What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

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My Writing Process

One of my favorite bloggers Rudri at Being Rudri tagged me some time ago in this meme about the writing process. I have mentioned Rudri and her wonderful blog before. She writes thoughtful and reflective posts on the process of growing, healing, and finding joy. Her words are compelling because they come from a place of loss. She also writes regularly for The First Day, a quarterly print journal and on-line magazine about the spiritual journeys taken by people from all faiths and cultural backgrounds. Thanks so much for including me in this exercise, Rudri.

What am I working on as a writer?

I’m in a gap period in my writing. I’ve enrolled in writing courses over the last few years and worked on some personal essays for publication. Then I realized that I was suffering from a huge gap as a want-to-be writer: I wasn’t reading enough. A former classmate advised me to “learn from the masters” and so for the last couple of years I’ve been trying to return to the classics as well as familiarize myself with contemporary writers. I’m trying to figure out which voices and styles resonate with me most. I continue to write in my blog and last year began writing about books as well.

I would actually like to write a short story. For years I thought I would write a memoir but I struggled about privacy. Fiction, however, made me feel inauthentic. But I think blog writing has helped to release much of my pent-up emotions. I can comfortably try my hand at fiction now, as soon as I feel confident enough to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). For some reason I feel terrified about doing this.

I am also interested in poetry. I actually signed up for a free on-line poetry writing course that started while I was still traveling. I have a few course emails waiting for me so I need to get on that. But talk about a reading gap – I definitely need to read more poetry!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know if I can say that my writing belongs to a genre and, if it does, if I can say that it differs from others. I’ll just say that in general my writing tends very much to be on the personal side, and sometimes that applies to my book reviews too. I usually like to incorporate a personal voice into my posts.

Why do I write what I do?

I often get very personal in my writing, as my readers know. I’ve asked myself many times why I do this, when clearly I’m the only one among my (non-blogging) friends who reveals so much. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do it because I’d led a life of secrets. I come from a culture in which the most human conditions are seen as shameful flaws: hardship, injury, illness, failure, misfortune. I’ve been made to swear more than once to not utter a word to anyone about [something completely normal]. I also grew up in a home in which emotions were not acknowledged let alone discussed. This could work for some people, but I’m expressive and sensitive by nature. I see and interpret the world through words and feelings. Not allowing an expressive person to communicate is like forbidding an athlete from moving. I’ve had to write the most personal in order to heal and to find a healthy way to exist. I also do this in the hopes of making others (who may have grappled with similar issues) feel less alone. Being personal has helped me connect with readers, and I love and appreciate my small community here.

How does my writing process look?

I only sit down to write (blog) about two to four times a week (usually write 2x and edit 2x). I do, however, go about my days alert for possible topics. It might be a feeling that I have watching my son do something, or it might be something that my husband or friend brings up in conversation. Does that incident or comment reveal something larger about what many of us go through? I look for those moments and sometimes I talk them through with my husband. I store my ideas away mentally and on my phone and then get on my laptop the day before I want to publish the post. I try to write in the early mornings, and will postpone (non-urgent) work if necessary to get a post done. I write it all out in one sitting and then go back and edit small parts here and there. My most authentic posts get written the most quickly. For me personally, if I am in writing mode but the words are not coming to me easily, it’s a signal to me that I am not really writing what I’m feeling but writing because I feel pressured to churn something out. (The pressure is all internal, of course.)

Regarding my book reviews, I keep a small notebook of notable quotes to trigger memories of my biggest take-aways. More often than not I rely on memory. I’m not sure if this is the best tactic, though, given my no-longer-so-young-brain, so I think I need to start taking more notes!

Do you write? What is your writing process like?

Blogging Award and Q&A

I am always thankful to receive blogging awards but bad about passing them on…I think because I always feel awkward about choosing the next set of recipients for fear of leaving out someone. Anyway, the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink nominated me for the Liebster Award not long ago and I was intrigued by the set of questions that she asked me to respond to, which I have done below.

