Tag Archives: pleasure reading

Read. Learn. Repeat.

This weekend, I finished listening to John Elder Robison’s Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening.  This is the second book I’ve read by Robison, the first of which was Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

Switched On recounts Robison’s experience in a study that looked at his brain’s reaction to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).  As someone with a disorder listed on the Autism Spectrum, he had always struggled with understanding and expressing emotions.  This treatment was designed to get him “in touch with his emotional side,” so to speak.  He had a positive, though not “cured,” reaction to this treatment, which is perhaps evidenced best by the fact that he reads his own audiobook with a certain level of inflection and intonation you would not expect from someone with Asperger’s.

This book was a stretch for me, which is why I chose to listen to it on audiobook.  The language was extremely technical, as Robison himself is most comfortable in the world of machines and electronics.  He compared his brain experience to his work in the music industry, which was interesting although impossible for me to understand.  Some of the technical jargon and scientific language was also difficult to follow.  While at times I worried this would detract from my understanding of what the memoir was trying to say, however, in the end I felt like I connected to Robison at the point where his voice took us.  The overarching message and story was very engaging and emotionally charged, as Robison expresses for the first time what it feels like to “feel” like other people do.

I personally take as many opportunities as I can to learn more about people on the Autism Spectrum.  The way they perceive the world is fascinating to me, and I want to know more about what struggles and obstacles they may be facing.  I think that we should all take advantage of opportunities to learn about people who are different.  We may never be able to understand everyone in every situation, but we can take small steps toward discovering the way the world looks to others.  For me, that sometimes means trudging through rather scientific memoirs on topics I don’t understand.  At the end of his story, Robison made me appreciate what he has gained from science’s assistance in his life; I can also understand his optimism toward future discoveries.  These are developments I don’t need for myself, but that I can rally behind and support for other people.

I’m in no way insinuating that I’m good at this all of the time, either.  In fact, I’m hardly good at it some of the time.  I really like reading books where the protagonist is just like me.  I want it to be easy to relate, and to feel like not only do I understand “her” (it’s usually a her), but also that we understand each other.

Still, reading is a wonderful opportunity to explore how others live.  That’s what we praise it for–we want to go to other lives in other worlds.  Stories like John Elder Robison’s offer people like me the perfect opportunity to do just that.

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Fredrik Backman

Last weekend, I finished the book Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman—one of my favorite authors of this decade.  This is the third book I’ve read by him, and I’m looking forward to reading his novella, which was released in English in December, and waiting for his next book, set to be available stateside around summertime.

This was the first book I’ve read by Backman that didn’t leave me saying, “Wow!”  Because of this, I feel like reflecting back on my reading experience with him to kind of talk through why I felt this way about Britt-Marie was Here.  I’ve published a version of this post as a review on Goodreads, but I wanted to embellish it for further thought here.

I appreciated A Man Called Ove firstly for its similarities to The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.  Both are great portraits of the elderly, and they read like a conversation you might have with your grandfather, or another aging relative.  Moreover, I enjoyed the quick wit that leapt out of very straightforward language.  Part of me wonders if this shouldn’t be attributed to the translator, but clearly Backman has an appreciation for quick and simple situational humor.  He seems like the kind person who can laugh at everyday occurrences.  Another aspect of Ove I loved was his affection for his wife.  One quote from the book that still sticks with me is, “People said Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was color.  All the color he had.”  In this element, Backman managed to capture that part of our hearts that always breaks at the beginning of Disney Pixar’s “Up.”  It’s a huge component of what makes you invest in the man who is Ove, who might otherwise seem like nothing more than a grumpy old man.  Finally, I love how the opening chapter of this book hangs in the balance until you’ve almost forgotten it, and then, VERY near the end, you read (paraphrased), And that’s why Ove was standing in the store asking about an iPad.  All in all, Backman made you love his characters, watch their development, and get lost in love, laughter, and heartache over their general daily lives.

