Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Family and the American Dream.

It has been a while since my last post, mainly because I've been reading and not wanting to write. Alas, I guess it's time to rejoin the conversation.

I had been procrastinating a post about Matthew Thomas' novel We are Not Ourselves, and in the meantime read Meghan Daum's memoir The Unspeakable. Why not combine my assessments into one review? (Lately, I've been into the idea of "economy.")  So, let's start the comparison/contrast now:

We are Not Ourselves is a many-paged Irish family saga of growing up in NYC, yearning for a better life, and accepting the life you get.  The Unspeakable is Daum's honest account of her foibles as a member of  Generation-X.  Similarity: both heavily rely on family themes to make this point--the American Dream is achievable only in piecemeal.

Exactly which part of the American Dream sputters is where the two books contrast.  Eileen Leary, the mother in Thomas' book, wants all the trappings of financial prosperity~the successful husband, the big house, the beautiful child.  Instead, she gets a unambitious professor, a duplex, and a reluctant son.  As she bullies everyone into upward mobility, the family's infrastructure begins to erode, most notably shown by her husband's progression into dementia.  Daum, in her memoir, is a bit more ambivalent (typical of Generation x) of what she wants in her American Dream. She has achieved financial success as a writer, but her path to marriage and family is paved with anguish and second guessing. 

Where the books synchronize well is in the exploration of family relationships, collateral damage of dreams.  The first essay of The Unspeakable titled "Matricide" is a somewhat sarcastic account of Daum's mother's career success, eventual illness and death.  The reader can tell that this mother/daughter relationship was fraught, fraught, fraught.  After divorcing Daum's father, her mother reinvented herself as the local high school drama teacher, following her own dream, but her daughter finds this metamorphosis inauthentic.  She describes her mother as pretentious and a caricature of a "drama teacher."  Daum's comments are mean-spirited, but anyone who's ever been a daughter understands why she's saying these things~her mother bugged the hell out of her and she's going to tell you about it. And anyone who's ever been a mother feels sorry for the mom and a little protective as well.  "Matricide" is the perfect exploration of how a mother's dream can chafe the daughter; though the daughter might not like her mother, she still loves her.

The Leary family has similarly imperfect relationships with each other. Though both adults in the family work full-time in fairly good jobs, this effort produces none of the financial trappings Eileen so desperately wants. As son Connell gets older, he grows more aloof around his father and mother; there is a no joy in this household, perhaps because Eileen's constant push for financial success has sucked away any happiness and laughter.  Ironically, it is through the father's descent into Alzheimer's that the family comes around to a sort of  peace regarding the imperfection of their lives.  A letter from father to son, written early in his diagnosis, is one the most beautiful expressions of parental love in literature.  Again, like Daum's family, the Learys may not like each other, but the love that sustains them in crisis is very real.

So what exactly is the place of family in the American Dream?  According to these two books, family is where the Dream takes its toll.  Ambition, expectation, achievement, perfection~these things are not necessarily de facto good nor all of a piece. The family bears the brunt of these hard-line goals.  But, as these books show, the American family has the opportunity and good fortune to make a separate peace from the American Dream, which should be rich enough for anyone.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Running away from it all: wives who hit the road

Recently, my friends and I were discussing the sub-genre of women's fiction which features wives impulsively running away from their lives. Caroline Leavitt's Into Thin Air,Tess Stimson's The Wife Who Ran Away, and (more psychotically) Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl are a few that come to mind.  This theme is immensely popular with female readers: it taps into that highly seductive query of "what if?"  What if I just kept on driving/walking/swimming/pedaling out of this town?  What if the road forked, and I just left my life?

Of course, we really don't want to leave our lives on a whim like that.  It would be too sad and far too messy; repercussions of hurt and shame would haunt us before the first mile.  That's where fiction steps in as delightful proxy.  The reader suffers, laughs, and learns with the audacious wife without ever having the leave her couch.

