Friday, 31 December 2010

2010 Books

Well, it's new year's eve. I'm sitting at home on my own because, well, to cut a long story short, I'm still under the weather and I didn't feel well enough to go out to a friend's place with J so he's gone alone. Which means that Christmas was a bust, our time off work together was a bust and now New Year's is a bust too. In the last week, we've added the following symptoms to our family list: conjunctivitis (the babies) vomiting (me) diarrhea (the babies) sore throat (me and J) and extreeeeeeme crankiness (also me, quelle surprise). (Although at times, also the babies). (Ummmm, and J for some of the time too. If I'm honest).

I have noticed that the longer an illness goes on, the less sympathetic people are about it, and frankly that's been annoying me a bit. (See? Cranky!) After all, it's much worse being sick after three weeks than after one - all your food is gone, for one thing. I was talking to my dad about this, since (as long-time readers might remember) the sociology of illness is something he knows far too much about. He said that when you get sick, you get a new status as a 'sick person', with privileges attached (eg not expected to do very much). But it's part of a social contract - people have to be nice to you while you're sick, but the expectation on the sick person is that they will get better in a reasonable amount of time. If you try to extend your sick status past the social norm, it doesn't really work because you have broken your part of the contract - you were supposed to get better already. This is one of the reasons that it's difficult to live with chronic health problems like rheumatoid arthritis, he said- you don't get the same status and privileges for long-term illness as you do when it is acute - people just expect you to get better, and if you can't get better they mostly stop caring. That's very interesting, I said, and asked: what happens if it's a terminal illness? Are you allowed to stay sick, then? And he said that yes, you're allowed to be sick for quite a long time if you're terminally ill. But there's still a social contract - in exchange for being allowed to be sick for an extended period, your half of the bargain is that within a reasonable amount of time you're supposed to die.

Well, I did ask, I suppose.

All this is just to say that this week I have sworn that from now on, I will be much nicer to the chronically ill. Three weeks of illness has almost destroyed me, which is pathetic. I've realised how much good health we have normally, and I'm going to be more grateful for it. And more understanding of those who don't. When I have it again, that is. Right now I'm still going to just go to bed early and continue to feel sorry for myself.

Actually, on second thoughts, no I'm not. The last few weeks have been interesting, and I've been unsure what to write about. But there must be something, right? Should it be the day at someone else's house when I unexpectedly found myself watching adoption-themed movies, and realising that one day this was going to happen to my children? It was going to be that, but then I realised that I couldn't face it. So I've decided to recommend some of my favourite books from 2010. (Books I read in 2010, not necessarily published in 2010). And because I'm realistic about who is reading this, the links send you to Amazon US.

Red Dust Road, by Jackie Kay and My Fathers' Daughter by Hannah Poole

Yes, this is two books, but I read them in the same week back in June and they cover similar themes so I can't help grouping them in my mind. They are two of the best adult adoptee memoirs I've read, and I would put both of them on my 'best adoption books of all time' list. Both are written by women who write for a living - they were writers before they decided to talk about adoption, and it really shows. Both are about transracially adopted adults in search of biological roots, but RDR covers years and loops back and forward in time, while MFD mostly focusses on a very short period in the author's life.

It's hard to do either of these books any kind of justice in a paragraph or two. Jackie Kay's book is the story of a UK domestic transracial adoptee who searches for her birthparents - both alive, but on different sides of the world. It's a complicated story that defies a lot of the usual adoption stereotypes. The writing is lyrical - unsurprising, as Ms Kay is a poet - and the story is gripping. Hannah Poole is a journalist, and her book is written quite differently. It covers a short period of time in graphic detail, and by the end of the book you feel very much like you are living right inside of her head. She was adopted from Eritrea in the 1970s and the book is about her travelling back to meet her birth family. It's incredibly honest - brutally so - and very entertaining but not a feelgood read. Well, not if you're an adoptive parent.