Thank you so much, Naomi. 🙂 Naomi writes a very thoughtful and personable blog on Canadian (and other) literature over at Consumed by Ink. I have learned about many great Canadian writers through her. I hope you will stop by and check out her blog.

1. What was your favourite book when you were a child? A teen? Now?

Child – Deenie by Judy Blume

Teen – Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews 😉

Now – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

2. What was your most memorable trip?

I would say San Francisco, when I was 9. My cousin was getting married and my mother took me out of school for a week. California was so different from the northeast and my uncle’s home so different from ours. I remembered waking up and seeing mountains. My aunt and uncle also had plush carpeting and a floor-to-ceiling patio screen with sliding door. And my cousin, the one getting married, wore make-up and high heels (unlike my mother). And I got to wear a floor-length dress for the first time and go to Toys-R-Us. And eat meatloaf (for the first time) at my uncle’s diner. Most of all, I started my first journal. My second grade teacher whom I was still in touch with gave me a beautiful red faux leather blank journal and told me it was for me to write about my trip.

3. Have you ever met a well-known author? What was your experience like? If not, which one would you like to meet?

Yes! Junot Díaz earlier this spring, which I posted about here. Years ago when Memoirs of a Geisha came out I also had a chance to meet Arthur Golden at his talk/book signing. One of the people he acknowledged in his book happened to be my Japanese teacher at the time, so I actually had something to talk to him about. He turned out to be very friendly and I didn’t feel as though I was talking to someone “famous.” Last week I went to listen to Khaled Hosseini. He’s a lovely, thoughtful man, but much more reserved than Junot Díaz and Arthur Golden.

4. What is your favourite reading spot?

My bed. It’s not the best reading spot (my bedroom is cluttered) but it’s where I’m most comfortable.

5. Which literary character would you most like to trade places with?

This is a hard one…because every character I remember reading experiences so much suffering! Does anyone have any suggestions?

6. If you could have anything you wanted for your next meal, what would it be?

I think I would choose this Burmese noodle dish that I last ate when I was a kid. We were friends with a Burmese family and I remember liking them so much; they were incredibly kind and gentle people. Every time we visited the parents would serve us this delicious creamy noodle that tasted like coconut. A few years later I learned that the father had died of a brain tumor and somehow we never saw them again.

7. What prompted you to start your blog? How did you come up with your blog title?

I used to write when I was younger but stopped as an adult. When Fred got to school age I decided to write again and blogging seemed like a good way to start. I could have simply written in a journal but I did want an audience and a community. I started and stopped several blogs before settling on “Only You.” Initially I was going to blog about my experiences mothering an only child, until I realized the idea was unsustainable…because, I realized, parenting to me was not about a number. But the name stuck because “only you” could mean my son, or my readers, or myself and, often, all three.

8. Are you an animal person? Which kind?

No. I always worry that this makes me sound like an unkind person but I’m really not an animal person. I appreciate and respect animals (a lot, in fact) but I am awkward around them the way some people are awkward around babies and children.

9. Are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Why?

I am transitioning into a country mouse. I lived in major cities for most of my life, including Tokyo for many years. But I think that extended period in Tokyo really kind of traumatized me as much as it had enriched me. I lived through years of midnight train rides home from work, packed bone-crunching commutes, elbow-to-elbow shopping, and miles and miles of concrete. I now live minutes from nature trails and a lake and all I have to do to be surrounded by green is step out onto our deck. I couldn’t live anywhere else. Cities and countrysides have their own places on each person’s timeline.

10. Do you have a book that you take with you everywhere you go?

No…I just take whatever I am reading at the moment but I am almost always with a book.

11. Are you a multiple book reader, or do you prefer to read one at a time?

I always start multiple books but I am realizing lately that I get so scattered and am unable to finish them. So I guess I am moving back to single-book reading.

…………..

