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Elizabeth Berg: Dream When You're Feeling Blue

Dream When You're Feeling Blue - Elizabeth Berg

I picked this up because I am a fan of Berg's other books, but I found this novel disappointing. It didn't add anything to my understanding of the war years (I have watched many movies from the 1940s), and without that setting as a novel framing device, the reader must rely on the interior life of the characters for the success of the novel. Unfortunately, the fact that the war is going on was pretty much the only interesting traits the characters had.

 

Honestly, watch Mrs. Miniver instead. (And The Miracle of Morgan's Creek for Tish's story!)

SPOILER ALERT!

Anne Tyler: The Amateur Marriage

The Amateur Marriage - Anne Tyler

I usually love Anne Tyler's novels, but this one left me lukewarm. Although it is, like her other novels, thoughtful and well written, I didn't get much from it. The characters live, age, die. Huh.

 

After reading it, I learned that Tyler had intended to keep writing this book for her entire life, weaving new parts of the family into it and extending it back in time. She saw it as a work without an ending. This helps explain the lack of structure. Also, I'm not sure that this kind of work qualifies as a novel? Either way, it was lovely but totally missable.

Peter Rock: My Abandonment

My Abandonment - Peter Rock

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I especially liked the tone of the narrator, Caroline. She is straightforward and guileless, which seemed appropriate for someone who has been raised alongside but separate from society, and who has been taught to mistrust everyone who is not her father. I can't imagine how hard it must have been to strike this note, and I was constantly impressed. Recommended.

Helen Mcdonald: H Is of Hawk

H Is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

I had high expectations for this one, and it was amazing. The contrasts that Macdonald manages to hold in balance! Grief and savagery, science and literature, singlemindedness and insanity, bravery and panic, memory and immediacy, studied technique and desperation, commitment and unravelling. Honestly, this book was breathtaking. Highly recommended.

SPOILER ALERT!

Barbara Ehrenreich: Living with a Wild God

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything - Barbara Ehrenreich

WHOAH what did I just read? Ehrenreich experiences several dissociative episodes as a teenager, and concludes that maybe some of us are visited by non-corporeal beings in our minds who practice interspecies symbiosis"? Wow, I did not see that ending coming.

 

But that's not even why I disliked this book. For the first 80% of the book, Ehrenreich dryly reconstructs her teenage from the journal she kept as a teenager. Although her experiences are fascinating (especially if you don't know anyone who suffers from solipsism syndrome, which I did not), her writing is disappointingly straightforwardly and descriptive. It's hard to imagine writing dispassionately about a childhood like hers, but Ehrenreich is very closed to exploring her own emotions. In fact, she nonsensically refuses to call this memoir a biography and instead insists on seeing it as a scholarly work about religion.

 

I feel that this is the same impulse that leads her to conclude that her solipsism syndrome and dissociative episodes are mystic experiences caused by some wilful Other being, and not the result of a combination of brain chemistry and an unhealthy childhood. Tantalizingly, she hints that she is aware of this: she writes, “To acknowledge the existence of other people is also to acknowledge that they are not reliable sources of safety or comfort.” But in the end, she can't embrace this truth, and instead veers off into mysticism. It's a disappointing ending to an insanely frustrating memoir (don't even get me started on the day she realized that people around her were actual human beings who were being drafted into the Vietnam War).

 

This is my first Ehrenreich book, although I have others waiting on my shelf. I had always thought of her as a pragmatic and practical writer, and I have been looking forward to both Nickled and Dimed and Bright-Sided. I hope she is more honest with other topics than she is with her own mind.

Paula Byrne: Perdita

Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson - Paula Byrne

Mary Robinson made some fascinating life choices, which are here outlined in painstakingly accurate detail. Sadly, the reader has to supply all the excitement, sympathy, outrage, and regret, as the author carefully sticks to only the documented facts. I'm confident that this is an excellent work of history, but it is not very readable. I made it as far as Mary's return from France (about 2/3 of the way through the book), but when she started her poetry career I had to put it down. Byrne's dry prose, broken up with excerpts of 18th Century British poetry, was just too tedious. Not recommended.

Stephen Batchelor: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist - Stephen Batchelor

I picked this book up expecting it to be lecturey, but I was surprised to find it an engaging and delightful read. I read it quickly, and expect to pick it up again some day.