I can't help thinking that a big difference between the two stories is that Ms Poole's first family is still intact. Her mother has died, but if she had been raised by her first family rather than adopted, she would have become part of a family that still exists. It's impossible to imagine not feeling huge grief over missing out on being part of something this real. Ms Kay's family, on the other hand, isn't that simple. She does not write with the same sense of painful regret, and it is hard to know how much of that is because there was not an obvious alternative life for her to be part of. Life is much more complicated than this, of course, and I don't mean to say that this is the only reason that the books 'feel' different, or why the two women seem to have had very different reactions overall to their adoptions, but I think it might be a significant factor.

I think that the two books balance each other out very well, if you are reading them as an adoptive parent looking to learn from the adult adoptee experience. RDR is sad in places but ultimately uplifting - it feels redemptive and positive. MFD does not feel like that. Ms Poole writes with piercing clarity about how she finds herself regretting so much of what has happened to her. I am grateful for her book, and I'm glad that I have read it. But it's not an easy read. Her adoption was based on a lie, and that is hard to read about. But this lie is not the only reason she wishes, often, for a different life, the life she might have had. Some adult adoptee memoirs make you think 'oh, right, her parents did this wrong and this wrong and that's why she's unhappy. If I just do things differently, things will be okay'. This book does not give the reader that option. Her adoptive Dad sounds like a great guy, and they have a really good relationship. This book showed me more clearly than any other I have read - Claudia, it's not about you. You cannot parent in such a way that you can guarantee your kids will end up feeling happy about their adoption. So don't kid yourself.

Don't take my word for it, though - read them!

The Alphabet Series by Sue Grafton

Pure private detective escapism. But really well written escapism - funny, well plotted and a truly likeable no-nonsense heroine. How would it be possible not to like a woman who takes a bubble bath with washing-up liquid? I'm a little embarrassed to be including this series in my books of the year, but I've read twelve in the last 8 weeks or so, so it would be dishonest not to. I bought a box set of these books at a bargain bookstore, never having heard of the series or the author. But I read all of them within a few weeks because they were so much fun. The first books were written in the late 80s, and the private detective she does a lot of her research at the library using microfiche, which is pleasing and amusing, but they dont' feel dated. I'm not saying spend money to get the first editions, but look out for them in your library. The copies in my library nearly always seem to be gone, so I guess I'm not the only one who likes them.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I've already written about this one.

Blue Like Jazz by Don Miller

I don't quite know what to say about this. I'm trying (painfully, slowly) to write a book about our adoption, as most of you already know. One of the agent blogs I've been reading had a really interesting post a few months back saying that if you're trying to write a memoir, you really should make sure that you've read at least ten really, really good ones. And that made me realise that I hadn't - I'd read a lot of adoption memoir writing, but not very much outside of that box. She had some interesting recommendations, and asked for commenters to recommend others.

One that came up again and again and again was Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz. The subtitle is 'nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality' and to be honest, I wasn't very keen. I'm a Christian, and that sounded like a very 'woo-woo' (yes, folks, that's a technical term) version of Christianity that was just going to make me cranky. (Incidentally, a Christian in a book who DID make me cranky was Jackie Kay's birthfather. Read that book and you'll know what I mean. But I digress). But I ordered the book, because so many people recommended it, and when it arrived I opened it up and from the first page I was hooked.

By about the tenth page I was thinking 'this man is a wonderful writer' and by the twentieth page I was thinking 'actually, he is so uncomfortably perceptive about the human condition that his writing is beginning to remind me of C. S. Lewis' and then a few pages later 'this book is much, much funnier than any Christian book has a right to be' and by halfway through the book I realised that the subtitle had probably been put there by his publisher, and when he really started talking about Christianity I realised that all he's trying to get away from is religion as an empty form, he's actually not 'woo-woo' at all. And by the hundredth page I was feeling like I was seeing my own hypocrisy more clearly and feeling humbled and by the end I had decided that I was going to give it to my Dad for his birthday (I always give him my favourite book of the preceding year for his birthday - last year it was The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle). And my Dad loved this book too, and he's pretty fussy about books, especially Christian books. He also said that the writing reminded him of CS Lewis, and I don't think he really has much higher praise. I've since read the sequel to this book, and another companion book, and I think I may have liked them even more than this first one. But this is the one that gets a place in my list, because I read it first.