What I loved about My Grandmother Asked You to Tell You She’s Sorry stemmed from what I had also loved in Ove.  This story took a little longer to get moving, but it finished in perfection.  What I love about this story is how the reader is exposed to the nuances of the situations in ways that escape Elsa’s understanding.  Much like the humor hidden in A Man Called Ove, the harsh reality of life and death are tucked away in the passages of this one.  I also loved how all the lives of everyone around Elsa came together because of what her grandmother had done in life.  Each person served a purpose in the end, and the plot still felt plausible because they were all simply repaying the debt they owe to Granny.  At the same time, the reader really can’t predict everything that happens, so you’re left in this sort of awe over the results, and you can simply dwell in the emotions Elsa feels as well.  Moreover, as someone who is extremely close with her grandmother, I greatly enjoyed reading about another girl’s experience getting to know here mom’s mom.  I even appreciated the fact that this book alluded to the next, with the exodus of Britt-Marie and the promise of her own adventures.

Which brings us to the topic that’s really at hand.

I really, really, really wanted to enjoy this book as much as Backman’s other stories, but I simply couldn’t.  While the potential was there, it all fell flat.

When I first realized that there would be a story dedicated to Britt-Marie, I was pretty excited.  I felt that My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry only scratched the surface of her character.  She was dismissed, pretty much literally, throughout the entire story.  I figured she deserved her time in the spotlight.  In addition, I love when authors address mental illness and social disorders in their books by applying them to their characters.  Britt-Marie has no named disorders, but I would say it’s safe to assume she suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and perhaps some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well.  Moreover, several of her behaviors imitate those who are on the Autism Spectrum.  Regardless of what she is actually supposed to have—or to not have—her character spoke directly to the part of me that seeks to learn more about people who deal with these struggles.  I dove into the text with all the hope and excitement that accompanies getting to know an acquaintance a little bit better.

Unfortunately, as delightful as it was to witness her working through her situations and learning how to adapt, I felt that she still never gained any significance.  Unlike in My Grandmother…, however, she is the one who does a large amount of the dismissing.   The entire premise of the book is that Britt-Marie “was here,” in Borg, and the people will remember that she had been because the town has changed.  To be fair, a lot happens after Britt-Marie arrives in town, and a lot is going to stay different when she heads back out.  However, I felt that everything that happened probably would have still happened even if Britt-Marie had, in fact, not been there.  Unlike Ove and Granny, who drastically affected the lives of those around them (somewhat intentionally, mostly on accident), Britt-Marie remains a fairly passive character and does not strike me as a catalyst in the situations around her.  Despite her presence in the middle of the story (and the town), a lot of her encounters reveal her to still be the “fly on the wall.”  She doesn’t even manage to serve as the coach to the soccer team in the end because she has no license, so, while she supports them and takes the register, she has little influence over their actual experience.  Moreover, even in the moments where her actions do change the future, she doesn’t seem to take anything away from them.  While she has several opportunities to grow and change, she takes none of them, and is left pretty much where she started, except with a blue door on her white car—and she’s not even happy about it.

I also think that the story was lending itself toward a rather specific outcome in the end, but rather than taking the narrative to that place, Backman tried to fix his plot around a different ending that left me with zero closure.  It is clear through both books in which she is present that Britt-Marie wants nothing more than to be a mother.  And here, in this story, she is presented with three orphans in need of a mother—literally.  Two of them even become wards of the state, in need of adoption.  And the children are crazy about Britt-Marie.  Yet, in response to their need, Britt-Marie goes to Paris.

Um, what?

For the longest time, it seemed that Britt-Marie would leave Kent, get with Sven, and raise Sami, Vega, and Omar with him.  But none of that happens.  Rather, Britt-Marie is overwhelmed by her moral compass (which is mostly dictated by her age, apparently) and decides to return to the life that she has spent the last months running from.  The thought of adopting never crosses her mind, even after Sami has asked her to watch out for Vega and Omar and make sure they have a good home.  Britt-Marie really doesn’t hang out long enough to make sure this happens.  Even Sven “abandons” the children in the end under the assumption that some other set of parents, who already have children (and who, I might add, were not actual characters in this story until they come to Sami’s funeral), will step up and take over.  To me, this doesn’t sound like either of these characters at all, and quite frankly challenges my belief that the story itself should exist.  After all, if the entire plot builds to a point where Britt-Marie makes no choices and just goes on a holiday, why did she need to encounter these people in the first place?  And how dare we then attribute her presence as worthwhile on their lives?

