I was trying to think of the opposite of a “pick-me-up.” The best I could do is “get-me-down.” Why on Earth would I need to know such a phrase, you ask? Because it’s all I’ve been reading. UGH.
I would estimate that I’m now reading approximately one-fourth of what I read pre-baby. Ideally, therefore, my reading would be confined to sweet-fluffy books or funny-fluffy books or super-interesting books or even helpful books of the parenting variety. Instead, I have managed to read three get-me-down books right in a row. For a sleep-deprived parent with limited reading time, this is not a reading strategy that I would recommend.
Don’t get me wrong: as a rule, I am not against get-me-down books. In fact, my very favorite book of all time is a definite downer (Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates). But that writing makes me swoon, so it makes the ridiculously depressing story somehow worth reading.
The three books I am reviewing this week were all billed as worthwhile get-me-down books. But it is safe to say that they are NOT Revolutionary Road-level get-me-down books.
Published February 3, 2015
440 pages (Kindle e-book)
What it’s about: The book is about two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne Rossignol (French for “nightingale,” obviously). One sister is a rule follower with a husband and two kids, who lives in the small French town of Carriveau right next door to her best friend (who is Jewish!). Her younger sister is a rebel, who has been kicked out of a number of schools for various transgressions and is forced to flee Paris when the Germans invade.
Vianne’s husband joins the army, leaving Vianne alone to care for her two kids. When Germans invade her town, a soldier informs her that her house has been requisitioned and that he will be staying with her. Meanwhile, Isabelle makes her way to Carriveau (with a man she met while fleeing Paris but who then abandons her).
The book is about how the sisters fight against the Germans (in their own small and large ways) and for the survival of themselves and their loved ones. Each sister has to make huge sacrifices and each sister suffers in unspeakable ways. Yay.
Why I read it: This was the Amazon Spotlight pick and the #1 Indie Next List pick for February 2015. It is big in book-group circles these days. So, when some of my mom friends decided to do a book discussion at the end of our weekly playgroup, we agreed that this would be a good first book to read.
First and foremost, the writing in this book is laughably, hilariously bad (“‘I love you, too,’ she said but the words that always seemed so big felt small now. What was love when put up against war?”). A friend and I texted on multiple occasions while we were reading it to make fun of the writing (an example text: “If she uses the word ‘aeroplane’ one more time, I might lose my mind.”). We nicknamed it “The Nightmareingale.”
The text is also littered with random, italicized French words (like, inexpicably, “saucisson“). Keep in mind that the book is set in France, so presumably ALL the words they are saying should be in French. So, what is the point of the random French word? To remind us that they’re in France? To let us know that the author knows a handful of French words? Needless to say, it makes absolutely no sense at all, and serves only to be infuriating.
The book also relies on a gimmicky jump-forward-in-time beginning and end. One of the playgroup moms suggested that the book would have been more successful with a plain old epilogue. And she’s absolutely right. As written, the jump-forward-in-time ending serves only to try to create a little surprise twist (for no good reason). It creates far more questions than it answers. Annoying.
People go on and on about how this book is a page-turner. I am convinced that these people have never read an actual page-turner. It took me weeks to finish this book. The first half is sloooooooooow going (to be completely fair, the action picks up a little bit right around the halfway point . . . but the writing stays terrible the whole way through).
When I was done reading this book, I felt like I had just wasted weeks of precious reading time. Curse you, Nightmareingale! Don’t believe the hype on this one. It’s all lies.
When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi (with a forward by Abraham Verghese)
Published January 12, 2016
256 pages (hardcover)
What it’s about: Paul Kalanithi was finishing his last year of neurosurgery residency when he began feeling excruciating back pain. He experienced rapid weight loss and extreme fatigue. He knew that all signs pointed to cancer . . . and he was right. He began writing this book when he found out that he had stage IV lung cancer, and it was his dying wish that it be published. The book explores life, mortality, self-worth, and career and family choices.
Is it fair to call this a get-me-down book? I’ll let you be the judge. The prologue ends with this sentence: “And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.” Oh, and, spoiler alert, there’s not a surprise-twist happy ending. When Breath Becomes Air was published posthumously.
Why I read it: This was an Amazon Best Book of the Month and an Indie Next List pick for January 2016. And, right after reading The Nightingale, I thought to myself, why not read a pick-me-up? Like a memoir about a guy at the peak of his career, who is dying of stage IV lung cancer? Smart, smart, smart.
