Sunday, 16 August 2009

Reading Under The Influence

As far as I know, Amy Tan and Bill Bryson don’t know each other, though they’re both popular American writers. But they will always be fused in my memory: they both caused me serious embarrassment on the Tokyo subways.

I read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There in Wales shortly after our first daughter was born. It is a very funny book -- so funny that I kept it around for a few weeks, going back to my favorite passages whenever I needed a pick-me-up. Two years later I read it again in Japan and laughed every bit as hard. A year after that, a colleague asked if he could borrow the book and I told him I’d bring it in.

When I got home, I put Neither Here Nor There in my briefcase. On the train to work the next day, I started reading it for the third time .

If anything, it was even funnier. I laughed so hard tears filled my eyes and sweat beaded up on my forehead. A businessman sitting across from me studied me, clearly worried. I was heavily pregnant and he might have thought my excessive mirth would induce premature labor. When I finally got to my stop, my stomach was sore from laughing. I was conscious of people’s eyes on me. I hoped they wouldn’t be on the train going home. There was no question that they would remember me.

When my colleague asked if I’d brought Neither Here Nor There, I had to tell him the truth: that I’d brought it, but I couldn’t let him have it yet. “I’ll give it to you tomorrow,” I promised him.

“But you said you’d read it twice!”

“Yes, but now I have to read it again.”

I made a fool of myself on the train home, too. There is a description in Neither Here Nor There of a train trip Bryson takes, when he shares a compartment with an elderly Norwegian and a rather unpleasant old lady. I won’t spoil the book for you, but I found this part so funny I actually had to put the book down just to regain my composure. My fellow passengers kept their eyes on me. I could hardly blame them.

The next day, I passed the book on to my colleague. He had a few for me, too, and one was The Joy Luck Club.

“It’s not sad, is it?” I asked him. “My cousin said it was really sad.”

He shrugged. “It’s about the war and all. But it’s not especially sad. And there’s a happy ending.”

I started reading The Joy Luck Club on my way home. I’m a fast reader and my train journey was over an hour and a half. By the time I was halfway home, I was onto my third pack of tissues. The tears fell from my eyes and I quietly cursed my colleague, but I couldn’t stop reading. When I felt sobs coming, I had to put the book down and take out my work, but I couldn’t concentrate: I had to find out what happened to all the people I’d gotten to know and care about. This went on for the rest of my journey home: I read until I felt a sob coming, put the book down, took out my work for a few minutes, then read again. I saw two of my fellow morning commuters staring at me in deep suspicion, but I didn’t give a damn. I did make a mental note to have words with my colleague. It’s not especially sad, he said. For God’s sake, if this wasn't, what was?

I finished The Joy Luck Club on my way to work the next morning and practically dehydrated myself. When I got to my office, my eyes were puffy and red. Silently, I handed The Joy Luck Club back to my colleague. “Did you enjoy that?” he wanted to know. Still sniffing, I let him have it with both barrels and he shook his head. “I really didn’t think it was all that sad.”

“How’d you like the Bryson book?” I said, changing the subject.

He smiled slightly. “It was funny."

I stared at him, amazed. I couldn’t get over his nonchalance. The saddest book in the world wasn’t all that sad; the funniest book in the world merited only It was funny. And then I realized that it wasn't him, it was me. No wonder I found Neither Here Nor There so funny and The Joy Luck Club so sad: I was pregnant, under the influence of powerful hormones.

“If you thought that book was sad, you won’t want to read this one, I guess," he said, putting a book back into his bag. "It's by the same author."

I looked at the title: The Kitchen God’s Wife.

“Give it to me!"

I read it on my way home. I guess I just like being emotional.


Alice said...

Now I have to read that book. I got such a kick out of his "In a Sunburned Country." Been missing you dearie!

Anonymous said...

Mary, It wasn't just hormones. I always had the same problem with Bryson on the train from Kamakura. An aching stomach and VERY worried looking Japanese commuters-- yet another reason not to sit next to a strange gaijin/foreigner! We always love reading your blog..

