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, a short story collection by Bonnie Jo Campbell, when we picked it last month. It’s been very well reviewed and the content of the book rings a lot of our bells: women’s issues, family relationships, profound psychology, etc. But when we picked it, I remembered hearing Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot describing it in her mostly positive review as “every bad thing that can happen to women” (as best I can recall).

“Playhouse.” Our protagonist isn’t sure what happened to her at last night’s party. She remembers getting drunk and arguing with a few people, but that’s it until she goes to help her brother fix her niece’s playhouse. He tells her about two men and some pictures. Her brother keeps downplaying what must have happened as our protagonist grows more and more alarmed and disturbed. There’s a particularly good metaphor—a physical wound that hurts the protagonist but that no one except the specialists see—that makes this story the perfect rebuttal to, “What’s the big deal?” and “Why didn’t you tell them to stop?”

“Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.” This story is all internal monologue. Our protagonist has been rendered mute by a stroke. Her daughter grudgingly cares for her as she reflects on her hard, hard life. Unlike Susanna in “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree” later in the collection, this protagonist’s life was full of hard work and the misery of bad (sometimes abusive) relationships with men. If only her daughter could hear her words as our protagonist tries to explain why she did the things she did. Our protagonist thinks:

All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand and water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes. (91*)

The women—battered and worn—live on after the men die. Maybe that’s all the reward women like our protagonist can hope for: a little more life.

“Blood Work, 1999.” The cliche tells us that the more we give, the more we get. For Marika, the more she gives, the more she just keeps giving. Her family is annoyed with her for giving away her inheritance to charities. They just don’t understand why she gives without getting any other reward than warm fuzzies. We don’t often see stories about saints. We could stand to see a few more.

“The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.” I adored this story. Unlike many of the others in this collection, the protagonist Susanna is not broken. I’m glad it was the last story in the collection because I needed to read it after all the misery that came before. Susanna is a tough, hard-working woman in her 60s. For most people, one’s 60s are when one slows down and turns over work to younger people. But Susanna has grandchildren to watch, a baby donkey to nurse, a broken tractor and central heating system, and just too much to do. But she carries on because she wants to. She could kick out the grandchildren and get rid of the donkey. She could sell the farm. But she doesn’t. She worked for it and gets to keep her patch of earth and her family. And, as a bonus, she meets a man who loves and admires her for all of this.

That said, I am glad I read it. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s discussion. I do wonder if I’m the best audience for this book. This is a book that’s going to appeal to women, because it talks about our struggles. But I feel it needs to be read by men who don’t understand. Some of the stories, “Playhouse” in particular, are all about how women are discounted when we try to speak up. I recall a few months ago, when I spoke up about some of our female student workers being flirted with by male student who wouldn’t leave, my male colleagues didn’t see what the big deal was. It took some explaining to make them see the problem. I was angry and frustrated with them. How could they not see what I was trying to show them? If I had had Bonnie Jo Campbell in my arsenal, I would have made them read a few of the stories.

In summary, the stories in this collection are hard to read. They’re supposed to be. They’ll linger in my brain for a long time as I try to puzzle out all their layers of meaning. I highly recommend Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

* Quotes are from the 2015 kindle edition by W.W. Norton & Co.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to male readers who don’t see what women cope with.

The Shining, by Stephen King

The Shining
The Shining

Most of the time, I read the book before I see the movie. (If I see the movie at all, that is.) This time, I saw the 1980 movie version of The Shining before I read the 1977 novel by Stephen King. The biggest reason I read the book first is so that I can create version of the characters in my head before a movie puts a concrete interpretation there. Because I’ve already seen the movie, I couldn’t help but picture Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Cruthers, and that kid with the bowl cut acting out a slightly different version of events as I read. I kept waiting for the “Here’s Johnny!” moment even though I know Nicholson ad-libbed it. Because the film and the book are so similar (apart from the endings), it was hard to not compare the two. Both versions creeped me right the hell out. They succeeded there. But the endings? It’s hard to decide which is more satisfying. At this point, I can’t choose which version I prefer.

