The second read for January was part of my self-challenge of reading more books by South Asian authors this year. The author, Sana Balagamwala, is Pakistani and apparently grew up in Karachi, where the book is set.
I like the idea of a house narrating a story. The house in question is a bungalow located in Karachi. House Number 12 Block Number 3 tells us about the lives of its inhabitants, Haji Rahmat, his wife Zainab and their two children, Nadia and Junaid. The story spans the four months after the patriarch of the family is dead. But, of course, the house remembers all the years leading up to this terrible event and how they shaped the family’s response to this unexpected crisis.
Each chapter reveals new shades in the personalities of the characters that populate the house. Spoilt little Nadia as a child, and later as a headstrong young woman; superstitious but warm-hearted Zainab; an almost passive Junaid with his carefully-repressed emotions. Dialogue is deftly used to establish and unfold the little conflicts that brew between these characters.
The house observes, not impartially, but with much vested interest in the future of its inhabitants. It notices details that they miss out on in each other’s demeanors. The house is sentient but not insightful. It cares deeply for its family; or perhaps it is simply filled with their feelings. Yet, it makes no profound observations or leaps of faith – it is a house, after all – and much is left for the reader to surmise. It’s a neat little trick – having a house as narrator. But it’s not necessary.
The book chronicles historical events through discussions between characters. Partition, wars with India, natural disaster in East Pakistan, and later the separation of Bangladesh; not to mention, political turmoil within Pakistan. These events show us that the characters lead inconsequential lives on the backdrop of history. And yet, every event in the characters’ lives is a small crack; and even the little cracks on the surface of history have huge consequences for those involved. Another neat little trick, but this one worked for me.
Overall, it’s a good book, even if a bit gimmicky. I can’t believe this book has only 40-something reviews on Goodreads. The writing is delicate. And it talks about trauma with great intensity of feeling. It’s worth a read.
One of those obscure books that I can’t tell you why I picked up, but I can assure you I’m glad I read it.
We (urban animal-loving folk) tend to talk about conservation in black and white terms devoid of socio-political content. The book questions this tendency. It reminded me of a quote from Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.
“Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? …This whole world had become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime, was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil.”
The author goes a step further in The Snow Leopard and the Goat. He says that the conversationist spectacle of free wild animals roaming in vast stretches of wild forest presumes that animals cannot coexist with humans. However, historical data and years of research states otherwise. He points out that the real conflict is not between animals and humans encroaching on their habitat, but urban conservationists and farmers settled near wildlife zones. He writes,
“In Baltistan I have encountered numerous situations in which villagers openly demanded that since people in New York and London want to protect the snow leopards, they should take the animals away with them.”
A key takeaway is that we cannot generalise the behaviour of all animals in the wild. The reasons for tiger endangerment may be different from snow leopard endangerment, depending on the ecological roles, habitats, preferences of that species. The writer argues that the primary reason for the declining number of wild snow leopards is not human encroachment, but hunting and the sale of exotic products like pelts. Snow leopards used to destroy local game animals, and therefore were seen as vermin. These practices were carried out by the same class of social elites that are now proponents of conservation.
Furthermore, there is no use denying that farming has encroached upon habitats. But even here, why does subsistence farming by villagers bear the brunt of the blame? In fact, the majority of habitat degradation is a direct effect of the increased consumption by industrial societies. Yet, we don’t bat an eyelid when entire rural settlements are cleared and rehabilitated to create safe wildlife zones. Either way, villagers bear the costs of our conservation effort. The author discusses how working with the farmers, through schemes like insurance of their livestock, has a better chance of success than “raising awareness.”
The Snow Leopard and the Goat forces you to reconsider assumptions. How are conservation projects marketed? Who are the major donors? When countries work together for conservation, are they really working together? What information do the donors get of the difference they make? Would conservation groups benefit from under-reporting wild animal population numbers? Why not? Why is our idea of the wilderness devoid of humans?
The book douses your conservationist’s passion with some layered facts and references. Not everything the author says rings palatable or unbiased. It’s also a little tedious for someone who isn’t an expert in snow leopards or conservation. But it gives what it promises: a glimpse into the politics of animal conservation. The larger lesson here is: question what information you are fed and whose interest it serves.
The title, Ich war dabei, is German for ‘I was there.’ The subtitle is a haunting summary of what the book is all about – Geschichten gegen das Vergessen – literally stories against forgetting, or like a battle for remembrance.
