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review 2018-05-11 17:04
After Birth, by Elisa Albert
After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother's Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

 

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who's just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother's gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

 

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

 

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert's first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari's often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

 

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to "grow up," to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

 

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell "stuff" that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there's a man or not); we're meant to help each other.

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review 2018-05-09 23:29
Review: The Astonishing Color of After
The Astonishing Color of After - Emily X.R. Pan

I received a copy from Netgalley.

 

Another case of really good book but I’m not all that sure I really liked the main character much. The novel is about dealing with deep depression, and grief after the suicide of a parent and learning about said parent’s cultural heritage. 

 

One thing I really loved about the book was the look into Taiwanese culture, something I know nothing about. Main character Leigh is half white on her dad’s side and Taiwanese on her mother’s side. She’s never known her mother’s parents who live in Taiwan, when her mother left to marry her father it caused a big split in the family.

 

Leigh has a huge crush on her best friend Axel, over time her feelings for him have developed and she’s super jealous of Axel’s girlfriend. (This was really annoying. There weren’t many females Leigh’s age mentioned in the novel other than Leigh’s one other friend Caro and anyone girl who wasn’t Caro Leigh doesn’t seem to like, from what I remember, it got annoying fast.)

 

Leigh is an artist, she loves drawing and sees the world and her emotions in color. She and Axel have a thing where something is happening and Axel will ask her “what color?” and she will respond with whatever shade she sees at that particular moment. I don’t think it was synesthesia just her way of looking at the world. Initially this came across as kind of pretentious. I very nearly DNFed this book several times at the beginning. It felt very long winded and over written, and maybe there was something about it I just wasn’t getting. 

 

The description for the book hinted and magical realism which is one of my favorite things, so I stuck it out to see where it would come in. 

 

Leigh’s world changes, starting with a defining moment with Axel to the sudden shock of her mother’s suicide. She’s completely numb and devastated. Her emotions are all over the place and it’s completely understandable. While I could empathize with Leigh and could understand the massive trauma and shock such a horrific thing can do to a person, as a character I found her flat and hard to connect with. 

 

She finds herself heading to Taiwan to meet grandparents from her mother’s side she never knew while her dad throws himself into his work for the summer. The grandparents don’t speak much English and Leigh doesn’t speak much Mandarin though she is learning. There’s a lot of foreign language spoken in the book which sometimes can be very jarring when you don’t speak the other language (or can be for me which sounds terrible and very white privilege, I know) though in this book it just fit in the narrative and was really interesting to learn some new words and phrases. 

 

Leigh has an experience before heading to Taiwan where she thinks she sees her mother in the body of a red bird and becomes convinced she has to find the bird and the bird has now turned up in Taiwan with her. There is a cultural legend revolving around the reasons why.

 

A young lady called Feng, a friend of the grandparents shows up to help with the cultural differences and language barriers. Leigh learns about Spirit Week and some of the festivals taking place at the time she is visiting. While thanks to her mom’s influences Leigh is fairly well versed Taiwanese cooking, but there’s a whole host more to learn when she’s there. The descriptions of the food sound absolutely divine.

 

The narrative is in a then and now format - what happened with Axel and Caro before and what’s happening in the present. This also ties in the magical realism aspect when Leigh starts accessing her memories of her mom and not just her memories. There’s a really fascinating element where she can see her mom’s past memories as well. Leigh learns some things she never knew about, and has to come to terms with some things she did but couldn’t really bring herself to accept. 

 

There’s a wonderful family dynamic as hard as it can be for one family, when she meets her friend Caro, Caro’s family is so different and vibrant from Leigh’s own more sombre one. The difference is kind of heart breaking but interesting at the same time. 

 

Leigh and her family visit all her mom’s favorite places in Taiwan. Which again is completely absorbing. It’s beautifully described and beautifully written. Though Leigh can be quite a bitch to Feng who’s only trying to be nice and help. Feng has a really unexpected back story and there’s a twist to her character as well.

 

The other focus of the novel is Leigh’s plans for college and her future. She desperately wants to follow art but her dad is pressuring her to find something more practical. Leigh has to figure out whether she wants to do something that’s right or follow her heart to find something in the field that she really loves. 

 

And then there’s her relationship with Axel. (Kind of predictable and bit eye rolling) but did make me smile at the end. 