The plot of The Shining is simple enough to summarize. Jack Torrance, writer, recovering alcoholic, and very angry man, takes a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. The road to the Overlook closes during the winter, but the company that runs it needs someone to make sure the place survives the snow and the wind. For a writer and a recovering drinker, five months in a hotel with no alcohol and no way to get any is a great gig. He can finish his play. He can build new sober habits. His wife, Wendy, isn’t too keen but she’s willing to go along. Their son, Danny, is even less keen. He’s been having dreams about terrible things happening at the Overlook. Danny has what is later called the shine. He knows what people are feeling and thinking. Sometimes, he knows when things happen or will happen to people. The Overlook scares him, but he doesn’t have much choice about where he goes, being five years old.

The Overlook has a sordid, bloody history. Something “lives” there. It goes to work on Jack and Danny as soon as the Torrance family moves in and everyone else moves out. Things are good at first. Jack makes a breakthrough with his play. Danny learns to avoid bad spots. Wendy worries, but she’s a worrier. Nothing, at first, is objectively wrong. That changes when Jack gets interested in the hotel’s history. For a while, the novel treads the line between the supernatural and the more spectacular varieties of mental illness. Then all three start to get flashes of the hotel’s history—the suicides, the murders, the things that have carried on haunting the place—that can’t be explained away as hallucinations or tricks of the light.

What interested me most about this book wasn’t Danny; it was Jack. Jack is the kind of man who never takes responsibility for his actions. It’s the booze that makes him lose control of his temper. It was that kid who lost him his job at the prep academy. It was his father who made him the way he was. At the Overlook, Jack starts to blame his inability to control his temper on Wendy. The book is peppered with Jack’s attempts to put the blame on everyone around him. This would be bad enough, but it makes him susceptible to the hotel’s flattery and promises. Many sections in The Shining are told as streams-of-consciousness, so we’re in Jack’s head while it churns up his anger, guilt, and sense of entitlement. Even without Danny’s dreams, it isn’t hard to tell that while five months alone might be a good idea for Jack, it’s a terrible idea for anyone locked up with him.

The Shining is a hefty story at nearly 500 pages, but it didn’t feel like almost 500 pages when I read it. The chapters flew by. Even though I knew, roughly, what was going to happen, King’s prose completely captured my attention and it was hard to tear myself away when I had to go teach a couple of library workshops this morning. Early Stephen King is hard to beat for gripping, terrifying reads. I’m really glad my book club chose this for our November read.

All that said, I really want to talk about the endings of the book and the movie. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading here.

 

SPOILER ALERT

The ending of the original story of The Shining is spectacular, but not as iconic as the ending of Kubrick’s film, with the image of Nicholson’s pissed off frozen face. In King’s version, Jack has lost control of himself to the hotel and its ghosts. He’s beaten his wife. Then chases his son all over the hotel, intending to beat the boy to death. But when the moment comes, Jack fights through the hotel’s influence and saves his son. Jack gets his redemption. There’s no redemption in the film version. Kubrick’s ending is one of triumph over evil. King’s ending is more complex. For that reason, I might like the original ending a little bit more than the film ending.

The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul
The Underground Girls of Kabul

Reading Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul was a lot like reading Sophie’s Choice or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s not a lot of similarity between the three books, content- or style-wise. Sophie’s Choice and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are fiction; The Underground Girls of Kabul is based on the author’s experiences in Afghanistan and numerous interviews with Afghani women. What the reading experiences have in common is that they all made me profoundly, intensely angry. The Underground Girls of Kabul joins my very short list of books that have made me so incandescently furious that I wanted to hurl them across the room.

And this is precisely how any reader of this book ought to feel.

The “underground girls” of the book are the bacha posh—girls who are raised as boys for various reasons. Some parents choose to raise a girl as a boy to raise their odds of having an actual boy as their next child. Other parents need a boy to help work for family businesses or to help raise their reputation in their communities. Boys are so important to Afghan culture that bacha posh—as long as they can pass—are completely accepted. However, once a girl hits puberty, she must let her hair grow and put on dresses and headscarves and become a woman.

Jenny Nordberg spent years interviewing women and men and adolescents and bacha posh, investigating gender roles in post-Taliban Kabul and Afghanistan. Early in The Underground Girls of Kabul, Nordberg describes the difference between boys and girls thusly:

One kind of child is born with the promise of ownership and a world waiting outside. The other is born with a single asset, which must be strictly curtailed and controlled: the ability to one day give birth to sons of her own. She, like her mother before her, has arrived in what the Untied Nations calls the worst place to be born. And the most dangerous place in which to be a woman. (40*)

For a few years, the bacha posh get to take advantage of all the freedoms granted to males. Their sisters, however, learn to be quiet, to hide their bodies, to be still, to be perfect Afghan women. In a sense, the bacha posh are the luckiest girls in the country, at least until they have to turn back into females.