My favorite books featuring runaway wives are Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years and Sheri Reynold's The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb.  Tyler's Delia Grinstead feels invisible in her large, quirky Baltimore family.  The daughter and wife of a doctor, Delia has always served as a help-mate, manning a small in-home medical practice, first for her father, then for her husband.  She never had a career or education beyond high school and has instead raised three children.  One afternoon, after a spat with her husband on the beach, Delia simply walks away and hitches a ride with a contractor.  Impulse follows impulse, and soon Delia is ensconced as a secretary in a small town, living a satisfyingly austere life in a boarding house while her family wonders what's become of her.  Likewise, Reynolds' Myrtle feels stuck and unappreciated in her life; the wife of a crab fisherman who both loves and belittles her, Myrtle is anxious and crippled by self-doubt.  She is deeply troubled by her body and her relationships with others:  perceived deformity and diffidence make her feel inauthentic.  Driving to a surgical appointment, Myrtle (emboldened by downing her husband's pain meds) decides to keep on going, leaving her life and all its imperfections behind.  She soon discovers the town drunk, Hellcat, has inadvertently hitched a ride in the truck bed.  As they travel and tipple, the two become buddies.

The lesson of both Ladder of Years and Homespun Wisdom is that sometimes you have to leave your life to find it.  Delia learns that she is indeed a capable, efficient person who could have been a career woman had she wanted; the truth is, though, she finds she is most perfectly suited to be the wife and mother she is.  By leaving her family, she understands that she will be strong enough for her children to leave her, which, nearly grown, they are doing in small bits every day.  Myrtle learns self-reliance and confidence on her pilgrimage; she holds her husband accountable for his hurtfulness but also learns that her self-negation and silence over the years have not helped her marriage.

The pathway to these characters' life lessons is through other settings and other people.  Interaction with personalities not part of their regular lives highlights the flaws and virtues of Delia's and Myrtle's family and friends. Experiencing the "other" will take you more authentically home.

Honestly, these stories are the best marketing pieces for travel I've ever seen; simple family trips provide a change of scenery, a taste of other worlds which give us more of an appetite for our own.  And, of course, books are really this very same thing~mind travel of the simplest, most efficient sort.  Through good fiction, wives all over the world are escaping and coming home right now without ever really leaving.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

“Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

A young friend loaned me this book a few months ago, and I read it and immediately liked it. As time has passed, this book has built a snug little fort in my mind.  I cannot forget it.

John Green tells the love story of Hazel and Augustus, two teens with terminal cancer, whose lives are circumscribed by the disease's capriciousness, but whose minds are not.  They meet in a support group, and each is drawn to the other's intellect, wit, and, yes, looks.  Each has a physical beauty that cancer cannot capture, even though it took Augustus' leg and Hazel's lung function.

They fall in love with each other slowly, gradually, within a short period of time. As Hazel says, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”   They don't have much time together, but the days spent in Augustus' basement and a trip to Amsterdam together stretch out into delicious eternity.  What makes this book "pop," is the character's spot-on dialogue and philosophical wrangling with larger questions about life, death, time, love. Everything, essentially.  Especially, the situation they share~death's presumptiveness, rather than life's~bonds them.

Let me stress here: The Fault in Our Stars is not a sad book. I cried at the end, but that just may be me, because the main theme is joy.  Joy in reading, friendship, travel, and humor (making cancer the butt of its own joke).  Hazel and Augustus (and their appealing blind friend Isaac) live fully in this book. 

The Fault in Our Stars shows the infinite in the finite, and it succeeds in a most appealing way.  All any of us have is each day and its circumscribed minutes. To find joy in these meted out portions is an art; focusing on now, not then, is the craft. Hazel and Augustus are masters at this craft and can teach the reader, if she is not too afraid to listen.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Best two books read this summer

Summer of 2013 has been a blur, but that's only natural since time speeds up as we age, and heat makes my brain go foggy. Speaking of age, my trousers are rolled up to my knees, readers. (My first and only "Prufrock" reference, I promise.)  In the recent humidity, I've been grasping for books as life preservers, temporary rescue from the hot commonplace. I read some duds, some good ones, and two excellent ones. These are And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini and Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel.

