Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

wp-1579981352326.jpgHelen Moran is in her shared studio apartment in Manhattan accepting delivery of her roommate’s new IKEA sofa when she gets the call telling her that her brother is dead. She packs a few things and flies home to Milwaukee to try to make sense of his suicide. “It’s just the three of us now,” her parents say, as they each try to interpret the shifting constellation of their relationship.

Helen is difficult to be around, trapped inside her own mind, alternately highly empathetic and completely clueless about other people’s perspectives, but I like her. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with her, but I admire that she’s found a way to (mostly) get by in her world.

Being inside Helen’s head is similar to being inside Eleanor Oliphant’s head. Each has her own logic and mechanisms to cope with reality, and each is challenged to realign and reevaluate when reality no longer lines up with her understanding of it. But I like Helen more than I like Eleanor. There’s no miraculous recovery for Helen, no key to unlock her difficulties with life and free her from herself. She doesn’t find sanity and equanimity after three visits to a therapist. Helen’s adjustment to her world is more nuanced, more flawed, and more realistic than Eleanor’s. Her demons are still there, she just finds a new perspective from which to confront them.

This novel feels like a truthful portrayal of the experience of living with mental illness, including psychosis, which continues to be something of a third rail in discussions around mental illness even as it’s becoming more acceptable (bordering on trendy) to be open about depression and anxiety. Even aside from issues of mental illness, this novel illustrates well the ways in which we each live within our own heads and according to our own logical framework and how difficult it is to reach across the divide between our reality and someone else’s.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel, albeit one that doesn’t have much bearing on the plot, is this one about Helen’s experience living in New York City:

“Someone will pay me one day to divulge how I lived so frugally, elegantly, and sanely in that glittering, amorally rich, and enormous hellhole.”

Side note: Somehow, I’m reading three books at the same time that deal with adoption and mental illness: a memoir (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson), a middle-grade novel (Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford), and this novel. It’s an odd coincidence, but one that I’m enjoying.

 

The Art of War by Sun-Tzu

The Art of War is the first of the titles on my Cavalcade of Classics, Round 2 list that I’ve finished this year. Making progress!

Filled with guidance about war strategy that is surprisingly detailed, this book is more practical and less philosophical than I expected it to be. It provides interesting insights into warfare in China during the Warring States period, but I would hesitate to use it as a business or personal guidebook as some have suggested in recent years.

Some quotes/passages that were particularly interesting to me…

This one reminds me of the adage about putting one’s own house in order instead of worrying about someone else’s:

The Skillful Warrior

Can achieve

His own

Invulnerability;

But he can never bring about

The enemy’s

Vulnerability.

And this one sounded to me like a list of New Year’s Resolutions for an aspiring bad-ass:

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Playtime is Over: The Odyssey, Emily Wilson translation

My children are studying ancient history this year, and as part of that—and as part of my Cavalcade of Classics—we read The Odyssey aloud together.

Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey is awesome. Odysseus is such an arrogant jerk. He caused so many of his own problems yet Homer seems to love him all the more for it. My daughter said at one point, “This is a really Odysseus-centered book, isn’t it?” which is kind of an obvious statement given the title, but I get what she means. It’s not just a book about Odysseus, it’s a book that’s devoted to portraying him as a hero even when he makes really stupid mistakes or lies for no reason, although I suppose that those things just make him more god-like, at least from a Greek Mythology standpoint.

One of our favorite sections:

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My children and I laughed at so many parts of this book, but naked Odysseus jumping on the threshold to announce his killing spree really cracked us up. Playtime is over, indeed.

Bookends: November 2019

Our November was filled with mad science, unexpected reunions with family, and more rain than we usually see around these parts. With all of that going on, December snuck up on me, but there’s still time for a November Bookends post!

Visual interest: Stop chasing the birds!

