Monday, May 23, 2016

It Didn't Start With You

by Mark Wolynn
Viking     2016
240 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

The subtitle of It Didn't Start With You explains its thesis: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. Here is the description of the book from the publisher.

Depression. Anxiety. Chronic Pain. Phobias. Obsessive thoughts. The evidence is compelling: the roots of these difficulties may not reside in our immediate life experience or in chemical imbalances in our brains—but in the lives of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. The latest scientific research, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited—that traumatic experience can be passed down through generations. It Didn’t Start with You builds on the work of leading experts in post-traumatic stress, including Mount Sinai School of Medicine neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died, or the story has been forgotten or silenced, memory and feelings can live on. These emotional legacies are often hidden, encoded in everything from gene expression to everyday language, and they play a far greater role in our emotional and physical health than has ever before been understood.

Early in the 2000s, a great deal of research was completed regarding how holocaust trauma is being experienced by the second and third generations of holocaust survivors. Wolynn has done a remarkable job of relating this theory to  several other types of generational family trauma. He offers many case studies as examples and then offers sound advice. He discusses ways to identify inherited family trauma, how to map traumatic events that keeps the suffering alive, and how to create new neural pathways that will give you a new lease on life and break the trauma cycle.

Here is a quote that I liked: "A life completely devoid of trauma, as we're learning, is highly unlikely. Traumas do not sleep, even with death, but, rather, continue to look for the fertile ground of resolution in the children of the following generation. Fortunately, human beings are resilient and are capable of healing most types of trauma."

I have two adopted granddaughters. One was given up at birth and handed over to her parents within moments of her birth. The other was given up at birth and was in foster care for nearly two years before being adopted. Both girls have separation anxiety. It Didn't Start with You helped me to understand that they are continuing to experience the trauma of their separation from their birth mother (and foster mother in one case). But, Wolynn would say that they may also be experiencing the trauma that their birth mothers were facing in the months before they were born.

After reading It Didn't Start with You, I believe that the most important skill we can teach our children is resiliency—enough to surmount most types of trauma. Wolynn is a therapist, and his clinic specializes in family trauma. He also runs family trauma workshops all over the country. Here is his website.This book is valuable if you or family members are having trouble solving family problems that span the generations. It is also helpful in resolving relationship problems that you may currently be experiencing.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Keep You Close

by Lucie Whitehouse
Bloomsbury USA     2016
368 pages     Thriller

There is nothing like a psychological thriller to speed up the adrenaline and leave the dirty dishes in the sink! Or in my case, leave two little grandchildren watching Hotel Transylvania so I could get the book finished before their bedtime.

Rowan (love that name) responds to the death of her estranged childhood friend, Marianne, by moving into her house ostensibly to house sit in the weeks after the funeral. Apparently Marianne, a gifted and prominent artist, fell to her death from the rooftop of her childhood house, but Rowan is convinced that it wasn't accidental or suicide.  Rowan sets out to reconstruct Marianne's life in the years since they last saw each other ten years before. She received a mysterious note in the mail from Marianne, "I need to talk to you, " and she is propelled to try to solve what she considers to be the crime.

As a child, Rowan's own family life was a bit of a disaster, and when she became acquainted with Marianne at school, she was also accepted as a surrogate member of her family, the Glass family. Seb Glass was a serial philanderer, and as teenagers Rowan and Marianne obsess over the possibility of the family breaking up over his affairs. Rowan also becomes a bit obsessed over Marianne's older brother Adam, who she has kissed at a party one night. There are many loose pieces to Rowan's relationship with the Glass family, and as she sits in their family house, she sifts through Marianne's art and interviews the people involved in her life, trying to knit all the pieces together.

It isn't long before the reader begins to realize that Rowan is an unreliable narrator, in the style of Rachel from The Girl on the Train. There are too many pieces that don't fit together; too many people with questions; too much involvement with the police. Rowan becomes increasingly incoherent, and we begin to sense that there is a lot that we don't know or understand. 

At one point, a famous artist named Cory, who was in the midst of doing a portrait of Marianne when she died, does a sketch of Rowan as he is talking with her. "It had taken him ten minutes, less, even but he'd got her. There she was, not the version of herself that she liked, the best angle, soft-focus Rowan, but her knowing, thinking, hard-eyed avatar, Rowan the survivor, the one who had to do everything on her own. The version of herself that, in the privacy of her mind, she knew was the real one."

Cory, the artist, is one of a rich set of characters that interact with Rowan. It is to Whitehouse's credit that the reader is able to sort through the characters—there are so many of them. Often, readers have to keep lists of characters to keep them all straight. Not in this case; they are very distinct. The setting is well-described and the suspense builds in ways that keeps the reader slightly off balance. I heard myself catch my breath at one point—one surprising turn of events.

The title, Keep You Close, is very clever, because the it skews your thinking about Rowan, both before and after you finish the book. What was being kept close? Who is being kept close? I also kept the thought in mind, "You can't go home again." Rowan should have stayed away from Oxford and from Marianne's home. Nothing good could possibly come from her digging through Marianne's (and her) past.

Lucie Whitehouse is the author of several thrillers. Many readers liked her previous book, Before We Met.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Me Before You

by JoJo Moyes
Penguin Books     2012
369 pages     Fiction

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes is a romance novel that subtly turns the corner from a love story to a book that poses profound moral questions. And the questions stay with the reader long after the last page is read and the last tear is wiped away. 

