Work/Life Balance

The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan

Reading Challenge: A book with a protagonist who has your occupation

Here’s a fun fact about social workers: for whatever reason (it can’t be our boring lives!), most writers have decided social workers do not make good protagonists. The few who have, I discovered when searching for books featuring social worker protagonists, have chosen to write about social workers in the child protection/family services field. This is actually not what most social workers do, although those who do enter that part of the field have all my admiration and respect.

This narrow view is disappointing, but not really a surprise. Most social workers in movies and TV appear as humorless, clipboard-bearing people who arrive at the home of the quirky but lovable protagonist declaring “I am here to test you, and should you not pass my test, I will take away the child in your care.” Please see The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for prime examples. In fact, the most positive portrayal of a social worker I’ve seen cross the screen has actually been this guy:


That’s Cobra Bubbles from Lilo and Stitch, folks. And that should tell you how far we have to go on the public image of the social worker.

Anywho, this is all a long roundabout way of explaining how I wound up deciding that The Hummingbird‘s narrator, Deborah Birch, RN, MSW (hey, that’s my degree!) had more in common with me professionally than some child protective services worker in Montana who screwed up his own family life (sorry, Fourth of July Creek, maybe next year?). See, I’m a psychiatric social worker, and most accounts of inpatient psych units are from the perspectives of the patients rather than the clinicians. No joy there from book land. However, I did my last year of clinical training in a medical hospital, and did have terminal patients, and used the talented palliative care social workers as a resource on the regular. And Deb, also a nurse, is social work to the core. Everything she said and did as a professional rang true, from what she said about her patients to her relentless self-interrogation of her own decisions. I kept checking the author bio because I was so sure he must be a social worker (apparently he’s not). That’s how true this was.

The Hummingbird (now that I’ve bored you to tears with my thoughts on social workers in fiction, thanks for hanging in) is about Deb, a hospice nurse with a Masters in Social Work, and her relationship with two men: her husband, Michael, recently back from a third tour of duty and struggling with some massive PTSD, and her patient, Barclay Reed, who is a keenly intelligent, snotty academic receiving hospice care. Social work is all about meeting the patient or client where they’re at, and Deb does that and does that some more, both with her patient and with her husband. Neither one of them is giving her much of a break. There’s also the patient’s manuscript, about a little-known incident in World War II, interspersed between the chapters of Deb’s narration. Deb is our protagonist and heroine and her voice (measured, rational, self-critical) dominates the book. Deb comes across as so real I found myself wanting to take her to task for her constant self-criticism and lack of self-care during a very difficult time. So it could be hard reading the manuscript sections, written at a remove and much weaker. I found myself bored with most of these sections, but by the end I found myself won over and acknowledging that they did add something to the book. By the end, I also found myself pretty close to tears. This is a profoundly moving book, and I think it would be so no matter what your profession is.

It wasn’t a perfect book (I’m saying that a lot lately, aren’t I? What do we think are the odds of me actually reading a perfect book this year?). For me much of the weakness was Michael. He gave Deb so little to work with, which was fine, but where the author dropped the ball was on giving us a reason for Deb to want to stick through everything Michael puts her through (spoiler alert: it’s a lot). There were gestures towards this as Deb thought back to what made Michael lovable and their marriage good, but almost every memory she came up with for us was about how good the sex used to be. And good sex is important to marriage, I’m not arguing that, but, well, let’s go with “necessary but not sufficient” on that one.

Still, overall a very good book, moving and powerful.

Recommended pairing: I feel like Deb could have used a strong drink at the end of her days with Barclay and Michael. You know what’s a really good strong drink? BenRiach, if you’ve got the budget for it. One of the best Scotches I’ve tried this year.



Stories, stories, everywhere

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Reading Challenge: A National Book Award Winner

I have a hard time reviewing Good Books. I have no trouble shredding a Bad Book, or weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a Pretty Good Book, or, in my superhero identity as Minority Opinion Girl, encouraging you to consider that maybe a Good Book isn’t very good after all or that a Pretty Good or Bad Book is significantly better than you thought.

But this was a Good Book that actually was good, so what am I supposed to tell you about it? I’m not really breaking the news that Louise Erdrich is a good writer or that The Round House is a good book. It won a National Book Award. I think the word is out.

So, just in case you weren’t already aware, The Round House is really good. It’s timely and topical (set in the 80s, but still sadly too relevant), it’s full of vivid characters, it’s harrowing, it’s funny, it’s enraging, it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s depressing but not pointlessly “gritty,” it’s about brutality and about love, it’s about stories and storytelling. My favorite moments were all story-related: the stories the boys tell each other to make sense of their world, the stories Mooshum tells either awake or asleep (although the Supernatural fan in me couldn’t help thinking “someone really should have told Sam and Dean you can cure a wiindigo with hot soup”). My only complaint is that the book wandered into symbolic territory a little too far for me at the end, but that’s probably just me and my low tolerance for that kind of thing.

