This year my husband and I both turned forty, and since then life has taken some turns, unfortunately not always for the best. This happens to everyone. Kids get ill, with things serious enough that a few days off school and a new video game can’t help. The best grandfather in the world can die. Things, sometime bad things, can happen and it’s ok.
That’s what When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi taught me. I know you’ve heard about this book already and you should have. If you’ve read it, you loved it like I did. If you haven’t it’s probably because the topic, that the writer was a brain surgeon who died tragically of brain cancer at thirty seven, is too sad for you. But it’s not, and you can hold me to this. It’s gorgeous and smart and makes you happy that there are so many wonderful people like Paul was, in the world. You learn about his widow Lucy, who lives on with their young daughter and the fierce love they carry for Paul. Hard, sad things happen, and that’s ok.
It’s also good when these things hit us, to find books that let us hide. During these past months I’ve needed to read things, mostly fiction, that kept my mind sharp and moving forward. I love, LOVE, Elizabeth Strout and her newest book My Name Is Lucy Barton was perfect. It was light to carry with me on the train when my grandfather died. It was a simple story written brilliantly about two woman, a mother and her adult daughter, reuniting in a hospital after years apart. The chapters are short and after each I would close the book and enjoy how calm the book made me feel. Then the train would bump a little and I’d get right back into the story.
Next, I discovered Jane Hamilton through her newest and somewhat autobiographical novel, The Excellent Lombards, which was wonderful. It is the story of a young girl growing up with her family on their apple farm. She loves her family (as crazy as they are) and unlike her brother, makes no plans for her future except to take over the farm one day. She is afraid to think of anything else and can’t imagine why everyone wants her too. It made me laugh out loud.
Then, I got on an Emma Straub kick, a wonderful kick to be on! I had already read and enjoyed her book last year, The Vacationers but I think I liked her newest, Modern Lovers even more. However, it was her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures that I fell in love with. It is a wonderful, sweeping story of a woman moving from a small rural family home to Hollywood. She becomes a famous actress and tries to juggle her young family in the nineteen twenties. Who knew how Hollywood worked at that golden time! Straub’s writing is infectious as is her personality is you have the time to look her up. She tends to dress like her book covers when going to author events and she also has an adorable family.
After finishing Lucy Barton on a train ride, I realized I was unprepared for the trip home and found myself with moments to spare in a book store. I grabbed Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know, it’s not a new one and it’s been on my list for a long time and it was completely worth the wait. It’s a perfect story to sink oneself into, a story about people trying to do to right thing, whether in Ireland or Brooklyn, always surrounded by love.
When sad and hard times hit, of course the other route is emerging oneself in fantasy, science fiction, or the Outlander series. But for me I’ve needed to be connected to people, good people, who are also trying to figure things out, how best to move forward for loved ones. Aliens and time-travel wasn’t going to do it for me this time (although in the past they have). These books did the trick to pick me up and away before bringing me home, often with a new way of looking at what was going on around me.
And remember, as long as you have time to read, things can’t really be all that bad.