September 30, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment

Certain topics make me want to read a book, no matter how many other books I’ve read on the same thing.  One of these topics is insomnia.  It’s the kind of thing that is so boring to people who sleep well that they probably can’t fathom how incredibly fascinating it is to people who don’t.  (Sort of like dreams – I love dream stories, though I know many people don’t.  Last night I dreamed I was putting on thick eyebrow pencil, and then I found a stockpile of buried silver dollars at the bus stop).  Anyway, I wanted to read Insomniac so badly when I first heard of it that, when I found it was only available at the junior college library, I actually considered enrolling in a course just so I could check it out.  Fortunately, the city library finally bought a few copies.

Gayle Greene has written that rarity, a book about sleep written by a non-scientist who actually suffers from insomnia.  Her premise is that the medical establishment’s treatment of insomnia sufferers does not match well with emerging sleep research.  She compares insomnia to other conditions, like ulcers, migraine, and multiple sclerosis, that at one time were considered psychiatric aberrations before it was found that they had organic causes.  She makes a compelling case that some kind of biological explanation for insomnia will eventually be discovered, though not soon, because doctors and mental health professionals tend to blame the insomniac’s personality.

The book discusses insomnia from the perspective of those who have it, including dozens of quotes from personal interviews.  There are chapters on current research, available medications, and behavior modification.  Greene would probably be pleased to read that the book actually made me drowsy; it’s extremely thorough and reading it made me focus on my bed in a very positive light.  She suggests that readers pick and choose which chapters are most applicable to them, mapping out the content in the introduction.  Insomniac ends with the rallying cry that insomniacs should appeal for more research funding, as in some cases (such as traffic and industrial accidents), insomnia can be fatal.

I came away from Insomniac with a feeling of relief that at least I wasn’t in worse shape.  As frustrating as my problem has been in my life, I only went through a few months when I was sleeping 3-4 hours a night, not a lifetime, like many of the people in the book.  I am one of the supposedly rare childhood-onset insomniacs.  While I supposedly slept through the night as an infant my first night home from the hospital, I can never remember a time when I didn’t lie awake at night for long stretches of time, listening to the world go by.  I was never once able to nap during naptime in kindergarten.  I can remember trying to “count sheep” and losing track somewhere around 47,000.  I have problems with grinding my teeth, restless leg syndrome, foot cramps, sleep talking, night terrors, lying awake, waking several times during the night, and waking too early.  At times I am so groggy when I wake up that I’ve walked into walls and fallen.  My speech slurs and my eyes cross.  A few times a year I’ll sleep beautifully, but most of the time I’m exhausted.  Earlier this year, I had such a hard time sleeping (due to an obnoxious neighbor) that a patch of my hair fell out.

This is why the current status of sleep research is so frustrating.  All the books say the same things about behavior modification, but they neglect what seems to me (and Greene) quite obvious.  Most of us have day jobs, and we’ve had to wake up at the same time and leave the house every day for years on end.  Supposedly once you’re tired enough, you’ll just start falling asleep earlier every night until you finally get enough sleep.  Clearly this hypothesis was developed by a good sleeper.  I already know to avoid caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, tea, spicy foods, watching TV in the bedroom, etc.  I’ve tried a white noise generator, eye mask, ear plugs, hot baths, melatonin, valerian, chamomile, essential oils, aromatherapy, delta-wave CDs, subliminal CDs, yoga, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, homeopathics, Chinese medicine, and various shapes of pillows.  In college, the doctor gave me amitriptiline, which made me incontinent and didn’t help me sleep at all, and then sent me to the school psychiatrist, who tried me on Ambien and Sonata.  He told me that if neither of those worked, he had one more thing to try.  I said, “What’s that?”  He said, “A hammer.”

