April 24, 2016
Daughters of the Dragon by William Andrews
This is a book club pick that I think will be wonderful and devastating in the way I found books like The Kite Runner and Snow Flower and The Secret Fan wonderful and devastating. It seems I’ve been reading a lot of these types of books lately. (Which is progress, actually. I steered away from anything so traumatic for a long time as I was reeling and healing myself.)
From the back: During World War II, the Japanese forced 200,000 young Korean women to be sex slaves or “comfort women” for their soldiers. This is one woman’s riveting story of strength, courage and promises kept. In 1943, the Japanese tear young Jae-hee and her sister from their peaceful family farm to be comfort women for the Imperial Army. Before they leave home, their mother gives them a magnificent antique comb with an ivory inlay of a two-headed dragon, saying it will protect them. The sisters suffer terribly at the hands of the Japanese, and by the end of the war, Jae-hee must flee while her sister lies dying. Jae-hee keeps her time as a comfort woman a secret while she struggles to rebuild her life. She meets a man in North Korea who shows her what true love is. But the communists take him away in the middle of the night, and she escapes to the South. There, she finally finds success as the country rebuilds after the Korean War. However when her terrible secret is revealed, she’s thrown into poverty. In the depths of despair, she’s tempted to sell the comb with the two-headed dragon that she believes has no magic for her. Then one day she discovers its true meaning and her surprising heredity. And now she must find the only person who can carry on the legacy of the two-headed dragon… someone she abandoned years ago. Set within the tumultuous backdrop of 20th century Korea, Daughters of the Dragon by award-winning author William Andrews will make you cry and cheer for Jae-hee. And in the end, you’ll have a better understanding of the Land of the Morning Calm.
This is How by Augusten Burroughs
From the back: If you’re fat and fail every diet, if you’re thin but can’t get thin enough, if you lose your job, if your child dies, if you are diagnosed with cancer, if you always end up with exactly the wrong kind of person, if you always end up alone, if you can’t get over the past, if your parents are insane and ruining your life, if you really and truly wish you were dead, if you feel like it’s your destiny to be a star, if you believe life has a grudge against you, if you don’t want to have sex with your spouse and don’t know why, if you feel so ashamed, if you’re lost in life, if you have ever wondered, How am I supposed to survive this? This is How.
I know neither how I missed an Augusten Burroughs book that was published four years ago, nor how he’s going to pull off speaking convincingly to healing from all of these trials and traumas in one book, but looking forward to this from one of my all time favorite authors.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Last month, during my gushing about Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, I discovered that nobody else in my book club (there are 8 of us) had read The Secret Life of Bees, also by Sue Monk Kidd. I read it years ago and it immediately became a book that I recommend ubiquitously, so picking it for our book club meeting now felt easy, and also like righting a wrong.
The Secret Life of Bees is the story of 14-year-old Lily, whose mother was killed in a gun accident involving Lily when she was four, leaving Lily to be raised by her tyrant father and black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen. When Rosaleen’s life is threatened by town racists, Lily and Rosaleen flee, and head to Tiburon, South Carolina, a place Lily’s mother had kept a picture of.
In Tiburon, Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by three black beekeeper sisters named August, June, and May, and it is here where Lily finds out the truth about her mother, and about mothering.
This is “another” (it’s actually her first) breathtaking gem from Sue Monk Kidd, the writing as beautiful as the story. There is heartache for sure, but the swells of love forged by a sisterhood community carry it, and lift you.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanthi
You know going into When Breath Becomes Air that the author is a 36-year-old neurosurgeon when he is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, and that its publication comes after his death. It is not a story of the author’s path through treatment, nor about how doctor becomes patient, though it certainly has elements of both of those themes. But Paul Kalanthi was possessed by the examination of how people live meaningful lives given the inevitably of death long before his terminal diagnosis. Indeed, how the science of neurosurgery could contribute to that understanding was the decisive factor that led him to medical school rather than further study of another of his loves, literature.
