What LC Read: Vol. 1

Friday, May 18, 2018

This week yields a flattering total of five books, four of which deal primarily with death and dying; the odd one out recounts sexual violence. I didn't mean for this to be such a morbid collection, but here we are. In other unsolicited news, I was gifted a brand spanking new Kindle for graduation (I also graduated), so the voracious reading charges forward. If you only have time for one book, or are caught between this list and my recommendations for recent grads, please feel free to ask your local lit nerd, available by Instagram DM @theofficialCL. Like matchmaking, but between friends and books, and it brings me unequivocal joy. 

The Border of Paradise | Esme Weijun Wang
This book reminded me that accepting unflattering portraits of the people and places I hold dear -- like Taiwan -- is part of championing diversity of representation. The Border of Paradise remembers a Taiwan that is poor and hopeless, with prostitutes hanging around the ankles of white soldiers that might whisk them off to a better life. But it’s also a tender, grotesque examination of a strange family, of downward mobility, of miscegenation, of mental illnesses. It is a dark, dark book -- like a gothic novel in sepia, its terror complicated by how very awkward each character is.

But there is too much quiet beneath the sound of Mussorgsky, and I know. I push the door open and in, violating our contract, and here are her things, her animals, sketchbook strewn. The spinning and tinny turntable. I search the rest of the house. I look in the closets and the bathrooms. Half deliriously I look in the cupboards. Back in her bedroom I break into tears, kick over the turntable, which exclaims and dies; and then I plead to every familial ghost to bring my girl home.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory | Caitlin Doughty
I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read this, because everybody I know, including me, has been or will be cremated. And I didn’t exactly want my illusions about that process dispelled. But that’s Doughty’s point. We have such a fragile and sheltered understanding of death and what happens to the body, which ultimately prevents us from finding closure. She mentions a Japanese tradition my own family practices, where you use chopsticks to move the bone fragments into an urn, starting from the toes, and it’s a process that allows us to “usher” our loved one to the afterworld. Such traditions give us a closeness that sterilized processes -- the drawn curtain, the perfect embalming -- don’t. I really enjoyed this one, and it was a quick-ish read.

Exposing a young child to the realities of love and death is far less dangerous than exposing them to the lie of the happy ending. Children of the Disney princess era grew up with a whitewashed version of reality filled with animal sidekicks and unrealistic expectations. Mythologist Joseph Campbell wisely tells us to scorn the happy ending, “for the world as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved.”

Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon | Henry Marsh
I’ve loosely compared this to When Breath Becomes Air, sans impending death and with more commentary on the ethics of medical care. I stand by that. Marsh also has a particular humility and self-deprecation to him that’s endearing and so British and trustworthy; his Admissions is earnest and moving in a way most people of his pedigree couldn’t accomplish. I think what’s really lovely about reading memoirs is that you absorb so much wisdom without the inconvenience of small talk and prolonged human contact (spoken like a true introvert). But this is truly why I prefer memoirs over self-help books; they are insightful without the lofty ambition of making shitty generalizations about life from this one thing that happened to them. As an aside, I particularly like memoirs about/by mothers, because I can imagine no greater example of unconditional, infallible love (except Rilke’s for God, and that is untouchable). If you need career advice, or a bit of guidance on life, read a memoir or five. Recommendations forthcoming.

We do not (and will not) have the resources to properly care for our increasing elderly population, yet we insist on medical intervention to keep them alive. To allow them to die would signal the failure of our supposedly infallible modern medical system.

It is never too early to start thinking about your own death and the deaths of those you love. I don’t mean thinking about death in obsessive loops. But rational interaction, that ends with you realizing that you will survive the worst, whatever the worst may be. Accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like “why do people die?” and “why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.

Dark Chapter | Winnie M. Li
I struggled with this book because I knew it was based loosely on the author’s own experiences of sexual assault, so it would have been shitty of me to accuse the narrative of being “predictable” and “reliant on stereotypes” because such things often do play out in horribly unoriginal ways. I think I would have preferred it as a memoir, which would have been more generous with the narrator’s introspection; rather than a presented work of fiction, which felt pressured to accelerate plot and character development. Other reviews of Dark Chapter laud Li’s unflinching honesty in revealing previously obscured realities about pursuing criminal justice for rapists. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad that after four years of university confronting the failures of Title IX, I’m nearly desensitized to sexual assault cases that are traumatizing to report and often fail to secure real results. But that’s a topic for another post, and I digress.
That being said, the author is brilliant and brave, and these qualities radiate in her work. Please do give this a chance, as it touches upon the sexualization of Asian women, the difficulty of reporting assault, and how some (though not all) perpetrators come from difficult backgrounds, which doesn’t excuse their actions but does force us to consider how our actions shape others’ behaviors.

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History | Tori Telfer
I’ve had this on my radar forever, because it’s just such a delicious, sassy response to the misconception that violence is darkly, exclusively masculine. Lady Killers profiles fourteen female serial killers, of which I was only familiar with one: Erzsebet Bathory, who allegedly liked to bathe in her victims’ blood because it kept her young. (According to Telfer, this was an exaggeration.) Each woman is thoughtfully examined for both what she did and how she is remembered, and we are thus able to see how public anxieties about femininity and sexuality are projected onto the memory of these  female murderesses.

The paper Pesti Naplo speculated on the “strange combination of causes” that led to such familiarity with death, and such willingness to cause it. “It was cultural nihilism, living at the animals’ level, the primitive nature of their souls.” Cultural nihilism, yes, certainly. But living at the animals’ level? Primitive souls? These murders were birthed from very human emotions - uncomfortable, ugly emotions, to be sure, like desperation and lust and anger and irritation, but human ones nonetheless. These women killed to lessen their despair and improve their lot in life.

There are poor women and unimaginably rich women, ugly women and beautiful women, cunning women and desperate women. An exciting read, though best consumed in intervals, because there’s only so much arsenic you can read about again and again without feeling a bit ill.

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