Will Traynor, is a 35-year-old wealthy and successful businessman—a man who has it all. In one brief moment, an accident takes everything away from him, rendering him quadriplegic, angry, and suicidal. Enter Louisa Clark, a 26-year-old village girl. She is hired by Will's mother to be his caregiver for six months—not to do the medical work, but to make Will's life easier. Louisa (Lou) has never traveled, has had the same boyfriend for 7 years, still lives in her family home, and has no education beyond high school. She is a bit spineless, but in order to do the necessary job for Will, she is forced to develop skills that she didn't know she had and to grow beyond her expectations for herself.

The moral question posed is a universal one; what is quality of life? In her attempt to find ways to encourage Will to enjoy life, Lou communicates with other quadriplegics and their caregivers, many of whom have found ways to improve their quality of life. Her greatest fear is that Will will go through with his plan to travel to Switzerland for an assisted suicide. He has promised his parents that he will stay alive for six months before he completes his plan. Lou's self-assigned task is to get him to decide to live.

This is no ordinary romance novel, because in an ordinary romance novel, Lou would have prevailed; Will would have repurposed his life; and all would have ended in sweetness and light. The conclusion would have left the reader with tears of joy; and I would not have been left with significant questions. 

Here are the moral dilemmas I struggled with as I read Me Before You.  Is Will selfish in the decisions he is making? Does a person have an obligation to live? Is choosing to die a person's moral right? I just finished reading Zero K by Don DeLillo, which is about cryogenics. I was already filled with questions about death and dying, although DeLillo's perspective is quite different from Moyes. 

The last 100 pages move very rapidly, and as soon as we begin to grasp the novel's conclusion, we become as confused as Lou. We continually ask ourselves about Will's quality of life. What is the best solution for him? Can he really change? Should he change? The reviewer in the New York Times suggests that the circumstances "lead noncontemplative people to contemplation." As I began the book, I really expected to finish the book, sigh, wipe my tears, and move on. I didn't expect to be haunted with the unanswerable questions that assail me now.

Moyes' writing style is subtle. The New York Times reviewer says that Moyes "disarms the reader with the normalcy of her voice. Her language is never lofty; she exposes her characters' flaws with the literary equivalent of a fluorescent bulb's naked light." The characters are all finely drawn; we have a clear vision of each one, which makes the impact of their decisions all the more profound.

 As I discussed the novel with my husband, he brought up the life of Stephen Hawking as an example of a person who made different life choices from Will Traynor.  And I remembered the biopic, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about the Elle editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was totally incapacitated by a stroke. The movie asks many of the same questions about quality of life that Me Before You is asking. A movie based on Moyes book comes out in the next couple of weeks. I am not sure that I have the spiritual energy to live through this twice.

This is my book club choice for the month. We meet next week. I am always curious about what my friends will think about the book.

Here is an interview with JoJo Moyes about the writing of Me Before You.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Walk in the Woods

by Bill Bryson
Anchor Books     2007 (1998)
397 pages     Memoir
Read Aloud

"After years of waddlesome sloth", author Bill Bryson decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2200 mile path from Georgia to Maine. He let his plan be known, hoping to find someone to hike with him, and an old friend, Katz, a totally unfit, recovering alcoholic, decided to join him. They began at the trailhead in Georgia and started walking North. Many months later, they finished their walk in Maine, after skipping most of the middle, and quitting before they got to the trail's end. 

A Walk in the Woods is Bryson's insightful, humorous, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir of that fateful summer's hike. My husband and I read it this spring in preparation for the five miles we intend to walk on the trail at the end of June. "5 miles" you say? "That's nothing!" However, after reading the book, my husband said, "Why in the world would anyone want to punish themselves that way?" So, apparently 5 miles will be plenty for him. We haven't just been reading, but we have been walking in preparation. We haven't gotten to 5 miles yet, but now that the weather is improving, we are aiming for 2 miles this week. (If I had a smiling emoticon, I would put it here.)

The beauty of A Walk in the Woods is not just reading about Bryson and Katz's adventures, but reading all the back story about the trail, its history, and the events in American history that affected the areas the trail covers. For instance, he visits a place near the trail in Pennsylvania where an underground coal seam has been burning for 50 years. The entire community of Centralia, Pennsylvania had to be evacuated never to be lived in again.
Bryson describes the shelters where they spent their nights,  the villages where they slept in real beds and ate real food, and the people they met along the way. Katz's lack of hiking skills supplies much of the humor, but Bryson also acknowledges that he could not have made the trip without his bumbling hiking companion. After they suspend their hiking at the end of the spring, Bryson attempts a lot of day trips from his car, hiking his way north from Harper's Ferry West Virginia, but his heart isn't quite in it. Katz joins him in August with the thought that they will hike through the hundred mile wilderness of Maine, but they have lost much of their impetus, and they never make it to the Maine end of the trail. They realize, however, that they didn't need to finish; they had completed enough to be proud of their accomplishment, and of course, Bryson got a great memoir out of the deal. 

Bryson writes in such an engaging style that you feel like you know him and his topic very well. Several years ago, we read A Short History of Nearly Everything, and we fell in love with his writing. I also read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which tells the story of his childhood in Iowa. His newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling is about his travels around his adopted country of Great Britain. We tried watching the movie, A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, but we decided that we had been down the Appalachian Trail once, and we didn't need to go down it twice.  By the way, A Walk in the Woods makes a great read aloud.

So why are we hiking five miles on the Appalachian Trail? Our daughter-in-law Jill lives and works in West Virginia. She, her husband, Josh, his brother Micah, and various and sundry other of her relatives are going to walk 40 miles on the trail in West Virginia to celebrate her 40th birthday. Thell and I will hike in from Harper's Ferry on the last day of their trek to meet them and walk out of the trail with them. We hiked in New Zealand on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, and now we can add this to our life experiences. 

Here is an article about the real life "Katz" who lives in Des Moines Iowa.