Thursday, January 31, 2013

what i read (and some pictures i looked at) in january

Yeah, I’m starting this feature up again. My bad-TV addiction continues, but I’ve gotten into graphic novels/memoirs as a sort of happy medium, and read some actual word-literature here and there. I could—and may—tell you all about how Nip/Tuck makes United States of Tara look like an article in a medical journal, realism-wise, but I feel like Jhumpa Lahiri could use the blog shout-out more. So here goes.

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg (speaking of shout-outs, thank you, Sizzle for sending this to me!): This book tracked my own post-cancer-diagnosis thought process beat for beat, from self-blame (did she cause cancer by eating too much cheese? Miriam Engelberg wonders), to worrying that your doomsday thoughts are foreshadowing in the movie of your life, to becoming hopelessly addicted to terrible TV. Either Miriam Engelberg and I have a lot in common, or breast cancer is a completely predictable, universal experience. I feel like she would hope it's the former, just like I do—although I'm sure there are some common cancer threads.

The hazard of reading even the most humorous cancer memoirs is that sometimes you Google the writer and learn that she's died. And when, two thirds of the way through the book, her cancer metastasizes, you think, "Well, I guess I know exactly how I'll feel if this happens to me, which is: pretty shitty."

The drawings are terrible, but the writing is funny and fearless. This might be one of the most challenging super-simple-to-read books I've read. I hope that Miriam's essence is kicking back, doing a crossword somewhere.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed: This is a perfect book to read when you're going through a hard time and can barely concentrate on anything and really need to know that other people's lives suck, and that they get through it. Cheryl Strayed's voice is that of a mother who's learned things the hard way herself. She won't let you off easy, but she won't judge you or shame you either. This is a unique approach in a world of tough-love advice columnists. Everyone loves the "You're the asshole in this situation" turnabout answer, but the "You're the asshole, honeybun, because you're human and in pain, and let me tell you about the time I was an asshole" approach is truly revolutionary. Reading all these letters and answers and snippets of memoir back to back reveals their schtick, but the wisdom behind the schtick is genuine.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri tells stories the semi-old-fashioned way: beautiful details, simple language, no postmodern bells and whistles. I used to be suspicious of this style. It seemed too sedate, too beloved by my undergrad creative writing teachers. But now that maximalism is mainstream (as my partner pointed out when I tried to claim otherwise), the contrarian in me is all, "Hey, maybe I should check out that Raymond Carver fellow." My reading and enjoyment of this book seems related. While I didn't quite devour the book, I did develop a quiet love for it, like the narrator of the last story does for his arranged bride. My favorite stories were "A Temporary Matter," the heartbreaking story of a couple whose world goes sour after the stillbirth of their child; and "The Treatment of Bibi Haldar," about a sick woman who refuses to suffer in stoic silence, and the town who finally listens.

Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story by Frederik Peeters: The other two graphic memoirs about illness that I read recently (apparently it's a genre, and one I'm into) had excellent writing and bad to cute-but-crude illustrations. This one is kind of the reverse. The story—about a man who falls in love with an HIV+ woman and her son, who also has the virus—is fragmented in a way that is perhaps intentional but not always effective. The text can be wordy, drifty and full of ellipses (although what is a dormant virus but the ultimate ellipsis?). Some of this may come from the fact that English is not Peeters' native language, I'm pretty sure.

The illustrations, though, are dark and beautiful. Peeters has a knack for drawing both sparse reality—the light fixture above his head when he's lying on the floor, despondent—and fantastical metaphors. After a doctor assures him, "You have as much chance of catching AIDS as you have of running into a white rhinoceros on your way out," a white rhino immediately appears behind the couple and stalks the narrator for the rest of the book. That was when I was like, "Okay, he really gets it." He and his lady and their joyously drawn little boy try to live in the moment, but they know how hard-earned and fragile that moment is; how you have to pack your bottle of blue pills on every vacation.

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