Oooh... May was a fantastic month for reading. Exit West, A Tale for the Time Being, Hillbilly Elegy, and I Liked My Life are four of the best books I've read in the past few years. Keep reading to find out more and let me know what you recommend me picking up next.
Exit West - My friend J described this novel best: propulsive. From the second I started reading, I was drawn in to this story of war and life in unsettling conditions, migration, and falling in and out of love. The author employs magical realism throughout, but it isn't heavy-handed and I wouldn't call this science fiction or fantasy in anyway -- if you've read The Underground Railroad (which I also highly recommend), it is similar. The topic of immigration is at the forefront of this book, which is particularly relevant right now (e.g., Trump, Brexit, the recent election in France).
A Tale for the Time Being - This was another book that I could not stop reading. The story flips back and forth between Ruth, a novelist living on a remote Canadian island, and Nao, a young girl living in Tokyo with her parents. Nao's diary, a few letters, and a watch wash up on the shore near Ruth's house and Ruth is drawn into Nao's diary, which was written several years prior. Ruth chooses to read Nao's diary at the same pace at which Nao wrote and so Nao's story unfolds slowly and engulfs Ruth. Discussions about Buddhism and Japanese culture are interwoven into this story and I found myself compelled to keep reading late into the night because I needed to know what happened to Nao.
Hillbilly Elegy - J.D. Vance is a Marine who graduated from Yale Law School and, on paper, appears to be a privileged, white male. However, he grew up in Kentucky and Ohio and considers himself a "hillbilly" and the circumstances of his upbringing could be described challenging at best (and horrific at times). What he offers in his memoir is some startling insight into life in the rust belt where communities that sprung up around industry and factories that have since closed down or moved are in crisis and feel largely neglected by the rest of America. Vance provides cultural criticism about white working-class America, but from the lens of someone who grew up in that culture, which makes it authentic instead of pejorative. Like Exit West, this book could not be more relevant in gaining understanding about one of the cultural divisions in American society today.
I Liked My Life - A story about the aftermath of the death of a woman named Maddie, the book is written from the perspective of three different people: Eve (the daughter), Maddie (the Mom), and Brady (the father). This isn't a mystery per se, but it's gripping because you yearn for an explanation.
The Rules Do Not Apply - Ariel Levy wrote an unforgettable and heartbreaking piece in the New Yorker called "Thanksgiving in Mongolia" about having a miscarriage at 19 weeks pregnant while on assignment in Mongolia. This book is her memoir, which incorporates more details of her miscarriage, but also her early life, first marriage, and the blossoming if her current relationship. It's a quick read, brutally honest and difficult at times, and her writing is enviable.
Lab Girl - Another memoir, Hope Jahren shares her story of life as a female geobiologist in a creative way. The chapters alternate: one is about the life cycle of plants and trees and the next is about her growing up and experiencing life as she becomes an incredibly successful scientist, marries, and has a son. She writes openly and honestly about struggles with depression, her difficult pregnancy, and being both an unabashed career woman and a loving mother and wife. I enjoyed this book immensely and particularly liked learning more about a career wholly unfamiliar to me (I haven't been in a science lab since high school). Her career as a geobiologist reminded me a bit of the book The Signature of All Things, which is another favorite.
Better Than Before - This was my second reading of Gretchen Rubin's book about habit formation and how being able to form and maintain habits has a lot to do with your personality. I mention Gretchen's podcast Happier often and I'm a devotee of her writing and approach to making improvements in your every day life. If you want to take her quiz to determine your "tendency," you can find it here.
Sleepless in America - April recommended this to me after my April reading round-up, where I mentioned Blythe's continued resistance to naps. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of what affects sleep aside from just counting the number of hours a child is actually asleep: exercise, meal times, screen time, outside time, sugar consumption, and time restrained. Unfortunately, this hasn't solved our napping "dilemma", but it provided a few more ideas for us to try. We have learned that Blythe does not want to nap at home -- she hasn't taken a nap in her crib since January. She will, however, nap on the bike, on a train, in the stroller, or in the new Tula child carrier we bought. The other day we successfully toured the entire Van Gogh museum with her on my chest napping and it was divine -- we were able to experience the museum in silence, Blythe rested, and I got to snuggle with her hands-free!
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 - Are you sensing a theme? I've had some really low moments this month in feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing when I speak to Blythe. Obviously a lot of what I am saying is not registering, so I must be saying it the wrong way. In any event, this book really helped me to think about how my words are perceived by Blythe and to strategize on better ways to approach talking to toddlers. These may be obvious to you, but here are a few key take-aways:
- Instead of dismissing feelings, acknowledge them with words, art, or writing.
- Give into fantasy instead of lecturing. An example of this is saying, "Oh, I know it would be so fun to have ice cream for dinner. We could make huge banana splits with whipped cream on top, etc." and continue to elaborate on how fun that could be.
- Empathize with a word or sound and otherwise give silent attention. Essentially, just listen.
- Instead of a threat, diffuse a situation with play or describe how the behavior makes you feel, offer a choice, or put the child in charge.
- Take action without insulting the child. For example, "We are going to leave the park because I'm worried that one of these other children is going to get hurt" instead of saying "We are leaving because you are hitting the other children."
- Say it with a word (e.g., instead of "Why did you leave your trash on the couch?", just point and say "trash"). Describe what you see, be playful, and give information.
The Year of Living Danishly - Written by a Brit, The Year of Living Danishly details the first year of a couple's life in a remote part of Denmark. Each chapter is devoted to a different aspect of the culture and life there. The book also traces the author's pregnancy, which coincides with her first year in Denmark. I enjoyed this, but I think it will be the last book about hygge that I read for awhile.
The Japanese Mind - This is an academic work wherein each chapter is written by a different scholar about an aspect of Japanese culture. I wouldn't recommend this to everybody, but if you are planning a trip to Japan, particularly for business, it is insightful. There were chapters on the arts, marriage, business relationships, ambiguity and the dislike in Japan of saying "no", and parenting. It helped me to understand a number of observations I made while in Japan.
The Arrangement - Apparently I have to learn a reading lesson over and over - I do not enjoy books about infidelity in relationships. I didn't dislike this book, but you could see the train wreck coming from miles away and it was uncomfortable to read about it happening. The main couple in this book enters into an arrangement whereby they have an open marriage for six months. They are not to ask questions of one other or talk about it - what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas (except it isn't in Vegas, it is in their own town). The Arrangement is a quick read and it was entertaining, but I can't be that enthusiastic about it.