I was also irked by the morality that trumped all behavioral elements in the marriage of Britt-Marie and Kent in the end.  Kent, clearly, has not changed.  Even as he helps Britt-Marie achieve one of her personal goals (i.e. the soccer pitch [Does that even happen, by the way?  It was never very clear, in my opinion.]), it is over and against her autonomy as an employed woman and in preparation for her to come home with him and return to life as normal.  The story tells us honestly that Britt-Marie must choose between the soccer pitch and her job.  Of course, Britt-Marie is the main decision-maker in deciding to have the field developed (again, does this even happen?), but that also points back to the problem.  Not to mention that, at least verbally, Kent is extremely abusive!  He dismisses Britt-Marie, even as she tries to explain to him why she left in the first place.  And his strict understanding of gender roles, while at one time might have satisfied her, have ceased to apply now that she’s lived on her own.

I don’t think the story gives full appreciation to the fact that this is the first time Britt-Marie has really been on her own.  She was self-sufficient when her mother turned ill, but she was not at that time also a single woman in charge of her life.  Her mom dictated her every step, and shortly after Mom’s death, Britt-Marie married Kent.  She has never had a place of her own, and rather than fully appreciating it or grasping its significance, Britt-Marie goes home.

Essentially, despite alluded-to growth, Britt-Marie has barely changed from the person she was when she fled her original home.  We could see all through “My Grandmother…” that Britt-Marie was discontent and underappreciated in that life.  She set out to escape it for some reason, clearly, but at the end of this novel she is headed back in the same direction, albeit through France instead of the most direct route.

I’m not saying that Britt-Marie should have run off with Sven, but I am saying that it should have taken more than a feeling of commitment to Kent and the thought, “You are too old to start over now” to convince her to return to an unhappy marriage.  I appreciate Backman’s moral compass in most of his writing, but here I think it overwhelmed general common sense.

The whole story was not awful.  Backman’s standbys were still present.  The book reads like you are sitting next to an elderly relative on their front porch, listening to them talk about their life.  This is perhaps my favorite element of Backman’s storytelling.  Some books beg you to turn the pages faster and devour the story in one gulp, but Backman’s books can hang out for a time without rushing you.  Many of the characters are lovable, including Somebody, who remains this sort of enigmatic antihero reminiscent of Everyman or Odysseus’ “Nobody.”  The two men in the pizza shop each day are a perfect representation of small-town living.  The town itself sounds beautiful, and the concepts at work are commonplace and comforting.  There are the expected heart-wrenching moments that leave you invested in the individuals who experience them.  When Ben scores the team’s only goal, and when Sami’s car doesn’t come back, I had actual tears in my eyes.  And, of course, small moments make you giggle and even laugh out loud.  His wit is, again, so quick and so simply you could easily miss it.  These elements of his talent were still there, if overshadowed by a storyline that lost its direction—and may have never ended up anywhere.

This review turned more depressing that I was expecting it to, or than I meant for it to be.  In the end, I’m not sad that I read this book, but I am sad that it did not turn out better than it did.  I think, for his own good, Backman should move away from similar character types—older people encountering youths and having their lives changed for the better.  Hopefully his next works will be able to stand on their own.  He certainly hasn’t lost a reader in this experience.  I look forward to taking some time in the next month or so to read through And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.

– Fredrick Backman, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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So Many Books, So Little Time…But Seriously

Never in a million years would I have believed that I would face the dreaded quarter-life crisis.  I, the always-put-together, the collected, driven, intelligent agent of my own future would never succumb to such a base response to growing older–at least, that is, not until I am fifty and at the socially acceptable age to “freak out” about the approach of death.  Yet, here I sit, staring into the abyss that is not so deep, containing the “small handful” of days I have left on this earth, and I am panicked, for I have realized the darkest truth of all.

There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.

There is not enough time in my life for me to read every book I want to.

Several minutes of silent screaming immediately commenced.

Ever since my transition into high school and the ever-growing piles of required reading, I have become a half-hearted pleasure reader.  It’s not that the pleasure in reading what I want has diminished in any way; rather, it is that required reading has so often been a pleasurable read (yes, I am one of those nerds who actually liked the same books as the English teachers), I didn’t want to start a separate book of my own.  Then, of course, life always seems to get in the way of leisure time, and college taught me that it is often more important to get sleep than to read the next chapter in a book.  Besides that, what English major in her right mind has time to read half of Crime and Punishment, all of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and a handful of Didion essays in a given week, and then wants to pick up another title?

