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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Double your pleasure, double your fun

Something magical happens at this time of the year for me. The fall semester has finally wound down, I am all pumped for my upcoming move to the Big Apple, the hectic holidays are behind us, and all is quiet. It's this quiet time during which I always remember how to read for pleasure instead of what I call "reading" during the school year--that desperate middle-of-the-night skimming and searching for the key ideas so you can raise your hand in class in four hours and say something approximately intelligent. Not that I'd ever do that, of course. I am a studious little bee when it comes to pleasure reading, I devour every word and phrase with the utmost gusto. If you are descended from librarians, telephone operators, writers (Interesting fact: my great-grandmother was Marg Nelson, author of many young adult novels about the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s. Her books consisted of a lot of magazine-reading on beds, sailing in fishing vessels/love boats, and thinking about the latest Paris fashions.), and fishermen as I am, relaxing with an engrossing book is just about the sweetest respite in the world.

Once upon a time, I dove into 100% fiction, with nary a glance into that scary, dusty, heavily-bound section of the library assigned to non-fiction. My tastes have changed since college: I want to learn about disease, genetics, history, all that good non-fiction stuff. I want to read about the craziest non-fiction things that you wouldn't even believe...if it weren't true. I am talking about TWINS. Multiples. Twins separated at birth and put into studies. Conjoined twins. Thalidomide babies. Thank goodness I'm not going to be pregnant any time soon, because all three of the books I've inhaled over the past two weeks would make me absolutely freak out.

Before Christmas, I spotted a summary of Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein's Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited in my girl-college alumnae magazine and knew I had to have it. This rarely happens to me with books. Knee-high black leather Victorian-detail boots, yes, tart pans and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, oh hell yes, but a book?
The title really says it all, but this story is so unimaginable, quirky, lovely, and poignant that I had to share it. Paula and Elyse were born as identical twins, put up for adoption and lived in a foster home as infants until they were adopted separately by two different families, specially chosen by the Louise Wise Adoption Agency for their suitability. Thirty-odd years later, Elyse embarks on a quest to find out about her birth mother and in doing so, finds out that she has an IDENTICAL TWIN. They tell the story of their reunion, "twinness," and post-adoption information search, switching off narrative duties and sharing every intimate detail of their thoughts and feelings through the process. You can't make this stuff up. It's rare that I cry while reading, but the last two chapters saw a few fall onto the pages, I'm not embarrassed to say. I'll also admit a certain affinity for the author's shared love of auteur film, but that's a different story.

After finishing Identical Strangers, I got a hold of Dr. Nancy L. Segal's Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins and dove headfirst into it. Dr. Segal, like me, is a fan of Oliver Sacks (who isn't? For real.) and presents stories of twins lost, twins found, twins with seletive mutism, sets of identical twins married to identical twins--their children are all full siblings! what!--exploring the unique connection between identical twins throughout their lives. It's the kind of book where you read each chapter, your eyes go wide and you have to read bits of it aloud because you just can't believe it. It's fascinating, engrossing, and touching.
I was 100% invested in Dr. Segal's stories of twins until the very end, when a stray chapter all about cloning and "intergenerational twins" threw me for a loop. That said, I strayed even further from my twin objective with a book I picked up yesterday at a used buy-sell-trade bookstore:

Armand Marie Leroi's Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body I've only just tucked into, but it's equally fascinating, in a P.T. Barnum/Carnivale way. When you think of the human genome and all the little variants that we can't control when making babies and whatnot, it's amazing to think of the genetic variety in our single species. One split ovum makes identical twins, but what makes skin discoloration, babies born with two mouths, or without thumbs any more of a miracle? I love it, and I want to read more, but I am conflicted. I started out reading Elizabeth A. Fenn's Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 before this whole twin obsession, and I hate reading two books at once. What do I do, follow my original allegiance to contagious disease or explore genetic mutations until my eyes fall out? What a terrible reading life I lead.

Note: Images and links from Powells.com.

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