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Finished in November (11):

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (audiobook)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson (audiobook)

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (audiobook)

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (DNF)

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (audiobook)

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (DNF)

Recursion by Blake Crouch

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (audiobook)

Currently Reading:

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe (I was reading this aloud with my son but he finished it on his own one afternoon. Now I need to finish it and give him some language arts assignments about it.)

To-Read for December:

All of my library holds came in at the same time, so here’s what I’ve got to read this month, not counting the ebook and audiobook holds but including a grapefruit:

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And I have some middle-grade novels I’d like to work on. And my spouse is getting me a stack of library books for birthday/Christmas. I appear to have my work cut out for me this month.

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Are you on Litsy? So am I! Come visit! @ImperfectCJ

Bookends: October 2019

Ah, October! Santa Ana winds, a three-day jaunt to the desert (the “real” desert, not the coastal Southern California desert), taking my kids to the thrift store to buy costume components…and reading a few books, including a decent stab at the October Dewey’s Readathon. I posted on Litsy during the Readathon. That’s where you can find most of my updates between Bookends posts these days, if you’d like more of that kind of thing.

A little visual interest before the book lists. This is The World Famous Crochet Museum in a converted drive-thru photo developing place in Joshua Tree, California:

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Finished in October (12):

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Weekby Tiffany Shlain

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (audio)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle (audio)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation, read-aloud with my children)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (audio)

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (audio)

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (audio)

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

 

Currently Reading:

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe (read-aloud with my son, who will still snuggle with me on the couch if I read to him)

To-Read for November:

Subject to change, as always, but here are some I particularly want to hit:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

And I have some middle-grade novels I’d like to work on.

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Bookends: September 2019

This month’s book totals are a little inflated due to the picture books and early readers I read for the Birth and Beyond Reading Challenge (#BBRC) on Litsy.

Still, even counting only the “grown-up” books, this month was pretty solid. I credit staying up past midnight, adding caffeine back into my diet, and ignoring the housework.

Kids’ Books (12):

Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins

Chase’s Space Case by Nickelodeon Publishing

The Case of the Scaredy Cats by Crosby Bonsall

Jump by David McPhail

Golden Retriever by Charlie George

Saturday Belongs to Sara by Cathy Warren

Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo

You Silly Goose by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco by Laurie Berkner

Up and Down (The Boy, #4) by Oliver Jeffers

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Grown-up Books (10):

Inland by Téa Obreht

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds

Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, The Sleep You’re Missing, The Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy by Julie Holland

Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova (audio)

The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (audio)

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

Currently Reading:

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Schlain

And I’m still working on Emily Wilson’s Translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

To-Read for October:

October is a bit up in the air. I have a couple of books out from the library that I’ll probably start on:

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (on audio)

I’m due for another Libro.fm credit, so I plan to get another audiobook after 2pm on October 5.

I hope to be seasonal and pick up some scary reads. I prefer literary, psychological, bizarre/unsettling and/or gothic horror/suspense to blood-and-guts, straight-up genre stuff. Authors like Daphne duMaurier (The Birds), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), Lauren Beukes (Broken Monsters), Kelly Link (Get in Trouble), Gin Phillips (Fierce Kingdom), Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger).

Any suggestions?

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Epic Battles for Middle School

My son is using Don and Jenny Killgallon’s Paragraphs for Middle School as part of his writing curriculum this year. The idea is to introduce writing concepts, illustrate them with passages from literature, have the student identify and imitate the techniques used in the passages, then have the student practice the techniques in their own writing. I was a little skeptical of the approach at first, but it really seems to be working for my son.

From the moment he first grabbed a marker and wrote his name on the dining room wall, writing has always been his thing, but he’s not always been keen on exploring the mechanics of the process. Paragraphs helps him learn about the nitty-gritty while doing the writing that he enjoys, which is mostly epic battle scenes a la Lord of the Rings and D&D. I’ve included an example below from an assignment to practice a variety of sentence openers while narrating a scene with a lot of action. I don’t understand all of it, but I think he’s succeeded. I also think I’m going to encourage some more gentle reading. (I only counted the final paragraph for his assignment, but he feels that the lead-in is necessary to set the mood.)