Very little to say about this book, except, it’s good. You should probably read it.

Recommended pairing: Oh, so many poor decisions are made regarding alcohol in this book (by 13 year-old boys) I’m tempted to recommend seltzer. But actually, I think something like a Harpoon IPA, a nice, well-rounded beer, would fit a good, well-rounded book.


Born to be a Heroine

Summer of Secrets by Rosie Rushton

Reading Challenge: A book that takes place during summer

Retellings are the blessing and the curse of my reading life. I love a riff on a classic story if it’s done well (for example, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club), but it’s absolute nails on a chalkboard if done poorly (I know I keep ripping on this one, but man, I hate The Family Fortune a lot. You lost me when you put the Boston landmark steaming teakettle in Kenmore instead of Scollay Square, lady, and you lost me and ran off without me when you insisted that a character “spoke like she was from the nineteenth century” for no other reason than to excuse the stilted language you were shoving in her mouth). But what makes a good retelling is a bit of a puzzle. I think it has to contain the right mix of elements from the original story and new pieces. It HAS to stand on its own. But probably what makes a good retelling is individual to the reader, and what he or she thinks are the crucial elements of the original.

So that brings me to Summer of Secrets. I read Rosie Rushton’s adolescent take on Sense and Sensibility, The Dashwood Sisters’ Secrets of Love, years ago, and remembered it being pretty decent. Then I found out a few weeks ago that this was one of a series, that Rosie Rushton had gone and done ALL the complete Austens as contemporary teen novels. I was intrigued, and sad when I realized only the first book is easy to find on this side of the pond. I was particularly intrigued to investigate the take on Northanger Abbey, which has been more or less left alone by avid retellers, and eventually tracked it down on Amazon.

And it’s a cute little book! Nothing life-changing, but more or less accomplishes what it sets out to do. Mr. Drinking-and-Ink and I were talking, and we agreed it makes sense for a contemporary Austen retelling to be about teenagers. Who else would have that much free time on their hands, and who else would care so deeply about social position? Catherine Morland, of all of Austen’s heroines, is a profoundly adolescent character, and Caitlin Morland, in spite of having something close to a celebrity name (is Caitlin Moran a celebrity?), is a fair update of her. Having much of the book be about her friendship with Miss Tilney (here named Summer, and yes, I’d say that’s part of the title) was I thought a very solid choice. Everything in the book was bubbly and light-hearted, even the serious bits, and although I guessed the truth about the Tilneys’ mother quickly, I didn’t mind it. Caitlin also manages not to make as much of an idiot out of herself as Catherine, the original, does, and the part of me that cringes in sympathy watching people do stupid things really didn’t mind that, either.

There were some things I did mind. Caitlin spent almost no time with her love interest, so when they finally got together, my apathy was palpable. Caitlin’s mother seemed sort of off-handedly cruel and I’m not sure she was meant to be. She’s described as an “earth mother” but refers to her daughter as “chunky” and calls her “naive” multiple times to her face. Is this a British thing I’m missing? Or maybe I’m just sensitive because when I was a teenager, people called me both of those things (but I’d like to point out my mother was not one of them, because she’s my mother). There was a last minute twist that turned out not to be a twist – and if that sounds dumb, it’s because it was.

But overall, this was fun, frothy, and full of British adolescent slang, which is always entertaining as far as I’m concerned. Will this book remain with me a long time? No, but it could be worse. I still remember just how I felt reading The Family Fortune. There are worse things than not leaving much of an impact.

Recommended pairing: Clearly champagne, but you’re going to have to choose your own because I don’t know a thing about champagne.




Clinical Privileges

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

Reading Challenge: An autobiography.

When you read blurbs about this book, you read that it’s a book about manic depression (a term preferred by the author, but more commonly known these days as bipolar disorder). But that’s not strictly accurate. To be accurate, this book is about Kay Redfield Jamison, who has manic depression. There is a focus on that aspect of her life but it’s still about her, the whole person, and as with any autobiography, that’s both the strength and the weakness of what is overall a very good book.

As a newly-minted mental health professional, the biggest thing I came away with from this book was a reminder of what an enormous difference power and privilege make in outcomes of health and mental health. Yes, I know, I’m boring. But I don’t think Jamison would disagree with me. She is a psychologist, extremely successful and well-credentialed, and she and her family are financially well-off. She’s surrounded by loving and supportive people, which of course is vital to anyone and a privilege that crosses cultures, class, and continents, but these are also people who can fly across the country at the drop of a hat to support her. In the prologue, Jamison recounts an incident in which the police take notice of her wild behavior, and are apparently reassured by a flashing of professional credentials. That seems almost quaint from a 21st-century perspective (p.s. she’s white). Also quaint, maybe, definitely on the disturbing side, is the number of close friends/lovers she possesses who are able to prescribe her lithium. That both tells you how many doctors surround her and that they have no problem prescribing for friends and family, which is a little…right? Is it just me?