After the American-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and (temporarily) displaced the Taliban, women were able to regain some rights. But most of the gains were on paper only. Nordberg shows us how any changes to Afghan womens’ lives run into the long standing traditions that prevent them from being equals with men. Patronizing seminars for about empowerment (17) are pointless, Nordberg shows us, until every member of Afghan society learns that women not the weaker, stupider sex. As Nordberg writes, “Hope rests with these men [fathers and husbands], who control what happens to their daughters” (303). It’s galling, deeply galling, to admit, but Nordberg is right. Currently, any attempts to empower women are viewed as “a stand against men” (304). Power is viewed as a zero-sum gain. If women are to have more power and rights, who will have their power and rights taken away? And, as one of Nordberg’s interviewees, Azita, points out:

the burkas, and any other ways of hiding, will disappear only once there is safety and rule of law in Afghanistan. Until then, nothing much will happen in terms of easing harsh social codes and opening up opportunities for women. Because most of all, and first of all, there needs to be peace. (302)

The fact that Westerners and their money are leaving Afghanistan in droves means that peace and prosperity are not likely to arrive any time soon. Worse, as Norwegian political scientist Torunn Wimpelmann comments, “womens’ rights have increasingly become viewed as an elite and Western-backed issue by many in Afghanistan” (267).

Nordberg is skilled at showing us the limited, dangerous lives of Afghan women without making them appear pitiful or patronizing them. Her narrative follows a few particular women and their families. Azita is a politician from a remote province. Her youngest daughter is bacha posh and making the most of it. Through her, we see the advances and retreats in women’s rights. Nordberg introduces us to Zahra, a bacha posh who has reached the point when she must transform herself back into a female and is resisting every step. We also meet Shukria and Nader/Nadia, adult bacha posh. Shukria transitions back to a woman but always felt like an outsider and a failure as a women. Nader refuses to become a woman. She found a way to stay male and is helping other bacha posh fight to stay officially male.

Gender, Nordberg is careful to point out, is different in Afghanistan. In the West, we are coming to terms with the fact that gender is not tied to sexuality. Gender is a spectrum and is based primarily on culture. Nordberg summarizes the existing science by writing, “What makes a person and a personality is in fact a combination of nature and nurture, in the brain’s development in the womb and life experiences that follow” (178). There’s no reason to say that there are certain traits that are female or male, or that there’s a “natural” way of being a man or a woman; it’s all based on what a society expects of men and women. For the bacha posh, learning to be male or female was based on observation. For example, Nordberg writes of one former bacha posh:

By observing and imitating women’s behavior, Shukria now has arrived at very distinct ideas of the differences in male and female behavior.

“I had to change my thoughts and everything inside my mind,” is how she puts it. (175)

There’s nothing inherent about gender.

I am profoundly lucky. Biologically, I am female. I identify as a heterosexual cis woman. But the difference between me and women in Afghanistan is that I was born in the West. More importantly, I was born in the later quarter of the twentieth century, after generations of women reshaped society enough that I have equal legal rights to males in my country. (Social, it’s not as clear cut, but that’s another rant.) I never had to disguise myself to get an education. I wasn’t told what I had to wear or how to speak or act. My parents would never sell me in marriage to a man I didn’t know. I have the freedom to “identify” as a particular gender instead of being told what I am based on my anatomy. The girls in my family will never go through that Afghan women have to. We are lucky. I don’t know how the women and bacha posh in Nordberg’s book carry on, without giving in completely in to despair or rage.

Even though this wasn’t a pleasant read by any means, I think it’s an important book that should be widely read and discussed. The women of Afghanistan and women in similar societies should not be forgotten as Westerners leave these countries. Strange though it may sound, Nordberg’s book has a small, glimmering thread of hope. The bacha posh, though they’ve been around for centuries, are a sign of resistance. A society and a culture can change, given incentive and will.

As I read The Underground Girls of Kabul, I seethed. I kept myself awake at nights imagining what I would say to someone who believed that women were “natually” less than men. I’ve underlined so many passages from the book that I want to bring up with my book group that I don’t know how we’ll get to them all.


*Quotes are from the 2014 kindle edition by Crown Publishers.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers suffering from ennui or apathy. Contraindications: Do not recommend to Men’s Rights Activists.

