The final month of 2022 is a thing of the past! To finish out the year, I turned to one of my recent thrift hauls and opted for entertainment and ease in choosing Matt Haig’s, The Midnight Library, a book that ultimately checked both boxes. I then tried to follow with a light-hearted memoir by Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, which I gave an earnest chance before deciding it wasn’t for me. Following that disappointment, I reached for a book I’ve been holding off reading only because I knew it was going to be a meaningful, pull you in kind of read. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri quickly became one of my favorite reads this year. I’m glad I didn’t sit on it too long, and I’m even more glad it was just as fulfilling of a read as I’d anticipated. My final book of twenty2otwo was Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, which was a book for a younger audience and unfortunately didn’t end up being quite as good as I thought it would be. For 90% of the book, I was invested and looking forward to a big reveal that ended up being a bit more of a fizzle than a spark of excitement.
With just a few days left in December, I found myself trying to secretly squeeze in a few more books in hopes of matching or surpassing my total books read in 2021. Then I realized I was trying to do exactly what I claim to be against, which is reading for the sake of hitting a number instead of reading for the experience of stepping into another life. I stopped trying to get one more book in and instead opted to get a head start on my first read of 2023, another Lowland-level reading experience I’ve been saving the right time, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. One hundred pages in and no tears have been shed, but I know from litrally everyone who’s read it that the floodgates are bound to bust open eventually.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so instead I’ll cut to the quick and get into my thoughts on what I read in the last month of the year.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
The epigraph to Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is a quote by Sylvia Plath which reads, “I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.” This is a sentiment that I’ve felt since I was young – the desire to experience everything, see everywhere there is to see and feel everything there is to feel. Through different lenses, this idea elicits differing reactions. I’m usually able to approach it as a conceptual idea, living instead a multitude of lives through books and not letting myself feel overwhelmed by all that I will not do by instead relishing all the big and small things that I will get to do. Adopting the former perspective, Haig’s protagonist spends most of the story focusing instead on all that she hasn’t accomplished or experienced, leading her to “decide to die”.
“’Between life and death there is a library,’ she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’”(p. 29)
The Midnight Library pulls the reader into the story of a 35-year-old Nora Seed who’s recently “decided to die”. Nora discovers that in between life and death a space exists which allows you to live an infinite number of alternate lives, the lives that run parallel and perpendicular to your own depending on the results of certain decisions you’ve made. Each individual experiences this place in a different form, personal to them, and Nora finds herself in an endless library. Her guide in the space between is her middle school librarian, Mrs. Elm. After reading her life’s Book of Regrets Nora begins trying out new lives, ultimately in search of a life she feels is worth living.
This was my first literary introduction to Matt Haig, although I’ve followed him on Instagram for a few years now. I probably began following him around the time this book came out, during the height of the pandemic, and I remember mentally adding this one to my “I’ll get around to it, but other books take priority” TBR list. A few months ago, I happened to spot it in my local thrift store and picked it up. I’m a fan of the premise, and the concept of multiverses and parallel times lines is always interesting to me. It didn’t feel entirely life-changing, but to that opinion I’d imagine Haig might respond that that’s kind of the point. Like many wide-sweeping musings on life and its meaning, he boils it down to the idea of finding the beauty in the mundane, feeling contentment as a comfort, not a boredom, and trying to make the best choice for you and your own life at each opportunity. Overall, I enjoyed the story, and I liked the message, even if it felt at times a touch cheesy or a little predictable – such is life!
I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron – DNF
The title of this memoir or book of essays, or whatever it is, filled me with apprehension, but I decided to give it my standard 50 pages to try and get the full picture without jumping to conclusions. I know the name Nora Ephron from classic movies like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail, among others, so if anything, I thought I’d at least feel entertained and possibly find it funny. Unfortunately, it was even worse than I expected. I only made it to page 49 and couldn’t bear to go on to the next chapter to make it to 50. I’ve read reputable people refer to Nora Ephron’s “brilliant mind”, so I won’t be forming an entire opinion off of this one bad reading experience, but yeeesh it was rough. Like I said, I was coming to this book with a huge block of salt, because I knew it wasn’t going to be written for me, generationally. Skimming the table of contents felt promising beyond the first few; it really seemed like it would get interesting around page 85 who’s chapter title reads “Me and JFK: Now It Can Be Told” and “Me and Bill: The End of Love” (which I believe is referring to Bill Clinton? lol). Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it past her chapter titled “Maintenance” in which she follows up a chapter where she chastises women who spend insane amounts of money on purses by detailing how many hours and thousands of dollars she spends keeping up her physical appearance each year. If there were more dry humor to it, or more self-awareness, I’d be able to lean into the commentary of all that society expects of a woman, but Ephron seems to be unwilling to fight against the societal pressure and instead gives into it to the extreme. It all just reads very rich white woman, which makes sense I suppose.