The result of this casual attitude toward reading has led to a very long Book Bucket List.  Whereas the titles on my list used to be carefully screened for those I would find most enjoyable, my experiences with delighting in genres outside my normal “cup of tea” led to titles being added willy nilly.  The beast that is my current list causes those who see it (when I show them) to balk and gasp, because it is, after all, very long.  And yet, despite its approach to tome-status, I continue my half-hearted engagement with what I am currently reading.

Reading, as a grown up, is hard work.

And then this thought hits, and I panic because I realize that time is going to run out, and if I keep reading at a casual trot, I’ll never finish even a portion of the list I have created.

I think what freaked me out the most about my discovery of this truth is that I, in the 80 or so years I will walk this earth, will not be able to read all of the books that I want to read.  This is not simply proving that I will never make it through the books I have no intention of reading. This is proving that there are books out there that I have been waiting to read that I will never get to finish!  There are words I will never devour, sentences I will never dissect, titles I will never cross off my list, even though I want to.

So, why have I ever wasted my good and precious, short-lived time on a title I did not want to read?!?

Believe you me, after this realization punched me, I began kicking myself for every book I ever picked up for personal pleasure because someone else told me I had to read it.  If I could go back to every book I groaned over, skimmed through, or read with painstaking slowness because I could not appreciate the words on the page, I would turn to the person closest to me and say, “Here.  I have better things to read.”

This is not necessarily in reference to all of the required reading I have finished to date.  I am more so referring to the recommendations made by people over the years for “really great books” that “changed people’s lives.”  They are the ones that people insisted I would enjoy, but when I got to the last page, I would respond, “that was it?”  For so many of these, I never felt that I had spent a good bit of my time enjoying something worthwhile.

And here, specifically, is where my quarter-life crisis has begun.  When our time to craft our palette is so short in the first place, why do we waste time trying to acclimate it to others’ preferences?  Why did I ever think it was necessary for me, as a reader, to indulge in titles that gave me no sense of self-discovery?  Beyond that, why did I ever think it was possible to read the entire library?!

I guess I always assumed I would be like Matilda, finishing out one section to take on the next.  In fact, when I was younger, I was sure that I would be exactly like Matilda–I would finish every children’s book in the library, then I would read every “adult” book after that.  And, in some ways, I don’t think I ever really shook that goal.  In fact, I can think of many titles I read over the last five years that felt as though I were dragging through them in order to say I had done it, having forgotten that the point of pleasure reading is in its name.

I do not want to name any titles that came to mind here, because I don’t think that is important.  What I have deemed as a waste of my time, I’m sure, has transformed someone else’s world and his/her perception of it.  I also don’t want to create a rumored list of books that should never be on anyone’s Book Bucket List, because I think we have to have the confidence to own what we enjoy the most, whatever that may be.

What I do want to focus on, however, is the fact that this realization has led to a rather deep existential consideration of the meaning of life and its brevity for me.  As humans, we have a tiny amount of time to spend here on earth.  We have to be vigilant about how we use the days and hours we have.  We should never compromise our time to try to please someone else, particularly in ways for which the person probably will never notice.  After all, do I think anyone who has recommended a book to me that I didn’t enjoy would stop being my friend if I had never read the title?  Most real friendships would never end over something so petty.

We also cannot live for the materialism of this planet.  Of course, I greatly struggle with calling books “material,” since only their bindings keep them finite.  Books are, after all, pieces of  souls captured in tiny symbols.  They carry with them the magic of community, shared uniquely within the human experience.  At the same time, in that sense, we must embrace them as souls; instead of trying to meet every character between every page, I have to recognize the value in dwelling within those texts that speak the most to me.  Huh, that even sounds a little bit like friendship to me.

Finally, I think bibliophiles have to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place–books change us, often for the better.  We learn about ourselves, the world, and how each defines the other.  While we should, again, never race through every copy we can find, we should be ready to pursue the knowledge, wisdom, and truth we can find in written forms.

I’m still totally devastated that I will be unable to finish my Book Bucket List before I die.  However, I have a renewed commitment to evaluating what I will read next, and how thoroughly.  Besides, I am thankful for a reminder about how important it is to embrace the lives we have.

“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it?  Time is chasing after all of us, isn’t that right?”

Mrs. Snow, Finding Neverland

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