 

Despite a rocky start, I’m glad I stuck with the novel as it really did get better and by the end I loved it, and it made me quite teary in places. While sad in some respects, there were some uplifting moments. An honest and believable novel, at times hard and unflinchingly difficult in the narrative. But definitely worth a read. And most certainly an author that is going on my auto buy list. I loved this so much by the end I did buy a finished copy.

 

Thank you to Netalley and Hatchette Children’s Books for the review copy. 

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review 2018-05-05 19:18
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life - Yiyun Li

Reading Li's memoir was a unique experience, or perhaps one so rare I can't remember the last time I had it. It challenged me to think not only about her as a writer and reader, but about myself as a writer and reader. I highlighted tons of passages, brief and long. I read the book slowly because I frequently needed to pause and evaluate Li's notions of self, writing, and reading, often all essentially the same thing, against what I believe or thought I believed.

 

Early on, Li notes that she does not like using first person. It is unavoidable in this type of work, but she uses "one" elsewhere, as in, "One hides something for two reasons: either one feels protective of it or one feels ashamed of it. And it is not always the case that the two possibilities can be separated." I found that it functioned much like second person ("you") where it assumes the reader's agreement. Having read the book, I can't think that was Li's intention, but it created an at times adversarial stance from which I judged her obviously personal claims. This isn't a critique, only an observation of the sort I don't make often. In a way, then, it's a compliment.

 

Because Li in part is writing about writing, I put it on a mental list of texts I'd love to assign in a creative writing workshop. Though my genre is poetry (and fiction after that), its insights apply to any genre. "To write," she says, "betrays one’s instinct to curl up and hide." Upon that I can easily agree.

 

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text 2018-04-29 12:24
One of those days

Man, I really miss Steve Irwin & Mr. Rogers.

 

They are some of the "famous" people whose deaths feel really personal, as if they were family. Each time I see mention of them, I burst into tears. There are other famous people whose death feel personal, but I grew up with these guys. Death really gets to me even if I barely knew the person, even if I didn't know them at all. I don't mean only for famous people. Anyone. I've been told it is because I have a big heart, but does my mental health "glitches" play a part in how death basically triggers me into a melt down, depressive state?

 

 

 

 

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review 2018-04-06 17:10
Girl in the Dark, by Anna Lyndsey
Girl in the Dark: A Memoir - Anna Lyndsey

I became interested in this book because as a migraine sufferer who hasn't always had my headaches under control or been able to reliably treat them, I would be shut up in my apartment, in the dark (or as dark as possible when I lived in Arizona), for up to 24 hours. I couldn't read or watch television or go online. I'd sleep but couldn't do so all day. I was bored and felt alone. The next day, when the pain was gone, it was like a first day out of prison or after a long illness. I'd be almost euphoric but also feel vulnerable, as sometimes I'd get rebound headaches. Thankfully, I now have medications both to reduce my headache days and to stop them before they become agonizing.

 

"Anna" has an extreme sensitivity to light that keeps her inside, in a light-tight room, not for a day but months (even years) at a time. Certain wavelengths affect her more than others, but she can't read, watch television, or use a computer. She listens to audio books, talks on the phone with others who share debilitating chronic conditions, plays mental logic games alone or with her partner or other loved ones. She understandably feels depressed and experiences suicidal ideation.

 

Yet the book itself is not depressing. There is a humor to her writing, and her strength in dealing with this condition is impressive, encouraging, and inspiring without being maudlin. She's candid about her frustrations, as when she talks with others with chronic conditions that don't limit them in all the ways she is limited and finds herself angry.

 

She's also a terrific writer; the book feels literary in its prose and structure, which includes shorter chapters ordered thematically and achronologically (in one chapter she goes through the alphabet--one of her mental games--to list all the therapies she's tried and their results). At the end of the book she explains her decisions about how to structure it and even includes a chart indicating periods when she could not leave her home at all and periods of remission when she could go out around dawn and dusk.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Girl in the Dark to read about is the fact that doctors refused to come to her when she could not leave her home. She corresponded with some, but knowing that house calls have been part of the medical profession in the past (and still are in some places--or for the right price) demonstrates their reluctance--not inability--to engage with patients with rare conditions like Anna's. To me, that's inexcusable and shameful.

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