Now, at 33, it seems I may be getting the hang of it.  I’m getting more like 7 hours instead of 5, although I’d prefer 9.  First, my dentist replaced my mercury fillings, and in the process evened out my bite, so I no longer grind my teeth.  Second, I moved, and my new bedroom is both incredibly quiet and dark as pitch.  I use my phone as an alarm and keep it in the bathroom, so I am not kept up by the light and noise of the clock.  (I can hear the 60-watt hum).  I’m quite fussy about my mattress pad, pillows, and comforters.  On cold nights, I use a heating pad.  I can only hope that I don’t wind up like my mom in 20 years, sleeping upright in an armchair every night.

Contemplating the 24-Hour Read-a-Thon

September 29, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

On Friday I heard about the 24-hour Read-a-Thon for the first time.  Naturally my heart raced a bit.  I do 4-hour versions of this most days of the week, and I’ve gone 12 to 16 hours on weekends several times.  The only fear I have of trying a 24-hour stretch is that I have to start at 5 AM.  Now that’s just pure sadism, if you ask me.  But it wouldn’t be an impressive feat if it were easy, would it?

I broached the topic with my man Rocket Scientist.  He balked immediately because we’d discussed other plans for that weekend, and as usual, I hadn’t written it down.  But it turns out Sweetie Junior has a soccer tournament that weekend, so we wouldn’t have been able to leave town anyway.  This is fantastic news, because I don’t have internet at my new house, so I had to ask RS to sponsor me.  I told him I was so excited that I was already planning what to put in my bag of sandwiches and snacks, since I won’t be stopping to cook.  He said he would be there so he could cook for me.  Gawrsh… Of course his main supportive role will be dragging me by my ankle out of the bed and spraying me with the hose so I can actually be awake enough to participate two hours before sunrise.

The biggest question, the one that remains to be answered before I sign up, is:  What do I read?  I’m in a tizz over this.  Do I try to read a really big book that I’ve been putting off?  Do I choose a stack of specific titles?  Or do I just throw everything that looks remotely interesting that day into a laundry basket, cover my eyes, and pull them out at random?  The complicating factor is that my reading list is largely determined by the lottery of what has turned up at the top of my list of library holds, my Paperspine queue, and my BookSwim pool.  Today it’s pretty hard to guess what I’ll have on hand 2-3 weeks from now.  What I’ll probably do is post a list of likely candidates the week before the event.

Now, what would really be a good idea would be a 24-hour Procrast-a-Thon, to burn through all those projects that we all have piling up around the joint.  Maybe I’ll promote something like that in January.  (And maybe I’ll finally read The Grapes of Wrath).

Forgotten Classics: “Evolution Man”

September 29, 2008 at 6:37 pm | Posted in Fiction, Forgotten Classics | 2 Comments

Here is another book I stumbled across in the library one day.  In fact, it was in my high school library, a place where new acquisitions were rare enough that there was still space for things from the 60s and 70s that might have been thrown away elsewhere.  (Our collection of Deutsche Grammophon records sat almost entirely untouched until I showed up).  Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father, by Roy Lewis, was first published in 1960 and was recently reissued in paperback.

It’s the story of a Pleistocene family in which the father gets tired of the slow pace of evolution.  He begins pressing his family to hurry up and invent things.  There’s a certain measure of stress over this, and the subtitle intimates the family reaction to his agenda.  Lord, is it funny.  It’s a really quick read, and the edition I read had silly cartoon illustrations for added fun.

Something Different: “The Roaches Have No King”

September 26, 2008 at 5:23 pm | Posted in Fiction, Something Different | 5 Comments

This may be one of the weirdest books ever written.  That’s saying a lot coming from me, because I love and seek out weird books.  The Roaches Have No King, debut novel of Daniel Evan Weiss, was published in 1994.  It’s told from the point of view of a cockroach.  Not a pseudo-cockroach like in The Metamorphosis – which Kafka insisted was not, in fact, a cockroach, because it had wings – but a genuine bug.  Attendant upon this is all the nastiness and filth one can imagine.

The Roaches Have No King is definitely a gross-out, with lewd sex to boot, but it’s more than that.  The contrast of the roaches with their human counterparts leaves us wondering which species is really humane and which is vermin.  These are literary roaches, too, born in a bookshelf.  The plot itself is farcical, but the ending packs a punch that is dark and impressively creative.  It’s a very original, creepy, entertaining read.