So, what is this book about? This is a collection of stories written from the perspective of people who were children (preteens and teens) during the Nazi regime, in different parts of Germany, Poland and Czech. It’s a book that documents the indoctrination and the casual horror of the Third Reich.
Some of the stories refuse to leave my mind…
In the very first story titled, ‘Er war noch warm’ or ‘It was still warm,’ we witness the confusion of a child as his family visits a neighbour’s house to eat the lunch laid out on their table. They are one of many neighbours flocking in to pick and choose from the things left behind by the Jewish family when they’re taken away.
In the story, ‘Die Wertvollen und die Minderwertigen,’ a woman recalls a high school lesson on the physical differences between ‘the superior and inferior races.’ She’s been singled out by her teacher, who points out that the child has ‘typical oriental features,’ therefore labelling her inferior. She talks about that day as having given her that first blossoming feeling of rebellion.
I can’t forget the story about the silent house where no one lived… and the village which buried its past ‘for the sake of the tourists.’ The story about the young boy and his first ‘kill’ and about the old Polish couple who traced their way back to the house they had abandoned years ago for one last glimpse of something that no longer existed.
It was difficult to contain my shock at the purposeful sincerity and candid narrative style. I know that my lack of German fluency must have failed me a few times. I would like to reread the book to discover the nuances I have missed. I wonder if there is an English translation – I would love to share this with students.
It is interesting to explore a bit about the writer here, and about why I chose to read this book. Gudrun Pausewang was a German author of young adult and children’s literature. According to a Spiegel obituary, Pausewang was born in 1928 in Mladkov, which is now in the Czech, and fled to West Germany with her family after the war. She was a teacher, and taught in schools in South America before coming back to Germany. Her writings revolve around war, climate change, privilege, and a myriad other battles in life.
It was one such children’s book that inspired me to look up this author. I have inherited (read: stolen) a set of German storybooks from my aunt, who was a German teacher. Among these is an dark and richly illustrated board-book called ‘Die Kinder in der Erde,’ or ‘The Children in the Earth.’ It is a beautiful little fairytale about a conversation between the earth and man, through the innocence of children. Sharing the cover illustration and the first couple of pages here –
I will certainly be looking up more by this writer. And I would love to know if there are English translations of any of her books, so that I can immerse myself better in the message of her books.
I was so looking forward to this book! The premise is excellent – it’s exactly my kind of Faustian story. A young woman makes a deal with a dark god – she wants to be free… escape her village and her marriage… and live forever… The devil answers her prayer. Except, no deal is quite that straightforward. And so, while she escapes from her small life, she is cursed to remain alone, forgotten. No one remembers her, and anything she says, writes or makes is wiped from the world, from memory and history. She is not only out of the grasp of time, she’s cut out of life itself. Three hundred years of anonymity until… she meets him. Henry. And he remembers her.
The Good: You know, I expected it to be as cheesy as any period / fantasy romance. A good kind of cheesy! The book did start out that way. Those sweeping parallel storylines flitting between the 1700s and somewhere close to now, 2014, New York. Rich, silken prose dripping off the pages, vivid descriptions of the city-life and art and poetry… It was all so Ooh! But Ooh! is all there was.
The Bad: Pages and pages, and some more pages, of: nothing. Repetitive lines, overused similes, cluttered ideas, name-dropping, and so much maudlin drama. Here’s what I mean. These two lines are set in 17-something Paris (I guess) –
He does not say he will walk her home. And if it were midday, she would scorn the offer just to spite him. But it is late, and only one kind of woman walks alone at night.
You know what that last line means, don’t you? You know exactly what she means by a certain kind of woman – what it says about her, him, their times, the world. And yet, what the author gives us is two more paragraphs about it:
Addie has learn that women – at least, women of a certain class – never venture forth alone, even during the day. They are kept inside like potted plants, tucked behind the curtains of their homes. And when they do go out, they go in groups, safe within the cages of each other’s company, and always in the light of day.
To walk alone in the morning is a scandal, but to walk alone at night, that is something else. Addie knows. She has felt their looks, their judgment, from every side. The women scorn her from their windows, the men try to buy her on the streets, and the devout, they try to save her soul, as if she hasn’t already sold it. She has said yes to the church, on more than one occasion, but only for the shelter, never for the salvation.
I mean why – WHY – was that needed? This happens all the time in the book. What she has already said in ten words, she dwells on for forty more, throwing in the misplaced metaphors and the inconsequential details.. why? Because it sounds good? Does it even manage that? Half the book could have easily been chopped – the great premise was throttled by bad editing.