The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright

The Rent Collector
The Rent Collector

Camron Wright’s uneven tale of redemption and education, The Rent Collector, is set in the very real garbage dump of Stung Meanchay, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, eke out a living picking recyclables out of the garbage. Most of their money goes to pay the rent for their shack on the borders of the dump. Their son is constantly ill and the family often have to use their rent money to pay for medicine. But everything changes on the day the rent collector threatens them with eviction when Sang Ly finds a children’s book among the trash.

The book leads to a bargain between Sang Ly and the rent collector, Sopeap Sin. In exchange for the book, Sopeap Sin will teach Sang Ly how to read. Sang Ly believes that education (via reading) will help the family find a way out of Stung Meanchay. The grouchy drunk Sopeap reluctantly agrees, because the book has sentimental value for her. Over a few short chapters, a rough friendship developed between the renter and the landlady.

While there are some beautiful moments towards the end of The Rent Collector, the book did not work for me. Sang Ly’s character wavers between illiterate naif and precocious savant. Most of the exposition sounds like it comes straight out of a journalistic exposé. If my book club hadn’t picked this book for this month, I would have dropped it within twenty pages.

The only character in The Rent Collector that rang true to me was Sopeap Sin, former literature professor/Khmer Rouge victim/rent collector. She’s the only character with any depth. She’s prickly and profound by turns. She’s haunted by what she had to do to survive the Khmer Rouge, to the point where she won’t pursue further treatment for her cancer. (There are further revelations about Sopeap Sin’s attempts to atone at the end of The Rent Collector.)

Unfortunately, Sopeap Sin is not the narrator and we don’t see enough of her to off-set the bland goodness of Sang Ly and Ki Lim or the barely described misery of life in Stung Meanchay. With the exception of the eponymous rent collector, this book was shallow as a slick of oil on a puddle.

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

13152194Once again, the Book Group has gotten me to read something that I would never have picked up for myself. I had heard great things about Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things from the folks at BookRiot, but I classified the book as “inspirational” and put it on the Nope List. I’m not sure why I have such an aversion to inspirational books. Perhaps it’s because so often the inspiration comes from religion or woo or a gluten-free diet and feels like hypocrisy. The Book Group picked Tiny Beautiful Things because it was short. The last two books we’ve read (Unbroken and Americanah) were up around 500 pages. Another door stop was just too much. So, one member of the group suggested Tiny Beautiful Things and because it was less than 400 pages and because we’d collectively heard good things about it, we picked it for our March book.

I’ve been putting off reading it until today. (The Book Group meets tomorrow.) I shouldn’t have done so. There’s so much raw emotion in Tiny Beautiful Things that I think it should be read in small doses so as not to overwhelm. This book has its genesis on The Rumpus. Dear Sugar is the site’s advice column. Unlike most advice columnists I know or have heard of, Cheryl Strayed’s Sugar offers much of her own life story as advice to the people who write to her. In Tiny Beautiful Things, people seek advice from Sugar about the possibility of leaving spouses, forgiving themselves and others, dealing with grief and anger and jealous, and a raft of other very human problems. Sugar’s advice is true in a way I’ve never seen before in an advice column.

The problems people send to Sugar are real problems—though there are examples in here of people who need to be smacked upside the head to realize that they’re being idiots. In one letter to a advice seeker, Sugar writes:

“To be Sugar is at times a haunting thing. It’s fun and it’s funny; it’s intriguing and interesting, but every now and then one of the questions I get seeps its way into my mind in the same way characters or scenes or situations in other sorts of writing I do seep into my my mind and I am haunted by it. I can’t let go.” (22-23*)

I don’t know how Strayed copes with all the pain that people bring to her. She offers sympathy and love to these strangers that astonished and moved me. In the foreword by Steven Almond, he writes that Sugar offers her readers “radical empathy” (6).

What separates Sugar from other advice columnists, I think, is her big heart and the fact that Strayed herself has lived such a screwed up life. It gives her an authority that I’ve never associated with people like Dear Abby, who seem to be dispensing their advice from above the fray of life. In another of her letters, Sugar writes that “[Life is] a roiling stew of fear and need and desire and love and the hunger to be loved” (107). Sugar offers ethical and honest advice and encourages her readers to be ethical and honest themselves, but there is a thread throughout the advice collected here that humans are humans. We screw up and hurt people and ourselves. We make bad decisions. But Sugar repeatedly points out that there’s always hope for the future. People can change, forgive themselves, and move forward with their lives.