The sounds of war thundered through the huge keep of Nerdath, a skullcracking wave of sound from tens of hundreds of destrachans blazing sound pulses at the walls from all directions.

Thump-thump-thump.

Those were Asmodeus’s legion devils, the more powerful ice, bearded, and bone devils, a few archdevils, and half a million imps.

Thud-thud-BOOM.

Thud-thud-BOOM.

That was the orcs and the hobgoblins, leading behemoths and titans to batter down the walls.

Thunk-thud-thunk-thud-thunk-thud.

Those were more orcs and those uruk-hai, with their fearsome worg and guulvorg mounts.

Slam-crash-thud-crash-slam.

Giant goristros and other brutal battlebiars, destroying everything in their path as they dragged huge clubs and siege machines, charging towards the castle.

Vorp-flicker-vorp-flicker.

Those were the flittering beholders, with clouds and clouds of harpies, imps, and all manner of rocs, phoenixes, and giant eagles.

Crunch-smack-crunch-smack.

And those were the enormous, terrifying spiders and snakes, with little yuan-ti dragging anathemas and hordes of drow, closing the gaps between the orcs and the hobgoblins.

Squelch-wriggle-wriggle-squelch.

I averted my eyes as a wave of red ooze covered in eyes and fanged mouths rolled across the ground, enveloping everything edible in their path. These were the gibbering beasts of the Far Realm, paving the way for a thundering, rampaging battle-host of beholders, foulspawn, balhannoths, destrachans, chuuls, carrion crawlers, mind flayers, aboleths, and swarms of kuo-toa with harpoons and spears and sahuagin guards to go along.

KA-BOOM!!!

With a tremendous roar and a slam, all the beasts of burden charging the walls met with a thunderous crash, which split the battlements asunder. The evil armies poured in, in the tens of thousands. I found myself locked in combat with five evistros and a huge minotaur, only to find them hushed away by the pointing finger of a large blue humanoid. Where he pointed, men shouted in agony and fell dead. Savage balor demons, vast titans, spiders bigger than elephants, and dragons swinging claws and tails, stood out sharply among the dull, armored mass of orcs, legion devils, and foulspawn. I lopped off a carnage demon’s head, and narrowly missed a stream of acid from a huge dragon lumbering toward me, heedless of the dozens of creatures caught below its stabbing claws. It fired another jet of acid at me, which I barely dodged, and I found myself in the middle of a mass of orcs. I sliced through them and won, but then I saw that the demonic foes were swarming through the outer city. They were a wave of creatures, breaking through Nerdath’s defenders like water dislodging rocks from the ground. Skilled gnome archers were knocked from the splitting walls, and I swung my sword with all my force. It tore through the body of a vast minotaur with a critical blow that sundered the bestial creature into two pieces. But I felt my strength begin to lag. First, the minotaur’s top half swung an arm and knocked me back twenty feet, into a horde of thirty legion devils. Their eyes were without feeling or senses, their faces dull, almost bored, as they hacked me with their blades and trampled me beneath their iron-shod heels. I was in a swirl of pain. The world faded to black around me.

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Plot summary, gleaned from the book jacket flap:

“A recklessly idealistic girl dares to test the perimeters of her tightly controlled (future) world and is punished by being sent back in time to a region of North America—‘Wainscotia, Wisconsin’—that existed eighty years before. Cast adrift in time in this idyllic midwestern town, she is set upon a course of ‘rehabilitation’—but cannot resist falling in love with a fellow exile and questioning the constraints of the Wainscotia world with results that are both devastating and liberating.”