The Ugly: And yet, the lack of editing was not the biggest of my concerns. The most annoying bit was how all the existential questions that the book raised went conveniently unanswered in the end. What was the point of this book? What was the grand takeaway? It’s not a surprise to me that the author writes for young adults, because this book reads like YA, except with sex and a 300 year old character – wait no, it reads exactly like YA.
P.S. No issues with YA, I read it – just didn’t expect this to fall into that bracket.
The past three months have been unreal. No words can describe my whirlwind of self-inflicted life changes – but it does reflect in the dark, dark reading choices. In no particular order, Part 2 of My Favourite Books of 2021 –
1. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – a story of Alzheimer’s, caring for the old, caring for the young, unrequited love and coming to terms with death. It’s about all of this and still, breaks any of the stereotypes you may have associated with these themes. Khong’s charming, quirky, sad writing style is difficult not to like. Link to my review.
2. Lost Gods by Brom – WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN! No, seriously. Why am I reading this now? Lost Gods is a story of a man who finds himself in the land of the dead and has to push his way out of Purgatory to save his family. It’s peppered with art by the author himself (who is an artist) and is just so incredibly detailed, it makes your skin crawl!
3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – A modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, this is the story of a pair of British Muslim sisters whose brother has left the family on a terrorist path, following in the footsteps of their father. It’s the story of a family’s loss and the little, big things that make up identity – language, food, nationality, what you wear, whom you marry. A haunting tragedy. Full review here.
4. Nightbooks by J.A. White – A little boy who loves to write horror stories finds himself trapped in a witch’s lair. In an Arabian Nights fashion, the only thing that keeps him alive is entertaining the old witch with his ghost stories. What happens when he faces the dreaded writer’s block? I wish I had access to such delicious, and also tasteful, horror when I was in middle school. I loved this book!
5. The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria Rilke – Self help in my world often takes the form of writings by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dark Interval is about life and death. It’s a set of letters that Rilke had written to his grieving friends. Beautiful… that someone could be so sweet, sensitive and practical, and say the right things, in the face of loss… where most of us would just blubber and grimace.
6. Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K Massie – Wow, I’ve spent two months on this monster of a book! It is absolutely incredible just how much detail, intrigue and character Massie has managed to squeeze into the roughly 1200 pages of this book – not a word is superfluous. It’s an account, not just of the life of Peter the Great, but a biography of the whole of Europe during the long reign of this Russian Tsar. I will write more soon.
I’m moving home, and reminding myself constantly that, “coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving,” (Terry Pratchett said that.) I stayed up reading overnight yesterday; or this morning. It felt good. Been a while since I did that. Then I ranted about the book on Goodreads. Sharing the rant here, too! A rare long review.
Amazon Blurb: Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancé are moving house, but he’s moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year. Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become
Disclaimer-ish: Okay, I want to get this out of the way – this book is nothing like the ‘kind of books’ I read, if all those many kinds can somehow be clubbed together as one thing that this book is not. Which is also to say that if this book were a ‘typical’ example of some genre, I am fairly certain I have no clue which, or how it lives up to others like it. Yep, the strange and uncalled-for disclaimer ends here. The obsessing and fawning and oohing begins –
Rant: I LOVE THE BOOK. It is so emotional. This is going to sound like a tangent, but bear with me. One of my favourite high school teaching moments is asking students to decide what the ‘sigh’ at the end of Frost’s Road Not Taken stands for – is it regret, relief, frustration, helplessness, or just a resigned acceptance, even an ironic celebration, of the inevitability of life taking its course. For me, it’s the last, always has been. This book is Frost’s resigned sigh stretched/packed into a novel.
I am someone who tends to live in the past, if I can help it; against my own better judgement. Tonight (or this morning, it’s past sunrise!) I am delighted that the book found me – on the precipice of a major life change, I think I needed to be told that I should salvage the present, and look up and away from that inevitable yearning for the past. I couldn’t stop reading it! I think I might read it all over again, just to see what I missed in my haste to devour it.
Khong does interesting things with language. She describes the main character’s attempts to make a relationship work as “grotesque, like trying to tuck an elephant into pants.” I came to a halt here at the ridiculous image. A simile shouldn’t distract you from the main prose and make you pause and puzzle over it, should it? Isn’t seamlessness a desired quality in a narrative? But. Tell me this didn’t make you smile! What a weird thing to say. Then there’s a passing comment about gutsy seagulls which look like Jack Nicholson, what with their piercing stares. I don’t think I will ever be able to look at a seagull or Jack Nicholson the same.
