December 2020 Book Reviews

I read ten books in December. Books are how I rest and recuperate, which is exactly what the end of December called for. The Netherlands went into its first full lockdown just before school let out for the holidays. The first thing we did when they leaked the news was go to the library an hour before closing on Saturday and all three of us checked out close to our limit. Here are notes on four, in the order that I read them.

burnt sugar by Avni Doshi

A great friend sent me this book and I was excited to read it. It’s the story of a woman trying to cope with her mother’s early dementia. Aside from the daily problems that her mother’s new illness brings with it, the main crisis is that Tara feels like she’s losing her past as well.

Memory is a funny thing. Your memories are yours. My memories are mine. But when we compare our memories about a shared experience, how do we ever decide what actually happened? This is the central question that the book is asking. Who holds memory? Who decides the truth of a relationship’s past? How do you move forward?

I didn’t love this book, but I appreciated the questions it asked and the way the author explored these issues. I got a strong sense of the narrator and her conflicts, external and internal. Also, the ending really caught me by surprise and that’s always a plus in my book.

Hersenschimmen by J. Bernlerf

Where burnt sugar was published in 2020, Hersenschimmen was published in 1987. Both deal with dementia. The first is from the outside looking in. The second is from the inside looking out.

I picked this book up a while ago. It appears on a lot of Best Dutch Books of all time lists and it isn’t too long or intimidating. My first huge surprise was that it takes place in the United States, near Boston. The main character is Maarten, a Dutch guy who moved to the US to work and has stayed there into his retirement. The book is his first person narrative of living with dementia.

This was a wonderful read. I was definitely biased by the fact that it takes place in the US, but I also felt like it took me into the world of what it might be like to experience dementia in the early phases, except I could remember what happened earlier in the story and he could not. It was hard to read dialogue where he struggled to understand the context as much as his wife did and I knew the answer.

Bernlef does an excellent job of showing how the disease progresses and how the main character’s environment responds and tries to accommodate and take care of him. It also shows how they get angry and tired and frustrated, all through his eyes. This book is called Out of Mind in the English translation. I can’t vouch for the translation, but the story is wonderful.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Here’s what I like about being an adult. When I read that Taiwanese-American Charles Yu won the National Book Award, I ordered the book before I finished the article. After all, if you commit to reading more Asian authors, you have to follow through!

The first thing you’ll notice is that this novel is written as a script. The second thing you’ll notice is that the font is a typewriter-style serif font. This book looks different than most books. That makes sense because the premise is utterly unique as well. This is the story of Generic Asian Man. He’s a character in every story and no story and his life is every life and no life.

This is a book you commit to. It isn’t hard because the premise is so original that you’ll be reading and re-reading it before you hit page ten. But somewhere along the line, it needed to be more than a creative concept. All of that is taken care of in Act VII. The last chapter of this book is a combination of history lesson and identity theory that had me nodding, making that agreement noise in my throat, and telling my family to leave me alone.

Yu’s book may look cute and baffle a bit, but that makes sense. His earlier books were science fiction. At its heart, this book is asking urgent questions about Asian identity that need more consideration. It’s a great read as well.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine by Mark Twain & Philip Stead, illustrated by Erin Stead

A dear friend gifted me this book a couple years ago. Over the holidays, my daughter had a hard day. She curled up on the couch next to me and I read her this spectacular picture book over the next 90 minutes or so.

This book is the meeting of three incredible storytellers. Mark Twain never published this story, probably because it wasn’t finished. Philip and Erin Stead wrote and illustrated A Sick Day for Amos McGee together and I confess to reading it to my children multiple times at the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago. It was too beautiful for words, except the words were also beautiful.

What you get here is a story and a storyteller. The storyteller talks about sitting on the porch with Mark Twain. The story is a classic fairy tale with the kind of twist all good fairy tales need. The illustrations are breathtaking in the way they combine techniques so that dreamy prints and precise drawings come together to create new emotional worlds.

I don’t want to tell you anything about this book because reading it with no idea what I would encounter was part of the treat. I will say this. If you or someone you love (or even like) likes stories and beautiful pictures, get them this book. You can wait for a birthday or a holiday if you want, but seriously – this book is the decadent chocolate cake of books. Incredible story. Astounding images. Just wow, wow, wow.

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