I confess that I’m curious about Sugar’s success rate. Her advice often feels like a refreshing outsider perspective on problems that the people embroiled in the situation can’t provide for themselves. I wish that Tiny Beautiful Things had included a few follow-up letters. But then, I wish that I could see follow-up letters from Captain Awkward with their scripts for dealing with this or that situation. (On the flip side, I really don’t want to see the follow-up to the advice provided on thatbadadvice.tumblr.com.) Do people really follow the advice given by Sugar and other advice columnists? Can they see their way out of their messy problems and learn from an outsider’s perspective? After reading Tiny Beautiful Things, and seeing the generous and often wise advice Sugar gives, I hope so.

All this said, I don’t know that I can read another book like Tiny Beautiful Things. I feel wrung out by the experience. I’m not emotionally evolved enough to take that much raw emotion.


* Quotes are from the 2012 trade paperback edition by Vintage.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

15796700Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is so full of ideas it’s hard to know where to start. The story touches on race, identity, immigration, culture, language, money, class, prejudice, family, disappointment, and homecoming. Our two protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, are our eyes in Lagos, London, and middle Atlantic America. They are perpetually outsiders. They are the only ones who understand each other. It may seem strange (or frustrating) that Ifemelu and Obinze are separated for much of the novel, but in the maelstrom of all the other topics, Americanah is also their love story.

Ifemelu’s flaw (as other characters see it) is her willingness to speak the truth as she sees it. Her tongue is always getting her in trouble, in Nigeria and in America. She and Obinze meet in high school. They have an instant intellectual and physical connection, but they take it slow. They stick together through to university. The true test of their relationship comes when Ifemelu gets a visa to travel to the United States for graduate school. Obinze gets rejected again and again. After a traumatic experience trying to earn money under the table, Ifemelu stops talking to Obinze and it all falls apart. Obinze gets a temporary visa to go to London. They grow further apart as Obinze struggles as an illegal immigrant and Ifemelu strives for legitimacy and independence.

Adichie frames the first two thirds of Americanah in flashbacks as Ifemelu has her hair braided one afternoon in Trenton, New Jersey. As she whiles away the hours, we learn more about her relationship with Obinze, her fifteen years in America, her success as a blogger writing about race. Obinze gets his turn to reflect, too, until we are caught up on their lives apart. Ifemelu returns to Lagos after shuttering her popular blog and her research fellowship at Princeton ends. The last third of Americanah is Ifemelu and Obinze’s homecoming.

Americanah is highly episodic. There are flashbacks and set pieces and posts from Ifemelu’s fictional blog, all connected by the arc of her life. And this is where Ifemelu gets to reflect on what it is to be a “Non-American Black,” African American, Nigerian immigrant, and all the other roles she plays. I’m trying not to say this is a brave or honest book (though it very much is both of those things), because those are platitudes. Ifemelu would not approve.

Because Ifemelu is an outsider, she sees things the way no one else sees them. There are so many scenes in this book that made me squirm because they were so true. A clothing store manager bends over backwards to try and ask which sales woman helped Ifemelu and her friend without asking, “Was it the black woman or the white woman?” There are the white liberals who deliver boneheadly offensive mini-lectures about Africans. There are academics who can only talk about race if they turn everything into metaphors and signifiers.

As I read Americanah, I started marking instances of characters changing themselves. Some characters, like Obinze’s wife, Kosi, becomes preternaturally accommodating so that she doesn’t make any waves among the Nigerian elite. Ifemelu’s aunt, Ujo, changes the most. Over the course of the book, she transforms from a general’s mistress to immigrant to the wife of another immigrant. She changes physically. She changes her personality. No one is, to use a word the academics would love, authentic. But who can really say what authentic is? As Kurt Vonnegut would say, we are who we pretend to be. Some of the characters in Americanah change themselves because they want to be someone else. Others change because their loved ones want them to. Ifemelu is told by one of her American boyfriends to read certain books, eat fair trade/organic/über-healthy food, and to write her blog posts in a more “responsible” way (my danger quotes). This is where Ifemelu has the most trouble. She angers other people because she says things they don’t want to hear.

