Sunday, January 24, 2016

What happened to Rome?

You might be wondering what happened to me, as I have not posted here in some time.  True, I was buried in work and family commitments, but I still found time to read, so if I had really wanted to write, I could have.

The disheartening thing about social media is that it reveals the creative genius of everyone else. Most people are not only passable authors, they are darn good ones.  And the videos teenage boys everywhere are creating~well, the legitimate media world ought to be beefing up its collective resume.

To add another voice into this above average mix seemed pointless.  Okay, so I loved Kate Atkinson's companion novels, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, so much that I cried reading the latter.  But the idea of casting this cry into something creative wearied me. The final post would not be as good as someone's else's about the exact same thing, both easily laid down and measured word to word by Google the master builder.

So, I just decided to continue reading, and I had no desire to write about anything until last Friday, when I had a discussion with my son about Rome.

I had been reading The Borgias: A Hidden History by G.J. Meyer.  (It was only after starting this book that I realized there is a Showtime series called "The Borgias." Now I wish we had another free preview weekend.)  I knew nothing about the Borgias, except for having a vague idea that Lucrezia was a scheming shrew.  Meyer's premise in this family biography is that the Borgias weren't really as bad as everyone thought.  Over the centuries, enemy gossip hardened from hearsay into fact, Meyer hints. Less scholarly sources on the internet lead me to believe that Meyer is in the minority~cyberspace articles gleefully crow about Borgia corruption. Meyer seems more concerned with chronicling every single Italian city-state battle during the Renaissance, whether or not a Borgia was present. Frankly, the narrative is a little dry, although his "Life in Rome" type chapters  are very good, describing malarial banquets and necromancy. There's even a little bit about syphilis and masks. That's good stuff.

Well, you can imagine that the world of the Borgias would be a good starting point for a conversation with someone intrigued by Rome, which our son is.  Truth be told, I was only reading The Borgias to learn about Rome in a roundabout way.  I could have picked up a travel guide, but I learn better about a place if it's couched in fiction or biography.  I want to know about the Eternal City, but I really can't take such a huge topic head-on. It's intimidating. So, my son and I are eating turkey sandwiches, and I ask him how to pronounce "Cesare," and he answers my question (which any of you with teenagers knows doesn't always happen), so I ask him another question:  what happened to Rome?

And he tells me.

Now, if you want to learn about the fall of Rome, there are plenty of books, both paper and electronic to help with that goal. I won't go into detail here, but believe me, bad emperors and decapitation in the Teutoburg Forest are juicy stories worth pursuing.

What I will tell you is this: good conversation can spring from a so-so book.  It's a kind of miracle to learn history from one's child.  He knows more than I do about many, many things, including antiquity.  Trajan's Column and Hadrian's Tomb, and the Vatican, all buried deep in my mind, now excavated by this discussion. Why those things are there, and what happened after they were built, and what's happened since.  As he reminded me of history, I saw the gray St. Johns River through the restaurant window, spanned by bridges and trains, palm trees bending to the wind on both shores. It had been a gloomy day with rain showers, but I could see a patch of blue sky just then.

We are such creatures of our place and time, I thought, is it possible, just for a little while, to be more than that? To break away from existing in Jacksonville, Florida, 2016 C.E? Yes, it is possible when you start scraping at history, and what you dig up makes sense through the eyes of someone young enough to be your son, and, luckily, who is.

As we walked back from lunch, I looked up, and the same bridge that skirted the river looked like a cathedral from underneath.  I pointed this out to my son, and he said, just wait until you get to Rome, you won't think that anymore. I thought, now there's something to write about!

So I will.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Never give up~an old lesson.

I recently read a novel about a scrappy medical school graduate who solves a crime linked to her own violent past.  The title of the book is Toro, and the character's name is Allie Parsons. For the sake of transparency, let me disclose that my brother, Frank Schwalbe, wrote this book, but neither because of nor despite this relationship, Allie Parsons won my heart.

Allie is a former stripper and drug addict who survived a violent attack from a bull-like predator named Toro, but lost a child and an eye.  This event forced a reckoning through which she found a faith in God and a passion for medicine.  When the book begins, Allie has won a prize pathology residency in a Tampa morgue and is looking forward to a better life with her daughter, Chrystal. But strange episodes both inside and outside the morgue soon threaten the order and normalcy Allie has struggled to establish.  Chock-full of memorable characters, including sidekick Andrew Wong and the steadfast Pastor Virgil, Toro establishes Tampa, Florida, as a setting of mugginess, medicine, and mindfulness in the face of pure evil.

It is this mindfulness where Frank's book shines.  He told me he wrote this story for the nurses he works alongside every day.  Many are single mothers, and their determination and sheer energy to keep going in the face of incredible odds inspire him.  The character of Allie Parsons demonstrates this single-minded, eyes on the prize determination.  Never give up, our mother taught us, and Allie never does.  Toro took her eye, and when she cries, which is seldom, there's only one stream of tears~a poignant trait I can't seem to forget.  The source of Allie's strength is her faith in God, a subtle plot in the book which accurately reflects how religion in old Florida is as silently a part of you as your own eye.

Mom constantly encouraged Frank and me never to give up.  Sadly, one of the lessons I've learned as an adult is that sometimes it's okay, even advisable, to quit.  Our mother never agreed with this realization, and she would have wholeheartedly loved the character of Allie Parsons for her indomitable spirit. She would have been very proud of her son for writing such a good book which teaches a valuable lesson for those wise enough to perceive it.

April 1, 2015

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.