I’d like to pass on the award and set of questions below to my friend Rudri who writes a wonderful blog over at Being Rudri. She is a writer and reader who blogs about her journey identifying small moments of joy and overcoming challenges in order to find peace and contentment. Her blog feels like a sanctuary to me and I sometimes like to start my mornings by catching up on her posts with a cup of coffee. Here are my questions for her (and anyone else who might be interested in answering!):

1. Which author’s voice is most compelling to you?

2. Where and how do you get your books – amazon, independent bookstores, library, etc.?

3. Where and when do you read? How long or how often do you read?

4. What genres interest you most? Why?

5. Do you gravitate toward or shy away from difficult and heavy themes, like death, violence, trauma, difficult moral decisions, etc.?

6. Knowing what you know now, what book would you recommend to your 20-something-year-old self? to your 30-something-year-old self?

7. What reading rituals, habits, lessons, etc. have you shared with or taught your child?

8. Is your husband a reader? Does that matter to you?

9. Have you ever belonged to a book club? If so, what was that experience like?

10. What are you most excited to read from your TBR pile this summer?

11. Do you own and collect books, or do you prefer not to have them pile up in your home?

To readers: How would you answer some of these questions? I’m curious!

My Literary Week

I have been all over the place this month in terms of my reading and I’m finally getting over a cold that has lasted forever, so this will be a smorgasbord kind of a post:

March Madness and Fickleness

The weather isn’t the only thing that’s been fickle for me this March. Despite the fact that it’s National Reading Month – and I had wanted to join the various reading versions of March Madness – I’ve been making very little progress in any actual reading. I started the month with a number of goals: Start NPR’s The Grapes of Wrath read-along; start and finish The Zookeeper’s Wife for our next Literary Wives discussion; start and finish Howard’s End for The Classics Club’s April post. Well, I started and stopped all three. I kept flitting back and forth, not sure which book to prioritize. Finally a growing desire to get back into Victorian literature took over and I began re-reading Jane Eyre, something I hadn’t planned on doing this year. And so that’s all I’ve been reading over the last week and now I am positively hooked on Jane Eyre.

Which character in literature are you?

Speaking of Jane Eyre, I found this pretty fun literary/psychological (my favorite combination!) quiz at Book Week Scotland where you can find out who “your” literary figure is. And I mention Jane Eyre because Jane Eyre is who I got (introverted, loyal once you get to know me, and self-critical)! If you’ve been spending time taking all those BuzzFeed quizzes, then you will find this one to be of higher quality. It only takes a few minutes and it asks you various questions about how you approach problems and how you prefer to interact with people (kind of like a shortened Myers Briggs test). I gave this quiz to Max (hubby) and Fred (son) as well and they got, respectively, Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird and Jean Valijean of Les Misérables.

Victorian Men Montage

I’ve never understood the fascination with YouTube but this week I couldn’t keep my eyes off of these video montages of Victorian men in literature. I like the ones with fast music, and this one in particular, set to a remake of The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men. Some (like my recently-turned 10-year-old) may question my tastes but I actually find the video quite erotic. I can’t imagine the sexual tension that builds up in a society where emotions are so restrained and the people so heavily clothed. Note the subtle heaving of chests, lingering glances, and gently rocking pelvic motions (horse riding scenes).

Addiction Feeding

Bless my husband’s dear heart for driving me two towns away to visit yet another library used book sale and for not questioning or judging me when I walked out with another canvas bag full of books (contents: Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, Crime and Punishment, and more). The books now sit on the floor at the foot of our bed until they find a new bookcase.

Here’s the thing: every few months I get restless, like something critical from my life is missing. No doubt my body clock has aligned with our various local libraries’ quarterly book sale schedules. I feel such joy and security just being in a room full of books and browsing through them. I have no other vices in life – I’ve even given up Doritos and beer at 10 p.m. – and I figure there are worse ways in life to be happy.

And if you, too, are addicted to acquiring books, read this post Is Owning Books as Good as Reading Them over at Book Riot. The author has 850 (!) unread books in her apartment but it is the many reader comments that are most encouraging and supportive.

What’s up in your literary life of late?

I’m a Slow Reader and Other Reading Confessions

I stumbled upon a blog post over the weekend that talked about reading speed and skill and an online reading test. This, of course, prompted me to check out my own reading level. I found this Speedreading Test Online, which times you as you read a passage and then tests you on your comprehension.