Batchelor begins his story, which is part memoir and part religious history, at the point in his life where he was most committed to Buddhism and yet starting to have doubts about parts of the Tibetan Buddhism he was practising. He backtracks to describe how he came to Buddhism, and then elaborates on the problem of "belief" he experienced. His first reaction was to explore other branches of Buddhism, but he found himself unable to escape the requirement of some form of faith in all the sects with which he engaged. This led him to seek out the original writings of Siddhattha Gotama [his spelling], and at this point the book pivots to an account of the life of Siddhattha Gotama and the earliest history of Buddhism, as recorded in the Pali Canons.

 

At this point in the book, I found that Batchelor added life to Gotama's story, and the reader is introduced to him as a human being. Batchelor extracts only the parts of the Pali Canons written by Gotama or (more or less) reliably telling us about his life and the culture he lived in. We learn that many of the beliefs we associate with Buddhism -- most notably the beliefs in reincarnation and karma -- were not actually held or advocated by Gotama. Gotama's Buddhism is less religion and more philosophy, but a very practical one which addresses the problem of human suffering -- and no more.

 

For anyone attracted to the ideas Buddhism but deterred by its religious trappings (and dogma!), this book is an open door. Batchelor's humility and honesty quickly set a non-lecturing tone, his years spent in pursuit of Buddhist monkhood convinced me of his sincerity, and the story he tells of Gotama's life, which he admits may be biased by his opinions and experiences, seems to be rooted in evidence. The final obstacle I had was a question of cultural appropriation: I'm leery of getting information about Eastern ideas from white (also *British*) dudes. But of course I can only read about Buddhism through English translators and teachers, since I do not read Pali, and it seems that the Buddha intended for his ideas to be shared with anyone, regardless of who they are. I came to appreciate that contemplating the Buddha's teachings and approach to human life is not appropriative, it is what he would have wanted.

 

As a rule I try not to be set in my ways, but it's still refreshing to have my views challenged and my opinions altered, and all the more so when the book is charming and disarming. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Buddhism.

batchelor

I picked this book up expecting it to be lecturey, but I was surprised to find it an engaging and delightful read. I read it quickly, and expect to pick it up again some day.

Batchelor begins his story, which is part memoir and part religious history, at the point in his life where he was most committed to Buddhism and yet starting to have doubts about parts of the Tibetan Buddhism he was practising. He backtracks to describe how he came to Buddhism, and then elaborates on the problem of "belief" he experienced. His first reaction was to explore other branches of Buddhism, but he found himself unable to escape the requirement of some form of faith in all the sects with which he engaged. This led him to seek out the original writings of Siddhattha Gotama [his spelling], and at this point the book pivots to an account of the life of Siddhattha Gotama and the earliest history of Buddhism, as recorded in the Pali Canons.

At this point in the book, I found that Batchelor added life to Gotama's story, and the reader is introduced to him as a human being. Batchelor extracts only the parts of the Pali Canons written by Gotama or (more or less) reliably telling us about his life and the culture he lived in. We learn that many of the beliefs we associate with Buddhism -- most notably the beliefs in reincarnation and karma -- were not actually held or advocated by Gotama. Gotama's Buddhism is less religion and more philosophy, but a very practical one which addresses the problem of human suffering -- and no more.

For anyone attracted to the ideas Buddhism but deterred by its religious trappings (and dogma!), this book is an open door. Batchelor's humility and honesty quickly set a non-lecturing tone, his years spent in pursuit of Buddhist monkhood convinced me of his sincerity, and the story he tells of Gotama's life, which he admits may be biased by his opinions and experiences, seems to be rooted in evidence. The final obstacle I had was a question of cultural appropriation: I'm leery of getting information about Eastern ideas from white (also *British*) dudes. But of course I can only read about Buddhism through English translators and teachers, since I do not read Pali, and it seems that the Buddha intended for his ideas to be shared with anyone, regardless of who they are. I came to appreciate that contemplating the Buddha's teachings and approach to human life is not appropriative, it is what he would have wanted.

As a rule I try not to be set in my ways, but it's still refreshing to have my views challenged and my opinions altered, and all the more so when the book is charming and disarming. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Buddhism.

