Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 Books

Well, it's new year's eve. I'm sitting at home on my own because, well, to cut a long story short, I'm still under the weather and I didn't feel well enough to go out to a friend's place with J so he's gone alone. Which means that Christmas was a bust, our time off work together was a bust and now New Year's is a bust too. In the last week, we've added the following symptoms to our family list: conjunctivitis (the babies) vomiting (me) diarrhea (the babies) sore throat (me and J) and extreeeeeeme crankiness (also me, quelle surprise). (Although at times, also the babies). (Ummmm, and J for some of the time too. If I'm honest).

I have noticed that the longer an illness goes on, the less sympathetic people are about it, and frankly that's been annoying me a bit. (See? Cranky!) After all, it's much worse being sick after three weeks than after one - all your food is gone, for one thing. I was talking to my dad about this, since (as long-time readers might remember) the sociology of illness is something he knows far too much about. He said that when you get sick, you get a new status as a 'sick person', with privileges attached (eg not expected to do very much). But it's part of a social contract - people have to be nice to you while you're sick, but the expectation on the sick person is that they will get better in a reasonable amount of time. If you try to extend your sick status past the social norm, it doesn't really work because you have broken your part of the contract - you were supposed to get better already. This is one of the reasons that it's difficult to live with chronic health problems like rheumatoid arthritis, he said- you don't get the same status and privileges for long-term illness as you do when it is acute - people just expect you to get better, and if you can't get better they mostly stop caring. That's very interesting, I said, and asked: what happens if it's a terminal illness? Are you allowed to stay sick, then? And he said that yes, you're allowed to be sick for quite a long time if you're terminally ill. But there's still a social contract - in exchange for being allowed to be sick for an extended period, your half of the bargain is that within a reasonable amount of time you're supposed to die.

Well, I did ask, I suppose.

All this is just to say that this week I have sworn that from now on, I will be much nicer to the chronically ill. Three weeks of illness has almost destroyed me, which is pathetic. I've realised how much good health we have normally, and I'm going to be more grateful for it. And more understanding of those who don't. When I have it again, that is. Right now I'm still going to just go to bed early and continue to feel sorry for myself.

Actually, on second thoughts, no I'm not. The last few weeks have been interesting, and I've been unsure what to write about. But there must be something, right? Should it be the day at someone else's house when I unexpectedly found myself watching adoption-themed movies, and realising that one day this was going to happen to my children? It was going to be that, but then I realised that I couldn't face it. So I've decided to recommend some of my favourite books from 2010. (Books I read in 2010, not necessarily published in 2010). And because I'm realistic about who is reading this, the links send you to Amazon US.

Red Dust Road, by Jackie Kay and My Fathers' Daughter by Hannah Poole

Yes, this is two books, but I read them in the same week back in June and they cover similar themes so I can't help grouping them in my mind. They are two of the best adult adoptee memoirs I've read, and I would put both of them on my 'best adoption books of all time' list. Both are written by women who write for a living - they were writers before they decided to talk about adoption, and it really shows. Both are about transracially adopted adults in search of biological roots, but RDR covers years and loops back and forward in time, while MFD mostly focusses on a very short period in the author's life.

It's hard to do either of these books any kind of justice in a paragraph or two. Jackie Kay's book is the story of a UK domestic transracial adoptee who searches for her birthparents - both alive, but on different sides of the world. It's a complicated story that defies a lot of the usual adoption stereotypes. The writing is lyrical - unsurprising, as Ms Kay is a poet - and the story is gripping. Hannah Poole is a journalist, and her book is written quite differently. It covers a short period of time in graphic detail, and by the end of the book you feel very much like you are living right inside of her head. She was adopted from Eritrea in the 1970s and the book is about her travelling back to meet her birth family. It's incredibly honest - brutally so - and very entertaining but not a feelgood read. Well, not if you're an adoptive parent.

I can't help thinking that a big difference between the two stories is that Ms Poole's first family is still intact. Her mother has died, but if she had been raised by her first family rather than adopted, she would have become part of a family that still exists. It's impossible to imagine not feeling huge grief over missing out on being part of something this real. Ms Kay's family, on the other hand, isn't that simple. She does not write with the same sense of painful regret, and it is hard to know how much of that is because there was not an obvious alternative life for her to be part of. Life is much more complicated than this, of course, and I don't mean to say that this is the only reason that the books 'feel' different, or why the two women seem to have had very different reactions overall to their adoptions, but I think it might be a significant factor.