I am only slightly above average in reading speed, and good at comprehension (I slowed down my reading when I knew I was going to be tested); I’d expected or at least hoped to be good and excellent, respectively.

Of course, I took the online test with a grain of salt. It was a fun exercise to do especially when I don’t have any intention of shelling out several hundred dollars to get an actual assessment. My results were eye-opening insofar as they got me thinking back on my road to reading.

I probably started reading quite late, at least compared to the children I am seeing today. We didn’t speak English at home and I learned to read through phonics and leveled readers in my bilingual 1st grade class. We owned very few English books and I visited a library for the first time in the second grade when my school (founded in 1848) was rebuilt and with a new library. I caught up quickly because I loved reading. I had no interest in math, science, or sports but reading suited my temperament, my interest in people’s lives and in the written word, and my need for escape.

But some time in the 4th grade reading became a chore to me. We had independent math and reading times at school when we would do math problems from a set of leveled math cards and reading comprehension questions from the SRA set (does anyone remember that??). The idea was that you would keep moving up every time you finished a card. Well, at some point I found the reading passages so dense and tedious that I started to do more and more math, which really goes to show you how torturous I found those SRA cards. And that quarter was the first time I’d ever gotten a C – my only blemish in a pool of A’s. The teacher told my mother that the C was for my lack of effort in reading.

And so began my ambivalent, two-faced reading life: I was accepted into English Honors and AP classes in high school but struggled with boredom through (at least) half of the required reading; I chose English literature as a college major but always felt a league below the very top students in my department.

If you looked at my academic record over the years, or my bookshelves, you’d perhaps assume that I had been a good and dedicated reader. I’m the only one intimate with my reading deficits, of my tendency to read but not really read: seeing words but not having the patience to let them sink in deeply and to digest them. I skimmed or skipped often, particularly when I was struggling with depression, and sometimes read without deep understanding or appreciation or only as much as was necessary for exams and papers. I collected many books but read minimally during my adult years. I’d often felt like a fraud.

More than twenty years out of school now, I’m trying to start over. It’s one of the reasons I began blogging about books and re-reading the classics. I admire the many readers who can sink into 50, 100, or more books a year, the many people who don’t have a problem getting into The New York Times or Economist every day. I struggle with patience, salivating at books while simultaneously having to sometimes force myself to sit still long and often enough to make faster progress. And I struggle with mental clutter. Not infrequently my attention span competes with the many other thoughts and emotions that run through me at any given time. And yet more than art, more than sports, more than science, I love literature. I love the written word. I love reading.

Is it just me? Do other seemingly literary and intelligent people struggle with the same issues? I can only wonder. But I do take great comfort in the fact that it is never too late to build an authentic literary life.

booksale books

What has your reading experience been like? Is reading “easy” for you? Do you struggle or have you ever struggled?

Favorite Book/Movie Pairings

Did anyone watch the Academy Awards on Sunday? I’ve usually only taken a mild interest in the 4-hour Hollywood production, but because of my growing interest in stories (as well as major television deprivation) I watched almost all of it this time and even enjoyed it. I’m still hopelessly behind in my movie watching, having seen only Gravity and August: Osage County from 2013, but I was quite curious about the films that had been nominated.

Anyway, this post is not about the Oscars. Rather, I felt inspired to think about all the books I’ve read that have been turned into movies. As much as possible I always try to read the book first, in large part because the book is almost always better, and I would probably not bother with the book if I don’t like the movie. I also like being able to imagine the characters and scenes without the influence of a movie studio, and then later comparing my own visuals against those on the big screen. So below is a list of all the book and movie pairings that I can recall experiencing, in no particular order:

The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown)
I loved the book but the movie was even worse than my already low expectations. I just couldn’t see how all the details could have translated well on to the big screen.
 
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
I enjoyed both, but in this case I may have actually liked the movies better because of the visual and sound effects (more entertaining than anything I could have conjured up in my head).
 
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)
I saw the US adaptation. I think the movie would have been difficult to follow if I hadn’t read the book first. I liked Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig but I’m told the Swedish version is better.
 
Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert)
I fell asleep during the movie though while I was awake I did like the visuals and the scenes of Italy and all the food that Julia Roberts was eating. 
 
Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
I loved both. I read the book after having seen the movie multiple times. Reading the book was an equally but differently satisfying experience.
 
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
I have vague memories of the movie though I think I enjoyed it enough. The book was definitely more powerful.
 
The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Same here. I read the book and then was curious to see the characters on screen. 
 
Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
I read and watched both so long ago that I don’t remember much about the film. But I love Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche so I am pretty sure I liked it if just for the two actors alone.
 
The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
I remembered enjoying the movie better.
 
A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
I am dating myself here but I believe it was the 1980 miniseries that I saw…and I found it gripping. I had just read the book and I was still young so it was quite something to see all of Dickens’ dense text translated into actual people and sights and sounds.
 
Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe)
Same here. I don’t remember so much about my reading experience but I do remember the colors and sounds of the PBS miniseries. 
 
The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
I had a better experience with the movie as I found the book a bit challenging to read. The film was such a feast for the senses, between the beauty of Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, the cinematography, the dialogue, and the music. 
 
Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
The book was far more intense and satisfying (of course), though it was fun to actually see the movie after reading the book.
 
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See)
I enjoyed this historical fiction set in 19th century China but the movie adaptation was truly awful – they actually added an entirely new and modern-day storyline (to alternate with the original story) that was not part of the book.
 
The Lover (Marguerite Duras)
I only have vague memories of both…of both being slow, like the lazy humid days depicted in the movie. But I read and saw this years and years ago…I might appreciate the story better now.
 
The Ice Storm (Rick Moody)
I’m not sure how many people read this book or saw the movie, but I enjoyed both. It’s the story of two unhappy and unfulfilled suburban families in the early 1970s.

And of course, there are many books that I’ve read for which I would now like to see the movies, and vice versa (e.g., Life of Pi, The Painted Veil, Jane Eyre, A Beautiful Mind, etc.).

Otherwise, here is my partial to read and watch list:

The Remains of the Day

Never Let Me Go

Of Human Bondage

A Passage to India

The Age of Innocence

Anna Karenina (with Vivien Leigh)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The Color Purple

The Silver Linings Playbook

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

And on and on and on…

What are some of your favorite book/movie pairings? What do you recommend?

NPR Read-Along: The Grapes of Wrath for its 75th Anniversary

Too much work and too little sleep this week…I’ve missed being able to read and write!

But I have just enough brain cells to tell you about NPR’s upcoming read-along of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in case you haven’t heard about it. April 14th marks the 75th anniversary of its publication and so NPR will lead three book club-type discussions between March 3 and April 14. A Steinbeck expert will join the discussions on April 14 to answer questions from readers. Here is the reading and meeting schedule from NPR’s website:

Chunk 1: Oklahoma
Chapters 1-10
Book Club Meets: March 3, 3 p.m. EST on Monkey See

Chunk 2: On The Road And The Arrival
Chapters 11-20
Book Club Meets: March 24, 3 p.m. EST on Monkey See

Chunk 3: California
Chapters 21-30
Book Club Meets: April 14, 3 p.m. EST location and special Steinbeck guest TBD.

The Grapes of Wrath follows a family of poor tenant farm workers who have been driven out of Oklahoma due to poverty (the story is set in The Great Depression) and drought. There was great controversy when the book came out because of Steinbeck’s explicit depiction of the way poor migrant farmers were treated. Nonetheless, it became the bestseller of 1939 and it won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1962, the Nobel Prize Committee cited The Grapes of Wrath as a major reason for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to John Steinbeck. (Source: Wikipedia)

I’ve been pretty eager to read The Grapes of Wrath ever since I finished (and loved) East of Eden last year, and I was lucky enough to have found a like-new copy of it at a local library sale last year. This seems like the perfect opportunity and reading schedule for me so I’ll definitely be following along.

Have you read The Grapes of Wrath? Do you want to join in on the NPR read-and-meet?