This is a memoir, which is normally a recipe for disaster for me. I nearly swore off memoirs completely last year after reading this atrocity. But I breezed through this book. First of all, it’s short (it’s about 250 pages, but the pages are small, the spacing and margins are large, and there’s a lot of white space). Secondly, Kalanithi was one of those massive over-achievers. He was a doctor (in one of the most difficult specialties), yes, but he also had a Master’s in English, so he’s not one of those stereotypical science people who can’t string a normal-sounding (non-scientific-jargon-laden) sentence together. (As an aside, he uses words like “diktats,” because why wouldn’t he?)
Given all of that, it is surprising that it is the epilogue, written by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy Kalanithi (also a doctor), that really makes this book. It brings honest emotion to a book that feels a bit too scientific and matter-of-fact. Without the epilogue, the book would have come across as too detached.
And, not only is the epilogue in itself smart and thoughtful, but it also recognizes and explains the book’s flaws (the most significant of which are that it feels imbalanced—the first part is a little too long and boring and peppered with unnecessary tangents, the second part is too short and feels rushed—and a little sloppy). Paul continued writing the book during his roughest months. The first part of the book (about his life pre-medicine, why he became a doctor, why he chose to be a neurosurgeon,etc.) gets a lot more attention and detail and feels a little more thought-out than the second part of the book (life after diagnosis). In light of his wife’s epilogue, this makes more sense. He started at what he thought was the beginning, giving that due time . . . but as he went along, it seems like he realized he needed to speed things up a bit. It was his goal to finish the book for his daughter (who was conceived after his diagnosis).
The book is written by a clearly smart person, which is always nice. And Kalanithi raises some good questions about life and what makes it worth living. But this book is really, profoundly sad.
My Name Is Lucy Barton
Published January 12, 2016
What it’s about: Lucy Barton is stuck in the hospital for five weeks when she contracts a mystery bacteria after a routine appendectomy. Her husband, who doesn’t like hospitals and is caring for her two small children at home, calls Lucy’s estranged mother to come stay with her in the hospital.
To say that Lucy’s upbringing was less-than-ideal would be a gross understatement. And, yet, Lucy is thrilled to have her mother sitting in the hospital with her, making small talk (“I was so happy. Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way!”).
The book is Lucy’s reflections on those days in the hospital and the conversations with her mother. She gives the conversations context with stories of her youth (stories rife with abuse, neglect, hunger, etc.).
Why I read it: This was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next List pick, and the #1 LibraryReads List selection for January 2016. And it got GLOWING reviews from all the majors. Plus, Strout wrote Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize (OK, full disclosure: I never read Olive Kitteridge, but the HBO miniseries was fabulous). I made the mistake of reading this without paying much attention to what it is about. Oops.
This book reads very quickly for two reasons: 1) it’s under 200 pages, and 2) Lucy has a distinct and readable voice. An example:
The first year of her marriage, my mother had worked at the local library, and apparently—my brother later told me this—loved books. But then the library told my mother the regulations had changed, they could only hire someone with a proper education. My mother never believed them. She stopped reading, and many years went by before she went to a different library in a different town and brought home books again. I mention this because there is the question of how children become aware of what the world is, and how to act in it.
How, for example, do you learn that it is impolite to ask a couple why they have no children? How do you set a table? How do you know if you are chewing with your mouth open if no one has ever told you?
Normally, I would appreciate the voice for being unique and simply enjoy that Lucy uses it to raise interesting (if not entirely profound) observations of the world and how her upbringing affected her place in it. But something irked me the entire time I read the book: her voice is a bit too stilted and a bit too slow (take, for example, that “Oh, I was happy . . .” quotation above). Arguably, an awkward voice would not be inappropriate in light of Lucy’s upbringing. But Lucy is supposed to be a success story. She gets married and moves to New York and becomes a writer. A writer, y’all. This is not the voice of a writer.
And maybe this book is supposed to be a story of survival. We can go through shitty shit and still come out OK. We can enjoy a few days in the hospital with a woman who allowed you to be terrorized as a child. But, for me, it was just sad. If you want to read a book about longing and enduring pain and feeling isolated and carrying baggage, then this is the one for you.
Want to read along with me? Well, get ready for some fluff! Because I can’t take any more get-me-downs. Coming soon:
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman (Backman is the author of the very sweet and breezy best-sellers A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. This, his latest, is one of this month’s Indie Next List picks and is this month’s #1 LibraryReads List selection.)
- Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (This is a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice. It’s one of this month’s Indie Next List picks and was the #1 LibraryReads List selection for April. I’m going to re-read Pride & Prejudice at the same time.)