The Winter (and a Little Spring) of My Discontent: Brief Thoughts on 16 Books

Inspired to serve as a model for my older daughters, whom I have urged to keep a reading log, and perhaps feeling beholden to correct my own hypocrisy, below are my brief and very informal thoughts on the books I have read from January to April 2017. Intensely painful back and hip problems have limited my activity the past four months, especially the last month, and I found reading to be even more of a pleasure than usual, so the books added up quickly. The insights of other writers have helped me to select books, beyond just goodreads, so that was another reason to try to record my own, for myself if not maybe for others, and not linger too much as I usually do on the editing part.

The books I read in this period are varied in length and genre and tone – from historical fiction to contemporary fiction to biographies to memoir/novel hybrids, with settings as varied as 17th century Ghana and present day La Jolla, California.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx, 2016, 717p: I saw this on my local library e-books page right before New Year’s and though the title and description didn’t immediately interest me, she is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and in general I do like epic historical fiction. It’s certainly an epic – it is the story of two men who came to New France as indentured servants and how their descendants’ paths diverged (and came together) over the next three centuries. It is an unsubtle reminder of what this continent looked like before we got here – trees upon trees upon trees – and how we destroyed it – specifically in Quebec, Maine, Michigan and New Zealand. One of the men builds an international timber empire, running away from his indentured servitude, and the other marries a native Micmac – with a different relationship to nature and a very different, and difficult, path forward. The ecological lessons are hammered home too heavily sometimes – especially for those of us who are quite aware of global warming. Some of her prose is so memorable (as was recently noted in NYT, sentences like “There were so many birds the sky rattled, so many fish the bay boiled like a pot) that it made up for other parts that were more stilted.

The Mindbody Prescription by Dr. John Sarno, 1998, 210p: This was given to me by a very kind friend on New Year’s Day to see if this was a way I could go to reduce my chronic back pain. I read it three times. Dr. Sarno attributes most pain to repressed unconscious feelings, and leans heavily on Freud. He has helped many people, including someone I spoke to at length about her experiences with him. A brief description of the condition he calls “TMS” and how to remedy it is here. He is convincing in his arguments that the brain plays a huge role in pain and healing in general and many conditions are linked to the unconscious.  But I fear that it is a slippery slope to a warped version of Sarno’s thesis. Sarno himself believes the pain is real, just not caused by the area of your body you think it is, and can be assayed by changing how you think. However, the skeleton of this idea is still that pain is in your head – and unless one fully comprehends Dr. Sarno (and has the compassion it seems he has) that idea can be very bad for chronic pain sufferers, especially women. Already, study after shows that women are prescribed antidepressants for pain at way higher rates than men are for the same pain –  Sarno does not believe in antidepressants but his theory may lead some to think they are what people need. Women’s pain has historically been thought of as “hysterical pain” – re enforced by a long line of cultural perceptions of women (some of this is actually in the Queen Victoria book below) and that does not need more ammunition. This said, I believe this is very important reading for anyone who has suffered from chronic pain, especially back pain, as part of the full picture of how pain works and potential ways to heal.

Victoria, The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, by  Julia Baird, 2016, 752 pages:  I am drawn to biographies of strong women (Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff is a favorite) so I was excited for this one. And it delivered! Baird cuts through the myths, and brings a feminist perspective to Victoria’s extraordinary life and reign, emphasizing how her letters were edited and censored by two men, skewing our view of her. But, Baird does not shy away from Victoria’s flaws. Among many of the passages I highlighted:

Throughout her life, Victoria was a paradox: a model of female authority in a culture preoccupied with female domesticity. And tellingly, four out of five of the queen’s daughterrs became advocates of women’s rights. Victoria described herself, conveniently, as “anomalous.” She protested that women should not hold power, all while being increasingly vigilant about the protection of her own power.

(Emphasis added.)

Baird uses rare material from the Royal Archives and a lot of independent research, such as the notes from Victoria’s doctor later in life. (Baird reveals that she was not mobile for years at the end of her life, and in a lot of pain, most likely from the toll of nine childbirths on her short stature.)

Baird depicts the Queen as strongest without her soulmate Albert – she mourned him for years after his death in his early 40s, but, unlike the public perception, she was actively involved in diplomacy later in life. The extent of this influence did not become clear until after her death when later letters were published (This made me mourn the loss of letters in life – how will we be remembered? By our texts?)

I watched the PBS Masterpiece mini series on Victoria’s first few years as Queen (not based on Baird’s biography) after reading Baird. I know biopics are certainly glamorized but I kept thinking of Baird’s depictions of Victoria as short and fairly stocky – she became much heavier later in life, but was not a thin young woman either. On screen she is beautiful and waifish – she is short, but perhaps that is more acceptable than heavy. I understand that this is a pet peeve I have and many do not – I would not even go see Girl on a Train because they refused to have Emily Blunt be slightly overweight like the protagonist in the book.

