Monday, December 26, 2016

The Five Best Books I Read This Year*

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
A thrilling extended essay on being black in America and the fallacy of whitenessthe best book I've read in years. The sentences are so beautiful as to be lessons in themselves. Coates's compassionate voice combined with not giving a fig who's made uncomfortable hit me with the same force that Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place did more than 25 years ago. 

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard
My pal at the Total Femme turned me on to Howard's brilliant Cazalet Chronicles quintet a few years ago, and I've since moved on to several of her other novels about domestic life, class, and sexual dynamics in Britain. This is the best of the non-Cazalets I've reada gripping, at times shocking story about a selfish young woman crippled by lack of love and about the damage incurred by her and on her after a married couple takes her in. Perfectly, devastatingly calibrated.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Not the first writer to interweave alternate paths a life might have taken, but the most accomplished I've seen at attending as much to the subtle psychological shifts as to the differing physical and circumstantial outcomes. A wily, moving tale of that infinitely fertile chemistry: England, war, and the 20th century. 

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The somber unspooling of a men's-room hookup between an American teacher in Bulgaria and a manipulative younger Bulgarian. Greenwell nails the pulse-driven momentum of a relationship that begins with sex and that develops into a stumbling two-step of neediness and unknowing. 

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
Coming to terms with her anger at her late-in-life trans father over his violence and abandonment when she was a kid is as big a task than accepting her as a woman, though it's often hard to separate Faludi's feelings about eachwhich ultimately seems to be the story she's telling: of dualities haltingly resolving into something close to wholeness. 

*Note: not all published this year (unlike many best-of lists). Also, I actually listened to all of these on audiobook, my preferred delivery method these days.

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Friday, December 09, 2016


About six weeks from now, at age 55, I'm having cataract surgery—a procedure more common among people in their seventies and eighties. 

It's further fallout from my bike accident almost three years ago. Turns out that successful retina-reattachment surgery—which I had to repair the detachment that occurred a couple of months after my spill in the bike lane—results in a cataract, because the gas injected into the eye to reattach the retina compromises the lens; it seems that going two whole years before developing a cataract is very, very good. 

Both of my eye doctors kind of "buried the lede," as they say in journalism: All of my careful adherence to the recovery regimen after the retina surgery (sleeping only on my left side—not my right, not my back or stomach—for the first week or two and, during the day, holding my head down to my chest for 50 minutes out of every hour for a week and a half, then 30 minutes every hour for several more days), which I was told repeatedly was to "avoid a cataract," was, come to find out, to avoid an immediate cataract. Until a few months ago, no one informed me it was inevitable that I'd develop a cataract within a year or two.


From the bewildering menu of surgical options and expenses, I've chosen to have my  severely nearsighted vision in both eyes changed to only slightly nearsighted in my right (the one with the cataract) and slightly farsighted in my left. I'll basically use one eye for reading and the other for distance. The result should be that I won't need glasses for most tasks. (The reason to have both lenses replaced is that if I had only my right done, the discrepancy between the vision in my two eyes would be, my ophthalmologist—also my brother-in-law—says, "unbearable.")

When I told my surgeon that the idea made my head spin, he said, "Well, you're basically seeing out of one eye now." Touché. The blurring in my right eye has gotten so bad that do indeed I favor my left by far.

"Your brain will adjust," both doctors reassure me. Even my sister (not the one married to my ophthalmologist) texted me: "I was going to get contacts like that, one near, one far. They say your brain just fills in the blanks, as long as the two eyes aren't wildly different."

In this same text exchange, she and I talked about our mother, who has entered hospice now for the third time in the last year and a half—Mom regains strength, stabilizes, and is "released" from hospice after a few months, even as she can't speak, walk, or feed herself. 

"I feel kind of sad and afraid that when she's gone we'll all be disconnected because so much of our getting together is Mom this, Mom that," my sister, who lives in another city, said. 

"We will have to build a new relationship with each other," I said. "That's what my therapist is always telling me. We can do it!"

She replied: "What your therapist says just made me cry because it sounds so hard."

"I think it will be like my new split vision," I found myself typing. "Our brains will adjust."

I'm not sure I convinced her. It was late, she'd just flown back home after a visit for our mother's 97th birthday (like funerals, sometimes birthdays are more for the celebrants than for the honoree), along with all the attendant caregiving, errand-running, and emotional surge-protecting. She was exhausted. 