Can It Be Done?

September 26, 2008 at 3:47 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 4 Comments

If you’re following my story, it may have caught your attention that I’m trying to read a book a day this year.  Along the way it occurred to me that I was ahead of schedule and might be able to break 400.  Right now I have 97 days left to read 112 books.  Keep in mind that we’re getting close to the holidays, with all that family travel, shopping, and frantic last-minute knitting.

Can it be done?

So far my average is 1.08 books per day.  By that measure, I won’t quite make it.  On the other hand, to make my goal I’d have to read a book a day plus an additional 15.  It’s relatively easy for me to read extra books on the weekend – I often do five between Friday and Sunday – and there happen to be 14 weekends left in the year, plus four paid holidays.

The other question is, should I post about every book I read, or only the ones I find noteworthy?  Are you readers out there more interested in learning about the books themselves, or about the experience of cramming so many pages into one’s brain?

Booking Through Thursday: Well, That Was Different

September 25, 2008 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 6 Comments

Here is my response to this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

The most unusual book I ever read was probably What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  I was in high school, babysitting, and I’d finished the book I’d brought with me.  The kids were sound asleep and there was nothing else to read.  I mean, nothing!  You may find this hard to believe, but many households are book-free, unless you include phone books.

What was so strange about reading this book?  Most young women probably look forward to having children one day.  Myself, I never really had the desire.  (Then it turned out I can’t have children anyway, so it was a wash).  I didn’t know anyone who was pregnant.  I’m the only girl in my generation in my family, so I didn’t have any cousins or a sister whom I thought might be planning a family soon.  Of course, the strangest thing about reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting as a high schooler would have been having an adult catch me reading it.

I admit that the diagrams in this book gave me pause, especially the one that shows how the growing fetus compresses all the mother’s organs.  Brr!  No thanks.  I would say that after reading it the possibility I might plan to have children one day went from 1% to 0%.

The other effect was that I’ve taken great pains always to have backup reading material since then.  I’m typically reading more than one book at a time, so that if I’m too close to the end of one book I know to bring something that will cover me while I’m away from my stash.  I also have at least a half dozen books downloaded into my PDA in case of natural disaster.

Two-for-One Review: “Stolen Innocence” and “Nine Parts of Desire”

September 25, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Posted in Nonfiction, Two-for-One Review | 2 Comments

Sometimes a pattern emerges in a stack of books that was not intended by the reader, but is interesting nonetheless.  This happened to me when my book group reading list collided with my BookSwim rental pool.

Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks, turned out not to be the intimate tell-all I expected.  Our book group chose this book based on the enthusiastic recommendation of one of our members, who couldn’t really remember what it was about, just that she had really enjoyed it.  We had never chosen a nonfiction title before.  This one might not have been the best choice for us, as it’s painful to read and you can’t just chalk it up to fictional excess.  Nine Parts of Desire is an account of the lives of women under Islam, especially after a recent upsurge in fundamentalism.  It was published in 1995, long before 9/11 and also long before the Pulitzer that Brooks won in 2006 for March.  In this sense there is almost a foreshadowing, both of the tragic events of 2001 and also of the recognition the author was bound to receive for her powerful writing.  Every chapter grabs hold of the reader, pointing to a new injustice.

Two days later I found myself reading Stolen Innocence, the story of Elissa Wall written with Lisa Pulitzer.  Elissa Wall is one of a handful of women who have published memoirs after leaving the FLDS church, which practices polygamy and child marriage.  Hers stands out because her testimony led to the sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, being sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.  It’s a dramatic and heart-wrenching story.  What surprised me, though, was how familiar so much of it sounded after reading Nine Parts of Desire.  Here were two fundamentalist groups from radically different religious roots, yet the standing of women was so similar in both.  The same early marriages, polygamy, strict requirements to keep the body covered, focus on having large families as quickly as possible, lack of education for women, restriction to the home with permission from a male family member needed to go anywhere, emphasis on women’s traditional skills like cooking, and shunning of outsiders – it was stunning.