I think that the two books balance each other out very well, if you are reading them as an adoptive parent looking to learn from the adult adoptee experience. RDR is sad in places but ultimately uplifting - it feels redemptive and positive. MFD does not feel like that. Ms Poole writes with piercing clarity about how she finds herself regretting so much of what has happened to her. I am grateful for her book, and I'm glad that I have read it. But it's not an easy read. Her adoption was based on a lie, and that is hard to read about. But this lie is not the only reason she wishes, often, for a different life, the life she might have had. Some adult adoptee memoirs make you think 'oh, right, her parents did this wrong and this wrong and that's why she's unhappy. If I just do things differently, things will be okay'. This book does not give the reader that option. Her adoptive Dad sounds like a great guy, and they have a really good relationship. This book showed me more clearly than any other I have read - Claudia, it's not about you. You cannot parent in such a way that you can guarantee your kids will end up feeling happy about their adoption. So don't kid yourself.

Don't take my word for it, though - read them!

The Alphabet Series by Sue Grafton

Pure private detective escapism. But really well written escapism - funny, well plotted and a truly likeable no-nonsense heroine. How would it be possible not to like a woman who takes a bubble bath with washing-up liquid? I'm a little embarrassed to be including this series in my books of the year, but I've read twelve in the last 8 weeks or so, so it would be dishonest not to. I bought a box set of these books at a bargain bookstore, never having heard of the series or the author. But I read all of them within a few weeks because they were so much fun. The first books were written in the late 80s, and the private detective she does a lot of her research at the library using microfiche, which is pleasing and amusing, but they dont' feel dated. I'm not saying spend money to get the first editions, but look out for them in your library. The copies in my library nearly always seem to be gone, so I guess I'm not the only one who likes them.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I've already written about this one.

Blue Like Jazz by Don Miller

I don't quite know what to say about this. I'm trying (painfully, slowly) to write a book about our adoption, as most of you already know. One of the agent blogs I've been reading had a really interesting post a few months back saying that if you're trying to write a memoir, you really should make sure that you've read at least ten really, really good ones. And that made me realise that I hadn't - I'd read a lot of adoption memoir writing, but not very much outside of that box. She had some interesting recommendations, and asked for commenters to recommend others.

One that came up again and again and again was Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz. The subtitle is 'nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality' and to be honest, I wasn't very keen. I'm a Christian, and that sounded like a very 'woo-woo' (yes, folks, that's a technical term) version of Christianity that was just going to make me cranky. (Incidentally, a Christian in a book who DID make me cranky was Jackie Kay's birthfather. Read that book and you'll know what I mean. But I digress). But I ordered the book, because so many people recommended it, and when it arrived I opened it up and from the first page I was hooked.

By about the tenth page I was thinking 'this man is a wonderful writer' and by the twentieth page I was thinking 'actually, he is so uncomfortably perceptive about the human condition that his writing is beginning to remind me of C. S. Lewis' and then a few pages later 'this book is much, much funnier than any Christian book has a right to be' and by halfway through the book I realised that the subtitle had probably been put there by his publisher, and when he really started talking about Christianity I realised that all he's trying to get away from is religion as an empty form, he's actually not 'woo-woo' at all. And by the hundredth page I was feeling like I was seeing my own hypocrisy more clearly and feeling humbled and by the end I had decided that I was going to give it to my Dad for his birthday (I always give him my favourite book of the preceding year for his birthday - last year it was The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle). And my Dad loved this book too, and he's pretty fussy about books, especially Christian books. He also said that the writing reminded him of CS Lewis, and I don't think he really has much higher praise. I've since read the sequel to this book, and another companion book, and I think I may have liked them even more than this first one. But this is the one that gets a place in my list, because I read it first.

I may never get my own book written, and that would make me sad. But honestly? I think the process would still be worthwhile because it meant that I found Don Miller's writing, and I'll always, always be glad about that.

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins.

I know, teen fiction, seriously? I had low hopes - I hated Twilight. But I started this series and I was turning the pages so fast that I'm pretty sure I nearly set fire to my house. I was dreaming about these books at night, the suspense was so intense. Fortunately I bought all three books at once because if I had needed to wait to read the next books in the series I would have gone crazy, for real. I don't know how people coped who read the first two books before Mockingjay (the final book) was published. How did your nerves stand it?

After reading this series, I told J 'you have GOT to read this!' and he harrumphed a bit. He wasn't keen, but he took the first book on his commute to work one Monday morning. And he got so involved in the story that he missed his stop on the tube. And then on the way home, he got so involved that he missed his return stop. Like I said. Intense. For pure plot and pace, I can't recommend this highly enough.

