AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN

UnnecessaryAn Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine

Some time ago, a kind, bookish friend sent me a copy of An Unnecessary Woman. When someone is thoughtful enough to send a book my way, particularly one that is so well suited to me, I usually prioritize the read. But for a variety of logistical reasons too mundane to list here, it’s taken me a long time to get to this one, a fact I would rue if the timing of this read–as my last book of 2014—hadn’t turned out to be a perfect little bow to tie up the year.

Living in a society that doesn’t always protect its women and a city that’s been devastated by decades of war, Aaliyah Saleh is a 72-year old Beiruti woman who has created a fortress out of literature. For 50 years Aaliyah ran a bookstore and in her spare time, she translates works of significant, difficult and sometimes obscure fiction into Arabic.

Though she has good reason to be guarded and reclusive, Aaliyah has taken this whole “life lived through literature” thing a step too far. (And if I’m calling her out on that, you know it’s bad.) You see, Aaliyah lacks connection to others, depriving her of not only the basic human need for contact and engagement, but by buttressing herself from the world, she’s also deprived others of the gifts she has to give through her life’s work: her translations. Good old Aaliyah has held on tight to her grumpy assertions and holier-than-thou attitudes, but fortunately for her and us, that finally changes.

So while this is a book about many things: literature, religion, gender roles, war, Islam, the Middle East, the history of Beirut, and a lot more, when I closed the book’s back cover and set it down, I decided this is also a book about letting go.* In its lovely and cathartic ending, we see how even the most immoveable among us can liberate herself from old ways and notions. And by doing so, she can enjoy freedom and possibilities of which she was never even aware.

What a perfect message for the year’s end. And if that wasn’t serendipitous enough, for Christmas I received the absolute most perfect read to begin a new year: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Maybe you’ve heard of it, or perhaps even read it; the super-cute Marie Kondo is a force of nature, radicalizing the way her Japanese counterparts organize their homes (and thus their lives) and she’s sold over two million copies of her book internationally. Even a quick glance at the section headings (“Sorting papers: rule of thumb – discard everything” and “Unread books: ‘sometime’ means ‘never’) had me giggling with glee and revisiting my family tree to see how Marie and I might be distant relations. This resolution-worthy selection comes to us thanks to Supportive Brother-in-Law, who knows me too well. More on tidying up soon …

*Disclaimer: This book may have nothing to do with letting go and I have simply not yet deprogrammed after my Frozen-themed Christmas holiday.

 

THE LIGHTS OF BERKELEY

BHS I

BHS II

Images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All images courtesy of Juan Carlos Guerrero

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

One evening last week, I cracked open the World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See and began reading the opening scene, in which American bombardiers fly over the French town of Saint-Malo, liberating it from German occupation. As I sat in my cozy living room in Berkeley, the sound of (I kid you not) helicopters began to fill the space. It was a dramatic coincidence but I remained reasonably certain that the Bay Area wasn’t being bombed. We were several days in to nightly protests over police violence and the helicopters belonged to law enforcement and the media.

I’d been feeling ambivalent about whether or not I should join the protests, demonstrations that were intended to be peaceful but were turning dangerous due to a small group of people who were using them as an excuse to antagonize the police and damage property, which had led to aggressive police tactics in response. Each evening the protests continued and every morning I saw another boarded up storefront. I remained ambivalent about what was being achieved.

Then last Wednesday, I learned that the students at Berkeley High had walked out of their last class of the day in an organized march that led them through downtown Berkeley and onto the university’s historic Sproul Plaza, site of many a student protest. They chanted, “UC Berkeley join us now, you’re the ones that showed us how.” They walked peacefully through campus and ended at the bell tower, where they staged a die-in with Black students lying on the ground while their White peers stood in a circle around them, paying witness before joining them. At one point a few onlookers began heckling the crowd and the scene could have turned ugly. But how did the BHS kids respond? They began yelling “We love you” to the hecklers and they diffused the conflict.

Some of these kids are my clients, others I work with on a volunteer basis – and I couldn’t have been prouder or more moved to learn that they had managed to accomplish what their adult counterparts couldn’t. They demonstrated exactly what I most appreciate about teenagers: their innocent spirits and ancient souls. They have the ability to recognize injustice and they’re optimistic enough to try to do something about it. It’s why we put so much hope in the generations that succeed us.

“That’s great T,” you may be saying, “but what the heck does any of this have to do with All the Light We Cannot See? I mean, I heard it was one of the best books of 2014 and everyone I talk to raves about it. Couldn’t you spare a few words for this modern masterpiece 10 years in the making?”

Folks, everything you’ve heard about the book is true. It is wonderful and I highly recommend it and it just so happens to have two teenage protagonists. And although the story takes place 70 years ago, it feels very timely. In fact, I couldn’t help but take note of the following passage, which describes the senseless shooting of a civilian woman and child.

“Werner waits for the child to blink. Blink, he thinks, blink blink blink. Already Volkheimer is closing the closet door, though it won’t close all the way because the girl’s foot is sticking out of it, and Bernd is covering the woman on the bed with a blanket, and how could Neumann Two not have known, but of course he didn’t, because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind.”

all-the-lightI can’t think of a better way to articulate the root of so many of the problems we have today.