I may never get my own book written, and that would make me sad. But honestly? I think the process would still be worthwhile because it meant that I found Don Miller's writing, and I'll always, always be glad about that.

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins.

I know, teen fiction, seriously? I had low hopes - I hated Twilight. But I started this series and I was turning the pages so fast that I'm pretty sure I nearly set fire to my house. I was dreaming about these books at night, the suspense was so intense. Fortunately I bought all three books at once because if I had needed to wait to read the next books in the series I would have gone crazy, for real. I don't know how people coped who read the first two books before Mockingjay (the final book) was published. How did your nerves stand it?

After reading this series, I told J 'you have GOT to read this!' and he harrumphed a bit. He wasn't keen, but he took the first book on his commute to work one Monday morning. And he got so involved in the story that he missed his stop on the tube. And then on the way home, he got so involved that he missed his return stop. Like I said. Intense. For pure plot and pace, I can't recommend this highly enough.

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

I have my sister to thank for this recommendation. I laughed until I cried while reading this book - this may be the only book where I have started laughing while reading the dust jacket. (The fake bestseller list! Priceless!) It's a novel written in the form of a memoir. The protagonist sets out to write a literary novel in order to become famous, and the memoir shows how he makes it happen. The plot is average, but the extracts from his fake novel are some of the funniest things I've ever read. I'm going to warn you straight up - this book is very, very silly. If you think it's funny to laugh at inappropriate overuse of the word 'visceral' in bad literary fiction, you. will. love. this. book. Seriously. Tears of joy. Buy it now. If you don't think that 'visceral' or it's friends have any potential for humour - (I'm pretty sure there were a few 'nascents' as well) steer clear.

(Actually, that reminds me - not a 2010 book for me at all but if you like silly books about books - do not do a single 'nother thing until you have read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Genius. Don't ask any questions - just buy it).

I'm sure there were others, but these are the ones that came to mind first, which must mean something. What would you put on your list for 2010? You know I'm all ears for this kind of thing.

So for me - that's it for 2010. The babies are now 17 months old. How did that happen? Mostly a great year, although December left me longing for the whole thing to end. It's been lovely having your company - may 2011 treat you kindly. A great big MWAH! to you, and you, and you, and yes, you too. See you next year!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Day nine

And I'm still sick.

Survived the adoption hearing. In fact, it was a totally magical day. Well, magical in the same way that Voldemort is magical.

Seriously, one of the worst days of my life. Low point was me sitting on the tube on the way home, crying in public because I felt so sick. Ah, happy memories. Other magical moments were the judge being nearly an hour late, which was sufficient time to turn our two well-rested, well-behaved munchkins into slavering monsters who then yelled their way through their hearing. It could have been quite moving - when the judge made his ruling, he said "I grant this adoption because I deem it to be in the best interests of these children, both now and for the rest of their lives." And I kind of felt a bit teary, but J had to take I to the back of the chamber at that point because he was going nuts with silly bending and screaming himself hoarse and in the end I was just thinking 'could you not just go a bit more quickly so we can get outta here?' Like I said, a magical day.

After the pronouncement (probably not the proper legal word, but I'm going with it) we got photos with the judge, who was really incredibly nice. The solicitor for - actually, I'm not entirely sure who she was representing, even though she was there for our case - took them. Unfortunately, there is not one single photo where both children look even halfway presentable. Also, we're not allowed to post any pictures from court on the internet so even if they were good I still couldn't show you. Please enjoy this photo of a fluffy bunny instead:

Well, it was that or Voldemort and I know which I prefer.

