I read some things, and DNF’d some others, that I feel like writing about! Let’s get to it.
Anhedonia was a major symptom of my depression, and I am still working on enjoying the things I used to (yes, that does sound like a contradiction in terms, and no, the pandemic doesn’t make it easier). And now, unmarried, children grown if not flown, and sadly newly dogless, I have so much more space in my life to do what I enjoy, to explore new things to enjoy. It’s surprisingly hard to figure out what I want to do and try–it’s been so long since I asked myself what I like.
Recently, I came across this podcast conversation between Arthur C. Brooks and Lori Gottlieb (whose book on therapy I enjoyed) on how to figure out what you enjoy, and found it helpful. Looking for more along those lines, I spotted Catherine Price’s The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again at my library. Sadly, this was a DNF. There’s nothing wrong with it, really, but I can’t stand the kind of self-help where the author feels the need to create special terms that sound like they should have a trademark symbol when normal words and dictionary definitions would do. And this is that kind of book. Going through an elaborate process of journaling about True FunTM (yes, she does use that, capitalized, though I added the TM) did not sound, well, fun. I did get some good ideas about what kinds of experiences to look for, though.
Price’s previous book was on breaking up with your phone, and that carried over into this one, as she feels the fake fun we have on our distracting devices gets in the way of having real fun, which typically involves being present with others. That resonated with me, so next I turned to Johann Hari’s new book, Stolen Focus. I started the audiobook, and it wasn’t terrible or anything, but it was taking so long to get to the actual information, and then I saw Hari did an episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast and figured that was as much as I wanted to know about the book’s ideas. (No doubt it’s some kind of deadly English teacher sin to listen to the podcast instead of reading the book).
Even though I didn’t read these books, the fact that I was drawn to them showed me where I want to go next in my healing. I’d just rather get on with focusing and finding fun than read the books–which in itself suggests I’ve made some progress in healing.
I enjoyed The Maid, a debut mystery by Nita Prose, while reading it, but in retrospect feel more uncomfortable about it. Prose mixes a cozy mystery vibe (the hotel setting, amateur sleuths, a sweet romance, and protagonist Molly’s old-fashioned manners and way of speaking) with the anything-but-cozy issues underlying the crime (I don’t want to spoil these, but they could be the stuff of a dark thriller). This is an interesting challenge to genre conventions, and one I wasn’t really expecting from what I had read about it. But the coziness can end up minimizing the serious issues, suggesting things like undocumented immigration can be easily fixed if everyone is just nice and maybe bends the rules a little in a good cause. Thrillers can also trivialize issues they depict, but at least they convey the horror. Here, a lot of that was flattened out.
And then there is Molly herself, who is clearly meant to be neurodivergent. She is very observant of details, but has difficulty interpreting social cues. Molly loves her job as a hotel maid because she has a passion for order and because the rules of behavior for staff are clearly defined. I liked that part of her and it made sense, though I can’t speak to how an autistic person would feel about it–I thought the author treated both Molly and her work, so often disregarded, with respect, though again, the book’s coziness downplayed to some extent the difficulty of this type of work. It was Molly’s position as a maid, invisible to the hotel guests but seeing their intimate lives, that first interested me in the book.
But Molly is also portrayed inconsistently–sometimes she does seem to read people well–and as incredibly naive. She’s 25, but it seems at times like she hasn’t managed to learn any understanding of contemporary social situations, although that changes over the course of the book. Part of that naivete could be chalked up to being raised by her (recently deceased) Gran, who based on Molly’s memories seemed to have been teleported in from a Golden Age British mystery rather than being believable as a contemporary 70-something woman. But I also felt at times as if Prose used Molly’s naivite and neurodivergence as both a plot convenience and a “quirk” to set the book apart, and when the book made me feel that way, the portrayal seemed offensive.
I’m teaching The Break by Katharena Vermette right now. It’s a wonderful book that I loved and admired even more after teaching it last semester. I wrote about that for Dorian as part of his marvelous Year in Reading series.
I listened to Xe Sands reading Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews, a provocative collection of essays on how people (meaning mostly North American Christians, I think) love dead Jews whose stories can be used to uplift us (aww, Anne Frank never lost her faith in human goodness). I learned a lot from this, especially where it challenged me most.
I just started Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas by Jennifer Raff, after reading a full-on rave review. Raff discusses recent findings that challenge the idea that humans first arrived in the Americas via a land bridge across the Bering Sea, about 10,000 years ago. In fact, as reflected in some oral traditions, they (we?) have been here much longer. I’m not far in but so far it lives up to the billing, especially in being an excellent example of how to integrate cutting-edge science with Indigenous ways of knowing to find a deeper understanding. Now, if I can just get myself to focus on enjoying it. . . .