Razor Girl by Carl Hiassen, 2016, 335pp:  I read this one for my local book club but I had to miss the meeting where they discussed it.  I have enjoyed other Hiassen novels immensely, and I usually appreciate his wit, but it was hard to get over the premise of this one (a girl pretending to shave her bikini line while getting into accidents to trick the other driver into coming with her and she then leads them to the mob).  Hiaasen is a pro at moving the plot, so it didn’t lag, but I just was not all that interested in the characters. I did go to the Keys for the first time after reading this book and went back briefly to check the landmarks I skimmed over – he knows his Florida geography intimately.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, 2016, 373pp:  I was a little turned off by the book flap at first – I love Amy Poehler, but the sight of her recommendation on the cover, probably unfairly, gave me a little pause that the writer’s entertainment world connections meant perhaps her contemporary fiction novel would be fluffier than indeed it was. She does have connections to comedy – her husband is the head writer for Conan O’Brien. Closer inspection gave me an almost opposite pause – another book about very neurotic people? I certainly have my own neuroses, but often I don’t want to read about other people’s when the character gets too out there, and the situation becomes just sad.  I read it anyway and was pleasantly surprised – a good dose of neurotic characters but not too crazy. The book followed siblings who were depending on their mother’s nest egg that was depleted by their oldest brother’s’ folly. There are 4000 reviews of it on Goodreads so I will stop here. I would, in general, recommend it, especially for New Yorkers in the media scene may be familiar with the backdrop of this book.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, 2016, 305pp:  This was another monthly book club selection, and another family epic story rife with tragedy – also spanning three centuries. There were parts that were tough emotionally and hard to read given the horrors the characters face, but there is humanity too. It begins with two stepsisters separated at birth in 18th century Ghana. The horrors of the slave trade play a huge role – but there are more layers to this story, as Gyasi describes the role some tribes in Ghana played in it, and of course how it affected both sides of the ocean.  Each chapter introduces a new character related to one of the two stepsisters so it can feel a little jumpy and disorienting as you move through it (and figure out which family we are dealing with)  but I followed the thread, and settled into the flow. I liked the end a lot – it manages to be uplifting.

The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering by Melanie Thernstrom, 2010, 384 pp: Technically I did read this book at the end of 2016, but, as my back pain has just refused to stop, I have been rereading passages so frequently that it counts as a second (and third) read. Thernstrom weaves her own story of pain with her decade of research on pain – the history of pain from ancient times, and a look at current painkilling methods, including interviews with many pain patients and, valuably, interactions those patients have with doctors. It is part memoir, part examination of pain, and while I was skeptical that she could put that together, it worked. She discusses Dr. Sarno’s book, above – it does not work for her.  It hit home so many times that I regretted having it on my kindle app – I wanted to mark it up with post it flags like my law books. I settled for the Kindle highlighting tool. The perk is that it is on my phone so I can read it for a few minutes wherever I am, and I often do.

NB: Chronic pain, especially female pain, has spawned some great writing – silver lining? –  for example What’s Wrong With Me? By Meghan O’Rourke in The New Yorker (note her description of her intricate breakfast making process compared to her husband’s). Sonya Huber has also written extensively about chronic pain and her new book may be on my reading list soon. I had a good laugh at her take on the 1-20 (now 21) pain scale.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon, 2016, 430pp:  “After I’m gone, write it down,” Chabon’s grandfather (never mentioned by name) tells him on his deathbed. “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.”  Chabon does not put it in chronological order, and at first  I was jarred a bit from period to period, but then I loved how it lied together, and oh those masterful metaphors!  The writing is just exquisite. The book is the quasi-true story of his grandfather’s life, gathered from the author’s own experiences and the stories his grandfather tells him on his deathbed. Chabon disclaims in the beginning that he has embellished – and of course he must have because the deathbed stories were told to him years before he wrote the book and he writes with excruciating detail.  The portions depicting his grandfather’s experience in World War II are especially compelling, fictional or not.