I finally got to the doctor on Friday (because getting to the doctor is next-to-impossible when you actually feel sick - WHY did doctors stop doing housecalls?) He listened to my chest and told me that I did not have a chest infection, whereupon I saw my chance of drugs receding and I almost cried until he said 'wait.... do you have a history of.... asthma?' like a gameshow host. And I gulped 'Yes! Yes I do!' and then he opened the doctorial equivalent of the golden suitcase and wrote me out a prescription for a short course of steroids. I don't know if you've ever had the good fortune to take steroids, but they are pretty horrible things. My friend Amy described it perfectly by saying 'they make me want to unzip my own skin and crawl right out'. So ummmmm, yes, that is exactly what I feel like right now. And my gums feel like they are buzzing or vibrating, so my teeth keep feeling like they are about to fall out. I really wish I was making that up. But they (the steroids, not my teeth) do seem to be making a dent in the coughing, and lately when I try to breathe the oxygen tends to go in the right direction, so I guess it is worth it. Just.

Now I'm just waiting for the anosmia to go away. I seriously. Cannot. Smell. Anything. I was so freaked out that I went to my (extensive) perfume collection just to find if anything could make it through the blocked tunnel that is my sinuses. And if there are any perfumistas reading (I know there's at least one) back me up on how bad this must be when I tell you that I cannot even smell POTL. At all. This is a perfume so strong that I keep my bottle inside a sealed box and only allow myself to wear it when it's actually snowing outside, but right now? It's on my skin and I don't even know it's there. Lots of days around here, there is so much pooping that I wish I couldn't smell, but when it happens it turns out to be no joke. I know the babies' usual pooping schedule pretty well (duh) but this morning we had an unscheduled incident that I was totally unaware of until .... ummmmmm, on second thoughts, actually, let's just move on from this topic.

Oh, and of course the babies are sick now too. I am so looking forward to travelling for Christmas.

You know? I have no idea why I'm even writing this. I guess sitting upright at the computer is a step in the right direction towards properly getting back in the human groove again. (<------- most worstly constructed sentence, ever, for which I apologise). As for getting back in the blogging groove? I'm feeling terribly uninspired, but that might be because of the whole wishing-I-could-unzip-my-skin thing. I've pretty much finished the choose your own adventure that I set myself much earlier in the year. I have a few ideas kicking around but nothing is making my fingers desperate to tap at the keyboard. So.... any requests? Any burning questions? Any suggestions?

Right, I'm off to see if I can find that zipper pull somewhere at the base of my spine.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

I haven't gone anywhere

I'm just sick. Sick. As. A. Dog. Presuming that a dog has skin that burns when you touch it, a cough like an eighty-year-old smoker, dizziness and needs to type this sideways with her head resting on the table.

The last few days have been awful. The babies have been pretty well behaved, but even the most well-behaved children still poop, and get hungry, and try to eat bits of plastic. And it turns out that even the most laid-back children only want to spend so much time in their cots 'resting'. I'm trying to celebrate small achievements, giving myself a lot of pep talks that go 'yeah, claudia! You went down the stairs without falling over!' and 'go claudia! you opened a pack of bread!' and 'well done, claudia! you turned on a dvd for the babies!' but things are rapidly going downhill around here. It's a disaster area. All of which would be JUST about bearable - these things happen, right? And I'll get over it eventually, right? except:

We have our final adoption hearing tomorrow.

At the High Court.

In Central London.

Which means that in less than 24 hours, J and I have to get two wriggly toddlers onto a train EARLY in the morning, then onto the Underground, then into court. And back again. And today I'm finding it hard to stand up. It's been days since I even wore shoes. We were really looking forward to this - it's the end of a LOT of legal stuff that I haven't really written about here, but we will really be glad to see the end of. We even had plans to drink a particularly nice bottle of wine afterwards that's been sitting around for about two and a half years, waiting for just such an auspicious occasion. (Nice, in my house, means that it cost more than £6. And actually, I'm sure this was at least £8, so we're talking beyond nice and into fancy).

But I'm definitely not looking forward to it anymore. The thought of it is bringing me out in a cold sweat - although on second thoughts maybe that was already there. What am I going to do? I'm totally at a loss, people, and asking for your advice. The hearing can't be rescheduled, so that's not an option. But I want your home remedies, however wacky, or advice for looking after babies while sick, or heck, just tell me a joke to make me feel better.

Because I am all out of ideas.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010