Hosseini's latest fiction is his best. Darting back and forth in time, the chapters in Mountains read more as short stories linked by character than a traditional novel.  In 1952, a poor Afghan family gives a daughter away to a rich dysfunctional, family, and multiple inter-continental story lines emerge.  California, Greece, Kabul, Paris~the settings and plot twists intertwine to make a rich tapestry of story.  Each chapter presents a character's flaw and the humanity required to overcome said defect.  As in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini presents a hopeful portrayal of people at their worst trying to become better.

Likewise, Susanna Daniel's Stiltsville presents a character faced with life-changing choices whose reasoning provides the novel's moral structure.  The setting is Miami in the last part of the 20th century, with the heart of the story occurring in a stilt house rising from the azure waters of Biscayne Bay.  In 1969, Atlanta girl Frances Ellerby attends a Miami wedding and meets her future husband (whose family owns the stilt house).  With this chance meeting, the course of her life changes, and Frances lets marriage and Miami consume her. She loves the water, sand, and banyans (deliciously  described by Daniel) but always seems somewhat set apart from her surroundings.  Is France's thrumming separation a byproduct of being raised in Georgia or foreshadowing deftly wrought by Daniels' first person narration? Read Stiltsville and find out.

I know these books are keepers because I've been revisiting the settings in my mind.  The heat of Kabul and Miami, captured through words, living on in imagination. The books end, but the ideas and images do not. This alchemy is why we read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

You aren't that special, you know. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

This is my second post about a Meg Wolitzer novel. (See 5/8/09, The Ten Year Nap.)  Though I don't like to write more than once about an author, I couldn't help but include her latest book because it struck me as emotionally appropriate for my generation.

The Interestings follows a group of art camp buddies from age 15 through their early 50s.  Each has been told by someone that he or she is special and has "talent."  In some cases, the teenagers' parents have encouraged their talented children. In other cases, like that of main character Jules, friends have made a a camper feel unique and gifted for the very first time.  In all cases, this special state of being an artist defines these young people, gives them purpose, and, eventually career goals. 

Fast forward to the post-college years, then to to being married with young children, and on to the characters' forties and  fifties. Then, back to the camp years.  Wolitzer deftly and comprehensively collapses time when describing the lives of the four main characters; in addition to Jules, there is petite actress Ash, brilliant animation artist Ethan, and brooding musician Jonah.  Jules is the least economically advantaged one of the bunch, attending the camp, enchantingly called Spirit-in-the-Woods, on scholarship.  She has a wry, down-to-earth quality which captivates Ethan from then on--even when he ends up marrying the charismatic Ash.  Jonah is a slightly less important friend, appearing now and then in the plot, more as a cultural touchstone regarding political and epidemiological changes over the decades.

Throughout the course of the novel, each of these characters answers this question: did I ever really have talent?  In Jules' case, not long into pursuing an acting career in New York, an acting teacher convinces her to give up. For many years afterward, Jules chases the magical theater feeling she's left behind, finally making peace with it.  In Ethan's and Ash's cases, both are very successful~but was it talent or good connections that allowed them to "make it?"  In Jonah's case, talent long submerged since the camp years, starts bubbling up back up and cannot be stopped.

Any of us who have ever been encouraged by a parent, teacher, or friend, knows the power of being told we have "talent."  It often defines us: we become the dancer, writer, actress, musician, singer, etc., for years. Our interesting talent sets us apart and makes us special from the mediocre rest.  But, when we pursue our talent to its logical conclusion, as Jules does, what then? Our talent didn't feed or clothe or support us.  So, was it a waste after all?  What if we were really hacks and our family was just being nice? Wolitzer answers this last question definitively in this book: it doesn't matter.  Having been defined once as an artist, whether you were any good or not, gives you the opportunity and aptitude to appreciate art forever.

The Interestings also posits that friendship, the long-lived kind originating in childhood, is its own kind of art.  Knowing someone from childhood or young adulthood, Wolitzer says, is powerful.  Those relationships that last might get thorny or messy but will ultimately be as rich as tapestry.  Perhaps, long-lived friendships are the ultimate art.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

11/22/63 by Stephen King

The past has teeth.

If you're not sure what this phrase means, read 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and you will see how the recalcitrant past bites those who try to change it. King's novel, a masterpiece of time travel nuanced by nostalgia, is a full-size exploration of character, action, reaction, and repercussion.