At one point she says, “to not worry about your hair is the secret upside to death” and she also talks about how she’s never going back to Africa because there were no hairdressers in the bush in 1972. Can you imagine being in Africa and giving a single fuck about your hair? Cannot fathom. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the final paragraph of the maintenance chapter in which Ephron describes passing by a homeless woman on the street and offering some all-over-the-place “feminist” critique and then proceeding to sound like the most self-centered, ignorant person on the planet. “I have never understood the feminists who insisted they were terrified of becoming bag ladies, but as I watched this woman shuffle down the street, I finally understood at least my version of it. I don’t want to be melodramatic; I am never going to become a bag lady. But I am only eight hours a week away from looking exactly like that woman on the street – with frizzled flyaway gray hair I would probably have if I stopped dyeing mine; with a potbelly I would definitely develop if I ate just half of what I think about eating every day; with the dirty nails and chapped lips and mustache and bushy eyebrows that would be my destiny if I ever spend two weeks on a desert island.” I had to go back and reread it to make sure she really did say what I think she said, and unfortunately, she very much did. I’m not trying to say that everything I read needs to be earth shattering, philosophy breaking kind of profoundness, but this one felt so vapid and ridiculous all I could think about was how many other great books I could be reading instead. So, I DNF’d it and moved on to The Lowland.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
A National Bestseller and National Book Award Finalist as well as a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Lahiri’s, Lowland deserves all the accolades and more. With deliberately controlled writing and a multigenerational plot, the impressive structure and sweeping nature of the story reminded me of past reads that have left just as indelible of an impact on me. Such titles come to mind as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – all beautifully written stories depicting with the nuance of the good and the bad of humanity. There is death that finds its counterpart in rebirth, there are words put to unspoken grief, and there is a lasting impression that the story you’ve just experienced with find a place to live in you forever.
The Lowland tells the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, growing up in post-partition India, focusing on each brother’s reaction to the political turmoil that followed them into adulthood. Told through several narrative lenses, Lahiri takes her reader alongside her characters as they each make decisions that will affect the trajectory of their lives. With moments of prose so beautifully written, this novel of family, sacrifice, and reclamation settles into your soul, carving itself a permanent space to rest.
“Her mother’s absence was like another language she’d had to learn, its full complexity and nuance emerging only after years of study, and even then, because it was foreign, a language never fully absorbed.”(p. 311)
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
I unintentionally started and ended the year with Meg Wolitzer. My first experience of her writing was The Female Persuasion which I’d read a few years ago, followed by The Wife as my second read of 2022, and here we are rounding out the year with another work of hers titled Belzhar. Another thrift find, the cover art piqued my interest – a black and white flat lay featuring The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, a journal, a Joy Division shirt, a jar of jam, some headphones, and various other easter eggs from the story. I was also drawn to the brief plot description which mentioned a young girl at a boarding school where one of her classes is called Special Topics in English and features a close study of Sylvia Plath. I was curious, but I also knew from the start that this was more of a younger read, maybe around high school age or so when the summary started out, “If life was fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield.” Right out the gate, I knew what I was getting into but since I’d liked her previous books, I decided to give it a try.
Around the time I was reading this I had just finished the series Wednesday on Netflix, which features Wednesday Addams away at boarding school, amongst other “outcasts” like herself. The storylines were similar, and both ended just as ridiculously as the other, each making me question if I didn’t like it because it was for a younger crowd or if they were objectively not good. It’s difficult to explain why I didn’t like the book without giving away major plot points, so suffice it to say it was a lot less mature than I was hoping for. I still enjoyed the story for what it was worth, and in a way, it makes sense that the ending wound up the way it did. There’s a distance I feel as an older reader trying to understand how and why this young girl could end up in the situation, she finds herself in. Wolitzer hints throughout that something horrible has happened to her, hence the reason she’s been sent to a rehabilitation boarding school for teens, but when the big reveal comes about, it couldn’t have been more anticlimactic for me. Luckily, the majority of the book maintains the illusion that something interestingly horrible may have happened, so I was able to enjoy the story about 90% of the way through before it plummeted to a 2.5/5 for me right at the end.
And just like that, my December words about books post has come to a close. In classic “I forgot to plan ahead at all” fashion, my bookish year-in-review will most likely land at some point during the first week of the new year? and that’s the only posting-related promise I’ll make since I already dropped the ball on the book suggestions for the holidays post I mentioned in my November roundup. Maybe this will be the year of pre-planned posts and more frequency?? Only time will tell!
For now, thank you for taking the time to read some of my thoughts about booooks, ’tis always and endlessly appreciated.
Until next time, Happy New Year, and happy reading!