Yesterday as I was writing a friend who had missed our sorta-monthly book club about what I’d been reading the email grew so long that I realized I should put it here. And so…
In January I returned from India and all that month I read most of one book. The reason I only read one became really clear when, a month or so later I gave up nearly all social media – and read six books nearly effortlessly.
At the beginning of the month I started by reading Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. This was a fictional book about some children living in a basti in Delhi. Children start disappearing and it seems that other than their parents and immediate family nobody cares what’s happening to them. The police can’t even be bothered to look for them. After a few more disappear the neighbourhood starts to divide over religious lines, each community deciding that the other was responsible.
On the one hand it was very dark and sad. At the same time, it wasn’t relentlessly negative. The relationships between the children, families and friends were lovely. To me this provided really necessary emotional dynamic range. We’re made to care for the characters because we connect with them in those moments.
It was also nice to go back and “visit” Delhi. It felt very familiar and also reminded me of the neighbourhood I volunteer in when I go to Jaipur.
In the end I was sad it was over, not because of the ending (no spoilers!) but because I had to leave the book behind and could never read it for the first time again. From me this is high praise for a book.
Then came Florida by Lauren Groff, a collection of stories mostly taking place in Florida. Let me start by saying how well written it was. The author is an excellent writer. On the other hand, this was a really difficult read. The stories were beautifully written, but no matter what station in life the characters were living in, wealthy or living in their car it was so bleak. Everyone seemed so unhappy with their lot in life, any relationship whether spousal, family or friends seemed just about to end – or, in fact had already ended horribly. I pushed onward through this, enjoying the good writing but also cheering with every page that I put behind me because it meant I would be done with it soon. It is an odd way to experience a book and I don’t want to make a habit of it.
Do you know what the perfect book to follow two really sad books is? Growing up Greenpoint by Tommy Carbone. This is a memoir of the author’s childhood in Greenpoint – a neighbourhood on the northern edge of Brooklyn. Most of the book takes place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when New York City was bankrupt and known for its high crime. And yet, the picture we see of it is of a boy growing up in a loving family surrounded by friends in a connected neighbourhood. Sure, there are challenges, a blackout, a blizzard, and a city in trouble but overall it took me back to my own mostly-good childhood in that same time period. Like me, the author had lots of independence in his neighbourhood and got to explore it with his friends. Light, funny, and with lots of heart, it was just the book to read after the last two.
I like tweaking my habits, improving myself when I can as I’m sure any reader who’s been here a while has noticed. This is why I picked up Tiny Habits – The Small Changes that Change Everything by BJ Fogg. Of all of these books in this entry his was the only one I didn’t have to go back and look up the author’s name. Why, you might ask? Because he puts it on nearly every page, sometimes several times, referring to the “Fogg Method” of designing habits for success. We know it’s successful because he tells us just how successful it is on every page. As I read it (I’m still pushing through it – it can only be taken in small doses) I can only think of late night cable TV and this:
The writing is positively awful and annoying. On the other hand, there is no arguing with one thing. The information is actually helpful. I’m not terribly surprised by this. One of the other things he’s worked on is persuasion – and played a part in design of apps like Facebook and Instagram to make them even harder to put down. So knowing how one’s brain can be made to stick to things is one of his talents. And so onward I go. I will cheer even louder when I finish this than when I finished Florida.
David Mitchell is one of my favourite comedians. It seems our perspective on life is very similar as is our ability to find lots of social activities excruciating. I downloaded his book, Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy from the library a week or so ago. It’s a collection of newspaper columns he wrote over the past several years and covers everything from social media and the Internet to British politicians to Brexit. Despite the fact that I’m woefully out of the loop on British politics and got most of what I know about Brexit from panel shows, I enjoyed this book tremendously. Positively delightful and funny.
Sage and I play games for chores as you know – it’s how we have fun while keeping the house tidy. While the loser of the game does a tedious chore, the winner often reads a book aloud to them. This one, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, is our current one. Trevor Noah is currently hosting The Daily Show but I had no idea he had such a life before it. He was born mixed race in South Africa – his mom was black, his dad white while Apartheid was still in place. Stories from his childhood, and of Apartheid in general are pretty harrowing at times, but he tells them with humour. This makes for masterfully told stories that keep me engaged while taking me on an emotional roller coaster going between sadness, horror, and then laughter all at once.
I think my big takeaway from this one so far (we’re about half way through) is just how calculated Apartheid was. I’m not deluded enough to think it was some accident made by well-meaning people trying to make a good government. But I was surprised to read, for example, about how people in the early days of the government went on a “world tour” of the worst spots for discrimination and structural racism to see who was being most successful. And then, when they returned, they took the things they learned and put them in to place. That kind of evil shakes my natural faith in humanity and convictions that mostly people try to do good in the world.
And now? Now I’m reading M Train by Patti Smith who is a singer/songwriter, writer, poet, and photographer and a big part of the New York punk scene in the 70’s. I’m about 1/4 of the way through it but have managed to make that progress in less than two days so that should tell you how compelling it is. Her personal stories are interesting and engaging. The “Winner of the National Book Award” note on the cover photo gives away the fact that it’s well written. So far I’m enjoying it – she leads quite a different life from me so it’s fascinating to step in to her shoes. Unlike, say, David Mitchell, I’m not sure if I’d enjoy sitting and chatting with her – our lives and values seem quite different from one another. For example, she’s a huge fan of many of the Beat poets of the 1950’s and was a friend of William Burroughs. I find him and many of the others pretty insufferable. Some say Kerouac is a genius, I find him to be an annoying pretentious drunk and when I try reading others from his circle I get the same sort of sense. It’s OK, no doubt I’d irritate the hell out of Kerouac also.
How about you all? What are you reading these days? Are you enjoying it? Or, like many friends of mine, is the pandemic making it more difficult for you to focus on and enjoy books?
Also, if you enjoyed this post and would like to be a part of a live video chat where all of us share these sorts of things, comment below or send me a message and I’ll invite you to the next one.