Carolie said...

Are you sure we aren't really long lost sisters, Mary? Seriously!

Kit said...

You almost make me feel like being pregnant again - that hormone intensity I'd forgotten about...

maybe I'll just re-read Amy Tan and find that Bill Bryson book - I haven't read it yet. No commuters to shock here either, just kids wanting to know what is so funny.

angryparsnip said...

OMG ! two of my favorite authors.
I always cry at Amy Tans books and laugh at Bill Bryson's.... hormones or not.
I remember reading in one of Bryson's books that he doesn't like pets but if he had one it would be a cow because you could look at it then when your tired of the cow you get to eat it... can't remember what book, read it long time ago... so now I have to look for the quote.
Gosh I hope it was Bill's quote !!!

I know what you mean about the Japanese Subways. . . and don't use your cell phone... yea! I do like that rule.

Travis Erwin said...

I've been meaning to read Bryson for a while and you just pushed me over the edge. I'll put it at the top of my list.

Mary Witzl said...

Alice -- I haven't even heard of 'In a Sunburned Country'! I'll definitely have to find it now -- and I think it's time for another trip to the bookstore.

I've missed you too!

Anon -- You're right: even without the hormones, Bill Bryson is funny -- and Amy Tan's books make me cry. With the hormones, though, I went to new heights entirely. Shortly after, I discovered Patrick O'Brian's nautical novels and I stuck with them for the next many months. (That's you, Linda, right?)

Carolie -- We've got so much in common, it's hard to believe we're not related. I should have known you were also a public laugher and crier.

Kit -- Pregnancy took me on a real seesaw of emotions. And I really don't know how women who have lots of children cope.

I love just about everything I've read by Amy Tan and Bill Bryson, so do check their books out; you can't go wrong.

AP -- Yay, another Tan-Bryson fan!

Their books make me laugh and cry too, hormones or no. And I remember that quote about pets and cows -- I think it was in The Lost Continent, but I'm not sure.

Travis -- Believe me, I've pushed you over the right kind of edge. If you want a good belly laugh, read Bill Bryson.

Eryl Shields said...

I have to brace myself to read Amy Tan, The Kitchen God's Wife nearly killed me. As for Bill Bryson: I was once reading one of his books (Small Island, I think) in the reception area of my husband's office while waiting for him to finish work and snorted so loudly with laughter I made the receptionist squeal. Some books need to be read in private!

Robin said...

I wept at Joy Luck Club. I loved it so much that I gave it to my mom, saying that it was a lovely, timeless story about the misunderstandings and attachments between mothers and daughters. My mom read it and gave it back to me with a puzzled look on her face.

"But, Robin" she said. "We're not Chinese."

Last time I ever told her to read a book.

Charlie said...

Hormones or not, I think you strongly react to books because you read with empathy--you put yourself in the shoes of the writer or the characters.

Having said that, do not read any books about vampyres.

Chris Eldin said...

OMG, This cracked me up!!! I've done that before, and haven't been pregnant. And the same strategy too...shuffling for something to divert your attention from the book. Oh, this is really good! I think we can all relate to this.

Now I want to buy that funny book. But definitely not the sad one. Not that one.

adrienne said...

Now I'll have to look for that Bill Bryson book!
If you haven't seen it, search for Amy Tan's talk on creativity on TED. It'll make up for those tears.

laura said...

I still remember trying not to laugh, which caused me to snort, which caused tears to roll down my face, while I read Betty McDonald's 'The Egg and I', in the ladies lounge at my work place. It was the part where Betty's neighbor in an obvious attempt to explain Betty's odd behavior to her neighbors said, "She reads."
I will blame teenage hormones for the crying jag that resulted from reading 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'. Books touch the heart in so many ways. That's why they'll always be my best friends.

AnneB said...

Bill Bryson, Christopher Buckley, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Sue Townsend...I can't get enough of these people!