What I find interesting about polygamy is that it always seems to be one man with multiple women.  If there is nothing in a religion that says only one man and one woman can be married, then why don’t we see polygamous groups with one woman and multiple men?  Or, for that matter, a mix?  I actually met a polyamorous group in college that consisted of 17 people of both genders and various persuasions.  As you can imagine, they were not part of a religious group.  In spite of all the, er, options out there, I find that one man is plenty for me.  I’m sure he’d tell you that more than one woman would be too much for him, too.

“The Lace Reader”

September 24, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

The Lace Reader, Brunonia Barry’s debut novel, is a highly unusual book.  It’s a mystery, but not like any other mystery out there.

I admit that I couldn’t get into it at first.  It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who returns to the town where she grew up to resolve some family business.  There are a lot of antiques, and Red Hat Club ladies, and tea drinking.  Oh, great, I thought, I’m reading a grandma book.  But then the mystery started emerging and I started getting more interested in the story.  Then I realized that my predictions about the plot weren’t coming true.  At another point I decided I had the ending figured out, and I sat back at the audacity of it all.  But it turned out I was wrong and it was even weirder than I had expected.

I really don’t want to give away anything about the story.  I’ll just say that if you’ve been curious about The Lace Reader, I don’t think it will disappoint.

“The Film Club”

September 23, 2008 at 6:17 pm | Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

The first thing to know about The Film Club is that it is not a novel.  I’m still having a little trouble believing this.

David Gilmour recounts his decision to let his 15-year-old son drop out of school on the condition that the two of them watch three movies a week together, dad’s choice.  The only other rule is that the boy is not to use drugs.

What follows strikes me as a total train wreck.  You can’t look away, though you don’t really want these images burned onto your eyeballs.  The younger Gilmour runs wild and is allowed even to break the two modest rules imposed on him.  The elder spends part of his time unemployed.  This experiment goes on for three years, even as father, son, and reader wonder if they’ve made a hash of things.

Interspersed between the story of this curious father-son relationship are observations on the son’s love life, and bits of discussion of the films they watched.  What’s largely missing, and what I would love to read, are the perspectives of the mother and the current stepmother.  It would be almost impossible to imagine this same story involving a mother and a daughter.

The other point of view that would be interesting is the son’s.  I would be eager to see whether the boy could produce a coherent, readable account of this or any other time in his own life.  That, to me, would be proof of some sort that this experiment succeeded in some way.  We find out too little of his later life circumstances to make a good case.

The Film Club is definitely not a parenting manual.  It’s not really a book about film, either.  What is it then?  As a memoir it might have worked better if it included more insight into the father’s motivations and parenting experiments from younger ages.  Perhaps instead he could have devised a real course of self-study that included, say, books?

Forgotten Classics: “Alice Through the Needle’s Eye”

September 22, 2008 at 6:21 pm | Posted in Children's Book, Fiction, Forgotten Classics | 2 Comments

This book came to my attention when I had just discovered the adult fiction section of the library and sincerely believed I could read through it all if I simply started at the A’s and kept going.  Right there at the beginning of the aisle was Adair, G., and… an Alice book!  I was instantly suspicious, even at age 12, that one author could dare appropriate another author’s characters.  And that was before I ever saw any “fan fiction.”  But Alice in Wonderland was the first chapter book I ever loved, and I had to find out if this interloper could stand beside the genuine article.

I am happy to report that Alice Through the Needle’s Eye was entirely convincing.  If someone had given it to me with the author’s name scratched off, I would have believed it to be Lewis Carroll’s work.  Gilbert Adair knows the rules of Wonderland.  The book has enough charm and whimsy that we could wish he had followed it up with another.  (And it looks like he did do a Peter Pan story, though I haven’t seen it).  I would recommend it for anyone who loves Alice, regardless of age.

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