Notes from a Small Island, 1995, 324pp and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson, 2015, 380pp: The first was a holiday gift from my husband and the second I took out from the library a month or so later. In both, Bryson, an American living in Britain, travels around Britain wittily observing everything from food to politics in trips 20 years apart. In the second book, he is much more well-known (the first was very popular and even spawned a TV show) so the tone is a little different – more arrogant and cantankerous and more name-dropping – but still wonderful to follow him around, especially to places I have never been but would like to go.  I found bits a little misogynistic (gratuitous remarks about women who are “round” for example) and too many fawning soliloquies about beautiful countrysides – we get it –  but I can forgive him and enjoy the ride. One of my favorite passages is when he is describing one hoity toity seaside town: “Salcombe is smart and prosperous and jaunty. Everyone was dressed like a Kennedy at Hyannisport….The shops were unquestionably upmarket. At the Casse-Croute deli, the special of the day was Brie and asparagus tart made with organic cider, which I was pleased and relieved to see. How often have I had to decline a Brie and asparagus tart because the cider wasn’t organic.”

Turbo Twenty Three by Janet Evanovich, 2016, 305pp: I have read almost all of these books over the years and Stephanie Plum’s fluffy adventures are a nice change from some of the heavier books. And who doesn’t love her two very different boyfriends Ranger and Joe Morelli? It was a library e-book and a quick read, and fun, but not as engaging as others. The characters are getting a little tired, I will admit – Stephanie does not age or evolve – maybe in number 24, we will see a wedding?

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, 1934, 256pp:  A very different time period of female authored mysteries for this one! One of my daughters had taken this out – she had read Ten Little Indians earlier, and I read that one behind her as well because I had completely forgotten how it ended since I read it in middle school.  I know a movie version is coming out later this year, on the heels of many adaptations over the 83 years since its publication. (The Orient Express train actually begins at Aleppo, poignantly, given today’s events.) This may be sacrilege, but it was not my favorite – the fact that European identities are not as distinctive now – Poirot continuously talks about what each kind of person would do based on their heritage –  may be a factor. My daughter thought the plot twists were well done, but that it did not fully make up for the lack of action.

Crimes Against a Book Club by Kathy Cooperman, 2017,  392pp:  I got this one through a Kindle first read – a former attorney turned novelist and mother of four caught my eye. I thought it was better than others in a similar genre – perhaps because she humanizes the rich people it is so fun to make fun of and there are no true villains. The plot is cute – two friends decide to sell face cream one makes out of readily available products (with a kick)  for $2,000 to women in tony La Jolla, California. I liked that it was told by different points of view of different members of the eponymous book club, which kind of is forgotten after the first meeting or two, aside from little snippets about different books at the beginning of each chapter, which I first found cute and then a little forced. I did keep thinking as people communicated that it was odd that so few people texted (these are people around my age – who leaves tons of voice mails?). I did not love the ending but it did tie it up nicely and it is a fun read.

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory, 2016, 556pp:  Gregory is an old favorite of mine and sometimes going back to 16th century royal feuds just hits the spot. Gregory does her research and then takes it from there, painting in the details as she imagines them.  In this one, she takes on the often forgotten Queen Margaret of Scotland, the older sister of Henry VIII.  Margaret is married off to the King of Scotland and after he is killed she faces endless betrayals and changing loyalties (including a massive betrayal by her second husband whom she married “for love”). Her status rises and falls multiple times.  Gregory’s Margaret is very whiny, especially at the beginning, and the that gets a little tedious. The three queens in the title include Margaret’s sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon, and Margaret’s younger sister Queen Mary of France. Gregory’s Margaret oscillates between jealousy of her sisters and love – too may times. I think this story would have worked without the three sisters angle – Margaret is fascinating enough herself and the book is told from her vantage point anyway so we don’t have much sympathy for Queen Mary or Queen Catherine.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, 2009, 273pp: Colson writes in the first person about 15 year old Benji’s summer in Sag Harbor – a novel with hints of memoir, as Colson did have a house in the black enclave in Sag Harbor. Benji’s  race and class play large roles, but so does the mid ‘80s culture, and generally the universal difficulties of being an adolescent boy. There is not much plot movement, but the book is witty and relatable. The chapters are set up so that they could be enjoyable short stories on their own. I am currently reading Whitehead’s more recent novel, Underground Railroad.

The Paris Architect by Charles Balfour, 2013, 384pp: I reread this one for my book club, having read it some time ago. The protagonist, a gifted architect whose work has dried up in Nazi-occupied Paris has no particular affinity for Jews but is pulled into designing hiding spaces for Jews with the promise of a bigger contracts.. He evolves almost too much in the story, but it was an extraordinary time so it works. The book was certainly thought provoking (as the book club discussion attested) about the role Parisians played in the occupation. It is a heavy topic, but Balfour is deft with it.

Notable mentions from late 2016:

  • Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age) – I devoured them. The first was the best, but these were characters I did not want to leave.
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: I did not love it as much as the Last Hundred Years by Jane Smiley, but some of the characters did linger.


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