Sadly, not one library in our federated system carries any Sue Townsend books written after 2005. Alas! I'm going to have to go to interlibrary loan...

Charles Gramlich said...

I know there are times when books or movies strike me especially hard. No doubt hormone changes have an influence as well. That's how I knew I was going through andropas, although it took me a bit to figure it out.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Oh good, all these comments are making me feel part of something, not a weepy, goofy hormonal mess. It's comforting to know I'm not the only one who has to read Bill Bryson in the privacy of my own home, preferably after the neighbors have left for work.

Small Island was funny, but I think Neither Here Nor There was his very funniest. I've got a copy somewhere if you can't find it in our tiny library.

Robin -- Ooh, that would have driven me wild too! A friend of mine broke off with a guy for making a similar comment when she wanted to see a French movie and he didn't think he could relate because he wasn't French.

I can't remember if it's The Joy Luck Club or The Kitchen God's Wife, but there is a scene in one of Tan's books in which the mother tells the daughter she has a number one heart. You see that the mother has paid careful attention to her daughter and the small kindnesses and courtesies she pays others. I could cry just thinking about it, it's so beautiful. The fact that the characters are Chinese is, well, neither here nor there...

Charlie -- You are right: it's NOT feeling empathy that is the trick for me. I hate books that depict nasty villains that I'm not allowed to empathize with.

Don't worry, though: I've read Bram Stoker and Anne Rice, and they were enough. Life's too short for another vampire book.

Chris -- Bill Bryson ought to be paying me for this: he has enough publicity as it is. But that book was so good, he really deserves a plug.

In my bag, I used to have a list of Chinese character radicals. When I'd gotten into a sad book and had reached the sobbing out loud phase, I just whipped it out and all was well. I'm guessing sudoku would do just as well.

Adrienne -- I will absolutely look for that, and I am glad to hear about it. Good for Amy Tan, writing something useful for writers. It had better help me: she owes me bigtime.

Laura -- Be careful: I think stifling laughs can be injurious to your health if you do it for too long.

I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was a teenager; I keep meaning to reread it. And I will look out for the Betty McDonald book -- I remember that your blog post on it made it sound good.

AnneB -- I have seen Sue Townsend's books in our little library, so now they're on my reading list! My husband is a huge Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams fan and he keeps trying to convert me. Maybe I'll let him.

Charles -- You are right. There are times I am more moved by certain books and movies than others, and I'm more than happy to blame hormones.

Now you've got me wondering what in the world andropas is. Tell me it isn't something everybody but me knows about...

Lily Cate said...

Mary, I just finished reading Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" the other day. That's one I had to read in the other room, too. Normally, my husband sleeps just fine with my reading light on, but I was guffawing way to much- especially that first passage about his fear of bears! Plus, I had to keep waking him up to read him the best parts.

Susan Sandmore said...

You and me both! I don't mind shedding a few tears over movies, music videos. . . commercials, to be honest. Or laughing out loud. But I had a comedian once tell me I had a nice laugh, so that was good. I try to be a good, receptive audience.

Anonymous said...

Such a great post. It's so well-written and very relatable. That is an extremely moving and touching novel so your reaction is not unique to you at all. Thank you for sharing.

Angela said...

Funny how books affect people differently.

Kim Ayres said...

I've read about half a dozen Bill Bryson books now, but not yet Neither Here Nor There. However, it is on the floor in my bedroom next to the bed, ready for reading sometime soon

Anne Spollen said...

TJLC was the only book I think my mom has ever read that I gave her that she actually liked. She kept saying, "It was actually well written..." b/c I had previously given her The Bell Jar...

I wish more people cried at books -

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- My daughter got me started on Janet Evanovich's detective stories a few years ago and I had to stop reading them in bed; my husband got really cross when I kept waking him up laughing. Then he took to reading Terry Pratchett in bed and returned the favor. Both of us tend to laugh at Bill Bryson, so he's definitely not a bed-safe author either. Glad I'm not the only one who does this.

Susan -- Good for you!

