Saturday, February 09, 2019

The Year in Books

You may recall that one of my New Year's resolutions was to read more. And to help keep me motivated, I vowed to reprise them as I go. So here are the first four.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover--
I am a bit cautious in rating this book. First, on one hand the story is stunning--painful, extraordinary, a testament to the human spirit and the will to survive, and in the end triumphant. On the other hand, the story is deeply troubling--the power of brainwashing, the dangers of extremism, the sheer lunacy of the family's story.
My caution is also fueled by having read past books that were so breathtaking enthralling me with the story, that I was crushed when the story turned out to have been ... not true? Made up? Understand, I am NOT saying that is what this book is. It is just that the events are so alien to my existence, so astounding, that it is hard for me to imagine their veracity much less believe it.
I will forgo the details of the story--many reviewers describe them.
Eventually, I just got tired of reading of the lunacy of Westover's parents and the ways they subjected their children to what would be called child abuse. I applaud her surviving. And her triumph in pursuing education as a pathway to a new life.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen--
The Sympathizer is a very challenging read. At times brutally violent, at times almost humorous, at times satiric. All the while, the book is infused with the love of one's country. The reader gets a mix of history, political conflicts, personal insight--and a deeply moving story about BOTH sides in the Vietnam war. Both north and south are portrayed. And, not surprisingly, the U.S. as well--when the war ended many Vietnamese came to the U.S. as refugees. 
So the narrator's observations about life in the U.S. give the reader an insight into the experience of those who fled Vietnam. Another way the reader gets an insight into the U.S. is through the telling of the narrator's work as an advisor when a famous Hollywood (clearly Coppola) makes a movie about the Vietnam war (clearly "Apocalypse Now".  It is not an insight the reader expects--instead of making an authentic representation of the war, the director makes a HOLLYWOOD acceptable portrayal of that war. 
The core of the book is the narrator (unnamed), and his experiences. He is a North Vietnamese agent who has infiltrated the South Vietnam's army. He is a double agent.  When he too flees to the U.S., it is for the express purpose of being a deep agent, sending news of the potential South Vietnamese effort to retake the country. The narrator--never named--has a handler to whom he sends coded reports.
Eventually, the narrator decides to return to Vietnam--where he is still masquerading as a loyal South Vietnamese. He is captured, imprisoned, and forced to be reeducated. He has to write a confession--which he eventually re-reads, after a nervous breakdown. He has a final epiphany--and the reader is left with the understanding of the futility of the ENTIRE venture--from the Chinese dominance of Vietnam, to France, to the U.S., to the South Vietnamese who want to retake their homeland.
My epiphany as a reader is that when the narrator is rereading his 300 some page confession--it is really the book that I am reading that he means. At least, that's how I took it.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout
My Name is Lucy Barton is a very low key incisive portrayal of a mother/daughter relationship. The title character--Lucy--is in the hospital following an unnamed procedure after which she acquired a bacterial infection. Her stay in the hospital is extending far beyond what she expected. She and her husband have two small daughters--that fact alone makes it difficult for her husband to visit her.
Lucy yearns for someone to talk to--so her husband calls Lucy's mother. Mother and daughter have been somewhat estranged, though still civil.
Lucy awakens to find her mother in the hospital room with her. And they begin to talk. Over the several days of the mother's visit, they talk about all manner of things. Family dynamics--with some deep issues only hinted at: poverty, abuse, a sibling who is homosexual. Additionally, they talk about former friends and neighbors. These are the "whatever happened to so-and-so" that we sometimes have with family members.
Through the course of the book, a great deal of Lucy's life is explored. She does recover and is discharged from the hospital. Her mother has returned to her home. Her husband and children reconnect in her life--this was one of the puzzling things for me, the almost complete absence of any sense of family relationships in Lucy's current family.
At the close of the book, Lucy Barton completely owns her own story, even though there is recognition that this could be so many women's stories.

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES by Peter Wohlleben
I began reading this book with great enthusiasm. I am a tree lover....maybe even a tree hugger. I periodically battle, gently, with a neighbor about trees. We have many trees bounding our property. Some extend branches across the property lines. And my neighbor, whose yard is ALWAYS spotless, hates raking leaves or having to remove anything that vaguely resembles dirt. One day, a tree trimming truck rolled, and began to prune OUR tree. Well, I do understand why. But I did exchange a few words with the neighbor. I ended rather inelegantly by saying "We need trees, because they provide us with oxygen."
So, with that frame of mind, I read THE SECRET LIFE OF TREES.  In many ways, it is a scientific work written for non-scientists. At times it is circular and repetitious. Eventually, I got to the point where I was thinking "all right, already, trees are living organisms. Got it!"  
I enjoyed it, but also got tired of it.

Off to continue the reading for 2019.