Stephen Batchelor: Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist - Stephen Batchelor

I picked this book up expecting it to be lecturey, but I was surprised to find it an engaging and delightful read. I read it quickly, and expect to pick it up again some day.

Batchelor begins his story, which is part memoir and part religious history, at the point in his life where he was most committed to Buddhism and yet starting to have doubts about parts of the Tibetan Buddhism he was practising. He backtracks to describe how he came to Buddhism, and then elaborates on the problem of "belief" he experienced. His first reaction was to explore other branches of Buddhism, but he found himself unable to escape the requirement of some form of faith in all the sects with which he engaged. This led him to seek out the original writings of Siddhattha Gotama [his spelling], and at this point the book pivots to an account of the life of Siddhattha Gotama and the earliest history of Buddhism, as recorded in the Pali Canons.

At this point in the book, I found that Batchelor added life to Gotama's story, and the reader is introduced to him as a human being. Batchelor extracts only the parts of the Pali Canons written by Gotama or (more or less) reliably telling us about his life and the culture he lived in. We learn that many of the beliefs we associate with Buddhism -- most notably the beliefs in reincarnation and karma -- were not actually held or advocated by Gotama. Gotama's Buddhism is less religion and more philosophy, but a very practical one which addresses the problem of human suffering -- and no more.

For anyone attracted to the ideas Buddhism but deterred by its religious trappings (and dogma!), this book is an open door. Batchelor's humility and honesty quickly set a non-lecturing tone, his years spent in pursuit of Buddhist monkhood convinced me of his sincerity, and the story he tells of Gotama's life, which he admits may be biased by his opinions and experiences, seems to be rooted in evidence. The final obstacle I had was a question of cultural appropriation: I'm leery of getting information about Eastern ideas from white (also *British*) dudes. But of course I can only read about Buddhism through English translators and teachers, since I do not read Pali, and it seems that the Buddha intended for his ideas to be shared with anyone, regardless of who they are. I came to appreciate that contemplating the Buddha's teachings and approach to human life is not appropriative, it is what he would have wanted.

As a rule I try not to be set in my ways, but it's still refreshing to have my views challenged and my opinions altered, and all the more so when the book is charming and disarming. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Buddhism.

Jane Hamilton: The Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth - Jane Hamilton

I noticed this book on my shelf a few weeks ago and couldn't remember if I had read it or not, so I picked it up. I hadn't read it, and reading it now was one of those amazing reading experiences where one picks up the exact right book at the exact right time and it ring in one's head like a bell that has been struck. Now that I am done, I wish I hadn't read it so I could do that again. I can't believe this book is almost 30 years old, I can't believe it was a first novel, I can't believe I accidentally saved it for myself this whole time. Recommended.

Carla Fine: Strong Smart and Bold

Strong, Smart, and Bold: Empowering Girls for Life - Carla Fine, Jane Fonda
This book is like a basic primer on specific things you can do to open a conversation with your daughter about being a woman in a man's world. For example, the section on body image starts with a parent having a conversation with a daughter about biased media representation, and ends with the parent encouraging the daughter to try all different physical activities in the hopes of finding one she loves, so the daughter can learn to value her body for its accomplishments and not just its looks. It's very hands-on and practical.

That being said, if you don't know what Girls Inc is (I didn't), it's weird to have 100% of the experts and citations come from a source you don't recognize. Girls Inc is mentioned every few pages, like it's a household term that you know all about and accept as an authority on the topic. This is what caused me to put the book down after just a few chapters. I felt like I wanted the advice, but not the marketing.

I looked up Girls Inc online after deciding not to finish this book. It's hard to tell what they actually do though. Is it a scholarship foundation? Do they have meetings like Girl Scouts? It's not clear, but it is very, very slick. I mean I don't know if they take girls camping, but they definitely have a line of clothing at The Gap. In fact, they partner with dozens of retailers and you can sign up to "shop pink" by shopping through their portal and support women-owned businesses. Cool, but I got a weird vibe. Like they 100% focus on businesses and it's very hard to see how girl empowerment is being accomplished. Maybe it is a terrific organization with a terrible web site, I don't know. But I got the same weird vibe from the book, which is more self-promotiony than girl-empowery, if you know what I mean. I don't know if I can recommend this one or not.
SPOILER ALERT!