I made so many notes! Invented yoga poses, sabre-toothed squirrels, jokes hinged on a play on punctuation, and pronunciation, and pink loofahs. I just couldn’t steal away from the book to update my highlights on Goodreads or anything – and that’s a good sign right there.
An interjection of quotes:
Today we walked past a café’s colorful chalkboard and you asked me, “Why is that sun wearing a bra on his face?” “Those are sunglasses,” I told you.
~ “I’m just saying, if I were you, I’d forget about him,” she said. If I were you is something I’ve never really understood. Why say, “If I were you”? Why say, “If I were you,” when the problem is you’re not me? I wish people would say, “Since I am me,” followed by whatever advice it is they have.
~ I rip up the page. I mean to throw the pieces away but can’t. I put the pieces into my pocket to throw away later, or to forget to take out of my pocket and have destroyed by the washing machine. It’s all so messed up. I think what it is, is that when I was young, my mother was her best version of herself. And here I am, now, a shitty grown-up, and messing it all up, and a disappointment. What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person. Here’s the fear: she gave to us, and we took from her, until she disappeared.
Rating: So why 4 stars? Some parts of the book are stretched a little too thin. One has to take the level of detail with a pinch of salt – the narrator’s dad’s journals chronicling her childhood weirdnesses are too unrealistic. Children do absurd things, but no child does so many absurd things, so consistently, all in one day – for so many days. It’s quirky, but the narrative framework is a flimsy support for it. The “fake classroom sessions” set up for the narrator’s dad also are impossible to pull off with such non-chalance. All the “side characters” unite in a mission to keep up a semblance of ‘normalcy’ for this man suffering from dementia; and the lengths they go to do it are over the top and forced. A small issue. If it was a book that was driven by the plot, it would matter more – but it’s not.
Recommendation: The book is not ‘ha-ha’ funny, but funny in the same sense as “life is funny!” A summary wouldn’t do this book justice, so I haven’t written one. I mean – what’s up there in the description is as much as anyone could say and it’s not enough. It’s not a book about breakups, or parents, or health, or Alzheimer’s or loss or memory – though it has all of that. You need not satisfy specific ‘experience credentials’ to get this book. You just need to have lived a little.
Book 1 of 2021. I have been seeing Normal People by Sally Rooney just about everywhere in the book blogging world, so I was keen to pick this book up when it was recommended to me. I like to read books that are not overly discussed at the moment, because then, I am afforded the luxury of lower expectations. Anyway, preamble aside, I was surprised by how much detail the Goodreads blurb went into, so instead of copying the whole thing, I’m sharing here only bits and pieces of the summary I had read:
Summary: “Frances is a college student and aspiring writer and the endlessly self-possessed Bobbi is her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and completely taken by her tall, handsome husband, Nick. However amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect…”
The book vaguely reminded me of a slim little story I had read years ago called Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. “Can something be laid back and intense at the same time?” is how I had described it then and that glove fits this book too. Like Dept of Speculation, Conversations with Friends has ‘marriage’ as one of its main themes; it is, after all, another book about an affair. A trying topic, I did not expect to be so taken by Melissa and Nick’s difficult marriage. The circumstances of the affair raised issues like ego and vulnerability, poor choices and trust. But more than anything, the failing marriage portrayed how you only ever see others as extensions of yourself – paradoxically more so when you “know them better.”
But here’s the thing, what I loved the most about the book – this marriage – was not what the book was about. It was about friendship, as goes the title. I found Frances and Bobbi’s friendship interesting because it went against the odds – they were in no way alike and they were hardly ever honest with each other about their “inner worlds.” Yet, they were friends, unequivocally so; and would give each other just enough space in the event of any conflict, that their friendship somehow survived all the trials they put it through! I’ve been in friendships like that, albeit with less drama.
The writer used emails to show glimpses of all her characters’ perspectives and in doing so, showed us how their misunderstandings transpired. It was an interesting device because we saw many facets to each character, and it was hard to pin them down to any trait. Bobbi with Melissa was not the same as Bobbi with Frances; and Frances with Nick was not the same as she was with Bobbi. And the Frances we saw as the narrator, inside her mind, was not revealed to anyone at all. She cared so much about how she was perceived, she lost herself somewhere in all the theatre!