Jamison is highly credentialed, and she lets us know it. But I never found it gratuitous. Considering the tremendous stigma and stereotyping surrounding mental illness, it took a lot of courage for her to be open about her own struggles while also remaining on the professional side of the mental health equation. She’s a realist, too: I appreciated reading about her professional safeguards and what a strong proponent of medication she is throughout. Her descriptions of moods, mania, and all the other states of being were immediate and vital and quite beautiful. I got a strong sense of both her experience and her mixed feelings towards manic depression.

This is a very good book overall, but I thought it kind of petered out towards the end. Jamison has been supported by a great number of people throughout her life and I can understand why she would want to give credit where it is due, but the repetition of “and there was also Dr. So-and-So who is full of grace and humor and who was so very kind to me” just does not make good reading. It reminded me a little of Lit, Mary Karr’s memoir of alcoholism and religion, which went way overboard in that direction and which was a book I just plain did not like. That was at its worst. At its best, this book reminded me of Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold, which is a book everyone should read. And that, honestly, was the problem. I suspect if I’d read this one first, I would have loved it and raved about it. But I’ve read The Center Cannot Hold, and found it overall a stronger book, illuminating and honest and possibly life-changing, depending on who you are and where you’re coming from. I could not avoid the comparison, and this book had to suffer for it. Tell you what: read them both, because they’re both worth reading, and then decide for yourself.

Suggested pairing: Anything in moderation, people. Please. But she seems to be a wine drinker, and it’s warm, so maybe a nice chilled white. A dry Riesling, anyone?



Both Hands and a Map

You Are Here by Jennifer E. Smith

Reading Challenge: A book about a road trip

When I got to the end of You Are Here, and by “end” I mean the inside jacket flap, I found myself looking at the smiling face of Jennifer E. Smith and thinking “hey, she looks like a really nice person.” And she does. Friendly, with a good sense of humor, possibly self-deprecating. She got her master’s in creative writing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which is wicked cool. Jennifer E. Smith seems, from her picture, like a person who would tell you good stories. Which is why it makes me sad to report that if she does have good stories to tell, You Are Here ain’t it. A more fitting title for this book would have been There’s No There There.

Another thing I realized, looking at Jennifer E. Smith’s face, after I’d gotten through the end of her book, was “man – you’re going to say mean things about her book and how is that fair? Someone worked hard on this.” But I found I couldn’t really believe that. I mean, I’m sure she did. But I cannot picture anyone throwing blood, sweat, and tears into this book. There’s something half-assed about it. The adjectives that kept popping into my mind as I read this book were “watery” and “weak.” “Contrived” also came to mind. The premise of the story involves two teenagers, neighbors, each other’s social world, who have each suffered a significant loss in their immediate families, and independently each decides to take a rebellious road trip that winds up being the same road trip when one’s car breaks down. Also, there’s a 3-legged dog that appears at a rest stop and comes along for the ride, because of course there is.

I’m pretty sure I was supposed to feel some kind of interest or compassion or frustration as the characters changed over time (and map metaphors, similes, and symbolism were crammed in rather like improperly-folded road maps in an overstuffed glove compartment and did you see what I did there? Sure you did). But all I could manage was a mild dislike for our young heroes, and nothing for their one-dimensional families. Allow me to introduce the quotes that made me shudder and really cemented my dislike for them:

    He could understand why she was upset, maybe even a little bit angry, but he wanted her to hurry up and realize that in the midst of this whole mess he was still there for her, the only one who really understood her. (p. 171)

Even though (or because) he takes it all back internally in the next sentence, that tells you everything you need to know about Peter. As for Emma,

    She knew she was wired differently from most people, that she wasn’t often understood and was even less often inclined to try to understand others. (p. 182)

Emma is so different, you guys. She thinks so, Peter thinks so, but we never see any real evidence of that. Nor does she have a detectable personality. At least Peter, although he irritated me more, has a few preferences and habits. Emma likes animals. She’s sort of average in an intellectual family. And…that’s about it. Also she totally doesn’t care what she looks like, but who wants to guess that she’s pale, skinny, and long-haired?

I still feel sorry that I didn’t like this book. As I said, Jennifer E. Smith looks like a nice person! A person who worked hard. I felt less bad, though, when I noticed that a few chapters would inconsistently switch POV in a confusing way. And I felt way less bad when I got to this line on page 232:

    “Mom…,” Emma began, but she wasn’t sure where to even start.

You could start by not adding a comma after an ellipsis. That would be a start.

Suggested pairing: Keystone Lite. No, don’t ACTUALLY drink Keystone Lite. But that’s what these kids will be drinking when they go to college in upstate New York in a couple of years and, yeah, it’s weak and watery, so it’s appropriate.