This week I finished Just Keep Breathing by Joan Scott Curtis and Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
Just Keep Breathing
Joan is a dear friend whom I met as a member of the Northstar of Texas Writing Project. This book is her memoir, a book she has been writing for several years. She finally was able to finish the book after getting the youngest of her five children through college and finishing her own educational career by earning a PhD in Reading. No big deal.
When Joan and her husband Dennis were in their mid-forties, with four of five children still living at home, Dennis was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Dennis had probably contracted the virus over a decade earlier and probably from being the primary caretaker of Joan’s brother, although they never knew for sure how he became infected. Miraculously, Joan tested negative.
As you can imagine, in the mid-1990s, public reaction to a diagnosis such as this was less than supportive. Joan and Dennis told few people the real reason for Dennis’ chronic health problems out of fear of the potential reactions.
In spite of this context, this story is ultimately one of hope and faith and powerful friendship. Even as she struggled to take care of Dennis in his last days, to find employment, to provide for her children, to raise her children, to help her children with their own grief, Joan found friends at every turn who supported her.
This was perhaps the most powerful part of the book for me: the power of friendship. I spent a lot of time while reading this marveling at the support and strength Joan’s friends provided her. I contemplated quite a bit about how to be a better friend and build the kind of friendships that would withstand and thrive even through devastating circumstances, friendships that would enable someone like Joan to come through the situation and live her life so fully afterwards.
This is a powerful book, but I hesitate to call it enjoyable. It was a compelling read with beautiful prose, but I had to read it a little bit at a time, as the emotional weight threatened to drag me into a funk if I read for too long. Some of the scenes are so gut-wrenching that I recommend alternating this with a lighter, happier book.
The setting is the Deep South, right after World War II. Two young men return from the war: one white, one black. They form a friendship. But again, it’s the Deep South, right after World War II. The consequences come as we know they will.
This is a multiple-narrator novel, told by all the principal characters save one, one whom the reader probably would rather not hear from anyway. The voices are distinct, and every narrator is able to create sympathy for him or herself even while the reader wonders at that sympathy. I appreciate that there are no clear “good” or “bad” people here. Even the otherwise benign characters exhibit prejudices and subtle racism. That may be one of the more disturbing aspects of the novel.
As disturbing as it is, this is one of those books that you read and just know that it’s important.
This week I’m planning to read The Farseekers, the second book in the Obernewtyn series (by Isobelle Carmody). I’m ready to get back to something lighter (as light as post nuclear apocalypse can be, I guess).
I’m also listening to The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. This is really fascinating stuff and will probably warrant its own review.
That’s all for this week—it’s the end of the grading period, so I’m not being too ambitious with my reading plans! What about you?
“It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?” is a meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. It’s a great way to keep track of what you’re reading and see what others are reading!