I didn’t want to like Signs of Life, by Natalie Taylor. It’s a memoir by someone younger than 26, for the love of all things holy, plus she’s clearly a talented writer and a thoughtful reader able to convey succinctly her literary insights with teenagers, and, for the love of all things holy, get them to respond.
And yet…I really liked it. Taylor writes of losing her husband at age 23 (he was 27; it was a freak accident), while pregnant with their son. I remember being 23 and I was not this sharp or remotely aware of my place in the world, much less capable of loving anyone unless he shared my peculiar brand of angst. She drives home the importance of being happy and lucky and appreciating it…when you have it, as opposed to in retrospect. As someone who has spent a shameful amount of time dwelling on a half-filled (coffee) cup, this was a key point. I’m not sure how she managed to not annoy me, as I have a huge capacity for being irritated by young talent. Taylor is an exception to her generation, although part of me hopes, hopes, hopes she is not; our species might survive despite our efforts to destroy everything! I liked the fact that she visits bitterness, irrational, misplaced anger and she admits to ragged, resentful crying fits. Grief is a dark, bottomless pit that hangs around. She makes it through and becomes what I suspect is a good mom.
I also read about a spiritual pre-teen in The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas. At first I thought it was a teen book, until I saw on a sign it was the choice for One Book, One Marin. It’s an odd choice, as it’s not controversial or polarizing. The protagonist stumbles upon a political mystery but that becomes a loose end (Unless, of course, I missed it entirely. This is is possible because I suspect I had a companion concussion three weeks ago along with The Son. I am that tired from worry.) She eventually takes her fate into her own hands, which I would have cheered more rigorously had I not been intoxicated by the atmosphere Lukas weaves so beautifully. He writes of heavy heat, pungent flowers and spices, even the Bosporous, a bustling and yet oddly languid river, witness to secrets, and the lifeline of Stamboul. I think he needed more tension; Eleanora, even when in danger, is never really at the point of a sword. Even her step-mama can only come up with more chores as punishment. But as a summer read? Knock yourself out. I’ll never get to that part of the globe (not enough tiny little bottles of airplane rum in the word to get me there, sister). Call me Vicarious, ancient Eastern goddess of the armchair.
Once upon a time I volunteered at Laguna Honda Hospital. The old people scared me. The building was romantic but frightening. I would not have been surprised if Mrs. Rochester scurried down the hall. However, Victoria Sweet’s memoir, God’s Hotel, about her time there as a physician, is well worth the plunge into Scary Medical Stories. This is how I view any subject I know I should read about but am too frightened to educate myself on (yes, I know that sentence was poorly structured. See Companion Concussion above.) The list here is extensive: Foods I Should Never Have Let My Children Consume, Men To Whom I Should Never Have Given My Number (and Beyond), Financial Decisions Better Made By Chimps, and Why A Creative Writing Degree Is Essentially Kindling. Back to the subject: Sweet writes lovingly of her work while giving us succinct information. She makes a profound and tragic point in the first section of the book: the absence in modern medicine of spending time with a patient. Real time. Tests and science are valuable and mostly conclusive, but there is an important place in medicine for conversation, for casual visits, for listening. All patients need to feel valued, and value is in the details: glasses that fit, a pretty view outside the window, a doctor curious about your life before you were sick. I knew those backless gowns pissed me me off for a reason. Anyway, it’s a good read. And when I drive past that weird, gothic building I’ll think twice about its residents.