The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

“Thoughts have wings.”  – The Immortalists

In recent months, I’ve been thinking about the power of thoughts. My boyfriend says I tend to focus on the negative, that I latch on to a negative train of thought and run with it, letting it impact my day, my week, my month. To a certain extent, I’d say he’s right, and I’m working on it. However, it can be so. damn. hard.

Have you ever had a nagging thought, big or small, that just eats away at you? It consumes every inch of you, gnawing at your brain matter, distorting your reality and steadily pushing you to either a breakdown or an epiphany?

The Gold siblings know what I’m talking about. When they’re kids, the four of them – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – visit a psychic together, and she tells each of them the exact day they’re going to die. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin then tracks the siblings, showing the impact this knowledge has on their choices and their lives.

“Sitting in the rishika’s apartment, Varya was sure she was a fraud, but when she went home the prophecy worked inside her like a virus. She saw it do the same thing to her siblings…”  – pg. 292

I was excited and impatient to read The Immortalists due to the persistent buzz about it on Bookstagram and in the mainstream media. The story hooked me right from the beginning, but I grew unsure of the book the farther I got into it. It was probably naive of me, but I wasn’t expecting to story to be quite so tragic and sad. However, that’s more my fault than anything else.

The writing is beautiful throughout, and Benjamin does a good job of subtly making her point without beating the reader over the head. People will have their own opinions on the siblings, the idea of knowing your death date and how the prophecy works inside each character. Benjamin gives readers a lot of fodder for continued thought, which I can personally vouch for as the book has stuck with me days after reading the final page.

For me, the thing that impressed me the most about the book is that did something that rarely happens: It changed my mind about something. I have always been of the mind that more knowledge is always better, and if you asked me before reading The Immortalists if I would like to know what day I’m going to die, I would have said yes without hesitation.

However, I now find myself feeling quite the opposite. The Gold siblings show so vividly how a thought can eat away at you, how it can invade your entire life. I know that I personally would not do well with that, and I would find myself consumed by the knowledge.

Possibly more important than the debate of “Would I or would I not want to know?” is the commentary on the very nature of how we live our lives. Do we play it safe in the pursuit of a long life, or do we throw caution to the wind, living life wholly and fiercely knowing that we could meet an abrupt end? Those two options aren’t mutually exclusive, and I believe that a healthy balance between both can lead to a full and happy life.

I have found myself, though, living very safely in the former lately. That could be due to a multitude of reasons, not the least of which would be the untimely passing of my dad in 2015. Benjamin’s novel helped me face some of my unresolved feelings on his passing, as well as death in general. The book gave me a new perspective, a new lens from which to view my own life. And I find that only the best books can do that.

Have you read The Immortlists yet? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

“I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain…interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”   –Roxane Gay

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like a bad feminist. Much of what Roxane Gay says in her essay collection Bad Feminist describes emotions and thoughts and experiences that I identify and connect with deeply. And just as Gay finds freedom in identifying as a bad feminist, I find peace in knowing I am not the only person who feels like a bad feminist from time to time.

This book felt like personal liberation for me because I got confirmation that someone thinks the way I do. I also found it liberating to read about feminism and race and gender from an author who meticulously lays out her arguments, drawing in examples from various texts, current events and pop culture. Gay’s arguments are strong and delivered with conviction, but she by no means is rabble-rousing. This is a woman who understands that her point of view is one of many, but that doesn’t make it any less important for her to say her piece.

I will not lie and say that there were times where I had to step away from this collection in favor of lighter reading. It can be exhausting to care so deeply and be so passionate about your beliefs; it’s an exhaustion that Gay voices herself. While this is merely a book with words on pages, it deals in a nonfiction that we see playing out in the media and the internet and in our lives every single day.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some lighter moments throughout the text. They’re few, to be sure – you can’t be funny when talking about rape and rape culture, which Gay explores in the essay “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others.” One of the lighter bits, and one of my favorite parts of the entire collection, is the essay “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” in which Gay tells of how she got into playing professional Scrabble. Gay reveals how Scrabble, much like professional sports, involves many rules, ruthless players and mind games. Her descriptions of her experiences at various tournaments tickled me with their seriousness that bordered on ridiculous.

Perhaps the most enlightening parts of Bad Feminist for me were the essays where Gay deals with race. As a white, heterosexual woman, I understand that I enjoy certain privileges over those who are not white and not heterosexual. I will never be able to understand the experiences of those who are different from me in these ways.

And while it is not Gay’s, or any other black person’s, responsibility to educate me or anyone else on their struggles and the way society has systematically oppressed them throughout history, I know it is important that I am exposed to Gay’s stories of her personal experience. While I always endeavor to see things from the perspective of others, I know I am not even close to perfect in that goal. Gay’s essays on race helped me look at things in new ways, and I am deeply grateful for that.

This book is required reading for anyone who identifies as a feminist but has trouble living up to everything that fraught word has come to mean. It also should be required reading for anyone who strives  to bridge the gaps of understanding created by race, religion, gender and socioeconomic status. Reading books like this won’t solve all the problems we face as a society today, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Have you read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen

In The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, the title tells it all.

Hendrik Groen is a resident of a nursing home in Amsterdam where he’s surrounded by his aging peers, who are all more than happy to pass their remaining days discussing their various illnesses and ailments. Groen hates this enthusiasm for complaining. “Another year, and I still don’t like old people. Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching,” his first diary entry reads.

Hendrik, however, rarely airs his complaints out loud, admitting that his specialty is pleasing everyone and keeping his thoughts to himself. This is what sparks his idea of starting a diary: to give him an outlet to say what he really thinks.

The book follows Hendrik for an entire year, with him making entries almost every day. He documents the complaints and misadventures of his fellow residents. He discusses the news and the weather (but not that much; he doesn’t want to be one of those old people who only ever discusses the weather). He tells you about his friends and their trials, as well as his adversarial relationship with the home management.

Hendrik is a very straightforward, matter-of-fact narrator, but he sprinkles in a good dose of humor among of the bleaker aspects of his life in the nursing home. He discusses his issues with incontinence, which he refers to as his “dribbles,” noting at one point, “It seems that I’m in good company: there are about a million other Dutch dribblers. Which means enough urine is collected in our citizens’ underpants and diapers to fill an entire swimming pool every day. Yippee!”

Eventually, Hendrik and seven of his friends get together and create the Old But Not Dead Club. The members have regular meetings and take turns planning surprise outings for the group, which usually involves lots of laughs, wine and food.

It’s a heartwarming progression to watch as Hendrik and his fellow club members form strong friendships that keep them sane and active through the sadder realities of their age: dementia, diseases, funerals. They have all accepted their lot in life and are determined to live out the rest of their days as happily as possible.

By the end of the book, I wasn’t ready to leave Hendrik and his musings. My favorite thing about this book is its acceptance and celebration of normal life. Hendrik by no means leads a crazy or unusual life. But who really does day to day? His diary entries record the pockets of action and humor in a normal day and show appreciation for them.

I’m happy to say that Hendrik has inspired me to start journaling again. I always start them, but I eventually abandon the hobby because I feel my life isn’t interesting enough to document regularly. But again, whose life doesn’t contain dreary days that are wholly unremarkable? I’m endeavoring to follow Hendrik’s example and record the bits of humor, sadness, happiness and humanity that I witness every day without fully appreciating them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who needs a good laugh, feels a certain kinship with the elderly, wants to understand the elderly better, or needs a reminder of the joy that can be found in the most ordinary of days.

Have you read The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!