Jake Epping teaches English in a small-town Maine high school in 2011.  Through the dying owner of the local diner, he finds a time portal back to 1958 and soon embarks on a quest to alter the fates of several local people and one national figure: John F. Kennedy.  He literally spends years in the past (which only equal several minutes in the present), creating a decade-appropriate persona and planning and meeting kind and not-so-kind folks along the way.  The setting jumps from small towns in Maine and Florida to Jodie, Texas, where Jake ends up teaching high school English while he waits for the day to kill off Lee Harvey Oswald. 

The main theme of 11/22/63 is that certain patterns are entrenched in our lives and will not change. Jake teaches English in both present and past; likewise, people he meets are similarly named and fated, whether in 1960 or 2011.  For example, on an early trip through the time portal, he saves a young girl from a paralyzing accident in 1958 and checks for repercussions in the present day. From what he can tell, her alternate life turns out much like her real life, except she seems to have achieved more when paralyzed. 

However, try to circumvent more fates, and the past becomes more wolf-like, hungry for blood. Dead batteries, wrecks, muggings~the past stops at nothing to keep from being altered.  King's concept of reality (explained to Jake by the eerie "yellow card men" outside the time portal ) is that of a puppet jerked around on strings of occurrences. When a past event is changed, it multiplies into alternate strings, which then become tangled. And even just by stepping foot into the past, Jake creates an alternate string of events which affect everything from that time forward.  Changing such a major event as John F. Kennedy's assassination might create a snarled knot of threads, riotous enough to strangle the puppet of reality altogether.

Patterns and the intransigence of time: two lovely themes.  How often do we ask ourselves those weighty words~what if? What if I hadn't gotten in the car that day, gone to a different school, spoken up instead of sitting mute? My life might have been totally different.  But would it have been that different?  Perhaps, the quotidian simply resets to some personal default: similar people, places, things no matter where you go or what you do.

Instead of finding patterns dull, I now see them as comforting signs, that I am where I am supposed to be. Attend to these patterns, these recurring themes, and you might just start to see what animates your puppet.

Does Jake Epping save the President on November 22, 1963? Ohhhh, you'll have to read the book to find out. Let me just say, having led the reader to that murderous point for the entire novel, Stephen King will not disappoint you. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A few people have asked me, what happened to my book blog~why had I stopped writing it?  Don't worry. I'm still here, and I'm still reading. (My husband can vouch for that.) It just that it takes a while to find a best book, but State of Wonder by Ann Patchett certainly fits the bill.

I've read three of Patchett's other books: Bel Canto, Run, and Truth and Beauty, and State of Wonder is  better than these. Maybe it appeals to me because of the medical/pharmacological plot.  (I do love tales of pharmaceutical intrigue!) A Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company wants to keep tabs on its well-paid drug researcher in the Amazon, who is far less forthcoming about her progress than desirable.  The company sends another scientist to find her and report back, with disastrous results.  Instead of canceling the drug altogether (because of projected millions to be made), the company CEO sends yet another employee, Dr. Marina Singh, into the wild.  The story of Dr. Singh searching and finding her erstwhile teacher/pharmaceutical savant is captivating.  The Amazon jungle bubbles with snakes, mosquitoes, cannibals, and unforeseen surprises of a more human variety.  The setting and character development of State of Wonder remind me very much of another best book~Barbara Kingsolver's African tale, The Poisonwood Bible.

The theme of travel as a route to self-knowledge has always fascinated me: it is irony at its richest.  Indeed, Marina learns more about herself on this journey than she would have had she stayed in her beloved Minnesota.  Sometimes, you have to go far away to discover what lies nestled in your very own cerebral cortex.  Marina learns that long-gestating fears can be birthed in the most remote of locales, resulting in longed-for peace and homecoming.

Our family tends to be homebodies, and books like State of Wonder remind me how transforming trips can be.  Every day stress cues are gone, and you can focus on what's in front of you and learn. (I just don't want to go to the Amazon jungle~malaria is best experienced textually rather than biologically.)