There was a public service advertisement in the U.K. about smoke alarms and it made me cry every single time. It got my husband upset too -- and it got him to change our smoke alarms. It was that good. (I might not have remembered that but for your comment.)

Des -- Thank you. It's especially good to read this because you're a guy, and it is comforting to know that there ARE men who find these books moving. A few of the other men in the office also expressed surprise that I found The Joy Luck Club so sad.

Angela -- I suspect that some of us are more accomplished criers than others. If we were in the Victorian Age, I could make big money as one of those professional mourners at funerals. I wouldn't need onions or anything.

Kim -- Don't read it in bed, Kim -- you'll keep Maggie up! But I have to say, I actually envy you. Hmm...maybe it's time for me to start reading my copy of Neither Here Nor There for the fourth time.

Anne -- Wow, you gave your mother The Bell Jar to read? My mother would have had a fit over that one! I gave her The Old Man and the Sea and she could not get on with it for anything. Sylvia Plath would not impress her.

Four out of four people in this family cry when we read, so you'd be thrilled with us. It's getting us to stop that's the trick.

Vijaya said...

I'd forgotten how intense things are when you're pregnant, but boy, I'd read Amy Tan before I had babies and cried buckets. Love her books.

I've had to buy Joy Luck Club and Kitchen God's Wife several times for my husband (then boyfriend) because he kept borrowing my copy and then flying with it and leaving it on the airplane. I don't even know how he could put it down, let alone fall asleep and forget it FOUR times. That man. But I married him anyway :)

Angela said...

Oh Miz Mary...

You should stop by my blog to check out the winners of my zombie Haiku contest....*wink wink*

kara said...

i'm not much of a laugher-out-louder when reading. i'd like to think it's not a hormonal issue, but who knows, you know...we're chicks.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- It is very possible that I'd have sobbed and laughed my heart out publicly even if I wasn't pregnant, but the hormones certainly didn't help. I'm glad to learn how many people felt the same about these books, though. I wish just one of them had been on the train with me back then...

My husband and I book-bonded over A Confederacy of Dunces and have gone through many copies together over the years.

Angela -- I've just been to your blog and what a thrill this is! Ironically, I'm the (brunette) daughter of a blonde and the sister and mother of blondes -- all of whom are more gifted at math than I am and with higher grade point averages. I won't be able to share this honor with them...

Kara -- Blame as much as you can on hormones. They're responsible for a lot of our peccadilloes and foibles and they're hardly going to defend themselves, are they?

Marian said...

Hi Mary,

I have Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", which is informative and very well-written, but not LOL funny. I'll keep an eye out for his other books in the library now that you've mentioned them.

As for Amy Tan, "The Kitchen God's Wife" is heartbreaking. Especially the part where the girl is so happy to think her father's family has been generous to her with her dowry, then learns that they gave one five times better to the favored wife's daughter. And it's all a moot point anyway because of what her husband's family does.

Mary Witzl said...

Marian -- That part got to me too, but the place where I cried the hardest -- and the loudest -- was when the mother tells her daughter she has a number one heart. My God, I tear up just thinking about that now. The thought of the mother noticing those little things about her daughter, loving them, commenting on them to comfort her when she feels so low -- it just gets me sobbing every time.

Barbara Martin said...

Being emotional is good for you.

K. Erickson said...

I had to drop a line to say that I really enjoyed this piece. It reminded me of my cultural anthropology class in college. We had a guest speaker one day who spoke about "language windows" - basically the theory that the language we learn shapes how we view the world and ourselves. It's fascinating to see it described in real life.

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- I tell myself it's good for me too: I have to!

K Erickson -- Thank you for commenting here, and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to reply.

There is also a theory that the world we live in shapes the language we speak. Personally, I believe that it's a combination of both.

Postman said...

Ha! Excellent writing. I felt like I was on the subway with you, staring at you in puzzlement. This is why I'm thankful I read "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway" in the privacy of my own room.

Because I fell off the bed laughing.