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

I have my sister to thank for this recommendation. I laughed until I cried while reading this book - this may be the only book where I have started laughing while reading the dust jacket. (The fake bestseller list! Priceless!) It's a novel written in the form of a memoir. The protagonist sets out to write a literary novel in order to become famous, and the memoir shows how he makes it happen. The plot is average, but the extracts from his fake novel are some of the funniest things I've ever read. I'm going to warn you straight up - this book is very, very silly. If you think it's funny to laugh at inappropriate overuse of the word 'visceral' in bad literary fiction, you. will. love. this. book. Seriously. Tears of joy. Buy it now. If you don't think that 'visceral' or it's friends have any potential for humour - (I'm pretty sure there were a few 'nascents' as well) steer clear.

(Actually, that reminds me - not a 2010 book for me at all but if you like silly books about books - do not do a single 'nother thing until you have read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Genius. Don't ask any questions - just buy it).

I'm sure there were others, but these are the ones that came to mind first, which must mean something. What would you put on your list for 2010? You know I'm all ears for this kind of thing.

So for me - that's it for 2010. The babies are now 17 months old. How did that happen? Mostly a great year, although December left me longing for the whole thing to end. It's been lovely having your company - may 2011 treat you kindly. A great big MWAH! to you, and you, and you, and yes, you too. See you next year!


  1. Oh're still sick?! THAT SUCKS. Really. I feel for you. (you've surpassed my sick-o-ness now. I was only sick for two and a half weeks.) It can't last much longer, right?
    Loved "My Father's Daughter" too. One of my favorite books of the year as well. I'll check out some of your other recommendations.
    Get better already!!!!!!!

  2. Happy New Year! Hope you are healthy again soon.

    Thanks for the book list, I think I will have to check out Red Dust Road for sure!

  3. Oh I was just starting to feel very badly about the reading I had done this year and then you talked about "The Hunger Game" Series - OH MY GAWD!!! Could not put these books down and yes, I had to wait for the 3rd book to be released and it was torture....something else I did was purchase these books in hardcover (something I very rarely do because they cost too much and I hate the bulkiness) but these I have in hardcover.

    Also, your dad and I must have one brain - the whole "sick contract" is so true and when you asked him what happens when you are terminal ill I immediately thought "it is o.k. definitely to be terminally ill but the expectation is you have to die"

    Aren't we quite the civilized people! Yikes.

    Feel better! Get well soon and I mean it in the "I totally understand what it is like to be sick for a long time and it sucks so feel better soon" way.

    All the best in 2011!

  4. Oh C. I know ALL about being sick and needing sympathy longer than is socially or personally acceptable.

    The good thing about getting better is that within hours you've moved into No Longer Being a Sick Person and your world is shifted back to normal. (Unless you have two new babies the moment you're "better." But you know that story.)

    Thanks for the book recommendations. I read Hannah Poole's book during our Wait, I thought it offered helpful insights for sure.

    I read The Brother's Karamazov for the third time, These Is My Words, by Nancy Turner which I utterly devoured. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was also riveting. For 2011 I am reading Wild Swans and some of your recommendations!

    Thanks dear.

  5. I read "My Father's Daughter" too. It's a great book and really quick to read. She has a nice writing style. After reading many accounts I too have come away with the feeling that you can try your best, but there will always be hurt and loss and that's okay, maybe even good/healthy. I got the feeling she was a stronger person, perhaps slightly less materialistic at the end of her journey than at the beginning. Her obsession with what to wear drove me a little crazy.

  6. That was really interesting about being sick and the social expectations. It's so true yet I've never consciously thought of it. I am a bad sick person BTW, hate asking for help, hate being in bed, hate hate hate. D is VERY happy when I'm well as I'm told I'm also ungrateful!!!

    Anyway, LOVE Sue Grafton - I always remember the peanut butter and pickle sandwiches :)

  7. I had a rally good book year, fueled in large part by my rediscovery of our excellent local library system. I went on a David McCullough kick and read his bios of both John Adams and Harry Truman. Two really jaw-droppingly excellent books that provided me with two new personal heroes. (Well, three, if you count McCullough himself and I think I do.) I also read a new bio of Charles Darwin (can't remember the name, it's written by his great-something-grandson) which I highly recommend and which provided me with new personal hero #4, and led me to read Darwin's own "Voyage of the Beagle," which was a delight from start to finish, much to my surprise. And mustn't forget to recommend "The Tiger" by John Vaillant which was absolutely. riveting. and. wonderful. It's suspenseful, it's beautifully written, it taught me much about a part of the world I know nothing about, contextualizes history and politics within an adventure/nature story - don't miss this book.