I don’t quite get what Oates is trying to do with this novel. Every time she provides something, some question or scene that leaves the narrator confused but that has significance to me as a reader, she has another character provide the analysis. She doesn’t let me fill in the blanks, and that’s profoundly frustrating to me. For example, our narrator, Adriane/Mary Ellen, recalls something she’d witnessed on a television monitor as proof for the way she understands the world. “Hadn’t I witnessed?” she asks. “Hadn’t I seen?” I read this on a day rife with news about deepfake videos, and I thought, “Aha! This is what Oates means! In the world of her novel, people can’t trust their senses, just like in our reality!” I was just getting excited about this when another character fills in that blank: “There is absolutely no way for an ordinary citizen to distinguish a ‘virtual’ staging from an ‘actual’ event.” (219-220)

Interesting point, but it would have been even more interesting if I’d had the chance to get there on my own.

Oates is saying something very important about conditioning and learned helplessness and how we willingly keep ourselves contained in imaginary cages, how difficult it is even to determine whether the cage is real or imaginary, but she doesn’t let this just happen. She gives our narrator a psychology class and an interest in reading about B.F. Skinner beyond the curriculum, thereby spoon-feeding the reader the significant points. She also has the turning point in the development of the dystopian future/present be 09/11/2001 and the passage of the Patriot Act, and while the quick acceptance by the voting public and elected officials on both sides of the aisle of the curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of those terrorist attacks was alarming and probably symptomatic of an inclination of the public to accept a consolidation of power contrary to The Constitution if it’s framed as a paternalistic effort to “protect” us, drawing a direct line between that event and Oates’s future feels too simplistic.

One thing that intrigues me in the novel, however, is what Oates thinks of protests. She’s set up the place of exile as a mundane location, a place that celebrates mediocrity, a place where people with ambition spin their wheels without any hope of accomplishing anything of importance. The people who are content here include mediocre poets, professors who are uninterested in exploring beyond their own ideas, artists who accept limitations on their art because they want/need to receive commissions, and activists who engage in protests on the campus of small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Lumping all of these things together suggests that each is equally futile. As someone who attempted to engage in activism on the campus of a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, this seems an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of such activism.

What isn’t futile in Oates’s world? Is there an actual cage, or is it only imagined?

Good, interesting questions, but the novel fell short of being interesting in itself.

I’ve been attempting to read novels with an eye for how they might help me build my own character. This one’s a tough one, but I think the lessons are fairly basic: When I feel constrained, are the barriers real or am I imagining them? When I feel content and free, is this freedom real or am I imagining it? And the more dangerous question, the one that easily leads to an existential abyss: Are the things I’m doing of lasting significance? It’s a good question, but one that I’ll approach with caution.

Flaking Out: An Eczema Update

In the seven years since I published my first post about eczema, several people have written expressing interest in an update. I’m less inclined to blog about skin issues than I used to be, but since people seem to be itching for follow-up, here’s an update.

In answer to the, “Did it ever go away?” question: Yes! It took a long time and a lot of work, which I’ll talk about below, but it went away.

In answer to the unasked, “Did it stay away?” question: Alas! no. After nearly four years, it came back. But I blame myself, which I’ll talk about below as well.

How it went away:

After two years of trying lotions and potions and contortions with no lasting effect, I found out about the TQI Diet (aka To Quiet Inflammation Diet, aka Abascal Way, aka the Vashon Island Diet). Developed by Kathy Abascal*, it’s a way of eating that’s designed to reduce inflammation in the body. It consists of an initial period of strictly eliminating common inflammatory foods (e.g., dairy, sugar) followed by a testing phase to identify triggers specific to one’s individual body and to help develop a long-range eating plan particular to you and your needs.

One thing I like about the Abascal Way is its flexibility. The cornerstone is proportional eating: at least 2/3 of each meal or snack should be vegetables and/or fruits. What’s in the remaining 1/3 is up to the individual. After the Elimination Phase, you can eat most anything, provided it’s proportional, minimally processed, and works for you.