Unreliable narrator or not, I couldn’t help but call Frances two-faced! She was immensely dislikeable – not because of how closed off she was or how she changed colours, but because of how easily she let herself off the hook. Because no one knew the real Frances, no one could hold her accountable for anything – for her envy, her mistakes, her active aggression. Was she fooling herself too? They’re kids, they’re twenty one; I kept having to remind myself, as I watched her coolly carve her identity into whatever suited her then. Is anyone this deceptive?
I suppose one could call this story a portrayal of the modern idea of love, relationships and friendship – the sort of fleeting uncertain messiness. The Goodreads summary (that I clipped short) labels this lifestyle as “a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.” I can understand this too, also relate to it in some parts, but I cannot for the life of me claim to like it. And this is my issue with the book – I just don’t want to be part of this world, even if this world is very like the real world, or perhaps because it is so.
Rooney’s writing redeems the book and she leaves you with these teenie memorable moments and turns of phrase that beautify the drama.
“Afterward I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. Occasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and into my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me.”
“I laughed to myself although there was no one there to see me. I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand. I liked to feel that he was my collaborator. I liked to think of him waking up at night and thinking of me.”
Have you read the book? Or Normal People? What did you think? I guess for all my complaints, I will pick up Normal People one day, after all.
Hey, it’s January! This blog is getting ooold. Anyway, this post should have been written in December, but I have a lot of “looking ahead” bookish posts coming up and might as well start with this little unfinished Favourite Books Part 3. Links to the other two: Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 1 and Part 2.
1.All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I’d borrowed this gem from a friend and it came highly recommend and it was worth every moment spent on it. I have seen and read enough fiction around WW2 to feel compassion fatigue and a general wariness about picking up yet another formulaic designed-to-make-you-cry book. This was a breath of fresh air. The story is … – quoting the Goodreads blurb – … about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
2. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen – One word: genius! The Sympathizer is set at the end of the Vietnam War. As multitudes of Americans evacuate the country, our narrator is one of the locals who escape. He works for a general of the South Vietnamese army. Except… he’s actually been a North Vietnamese spy all along, a Communist sympathizer. What unfolds is a social satire of the Vietnam War, its depictions by American media, the alienation experienced by those rendered homeless, loss of identity in exile, and the Westerner’s misguided understanding of the East. It’s a comedy, tragedy and psychological thriller all rolled into one.
3. Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman – Full review here. A detective receives a mysterious phone call with some clues from her partner, and hours later, he is found dead. She sets off on a mission to find out what really happened, following the few clues left by her partner… only to be lead into a dark supernatural trap that lies waiting beneath our mundane world. It’s an American Gods meets Dresden Files kind of adventure – with shadow creatures, clowns, goblins… and could it be possible?… dragons! One of the coolest finds of the year.
4. The White Zone by Carolyn Marsden – A touching, sweet story about two ten-year-old boys, growing up in Baghdad, both of them innocent spectators and soon-to-be perpetrators of communal violence, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. In early 2008, there was a snow fall in Baghdad for the first time in a hundred years (in fact, it happened again last year after more than a decade.) This story is weaved around that one event, that miracle, that while it lasted, seemed to blur out the differences that waged war in lives of these boys. The story has an uncanny depth of character, and this subtlety, both surprising for a book means for young adults.
5. First They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman – Quoting the Amazon blurb – “Habiburahman was born in 1979 and raised in a small village in western Burma. When he was three years old, the country’s military leader declared that his people, the Rohingya, were not one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups that formed the eight “national races. He was left stateless in his own country. In 2016 and 2017, the government intensified the process of ethnic cleansing, and over 700,000 Rohingya people were forced to cross the border into Bangladesh.” It is a small, personal glimpse into a modern tragedy, a political horror story that is too difficult to fit into words. Unimaginable!
6. What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali – Oh man, this book. You really need to have the stomach for this kind of brutal honesty; the kind that makes you uncomfortable, or “sounds funny” or sounds not-true, because it’s so beyond your scope of imagination. It starts out as a quasi-memoir, as Abdudali details her own experience and soon transforms into a cut-throat dissection of rape culture. A must read for any and all of us!
Until the past couple of months, I’ve been reading a lot of very heavy, kind of sad content. 2020 has been a weepy year, book-wise. Men We Reaped is another book that moved me to tears.
Synopsis – In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life, to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth–and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community.
Losing someone in an accident… losing them to an illness… I’ve often used and heard the term a “meaningless loss” and death does seem so pointless and meaningless; something akin to a tornado happening upon its victims at random and utterly destroying them from inside out. And yet, when it comes to the death in Jesmyn Ward’s life, the death that fills it and surrounds it.. calling it “meaningless” would be callous and a gross injustice. Because it is not accidental and it’s not “out of nowhere.” This book takes the random statistics you would find in the pages of a newspaper and fleshes them out, it flashes a light on the “meanings” and “interpretations” that we may choose to keep buried.
