Mental Well-Being

Reading and Listening: Ideas for Distraction During Tough Times and Others

May 28, 2021

Cancer doesn’t make you a different person, doesn’t turn on a spigot of warrior-like passion or Zen inspiration. And a cancer diagnosis doesn’t strip away who you are so you can become wholly Cancer Patient and nothing else. It does tend to drain a person, however. And even the best scenarios add waiting-room time to your days. Here’s to your health and recovery and, in the meantime, here’s to some interesting things to read and listen to

For belly laughs: Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

A world-famous architect goes agoraphobic and then, ironically, goes missing, but only after feuding with neighbors and getting involved with a Russian money-scamming ring and generally being colorfully cantankerous and unfathomable. 

Recommended listening: The members of Pink Floyd met in architecture school and conveniently made a great album about longing, Wish You Were Here. Shine on, you crazy Bernadette.

For the big questions: Behave, by Robert Sapolsky

What’s with being a human, anyway? Why do we catch ourselves doing B when we so purely intended to do A? And who can figure out what’s with the neighbors’ un-dealt-with junk piles along the side of the house? Robert Sapolsky has some ideas, and he’s the kind of scientist who knows how to convey them to the rest of us. Behave isn’t a challenge or motivation, not in the usual sense of that genre. It’s pure, objective (inasmuch as objectivity is possible), neurobiological observation, rife with fascinating insight and inspirational in how it frees us from convention. 

Recommended listening: Sapolsky is a child of the sixties and a Stanford professor, but brains like contrast. Ease into some East Coast new wave with Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, a mix of disco rhythms and the mind’s dark places. 

For solidarity, of a sort: Educated, by Tara Westover

Aren’t we all just having the weirdest time of it? Within the vastness of human experience lies all manner of challenges and joys, and Westover digs into hers: an isolated, abusive childhood in a rural mountain community, where she was kept from school and medical care, and her eventual Harvard and Cambridge education. It’s a complicated look at family and possibility. 

Recommended listening: Look, this is tough stuff. Complement Westover’s struggles with the pure joy of 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, by Dolly Parton, who even when she’s singing about being crushed by The Man finds a bouncy, happy angle. 

For that sensation of “I’m weird like that, too”: Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, by Stefan Fatsis

There is an entire universe of Scrabble competitors, and their obsession is as unfathomable as it is familiar. They smack talk, memorize lists, and engage in all manner of superstition on their way to victory (and heartbreaking defeat). Fatsis, a better-than-average hobby player, does his best to become one of them, making friends, forging rivalries, and finding out a whole lot about himself along the way.

Recommended listening: Scrabble, it turns out, is more method than art, more a game of statistics and prediction than inspiration. Which in its way is like bebop, and Charlie Parker is the god of tricky harmonies and making math sound like art. You won’t go wrong with The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes.

For a tale of healing: Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, by Suleika Jaouad

No two cancer stories are the same, but it’s also true that nobody understands like someone who has been there. Jaouad graduated from college and started living what she thought would be her life until leukemia derailed everything and offered only a 35% chance of survival. Jaouad details the journey and the new life that resulted. 

Recommended listening: This memoir is rife with vulnerability and fierceness, which is Björk in a nutshell. Try Vespertine, which is full of love and sex and the heartbreaking richness of life. And then try the rest.