Archive for ‘Book review’

October 4, 2011

Homo Homini Lupus

Yep. You read that title right. I’m showing off my dead language skills and that’s Latin for “Man is a wolf to Man”. In my specific case, that would be Loulia is a wolf to Loulia but there is no Latin translation for that.

I’ve turned into my own worst enemy in the past few months because of this wonderful thing called Internet and that other wonderful thing called Kindle.

The first one allows you to have a wealth of information at your fingertips, anywhere, at any time. The second allows you to become a book bulimic except that you don’t have to hide to binge because nobody can see the cover of what you’re reading and the amount of it.

Now, throw these two items in a blender, add a copious dose of pregnancy and watch the monster take a life of its own!

If my husband had his way, all pregnancy confirmations would come with an automatic cancellation of one’s internet subscription. It’s already bad enough that, in normal times, we can do enough research to convince ourselves that the small bruise on our arm is the beginning of gangrene and our limb is about to fall off… now imagine googling the same stuff with the word “pregnant” attached to it. There’s enough information out there to convince a rational lady that all her symptoms indicate she’s going to give birth to a pony. I stopped counting the number of false frights I’ve caused myself because of the things I read online. And yet, I cannot be stopped.

The world of ebooks isn’t any gentler. Digital content is extremely easy to accumulate because it doesn’t take up any physical space. As a result, reading 10 books on the same exact topic becomes a reality because there is no visible pile of paper to shame one back to rationality. If unstopped, this will lead to the development of tunnel vision and turn me into a mother who is super knowledgeable about what to expect when she’s expecting and clueless about how to deal with The Expected after he or she is born. Though there is a remote chance my knowledge of sphincter law and nausea triggers may come in handy when handling a baby…

In all seriousness, I think this compulsion to research and read about everything extensively is partly rooted in superstition and fear. There’s so much unknown and uncertainty ahead of me (will this pregnancy go to term? will be the baby be OK? will I be a good mother? will I still have a life?) and the accumulation of information gives me an illusory sense of control. Also, some people stupidly believe that preparing for the worst may prevent it from happening (did I tell you I’m an expert in plane crashes?). I realize that sort of anguish does not do any good or serve any purpose. I bet pregnancies were a lot more laid back in the analog age. Good thing I have an unlimited yoga pass and practice everyday. Sat Nam!

February 27, 2011

Book review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Just finished reading “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship” by Gail Caldwell. It’s the story of her close friendship with Caroline Knapp and of her grief after she lost her to cancer. I started reading it shortly before the third anniversary of my best friend’s passing and finished it last night. Am still not over it. Her relationship was vastly different from mine but the way she wrote about her grief really struck a chord. I’ve never been able to put my feelings into words but recognized them in Caldwell’s writing.

The same shock and feeling of unpreparedness (felt like getting the wind knocked out of me – every single time I thought of what had happened):

The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course.

The same disbelief:

But no one I had loved—no one I counted among the necessary pillars of life—had died suddenly, too young, full of determination not to go.

The same dreams, reaching out for them in vain, imploring the dead to come back (in one of my dreams, she looked annoyed because I was making her late for her lunch date with God and his girlfriend):

In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.

The same fierce attachment to material things that belonged to them (I have a pair of her shoes that’s half a size too small and a sweater that itches awfully – they’re treasures):

I wanted to claim whatever of her was left. I’d always heard stories about grief-stricken families arguing over ugly lamps or cheap coffeemakers; now I understood. The frantic hunger I felt was not trivial or greedy; it was possessive, in the most primal sense. I still have her gym bag and her rain jacket, and for a while I even tried to wear her winter boots, an entire size too big, which was absurd but comforting. Memento mori: reminders of the dead. I think we must long for these signatures of history (…) because they take up the space left by the departed.

The same perspective and outlook shift:

What if dying weren’t a bad thing? Caroline’s death had left me with a great and terrible gift: how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight.

The same inner transformation (The day she passed was like having my drive formatted. For the following months, I was a blank slate with all my limitations temporarily wiped away):

Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

The same hole in the heart:

Caroline’s death was a vacancy in the heart, a place I neither could nor wished to fill. (…) her goneness was a thing unto itself, a memory outlined by crime tape it would be an outrage to remove. Now here was Neruda, entreating mourners to inhabit death as though it were a dwelling: Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.

The same reification of her death, now an integral component of life:

I knew I would never have another friend like Caroline (…). That she was irreplaceable became a bittersweet loyalty: Her death was what I had now instead of her.

I’m quoting the book extensively because I still don’t feel comfortable writing about all this. My life still feels split in two parts: the one before her death and the one after. Processing the fact that she’s gone is a continual work in progress.

I’ve read a whole bunch of books about loss and grieving but none hit the mark like this one. The other books tell you pseudo-scientifically what you’re supposed to feel with the caveat that everyone feels things differently. This book is raw: the author puts all her thoughts and emotions out there and you can’t help but connect and relate. Self-help books make you think grieving is a set of phases you have to go through in order to heal; this author shows you there is no such thing as healing because there is no sickness to heal from. The pain may ease with time but you will continue to grieve because it is now part of your life. And that is okay.

The book will also appeal to dog lovers, recovering alcoholics and people who simply enjoy beautiful writing.

January 9, 2011

Book review: Tunnel and the Light

It feels like discovering a treasure when you pick up a book to read about a particular subject and end up learning a lot about something else in the process. I love finding gems about Communication in unexpected places.

The latest book I read is “Tunnel and the Light: Essential Insights on Living and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross M.D.
The book is a collection of lectures the author gave on death and features a lot of anecdotes. My first encounter with her writing took place shortly after my best friend passed away three years ago. This woman has the most thorough understanding of all the emotions felt by the grieving and the dying and the most gentle style to write about them. Not sure why I impulsively decided to read another of her books a few days ago – it was really random. Here’s the quote that has stuck with me:

There is no one dying, whether he is five or ninety-five, who does not know that he is dying. And the question is not: do I tell him that he is dying? The question is: can I hear him?

Words of stomach-punching force. Shows that:

  • we’re all equals in the face of death – being older doesn’t prepare one more for it,
  • some human experiences are absolute,
  • one should never underestimate the interlocutor/audience,
  • mastering the art of listening is key to being a good communicator.

A significant portion of the book is a lesson on the importance of non-verbal communication. Kubler-Ross interacted with so many children who were facing death in some way and who did not have the vocabulary or ability to express freely how they felt.  So she gave them paper and pencils; and they drew. These drawings told her everything she needed to know to help them.

The limitation of the written word is notably what prompted information designers like Edward Tufte or Sunni Brown (former classmate and leader of the “Doodle Revolution” ) to create work that is becoming increasingly relevant and important.

Another memorable part of the book warned against trying to make small talk with people who are suffering and to avoid telling them that everything will be just fine. The dying know what’s coming and feel censored and even more lonely when their loved ones refuse to acknowledge the painful situation. This warning is also key to corporate communication – nobody in their right mind would tell employees everything is fine and dandy while the ship is sinking. Trying to protect people from painful information is not only futile, it also generates a lot more harm than good.

Here’s my second favorite quote from the book,  great advice to help the next generation communicate – and live – better than we do:

Do not protect your children! Share your anguish and your pain with them. Otherwise they will develop into cripples. Because sooner or later the plants have to come out of the greenhouse anyway and then they cannot withstand the cold and the winds.

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