Recent reads: May 2023
I didn’t realize until I was going to post this that it’d been so long since I posted a reading round up, but here we are. We traveled in April and I don’t read as much on road trips as I do when at home and now that the weather is finally nice, I’m in the garden quite a bit when I have free time. So, I’ve been reading less, but there are seasons for things and I’m OK with that. I didn’t love everything in this list, but I’m usually glad I read things because even if the story isn’t great I learn something that makes it worth it.
Arthur Less wants to avoid a wedding so he says yes to everything he’s invited to that will take him around the world, thereby avoiding the wedding. As he travels you learn why he wants to avoid the event, but also you learn more about who he is and in a hilarious and also heartfelt way, what is really important in life. Less is far from perfect, but in his bumbling I saw myself at times, which is maybe why I enjoyed the book so much.
A sweeping novel that follows two sisters from 1937 Shanghai to the US as they try and find a life after losing everything. I wanted to like this book and I guess I liked it enough to finish it, but it often flew through the years without enough of the characters to keep me so engaged I couldn’t put it down. At times, when a chapter started years later, it felt like the author was listing out what had happened before trying to get to the meat of it, but I’m not sure the meat of it was ever really good. There is a second book in the series, in fact this ends on a bit of a cliff hanger, but I don’t feel the need to go on, which says a lot.
The Lost Man
Jane Harper thrillers are usually quite good, involving going back and forth in time and secrets coming out that help solve the mysterious death. In this book we meet a family that lives in the Outback of Australia and ranches and one of the three brothers is found dead. I enjoyed this one, but I also found it difficult; the cast of characters is very small, the outback is an unforgiving place, and the secrets were layered and many. In the end I was left with a feeling of sorrow.
The subtitle of this book is An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and that really does say it all. I’d only read one book by Barbara Ehrenreich before, but was intrigued by this one, especially as I’m entering that phase of life where the number of health screenings is going up and, if I’m being honest, my anxiety over it all is also rising.
Ehrenreich wrote this when she was in her 70s and she’d decided she was done with doctors unless she felt something was wrong. She is deeply cynical about the medical profession, and having done a PhD in cellular immunology, she also does a lot of work to explain how our immune cells work and what the scientific community does and doesn’t know. I found some parts of the book to be odd, but I also found it very freeing to realize that no matter what I do I will die and maybe, whenever it comes to that, I can choose to do so in a way that isn’t painful and agonizing but accepting of what can and can’t be done in the situation.
One note on this book: I’ve talked with people about it a bit and many of Ehrenreich’s opinions are controversial and I recognize that. I appreciate that she’s asking questions and she explained the science behind many of them to help you understand her perspective. One thing I find incredibly difficult about our health care system in the US is how often asking questions and educating yourself are seen as bad by providers. It’s taken me a while to get used to speaking up for myself and what’s right for me. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I’m so glad I read it.
If there is a lesson here it has to do with humility. For all our vaunted intelligence and “complexity,” we are not the sole authors of our destinies or of anything else. You may exercise diligently, eat a medically fashionable diet, and still die of a sting from an irritated bee. You may be a slim, toned paragon of wellness, and still a macrophage within your body may decide to throw in its lot with an incipient tumor. Elie Metchnikoff understood this as well as any biologist since his time ever has. Rejecting the traditional—and continuing—themes of harmony and wholeness, he posited a biology based on conflict within the body and carried on by the body’s own cells as they compete for space and food and oxygen. We may influence the outcome of these conflicts—through our personal habits and perhaps eventually through medical technologies that will persuade immune cells to act in more responsible ways—but we cannot control it. And we certainly cannot forestall its inevitable outcome, which is death. (p 165)
It’s the Victorian age in England and two boys who are at boarding school find themselves launched into an unexpected adventure. The big twist in this era is that people smoke and through the smoke you can see their feelings. The wealthy and upper class learn to control it or use things they can buy to do so, but the underclass is left to smoke and have their feelings known to all. But why do people smoke and have they always? Can it be reversed so people no longer smoke? The metaphors are abundant in this story and the adventure was twisty and turny in all the best ways.