 

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER

Autobio of MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother
by Jamaica Kincaid

This little book showed up in my mailbox recently courtesy of our favorite patron of the arts, my father. He’d heard Jamaica Kincaid speak recently (give it up for the Chicago Humanities Festival) and he liked her and thought I would too. The book’s equivocal title clues us in that this is not, in fact, an autobiography or a memoir or even a biography, but rather the fictional, first-person narrative of Xuela, a Dominican woman whose mother dies in childbirth. The loss of a mother she never knew shapes Xuela’s life and their two stories become intermingled in her mind.

Although this book is considered a novel, I would categorize it as being closer to a long-form poem. The writing is lyrical and elliptical, so those fully drawn characters and clever plots that I like to latch on to in most novels were missing here. But while I was in the beginning stages of this book, I happened to read A.O. Scott’s review of the film adaptation of Wild, which I believe opened this weekend (yay!).

Here’s what Scott had to say about Wild, the movie. “In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, ‘Wild’ reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs.”

Now as someone that fully enjoys a good, neatly packaged scene, not to mention a carefully scripted character arc, Scott’s comments could have caused me some consternation. But reading them when I did–while still in the early pages of Kincaid’s book–instead I took them as a measure of unsolicited enlightenment. I realized that this book runs closer to the short-form storytelling of a film, rather than the more expansive style of a novel, and so I read it with an eye toward those images and emotions that Scott mentions, accepting that it would be a different reading experience from the typical novel.

What I found was a story operating in the sensory, which clicked when I read these lines toward the end: “It is sad that unless you are born a god, your life, from its very beginning, is a mystery to you … Who you are is a mystery no one can answer, not even you.” Xuela’s story, being that of a Dominican woman in a time period left ambiguous (but probably somewhere around the first half of the 20th century), is ultimately a story of the victors and the vanquished, although Xuela refuses to be one of the vanquished, putting down stakes where she can: with her body and the physical world around her. For that is what you do when you’re left with very little that’s yours, you take what is tangible.

Up Next: The Berkeley Public Library (possibly my favorite institution in the world) informs me that my next book is in transit. Finally! I won’t tell you what it is, but I’ll give you a hint: when I first put my name on the book’s hold list, there were 132 people ahead of me and it was just named one of the NYT’s 10 Best of 2014. Any guesses?

 

THE POWER OF HABIT

habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg

After being completely devastated by We Are Not Ourselves, I needed a break from drama for a while, so I picked up Supportive Husband’s copy of The Power of Habit. Even though it’s something he’s been reading for work (and much of it focuses on how business uses information about human habits), I figured this book would be self-helpy enough to feed all those aspirational cravings that tend to pop up around the first of the year. (Note: the following turned out to be more of a summary than anything else, but you may still find it interesting)

According to Charles Duhigg, our brains create habits (and many of them!) in the form of a habit loop that satisfies a particular need. A good example is snacking. Perhaps you get peckish around 3pm everyday. With little conscious thought, you may get up from your desk around this time each afternoon and wander down to the cafeteria for an afternoon nosh. If you want to stop this habit loop, Duhigg says that first you have to figure out if it is really hunger cueing you to snack or if it’s something else. Often people discover it’s actually boredom, in which case, wandering over to a co-worker’s desk for a quick 10-minute chat may carry the same reward as that doughnut (I know, hard to believe).

And so we arrive at the discussion of willpower, a trait most of us probably consider a skill. Some people have a lot of willpower, others just don’t – right? Well, it turns out that willpower is actually more like a muscle, so when we exercise it, it grows stronger.

Duhigg points to a research study that put two dozen self-professed couch potatoes on an exercise program that increased in intensity each week. As the program wore on, the researchers found that the participants were pushing themselves harder and harder at the gym, using increased willpower each time they worked out. But what’s particularly interesting is how this increased level of willpower impacted other parts of their lives: their cigarette, alcohol, caffeine and junk food consumption all went down, they did more homework and less TV watching. Great outcomes, though as you can imagine, the researchers wanted to make sure that the effects they were seeing correlated with overall willpower, not just physical activity.

So they enrolled a different group of people in a second study involving money management. They gave participants savings goals and instructed them to avoid luxury spending, including dining out and entertainment. They also had to keep a log of their expenses. This is pretty fascinating: as the participants became more disciplined about enacting these habits, they also experienced the same benefits as the exercise group, which included healthier living and better work habits. “As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives … that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked.”

That said, like our body’s muscles, our willpower muscle gets fatigued and needs recovery time. If we have a particularly challenging day at work, it’s going to be harder to go on that run when we get home. On a broader scale is the issue of autonomy, which is crucial for willpower. For when people don’t feel they have control over their lives, their willpower isn’t as strong, no matter what they are trying to do.

Now that my own willpower has been renewed (kind of, this post wasn’t very creative), I’ll be back with a fiction selection soon, courtesy of this blog’s original patron, my dad.