But I actually do think we four, we survivors, will learn to see each other anew, perhaps more sharply, and forgivingly—after all, I might end up needing glasses for some things, such as long periods of heavy reading or driving at night. 

Confidence isn't always my strong suit, but in this case I really believe we'll make the compensations our brains and eyes and hearts require and keep going through the darkness, through the light.

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Saturday, December 03, 2016

A Man, a Ship

Oh, it turns out today is the 11th anniversary of my blog (I thought it was the 5th). Some relationship, with my months-long absences! The blog's guiding principle from the start, which I've had to remind myself of more than once, has been to "put sentences together." I've done so in other ways over the years, but I'm trying to recommit to this formerly fashionable genre. So many muscles in my life have gone slack. This is one.

My previous post was rudimentary thoughts that have been preoccupying me. I don't know yet how they might ultimately connect, particularly the piece about the doctor who delivered me, which in my mind, if not on the page yet, is key. I don't quite know why I'm as obsessed with him as I am. In fact, "obsessed" is not the right word, so I used "haunted" in the post. Actually, neither hits the mark; the truth is somewhere between the two. The ship is important as well. I need to do more thinking and writing and research. Regarding the last of those, I've owned the book above for three years and have yet to open it up. (Isn't that interesting?) I will now.

Getting my thoughts down helped me see there might be something. I had no idea Bobby Vee would drop by! I certainly had no conscious awareness, until I reread it, of the echo between his name and Dr. V., the doctor's real initial. Although I'd first researched him a year or more ago, I discovered only this week, when I revived my Googling, that he'd been on the same ship my family had. 

Wanting to know, as my mother neared the end of her life, about the guy who delivered me was mystifying—well, it is still, but when the SS United States (another obsession of mine in the last few years) edged into his story, it felt like a gift.

For now, the sentences, the surprises, are enough to keep me thinking.

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Take Good Care of My Baby

As my mother's life slowly winds down (not to say with certainty that the end is imminent, though yesterday, four days before her 97th birthday, my siblings and I raced to her side, thinking it was), I find myself haunted by the doctor who delivered me.

Having recently fixed on his name at the bottom of my 1961 birth certificate from the US Army Hospital in Munich, Germany, I've discovered, among other things—thanks to Google and—pictures of his wedding and of his gravesite in Quantico, Virginia, a scant hour from where I live. 

Yes, the doctor who delivered me died—in 1968 at age 35, in the Panama Canal Zone (of what cause I don't know), seven years after bringing me into the world in a hospital where my mother always said the American nurses were brusque and impatient, even rude, so unlike the German hospitals where friends of hers had given birth, with weeklong stays, feather beds, and geraniums on the windowsills.

Was Dr. V., this blond 28-year-old Army captain, equally cold? How did he comport himself as he pulled me from my mother? I experienced the touch of his hands before I did hers. 

She has known me for 55 years—knows mainly the touch of my hand now and the sound of my voice. Does she recognize my face in those fleeting moments when our eyes lock, when her eyes are even open?

As it happens, Dr. V. came back to America on the same ship my family returned on, a year and a half after we did. I know this because I found a photo of him and his wife and two children onboard. It was the SS United States, the fastest ocean liner ever to cross the Atlantic. 

SS United States today
Today that enormous vessel sits empty and rusted at a dock in Philadelphia, but still hanging on 47 years after its final crossing in 1969, awaiting its hoped-for second life, an effort I've contributed money to. Save the SS United States! If you've driven along I-95 through Philly, you've passed it. You've also seen it, from above, if you've watched the opening credits of West Side Story, released a month after Dr. V. cupped his hands around my slippery head for the first and probably only time. 

Bobby Vee
Another coincidence: Several weeks ago, I read the obituary of singer Bobby Vee, who recently died. His biggest hit was "Take Good Care of My Baby," a song I've always liked. After reading the article, I did some additional research out of curiosity and learned that "Take Good Care of My Baby" reached number one in the US on September 21, 1961, the day I was born—not in the US but across the Atlantic, into the hands of an intimate stranger who transferred me, kindly or officiously, into the arms (or not) of my exhausted mother. 

These are the pieces of a story I seek.

My family (left half of group) and the SS United States, 1963

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