The Abascal Way didn’t work for me immediately. In fact, for the first several weeks, things got worse. My eczema spread, I was getting migraines weekly, and there were a couple of other symptoms I won’t list here. My spouse asked me why I didn’t quit if it wasn’t working. “I have no other options,” I said, and I stuck with it.

After about two months, it was like a switch got flipped. All of a sudden, everything was better. For the first time in two years, I had no eczema, no migraines. It was brilliant! Except for one day a week when I let myself have popcorn and whiskey, I never came off of the Elimination Phase, but it was well worth it.

That kept up with little indulgences (birthdays, travel) until last year when we moved to San Diego.

How it came back:

This is the sad part of the story, but it’s a sadness of my own creation. During the travel we did before the move followed by the move itself followed by the glee of being in San Diego, I let my Abascal habits slip.

In my defense, Abascal eating during travel is a significant challenge, and I’m weird with travel eating in the best of circumstances (I’m someone who loses weight on vacation, and not in a good way). But once we were in our new place, I didn’t have that excuse. I was still eating a healthy diet—no sweeteners, no gluten, no dairy, and I’d quit drinking alcohol entirely in March of 2017 (which is a topic for a different post)—but I wasn’t focused on proportional eating, and I ate popcorn and gluten-free toast much more often than once a week.

And so the eczema came back. Just a little bit at first, off and on, then more persistently. It was when I had my first migraine since 2015 that I knew I had to get back into the Abascal groove for real, but even with that, it’s been several months of false starts before I recommitted for real.

It’s been a week now of strict Abascal, and the eczema around my right eye has gotten much worse (bad enough that I will not be posting pictures of it, so you’ll have to trust me on this one). But I’m sticking with Abascal in the hopes that, like before, this is the “worse” before the “better.”

And that is my riveting eczema story, complete with cliffhanger ending.

*As far as I know, Kathy Abascal has no idea I’ve been on her diet nor that I’m writing about it now. I purchased all materials related to The Abascal Way, including the book and the cookbook, on my own at retail prices and without discounts. I mention it here only because it’s what I’ve done and what’s helped me. Your results, as they say, may vary.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

In the late 90’s/early aughts, Volkswagen had an ad campaign with the tagline, “Drivers Wanted.” Even in my early 20’s I was a jaded consumer of advertising. I knew I was being manipulated by marketing, but I would watch the commercials and think, “I’m a driver.” And I bought a Volkswagen. I mean, I spent two years doing research before I bought it so it was a reasoned choice, but I suspect the ads helped me feel good about the decision.

Moshfegh’s writing speaks to me in a way similar to the way those VW ads spoke to me. Both seem to confirm something in me that I already believe about myself.

In a way, this is a novel of false hope. The narrator and her friend are my age, the youngest of the GenXers, moving into adulthood as a blue dress brings down a president and as airplanes bring down skyscrapers. They are each parentless in one way or another, each trying to make sense of the world in her own way, trying to cleanse the body and the mind and the spirit and come out the other side pure and serene and with, if not understanding, at least acceptance for the myriad ways in which the world is effed up. And (spoiler alert) the narrator succeeds. She declutters beyond all decluttering, she empties herself and her world, and is left with the realization that the future is being created in every moment, and in every moment she is creating the future, and that none of it makes a difference, really, at all.

Which is a kind of freedom, and it’s a true freedom. The trouble is that freedom doesn’t stick with us. We can’t interact with the world and maintain that level of equanimity. You go on the yoga retreat or the silent meditation retreat or the epic bender, but life always sneaks back in. No matter how quietly you tiptoe about, the crap of the world is ready to ease its way back in, along with the false hope that the things we do really mean something.

Um, yeah. So. I’m not sure if Moshfegh’s writing speaks to me because it’s great writing or if Moshfegh just writes in a language I understand. Either way, it speaks to me.

Drivers Wanted.