I love books. I love the way they look on my bookshelves, I love the way they smell, I love the way they mark events in my life. When I arrange my books on my bookshelves, I like to put them in chronological order according to when I read them. That way, I can walk past them in the mornings with my cup of coffee and point to them and say, “Here’s the books I read on that vacation in Mexico with Scarlettah”; or “I read this book while in China”; or “This book was given to me by a good friend and I read it at such a lonely point in my life . . .” And all these books become glimpses into my own life and journey as much as they are glimpses into the lives of the characters or people they’re about. So . . . since this blog is mostly about things I love, here are the books I’ve read recently and a few things I love about each one. [Note: since I’m in Thailand right now, I couldn’t take pictures of my books, so I got these pictures from the Internet.]
Black Milk by Elif Shafak (picture from this website)
This book was picked by my friend Sarah for our book club. She found it in a quaint, independent book store while on vacation in Maine. She began to flip through the pages and was instantly hooked. Luckily, it coincided with her turn to pick a book for September’s Book Club meeting. This book immediately grabbed me, and all the women in the group found it incredibly relevant to their lives. In this memoir about Elif’s postpartum depression, Elif says, “We all elaborate our personal answers to universal questions and needs, heartened by one another’s courage.” I, too, was hooked as soon as I read that. It is so true that our life’s journey is this, is articulating personal answers to universal questions. There is a very rich dialogue happening right now on the topic of women juggling careers and family life — our contemporary particularities of the universal questions of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. For us ladies, this often manifests as what our lives look like as we embrace our roles as mothers, artists, entrepreneurs, and career women.
So, while the book focuses on Elif’s postpartum depression (why it manifested so intensely and then how it was resolved, which looked a lot more like a rebirth), she describes the many competing internal voices that lead to the depression. Inside her were the competing desires for a successful career; living a multi-cultural life (although her husband prefers to settle in one place); having a thriving intellectual life; and enjoying the opportunity to be a mother.
Believing that she couldn’t “have it all”, she was self-destructively silencing one part of her in order to give credence to another. After she had her baby, her depression was so intense she couldn’t write anymore. But her journey did so much more than show her how to be a mother and a successful writer: it taught her how to honor all the aspects of who she is and live a fulfilling, integrated life: a mother, a writer, a traveler, a wife, an intellectual, and above all, a strong woman. This memoir is vulnerable, honoring, and personal. While I think it adds to the larger dialogue about women and juggling our many roles, Elif refuses to take a “side” in the debate and instead simply relates her own personal story of how she integrates her desires and now sees them as all aspects of her, instead of a yelling match between competing voices. (Here is a good review of Elif’s book.)
The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
Ah, I love a good tragedy. (It must be from all that Greek literature I read in my 20’s. ) There is so much to learn from a miserable misanthropic character! The main character, Tony, is a great example of everything not to do in life. His philosophy, and really his desire, is never to be bothered too much by life. Too afraid of risk and humiliation, he chooses an aloof demeanor in life, in relationships, in his career. As his life is nearing its end, he is a man who has learned little and lost everything. This novella resembles Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground ; similarly, you’ll be quite annoyed the whole time you read it and really, the point is, is to reveal the consequences of living in fear and self-protection instead of opening yourself up to risk and love and connection. It’s better, yes, to be genuine and humiliated than safe and alone. After all, the broken heart, the friendship where you cared more than she did, and that time you were totally dumped for being who you are: these are aspects of being fully alive and willing to love and lose. The New York Times has an interesting review that ends with this thought on Barnes’ novella: ““The Sense of an Ending” is a short book, but not a slight one. In it Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.”
My Life in France by Julia Child
So this book sits on the “what it means to be turning 30” part of my bookshelf! My good friend and mentor, Nancy, sent me this book on my 32nd birthday. I’m sure she sent it to me because I had recently come back from being in Paris, where I was taking French lessons and cooking classes. While in Paris, I bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking and was learning the different cuts of meat, what wines to pair with what dishes, and how to make the most delicious mushroom soup ever. Mmmm….that was the best 10 pounds I’ve ever gained!
But as I was reading her biography, I was more struck by the transition Julia Child was making in her personal life and career in her mid-thirties than her descriptions of her favorite meals and wine (which were definitely amazing as well!). The biography is a great glimpse into a woman’s mind and soul who determined to find her second career, fall deeply in love with food, and make her passion her focus in life (and being willing to look a little silly in the process). And, of course, I loved all the pictures of their lives in France (Paul was an accomplished amateur photographer) and the great tips on preparing certain dishes and finding certain wines.
Most book reviews focus on how Child ascended to the ranks of authority on French cooking. But I think this is myopic and misses the best elements of the story, which are the aspects of Child that makes her amazingly independent, heart-felt, curious, and willing to make mistakes in order to learn and create. This review ends with this quote from Child’s biography about making mistakes early on in her career, and I think, sums up the heart of the biography:
“At first this broke my heart, but then I came to understand that learning how to fix one’s mistakes or live with them was an important part of becoming a cook. I was beginning to feel la cuisine bourgeoisie in my hands, my stomach, my soul.”
This review ends with a comment on this quote:
“Reading these words, and the paragraphs all around them, reminds me that Julia Child is a model of open hearted, open-minded, friendly, optimistic curiosity and self-acceptance.”
And that, to me, is the point. It’s a nice companion to both Black Milk and The Sense of an Ending by showing us what life can be like at its fullest when lived with vulnerability, excitement, and curiosity. And the former Literature teacher in me hopes that this inspires you to read one of these books! Or if not one of these, then another book you’ve been wanting to read for a long time but keep putting it off. My favorite time to read is first thing in the morning, with my cup of coffee when the world is still quiet, I haven’t yet checked my email, and the birds are chirping. Enjoy!