Is this a story of any poverty, any grief, any addiction or any illiteracy? As easily as you might find parallels to yourself in the book… you’re reminded that you’re still an outsider peering into something far more complex… because your grief and your loss may have been meaningless, and that is your privilege. Hers isn’t a story of the ‘inexplicable,’ it’s a story of neglect. It is a book about systemic racism. It is about the plight of the southern man. It’s about the writer’s love and revulsion in parts for her childhood in Mississippi. It is anecdotal, emotional, nostalgic… but this style of writing adds substance to the dry and objective, instead of taking away from it.
“What I didn’t understand then was that the same pressure were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from the lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless. Some of us turned sour from pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, within and without. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.”
This post should be called: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – the good, the bad and the ugly. Here goes nothing.
The tagline of this book is a summary in itself – Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: a therapist, her therapist and our lives revealed. Gottlieb is a practising psychotherapist sharing her own tryst with therapy, along with stories of patients.
Things I Loved:
Therapists seeing therapists – The book begins with Gottlieb stressing on the fact that therapists seek out help too… Seeing her assert that she has the same struggles makes us warm up to the book… Do you ever wonder – “Do doctors get sick?” Of course they do. They’re human! We don’t need therapy because there’s something wrong with us. We find therapy useful because we’re… human. She normalises therapy by being both the expert and the vulnerable patient herself.
Dealing with mortality – Of all the patient stories, this was the one I appreciated the most – the idea of a young woman dealing with her own mortality. Gottlieb has explored the admittedly murky depths of this issue without slipping into drama or even that overwrought positivity. It could not have been easy being a therapist for someone in that position, with a terminal illness but with no certainty of the ‘how long…’ You feel for her, and you can see the relationship between these two people – Lori and her patient – and Life unfold before your eyes.
Little nuggets of insight – There were a lot of places in the book where Gottlieb gives us small bits of insight from existing research and theories and studies in psychology. These kind of went Bing! in my mind, because they were so relatable. Because I now had words for feelings I’ve felt and actions I have seen. Like this –
In projective identification, the man may feel angry at his boss, return home, and essentially insert his anger into his partner, actually making the partner feel angry. Projective identification is like tossing a hot potato to the other person. The man no longer has to feel his anger, since it’s now living inside his partner.
Man/boss stereotype notwithstanding, I do this ALL the time. (Sorry, Mom.)
Things That Didn’t Make Sense
Fact/Fiction? – At the outset, she informs us that she has changed the details of the patients just enough to make them unidentifiable. If this were true, considering that so much detail is revealed about each person, it makes one wonder, was this even genuine? Would it have been better as an autobiographic novel, drawing from reality, rather than fiction masquerading as fact?
Tone – About fifteen pages into the book, she calls herself an “unreliable narrator,” explaining how people (herself included) tell stories from their perspectives and tend to pick and choose, and leave out the unsavoury parts. I feel like she lets herself off the hook for that. She doesn’t hold herself accountable to the story.
She is also quite self-serving. For instance, she talks about a certain patient; and how she can’t help but have a caustic internal reaction to his behaviour; she finds him obnoxious and it colours her opinion of his struggles! This should have been an absolute no-no in her position! Her excuse is – “well, it’s bound to happen…” Can’t she call it a natural reaction, and still admit it was wrong? It’s tricky to write about yourself with authenticity, even the “unsavoury” bits. That was missing.
Things I Didn’t Like –
What’s the opposite of ‘crowning glory?’ This is the crowning failure of this book. It tries to be TOO much, failing to add up to anything. I vented my frustration in my Goodreads review that about sums it up – “I kept turning pages, flitting between this patient’s story and that, looking for a final point – a thread that connected them all into… one entire book. I didn’t know she was a columnist when I picked up the book; but now, I think I’d love her writing a lot more in crisp, limited doses!”
I don’t regret reading the book. I recommend it to those who ‘don’t‘ think therapy is normal, it can be a myth-buster, and will certainly transport you to the inside of a therapist’s office. The usual clichés are mercifully absent and it IS an important topic. To that extent, I did three-star it and do recommend it. A few weeks earlier I’d written about my own experiences in a post titled, We Need to Talk About Therapy. Do give it a read and share your thoughts!
You must be logged in to post a comment.