  8. I am still sick too. Week 2. Fourth sickness in about 7 months. People's sympathy (and by people I mean Jer, my parents, my employer and all of my friends) is wearing thin. But the PHLEGM. The exhaustion. The weakness. ARGH! I don't even have energy to blog.

    As for books - I too like Blue Like Jazz. And I plan to read the teen series you recommended. Because my brain and body only want easy reading right now.

    Wish we were coming to the UK sooner because I can't wait to meet you in person. May 2012....
    Ariam is also 17 months. She's going to adore the twinsies.

  9. First off - I surely pray you feel better soon. I know - we've been sick together this winter, haven't we? I am FINALLY on the mend, but had to take nine (NINE!) pills two nights ago. Ugh.

    And I love "Blue Like Jazz." Have you read his first book, "Prayer and the Art of Volkswagon Maintenance?" It's no longer in print, but if you can get your hands on it, it's a great book, too. Love his perception!

  10. How awful that you are still sick. The bit about your Dad cracked me up. So true. I got sick a few days before Christmas and can't believe how horrible I still feel, plus it's hard being a parent when you are sick. My patience is completely short and I haven't felt this tired since we first got back from Ethiopia. Hope you are well again SOOON!

    Thanks for the book reviews. You make them all sound like must reads. I have to say, I am impressed with how much you have read this year. I have hardly read a thing since the boys came home. They are asleep by 9 and I am either asleep with them or wasting time on the internet! New Years Resolution...must start reading again!

    Happy New Year, Claudia!

  11. Claudia are you writing less because you are sick or because you are writing your novel? Because if you are writing less due to illness I am sorry, but if you are writing less due to writing, I am impatient!!!!

    Oh, oops, that's not very charitable of me, is that?

    Uh, where were we? Talking about books? Right? Yes, well, I read alot this year because I was in a book club. A China themed book club. So we read more books on the Cultural Revolution than you can shake a stick at. But it was totally worth it. We also read adoption themed books like Cheri Register's book and we attempted Frank Wu's book "Yellow" which I myself have attempted three times but CANNOT get through, sorry Frank. I also have the delightful Happiness Project that I won right here and have gotten halfway through (you know why ;-)) and I also read many of the Sue Grafton book actually when they came out, how's that for dating myself?

    Ugh, besides that, I just ordered three new books all on China so I better finish my mystery project and my Happiness Project so I can get going!

    Hope you feel better!

  12. I am just catching up...again. (I must break this blog breaking habit this year!)

    I have to say that as a daughter of a chronically ill parent, your dad's analysis fascinates me. I don't think I really got it all because I was so young, but looking back at how people (including siblings and dear friends) disappeared as things got worse really comes so much clearer now. His illness became the new "norm" and something had to happen on top of being stuck in a wheelchair for them to get helpful (or just be there) again. Anyway, loved this for some good food for thought, but sincerely hope that you are all over this crud so very soon!

    I am loving your book list and just added several to my "must check out (at the library) list". I always keep a running list stored in my phone so I don't just go in there and wander around reading book excerpts until something strikes me. (-; Thanks for this!

  13. I would just like to point out that not only does Kinsey Millhone have bubble baths with dish soap, she also trims her own hair with nail scissors. :) G & H are my favourites of the early ones.

    Hope you are feeling better soon... I missed more days of work in December than I did in the previous 11 months combined, so I sympathize. There are some seriously sucky viruses going around this year.

  14. LOVED Blue Like Jazz. Loved loved loved. I have read a few others of his and loved them as well - he is a phenomenal writer and thinker.

    So sorry you are still sick, I am on round 2 of steroids and can (unfortunately) totally sympathize.

    Thanks for the other recommendations, I look forward to checking them out!

  15. You're at least the third person I've heard talk about The Hunger Games in the last two weeks...I'm going to have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendations, CLaudia - I'm always up for more book suggestions!!

    Happy New Year!



  16. sorry you're still sick, if indeed you are at this point! I somehow missed this post initially, and it's a shame.

    My SIL, an ESL teacher, has been at me to read Hunger Games for many months. Now she finally bought me the book for christmas, so I told her I'd read it on the plane to Ethiopia. (I didn't read any of the comments above mine in case there were spoilers...)

    What was the name of that book that you liked about happiness in purchasing? I suppose I could go back and search your blog, but I'm in the midst of trying to pack.


Over to you!