Irene Vilar: Impossible Motherhood

Impossible Motherhood - Irene Vilar

Vilar is obviously very intelligent and has spent a lot of time thinking about and working on herself. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to translate that into a compelling or engaging memoir. She gives us the facts we need to understand the choices she felt compelled to make, but with so much detachment that the reader is left to feel like an outside observer. Even after Vilar has hit rock bottom and finally turned to face her feelings, the book lacks warmth and we have to take her at her (very academic) word that she is now able to bond to people emotionally. And, as other reviewers have pointed out, she doesn't do any analysis until the last chapter, so the structure of the book is 98% <i>what</i> happened followed by three paragraphs on <i>why</i> she lived the way she did.

 

Vilar's prose is academic and cold, and peppered with intellectual references that shed no additional light on her situation. Perhaps, with a few years more distance from her early life, she will be able to engage with her own fascinating story, and write the memoir that this ought to have been. This version, however, is not recommended.

Erin Saladin: The Girls of No Return

The Girls of No Return - Erin Saldin

I would say this is a three-star book that got four stars because I couldn't put it down. I read it every night until my eyes were closed and I had to open them to turn out the light. I liked that Saldin took a low-stakes plot (not a murder or a war, just some teenagers at camp) and made it into such a powerful story. I also found it rang with truth. I wonder if everyone who loved it also had to choose, at one point, between being a good friend to someone who could probably use it and being enthralled to someone who probably isn't going to treat you well in the end. I don't think I have ever read a book with this dynamic as its theme, and now I wonder, why not? Recommended.

Sarah Dunn: The Big Love

The Big Love - Sarah Dunn

This was a lovely bit of chick lit. Although I did not grow up in a Fundamentalist Christian culture, Dunn does a terrific job of describing her character's slow realization that mainstream dating is tricky, and doing everything right does not guarantee the outcome. As you would expect, it is a light (and sometimes funny read), and while it was a little breezy for my tastes, I can't say I didn't enjoy it.

Ann Patchett: Truth and Beauty

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship - Ann Patchett

It was nice to read this just a few books after My Brilliant Friend, so I could compare the two.

 

Patchett was so loving and tender in her descriptions of her friend Lucy Grealy, and she made it more than clear why she found Grealy lovable. I believed her, but I also know that a huge personality like Grealy's can be difficult to endure for a long period of time, and Patchett strikes me as the type of person who needs a long dose of calm and quiet every now and then. Wouldn't she struggle with Grealy's emotional excesses? Wouldn't there be times when she just lost her patience?

 

The inner conflict of close relationships is completely missing from this memoir. It's possibly that Patchett never minded being in this lopsided friendship, where Grealy gushes and takes and Patchett just gives. Grealy may really have been so charming that Patchett never tired of her. But even if she had nothing but love for Grealy, that dynamic always has a dark side: surely Grealy's overbright personality would have made the (still outstanding!) Patchett feel dull and boring by comparison. What kind of effect does that have on Patchett's view of herself, her personality, or her own writing? Does she love being around Grealy, but kind of hate herself a bit afterwards? Does Grealy inspire her to be greater, but also erode her confidence that she ever can be?

 

But if you want to hear about any of that, you have to read My Brilliant Friend. To be fair, I only made it about 60% through this book (on my second attempt), and it might get more fraught towards the end. Maybe Patchett gets more honest, or draws healthy boundaries, or just starts to see Grealy more realistically. There was no hint of that in the first part, so I set this book down and won't pick it up again.

SPOILER ALERT!

Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs - Lorrie Moore

There was so much I didn't like about this book. First, I couldn't decide if the characters' shtick was supposed to be actually funny, or just a sad attempt to paper over really serious situations with terrible comedic references and puns. Second, I couldn't decide if the conversations about race were supposed to be actually funny, or making a point about how every time white people gather to figure out how to help another group, they just end up arguing about white people. Third, I couldn't decide if Tassie's way of dealing with her brother's death was supposed to be funny, or just a nervous breakdown. You get the idea. Not recommended, which is something I never thought I would say about this author, whom I have loved in the past.