Americanah is not an easy book to digest. In addition to its solid plot and superlative characterization, it’s also an idea book. Adichie never lets things bog down with philosophizing and speech-making, but there is so much to think about. This may be the perfect book for a book club—as long as the members can buck the social stigma of talking bluntly about race, without posturing or academic distance.

Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand

8664353Every now and then, I read a book that reminds me just how young I am. Last year, I read Terry Tempest William’s memoir, When Women Were Birds. I didn’t get it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the right life experiences to understand the book; I just didn’t have enough life experiences, period. Last night and this morning, as I finished Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, I had the same feeling. I find myself baffled by Louis Zamperini, even after spending 400+ pages with him.

Because five minutes on Wikipedia will give you a solid outline of Zamperini’s life, I’m going to skip my usual synopsis and get straight into my unorganized thoughts about the book.

I have always been deeply infuriated and frustrated at the treatment of the Second World War’s war criminals. Though some were captured and a few put to death, too many slipped through the cracks and escaped to live the long lives that were denied to their victims. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, Zamperini’s chief torturer, was one of the men who escaped the efforts to find him after Japan surrendered. He died in 2003 and never saw the inside of a jail cell. Prisoners of war in Japanese camps suffered unspeakable tortures and deprivations. But a few years after the war, American authorities in Japan stopped hunting and prosecuting war criminals in the name of public relations—just like they did in Germany. Worse, I think, is that the Japanese government hasn’t taken official responsibility for their past crimes (especially the Rape of Nanking).

This angers me, but doesn’t baffle me. What baffles me is Louis Zamperini’s ability to forgive the men who beat, starved, and tormented him for over two years. What happened to him in Ofuna, Omori, and Naoetsu was unforgivable. Zamperini justifiably plotted revenge against Watanabe for years before his wife, Cynthia, talked him into hearing Billy Graham give sermons. Unbroken is a little vague about this part, but Louis found God and forgiveness for his captors. (This is also a problem I had with When Women Were Birds. Mystic/religious experiences are ineffable. You can’t understand them unless you’ve actually had one yourself.) As I read the last third of the book, after Zamperini was liberated, I kept wanting to shout at the book, “Where is the justice?”

This is an interesting time to read Unbroken. It’s only been a few weeks since the CIA’s report on torture at Guantánamo came out. Many of the atrocities in that report are mentioned in Unbroken. Waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation, and other crimes were used on Allied POWs in the camps. I supposed this is the hypocrisy of the Geneva Conventions; they only apply to soldiers in uniform. If you’re designated as an enemy combatant out of uniform, anything could happen to you. No one should have to suffer like Zamperini.

Hillenbrand does her best to help her readers understand the mindset of the Japanese army before and during World War II. She writes about shame in Japanese culture. She writes about the importance of rank. She writes about how positions of power encourage violence and sadism. None of this is written as an apology or excuse. While she falters in explaining Zamperini’s conversion to born again Christianity, she succeeds in bringing the world of POW camps back to life. This is a difficult book to read because Hillebrand doesn’t shy away from anything.

I haven’t seen the film version of Unbroken. (I probably won’t. I have a bad track record when it comes to going out to see movies.) I have a bad feeling that a lot of Hillenbrand’s research and nuance is going to be stripped away. (This is what happens every time a book is adapted.) Unbroken and Zamperini’s story are complex. By taking away the nuance and context, I fear that the movie won’t deliver the same lessons that the book does.

Gulp, by Mary Roach

13615414Friends and family know that I have a weird interest in bizarre medical history*. I’ve been known to tell disgusting stories at meals or in meetings. You know, wherever appropriate. It’s a pity I live alone because I would have loved to share all the tidbits I picked up while reading Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Funny enough, I read most of this book during dinner for the past few days.

Roach begins, as is fitting, at the top with our months and noses. She talks to pet food researchers and saliva specialists to enlighten her readers about what happens when we eat. As she describes the whole process, I marveled (as did Roach, at great length) at all the biological engineering and chemistry that takes place. Our jaw muscles can sense when food gives way when we chew and stop us from destroying our teeth. Saliva helps us process acids. Peristalsis carries everything on its path. Villi in our intestines leach out nutrients and energy. Bacteria help us digest pretty much anything.

