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?

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.

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.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Usually, I like reading books quickly. I like immersing myself in the world, a quick dive to the bottom of the pool and then back up again for a deep breath and the return of the pull of gravity on my limbs. If I take a long time reading a book, it’s because it’s difficult to read somehow, wordy in a nineteenth-century way or full of page-long sentences like those written by the literary Wunderkinder of the early twenty-first century or populated with a cast of thousands that I need notecards to keep track of.

This novel I read slowly for none of these reasons. History of Wolves drew me into the depths, past the hovering walleye, to a murky, beautiful place full of muffled sounds and a stinging cold from which I was in no rush to return.

Every word of this novel reaches deep. Fridlund wastes nothing. Linda’s memories of belonging and joy are so closely tied to memories of betrayal and pain that she can’t look at either directly. As we read, she circles around and around, getting close to the story and then drawing back, touching back on memories that take on one meaning in the first telling and another in the next. Fridlund puts the reader directly into Linda’s mind, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s painfully real. This novel demands a slow read to savor each morsel, to roll each word over the tongue like a pebble.

A friend and I were talking about the difference between a novel about a young adult and a YA novel, and while there are perhaps some generalizations to be made about purpose and literary merit, at the root the difference seems to be one of subtlety. Most YA novels I’ve read at one point or another explain the conflicts of the characters directly, telling the reader explicitly that the main character feels alienated because despite some specific difference—poverty or learning disability or supernatural ability—she’s trying to be accepted by her peer group while remaining an individual. Linda feels the loneliness of a teenager trying to determine her place in the world, trying to feel accepted without blending in, but Fridlund shows all of this indirectly and more clearly and honestly than if she’d just written it outright.

I love this novel. I love the flawed, horrible, beautiful people. I love following Linda through the lakes and the woods, the slush and the mud, and the smell of pine sap and wet dog. I love seeing her poor decisions and her good decisions and the blurred dividing line between the two.

I’ve been reading novels lately with an eye for how they might help me improve my own character, and I can see two lessons that this book offers me on this front.

First is the reminder to experience everything. Hear each bird, smell each pinecone, taste each tropical Skittle, and note our relationship to these things because the same thing can seem different depending on the circumstances.

The second is to question my assumptions. Are the conclusions I’m drawing about the way the world works or about how the people around me act based on a sound premise? Am I leaving something out or missing a piece of the story that would allow me to understand a situation better? Are my assumptions blinding me to situations or evidence that might challenge my understanding of the world and of myself?

I have no memory of how this novel ended up on my to-read list, but I am so glad it was there and that it was on the shelves at my local library when I was looking for something to read.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

There’s an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain” about counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are basically a reimagining of past events, an answer to “what if?” and all of the events that cascade from a different choice or circumstance.

The episode is specifically about counterfactual thinking in the wake of tragedy. The woman whose story they share talks about how just before she and her husband ascended the mountain on which he would be killed in an avalanche, he told her that he had a bad feeling about the day. Together they’d decided to continue with their plans. If nothing had happened, she might not even have remembered that conversation. But because something did happen, something very bad, she reviews that instant and imagines what would have happened if she had suggested that they just skip the trip.

The Third Hotel is essentially an account of Clare’s counterfactual. What if Richard hadn’t died? What if she’d acted on the signs she’d been noticing in him for months? What if they’d both been more open with each other from the beginning of their relationship? She takes the trip to Cuba they’d planned to take together, and she replays their relationship, digging into details she and he had never addressed during their life together, trying to put the pieces together into a narrative that makes sense, and trying to come to grips with the unknowable.

The woman in the podcast was seeking some locus of control, something she could have done to change the outcome, and she focused in on that moment before their trip that seemed like a crossroads. This led, to one degree or another, to a sense of responsibility for her husband’s death. Clare feels a similar sense of responsibility and blame but without a single moment to look at, she sees her husband’s death as an accumulation of poor choices and in some ways even a result of a flaw in her own character. She imagines not just that she could have stopped his death, but that she was the one who killed him, and neither she nor the reader can be certain that this isn’t the case.

In her blurb on the back cover, Lauren Groff writes that “you read [Laura van den Berg’s] work always a bit perturbed.” This was definitely my experience. The novel is dizzying, the line between reality and Clare’s imagination blurred. I oscillated between “I love this book!” and “Do I love this book?”

In addition to the main story, the novel addresses the three-way relationship between the author/artist/filmmaker, the story itself, and the audience. One character talks about the tacit agreement between the filmmaker and the audience of a horror film, a genre of which Clare’s husband was a scholar. “The screaming was only pleasurable because the audience knew the terror had an end,” he asserts.

Throughout the book, Clare is trying to place her life with Richard and his death into a narrative, a story with boundaries to comfort her with the knowledge that “the terror has an end.” As she traces her marriage back to its beginnings, Clare sees that the decision to marry someone in the first place carries with it the knowledge that, either through death or divorce, that relationship will end. A beginning implies an ending.

I’ve been reading everything lately with an eye for how I can use it to develop character in myself. In applying that filter to The Third Hotel, I’ve identified a primary idea with character-building potential: We can’t run from ourselves.

Like in a horror film where the victim is running frantically from a killer who walks steadily, methodically behind, no matter how fast we move whatever truth or pain or past we’re trying to evade will eventually catch up with us. It’s difficult to escape our patterns of behavior, difficult to stop running, but it happens whether we do it by choice or let it happen on its own. Sometimes (most times?) it boils down to being there in our relationships, with those we love and who love us, holding their hand, looking them in the eye, making physical contact while they cry, and allowing them to do these things for us. Our culture doesn’t encourage this simple but profound connection. It promotes independence and transactional relationships and solving problems by buying things rather than through the cultivation of family and community relationships. When it appears that our corporatocracy is encouraging us in these directions, take a closer look and you’ll generally find it’s actually an ad for a car or a credit card, an eyeliner or an app. It might look an awful lot like personal connection but peel back the veneer and it’s a ploy to get us to give away some aspect of ourselves—our thoughts, our preferences, our photos—that can be sold for someone else’s profit. And along the way we become convinced that we’re the mere sum of our parts, a collection of likes, dislikes and moments curated for public consumption.

So my takeaway is to maintain constant vigilance, to be aware always of who’s offering a solution to my particular problem and of who’s defining the problem in the first place. What are they selling and who stands to profit if I buy it? Does it bring me closer to people I love, closer to people in my community, closer to myself, or does it just offer the illusion of closeness? If all it costs me is money, it’s guaranteed to be the latter.