When Breath Becomes Air is an up-close account about how “coming face to face with [his] own mortality, had changed nothing and everything,” repeatedly invoking for him a quote by Samuel Beckett I too love: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
For me, Kalanthi’s take-away message is Live well—which is not the same as Live every day as though it’s your last, a platitude I’ve always found reductive and inanely unrealistic—and never cease striving, whether for perfection in the life you’ve chosen, or forging a new life with the hand you’ve been dealt. “…even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I’m still living.” One way he did that himself was to continue working when most people expected him to, understandably, stop.
“I hopped out of the CT scanner, seven months since I had returned to surgery. This would be my last scan before finishing residency, before becoming a father, before my future became real.”
“Wanna take a look, Doc?” the tech said.
“Not right now,” I said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do today.”
Of course, striving and living well look different for everyone. Kalanthi was obviously brilliant and a deep thinker, but I can’t help but think of the similar message put forth by, of all people, Curly, the crusty old cowboy played by Jack Palance in the movie City Slickers.
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.
I love that Kalanthi goes a step further and acknowledges that as you face the end, living well need not—and often can’t—look exotic; traveling the world, for example, or dining out, or other sudden extravagances. Living well may mean some of those things, but sometimes it means going to work, others it may mean a nap or a ponder. Inevitably, toward the end, “The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present.”
You can’t help but think about what’s NOT in this book—there could be whole volumes on relationships we only get glances into, with the author’s wife, family, and baby daughter he must say good-bye to, as well as friends, colleagues, medicine, books, hobbies— and how many other books he may have filled given a fair lifespan. One omission worth noting is that of bitterness, which would easily be justified. I’m sure Kalanthi had his moments, any human would have to, never mind one who was about to embark on a hard-earned, extraordinary career and fatherhood. Instead what Kalanthi shows us is graceful and resolute determination to make his last say, and his life, meaningful.
I live with a constant feeling of pressure, knowing how much more life I want to pack in with limited control, and essentially no knowledge, of when it will end. Every day, I fight not to let that pressure spill over into paralyzing fear, but rather propel me to live full while I live real. When Breath Becomes Air inspires me anew.
The Gift of Failure: How The Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey
This book, like How To Raise An Adult, is a caution against “over-parenting,” and encourages letting children make the childhood mistakes essential to learning how to eventually care for themselves and become high functioning adults.
Lahey, a devoted educator and parent, shows how typical failures during school, homework, sports, and social dynamics can be handled in more hands-off ways—supporting and guiding our kids rather than controlling and fixing things for them—that promote greater independence, motivation, competence, and confidence.
Letting kids figure out disagreements in the sandbox or on the ball field by themselves, for example: “…when that child grows up under the wing of parents who continue to rescue—from playground dust-ups, to tween misunderstandings, and the inevitable volatility of adolescent friendships—that child becomes an adult with no clue about how to negotiate, placate, reason with, and stand up to other adults.”
Or not overtaking homework and school projects: “When that poster for the science fair looks like a glue-smeared mess, and it’s an hour past bedtime, that’s precisely when you should step back and walk away. It may seem harmless to step in, but the damage is cumulative. Every time you take over, and rescue your child from working out a challenging math problem or thesis statement on her own, you undermine your child’s sense of confidence, and autonomy…Think long-term goals…She may feel disappointed in her efforts or her abilities or embarrassed the next day when she faces her teacher and her class with an incorrect answer, but these are her lessons to learn.”
It can be soooo hard to back the hell off, give our kids greater age-appropriate responsibility, and let them fail, as this book and others like it suggest. But, honestly, there are perks of this effort, in addition to the primary goal of raising competent adults. When my kids are fighting their own battles, doing their own homework, laundry, and/or dishes, etc., that’s less on my frenzied To-Do list—a novel and welcome concept to this Generation X (“You can do it all!”) (Wait, I don’t fucking want to do it all!) mother. And that’s good for the whole family.