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John Harvey Kellogg, a man of very strange ideas

I started reading Roach years ago with Stiff. I fell in love with Bonk. I adore her loopy, discursive style of writing because I do research in the same way. Ideas lead to tangents and everything ends up pretty weird. Gulp is also, in part, about the strange pathways scientists and doctors have tried to understand our digestive system. She shares the interminable practice of Fletcherization and John Harvey Kellogg‘s war on defecation. There’s an entire chapter about William Beaumont‘s callous treatment of his test subject, Alexis St. Martin, who survived a gunshot with a hole straight through to his stomach. And these guys are nothing compared to the scientists Roach consults. Those oddballs end up doing on-the-fly experiments about exploding rat meals and whether a mealworm can eat its way out of a frog. Everyone in the book (especially Roach) has an abundance of curiosity.

Much of Gulp centers on the disgust we (as a species, not just a culture) feel when it comes to eating, digesting, and eliminating the by-products. So as Roach discusses saliva studies, rectal smuggling, and fecal transplants, she also delves into why we find it all so taboo. (Except for the scientists doing all these studies. It quickly becomes clear that nothing yicks them out.)

I know some people won’t be able to handle this book. Roach is explicit in describing defecation, megacolons, and the like. If you have a weak stomach, don’t read this while eating like I did. Others may not like it because Roach goes on so many tangents. Like the small and large intestines, this book is not linear. Yet others may not like it because Roach never passes up an opportunity to make a pun or poop joke. (I’ll admit there were parts of this book that had me snorting with laughter. How can you not laugh?)

I have no idea what my book group is going to end up talking about when we meet to discuss Gulp. Because we meet over dinner, though, it should be pretty entertaining.


* This seems like a good spot to give a shout-out to one of my favorite podcasts, Sawbones. I laughed. I cringed. It’s awesome.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

10483223Most readers approach re-reading books they’ve liked with trepidation. What if it’s not as good as I remember it? What if I hate it this time? I read Dracula, by Bram Stoker, ages ago. I hadn’t forgotten the story. Dracula is such a major part of Western pop culture that it’s pretty much impossible to forget the story. The last time I read it, however, I hadn’t had five years of literary criticism classes jammed into my cerebellum. I didn’t hate Dracula, but I saw problems on this read through that I didn’t notice before.

I won’t bother to summarize Dracula in this post. If you don’t know the story by now, you’ve been living under a rock. (Besides, there’s always Wikipedia.)

I knew there were gender issues in Dracula. I knew that Stoker made a point of playing up the impurity and sensuality of the female vampires. What I didn’t notice at the time was how Stoker kept harping on about male and female virtues. Mina Harker—until Dracula gets his fangs in her—is held up as everything a Victorian woman ought to be. At one point in her diary, she even mocks the “New Woman.” The men all praise her for her kindness and propriety, though they always seem shocked out of their cravats whenever she has a great idea for their next move. When Lucy Westenra turns into a vampire, she is constantly described as voluptuous or as having voluptuous features. She is rapacious in a way that deeply disturbs the men. Meanwhile, the men—Harker, Seward, Van Helsing, Lord Godalming, and Morris—are lauded for being brave in the face of the danger. There is a lot of unintentional—and exasperating—hilarity when the men and Mina start to withhold information from each other, each intending to protect the other party from worrying too much. (Ironically, this comes after a long section of information sharing, in which the Harkers’ compile everyones’ documents.)

On this read-through, I was also fascinated by Renfield. Renfield is the anti-vampire group’s canary. His madness comes and goes with proximity to Dracula. He and Dr. Seward have fascinating conversations about souls and blood and life. Even though Seward is mostly clueless about what Renfield is talking about, I was intrigued by how Renfield was trying to turn himself into a vampire without having any idea how to go about it.

I was also fascinated by Van Helsing. He is a font of information (though he never tells you how he gets it). He dithers and procrastinates throughout the book, but he still the anti-vampire group’s best hope for eliminating Dracula forever. Through Van Helsing, Stoker gets to show off the years of research he did before he wrote the novel. Part of the fun of any vampire novel is learning even more myths and legends.

Mina Harker was the best character of the lot. She’s an ideal woman (for Stoker, anyway), but she’s also fallible. She’s the smartest person in the book (for all Van Helsing’s erudition). It’s a great pity when she’s shunted aside by the men. But I loved how she got the chance to get a bit of her own revenge in the big confrontation against Dracula at the end of the novel. She deserved that.

I wonder what it would have been like to read this novel back in 1897. It’s almost impossible read it now without knowing something about it or having seen the characters reused in other books and movies. As I read, it was hard not to think of Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Anno Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen