Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell

My day started out great -- sun shining and errands checked off my list -- but by mid-afternoon the, um, excrement hit the fan. Literally. Well, almost. Mischief, our dog, had a gastrointestinal upset. I discovered this when I picked him up and felt something moist on the inside of my arm. Nice, eh? This, and I had only been home ten minutes, having just finished two full hours of kid-chauffeuring during that after-school rush hour in which everyone is speeding, hurrying to get kids to gymnastics, or back home from piano lessons. Then, both my girls, deep into adolescent, estrogen-soaked, end-of-the-school-year drama vanished into their rooms, in various stages of distress. I had to call my son into action to hold the part of Mischief north of the equator while I swabbed at his (Mischief's) rear. Then my husband walked in, home from work. "How was your day?" he asked.

Sometimes things go like this: they start out great but end up completely twisted. Like "The Man From Beijing." (Such a segueway!) When I saw the title, I bit the hook. I'm not a big mystery girl, but I am hungry to learn about other cultures, and this book, written by a Swede, takes place both in Sweden and China. Just like the day of my sick dog and cranky kids, it started out great. A gruesome mass murder in a Swedish village. What could be better? Then, a middle-aged judge from a nearby town realizes she is related to one of the victims and is drawn into the case. The writing is tight. Suspenseful. But about halfway through, the plot goes way off track. The story travels again, this time from China to Africa, taking an unnecessary detour, as if to give the author a forum for a geopolitical exegesis. It was an over-reach that ruined the book. Even after suffering through that part of the story, the book as a whole never recovered.

And here lies Mankell's cardinal sin. Maybe I'm wrong, but isn't the whole premise of a mystery supposed to be that it hold us in suspense until the very end? By the time I came to the end of "The Man From Beijing," I just didn't care anymore.

Still, there's always tomorrow (thank God), and there's always the next book....

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This is Water, by David Foster Wallace

In a nod to graduation season I just read David Foster Wallace's "This is Water," the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. I am a huge DFW fan, although because I haven't read his best known book, "Infinite Jest," I'm sure I don't qualify as an official DFW groupie.

If you know me just a little bit, you'll know that, even with my giant-sized will and slightly obsessive nature, there is absolutely no way -- and I mean NO WAY -- I would ever be able to make it through "Infinite Jest," a novel that tops 1,000 pages. Remember me, the super slow reader? Here's what I do when I spot an interesting title: I note the author; I note the subject matter; I check the page count. The thought of tackling any book that clocks in at over 250 pages makes my stomach lurch.

My first encounter with DFW was last year, when I happened upon his book of essays, "Consider the Lobster." I got it: the crystal clear thinking, the fine analysis, the exposing of the "naked emperors" that have been around so long, that we are so accustomed to, that we never notice their presence. Still, even this collection of essays was hefty, so despite the sparkling prose, true to form, I cherry-picked which essays I read. G-d, I wish I could read faster.

So when I saw "This is Water," a DFW book consisting of a single essay, printed up in 137 half-size pages, some with only a single sentence, I was excited. I knew even I could handle this. Even a super slow reader like me could whip right through it, but you won't want to. While speaking to the adage that a liberal arts education "teaches you how to think," DFW whittles down this notion to its elemental truth: Our experience of the world is determined by how we choose to think about what happens to us. DFW talks about the big problem we all have, one I wrestle with on a daily basis, of paying attention to the incessant chatter in our brains -- those default setting voices that support our belief that we are each the center of the universe. In this profound essay, DFW explains that the value behind a liberal arts degree lies not in that it teaches you how to think, but that it teaches you how to exercise control over how and what to think.

Tragically, Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. In fact, in this essay, as he speaks to the destructive ways our minds can work, he mentions suicide, but this in no way diminishes the deep and essential truth of his words.

"This is Water" is a precious gem. I'm going to search amazon and see if I can purchase a stack of them to hand out to....everyone!

Recently David Lipsky came out with a book, "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," detailing five days he spent in 1996 interviewing DFW for Rolling Stone Magazine. Check out the article by Laura Miller about this new DFW related book in the link below...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

The unthinkable has happened. I thought it would never happen, but here it is, time to blog, and I am reviewless! Sure, I am scrambling to finish "The Man from Beijing," but realistically, I won't be ready to write about that for at least a few more days. So, how to fill in the space -- in a meaningful way -- between my last post and what's to come?

Digging into the recesses of my memory, I pulled out this gem. In this extremely quirky first novel, a young Blue Van Meer relocates for the umpteenth time with her widower college prof father. I think I must be a sucker for young, smart-alecky female protagonists, which probably reflects on my barely concealed need to wow the world with what I try to pass off as my own smart-alecky flashes of brilliance (I'm also reminded of Lorrie Moore's protagonist from "The Gate at the Top of the Stairs" here). Blue is super-smart, chatty and inquisitive and falls into a clique with similar types, a group that is shepherded by a magnetic teacher-mentor who ends up dead, hanging in the forest.

As I refreshed my memory about the plot, I scanned other reviews of Pessl's book, and had to laugh at the many reviewers who commented on comparisons between Pessl's plot and Nabokov's "Lolita," minus the underage sex part. So much for my flashes of brilliance -- maybe in my next life I'll read Nabokov, and all the rest of the great literature that has passed me by. Meanwhile, speaking of classics, the new Bachelorette begins tonight and my girls and I have a date to cuddle on the couch and watch the worst that network TV has to offer. And don't get me started on junk TV, or I'll have to clue you in on my favorite, an existential show that teaches the most fundamental of life's lessons -- treat your spouse and children kindly: "Wife Swap."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Looking Back, by Lois Lowry

Sunday, I took -- well, actually dragged -- my kids to hear the famous children's author, Lois Lowry, speak at the Glendale Public Library. On the drive there, as I worked hard to block out the bad attitude vibes of my beloved "three musketeers," I tried to come up with a question for the author, should I get the chance. I felt satisfied when I settled on, "How did you come up with the idea for "The Giver?" It felt like a meaty question, an original question.

So I had to laugh at myself when, in her talk, Lowry told us that the question most often asked of her is "How did you come up with the idea for the "Giver?" In fact, the theme of Lowry's entire presentation, a talk with accompanying slides, centered on where the seeds of inspiration for her book ideas come from. It was apparent from the start that Lowry, a prolific author of children's books and now in her seventies, has a lot of experience speaking about her work, and has put considerable thought into what she wants to tell her fans, and how she can best convey this. To show us "her process," and give us a glimpse into what she is about, as a person and an author, she told us about pivotal points in her life, and how their impact expressed itself in her writing.

Now that I've got a handful of author talks under my belt, I am able look back and see why some were more successful than others. In the most general terms, whenever an author found some way to convey some part of his or her authentic self in the talk, no matter the topic, I felt able to connect, and I learned something. I think in that way books are like people (or maybe it's the other way around); books are "about" so much more than plot, just as the essence of who we are is more than the narrative of our lives; in a story, it's the underlying theme that reaches out to us, connecting us with the experience of another.

One way Lowry connected to her audience was with humor. She self-effacingly told us how many people confuse her with another famous children's author, Lois Lensky, who also happens to be one of Lowry's favorite authors. Lowry also showed us how she feels a responsibility to her readers, (my take is that we readers seem to be an afterthought to many authors), and showed slides of the stacks of letters she unfailingly answers (sounding apologetic that she has to resort to using form letters to answer the questions that are unfailingly asked over and over again). To further lighten things up, she told of some funny emails kids had sent her, and a few of her slides showed the text of these emails. The kid who asked the author to do his homework for him by spelling out the themes in one of her books. A kid who resented being forced to read Lowry's books and sent disparaging rants -- using his father's computer, which included his dad's computer signature.

In the course of her almost hour-long talk, she did indeed answer my ubiquitous "Giver" question, telling of the visits she made to her elderly father, and how, in his old-age, he twice forgot that Lois's older sister, Helen, died as a teenager. By then Lowry had also lost a child, and she kept thinking about her father's "forgetting", thinking about how amazing it would be if there actually was a pill that could make you forget the horrible things that happened in your life.

At the start, though, I have to admit that I was a little afraid Lowry's talk might focus exclusively on her newest book, "The Birthday Ball," and that she would have little to say that would be of interest to the recalcitrant twelve-year-old boy with me, but interestingly, she spoke about this book only at the very end of her talk, and what she did say about it wasn't the typical hardsell.

One of many things I didn't know about Lowry is that she published a memoir, actually a book for children, "Looking Back." Lowry, an avid photographer, intersperses shots from her life with quotes from her books and her own life story. It doesn't shy away from difficult topics, a divorce, a child's death, but those challenges are described in simple terms, and honestly. It's a beautiful book, echoing the same sensibility Lowry brought to her talk: honest reflection and a consideration of others.

It was this consideration of others that showed even after the talk, as we waited to have our books signed. The line was LONG, but the Lowry protocol was clear: we were to write the name we wanted inscribed in the book on a post-it note. Lowry would not be able to write longer messages. Speaking as someone who hates waiting in line, someone who has given up waiting for an author's autograph when seeing an author chat up a few fans leaving the rest of us in limbo, I really appreciated this. The line moved quickly. I still hold close much of what Lowry spoke about that day, as well as her autograph.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Staying True, by Jenny Sanford

Jenny Sanford's story fascinates me, it's just a shame she doesn't include it in "Staying True," her book. We've all seen the interviews Jenny held in the wake of her husband's, (Governor Mark Sanford), flagrant infidelity and shockingly lame cover up. She was poised, even-tempered, and graceful. She was the paragon of stability and calm in the face of a fatal crack in her home life, never mind the added challenge of navigating this path under the spotlight of the media circus.
First, let me address the writing. In the way of old-fashioned autobiographies, Sanford writes her story at arm's length, detailing events more as a running inner-dialogue than showing us how things were by recreating the scenes and adding actual dialogue. No matter that she had such great material to write about, the way she wrote her story did not make for riveting reading.
But the even more disappointing part was realizing that the story I had hoped to hear, one of how a woman in the public, political arena struggles with coming to terms with a husband who strays so far off course he's no longer on the map, wasn't the one she had written. In "Staying True," Jenny is way too good to be true. One dimensional, a robot. She meets each of her husband's ridiculous obstacles with never-ending patience and prayer. Not that I have anything against prayer, but if Jenny had showed us more of what must have actually happened in her story she might have rendered herself more human. And wouldn't we all want to hear the fascinating details of her experience, how she really did manage to get through that time, in the face such grandiose deceit? I wanted to read about how her perception of her husband changed over time, and of how she saw herself as this perception shifted and she saw the truth.
Instead, the tale is a simple one (and I don't think these stories ever are simple). Jenny is the saint and the victim, always "stays true" to her husband, giving him every possible opportunity to return to the marriage, always praying, reading and quoting from the bible.
Only once do we get a tiny glimpse of the rage and the lashing out that any wife must feel when confronted with such betrayal, as she mentions one argument in which she called Mark's mistress a whore. But this is one small drop of truth in a sea of propaganda. Like a diamond, every story has many facets. For the most part, here we see just one. I don't know, but in the story as Jenny tells it, I think even a five-year-old could learn to spell "denial" faster than she does -- denial of a full picture of a "wronged woman," and the wronged woman's continued denial of her husband's true (lack of) character. Then again, we all put blinders on parts of our lives, so until I walk in her shoes - and I pray none of us ever do - I guess I'll reserve judgment on that aspect of her story.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World, by Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher came to Indianapolis recently and spoke about family issues, ones she details in her book "The Shelter of Each Other." After Pipher's talk, as I passed by the obligatory book selling table, the title that caught my eye was not Shelter, but her newest book, "Seeking Peace," a memoir. It seemed fitting that Pipher, who exuded a self-effacing, homespun, calm that is stereotypical of her Nebraska hometown, never once mentioned her memoir that night.
In "Seeking Peace," Pipher, a therapist who has written extensively about family and women's issues, has a "break-down," ironically, at the pinnacle of her success. She tours the country promoting "Reviving Ophelia," her breakout book, but feels increasingly burdened by the evil cousins of depression and anxiety.
As Pipher details how she faces her crisis, she allows us to see the desperation of her struggle as well as the resolve she uses to get her life back on track. Pipher looks at the story she has always told herself about her own upbringing, and she discovers the seeds, until then not only unnoticed but suppressed, of the feelings of abandonment that stayed long dormant, but finally flowered into the suffering and anguish she was experiencing. She notices that throughout her life there had been hints: brief, fleeting appearances, of anxiety-ridden stumbling blocks, but they had always resolved unattended.
So how does Pipher, a famous therapist, approach her treatment when she falls into the rabbit hole of the same paralyzing symptoms her own patients present with? Pipher is scathingly honest here, as she tells of how she began using many of the same modes of treatment she uses with her patients, while also exploring ones outside her usual lexicon that provided relief. She tells us how she nourished and restored her soul, using the tools of yoga, massage, rest, mindfulness, and yes, medication.

Pipher gives us her story straight up. She's not a "spicy" memoirist, but she is an honest one, and that's really the only prerequisite that's mandatory for entry into the game. This quote from "Seeking Peace" sums up Pipher's journey, one I related to in many ways: "...I do not hold myself up to be a paragon of mental health. But who is? ...I now realize we are all misfits, at least to ourselves. We all secretly suspect we are freaks, uniquely burdened and especially crazy. Yet that doesn't mean we can't find our place on earth and come to feel loved and welcomed here. When we learn to face our pain and the pain of others, we start flourishing."
Pipher's memoir comes to a satisfying end as she learns to slow down her life, to listen to and accept her busy mind, thereby regaining her equanimity. She writes that she has put her very personal story on paper only because she thought it might help others and, after hearing her speak, I believe her. "Seeking Peace" is a provocative read, a story of one woman's truth. I think others will recognize many of these same truths in their own lives. I know I did.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Traveling With Pomegranates, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Having just survived another Mother's Day, it seems only fitting to post a review of the Monk females' mother/daughter memoir.

(Please, tell me I'm not the only person whose relationship with her mother was, um, complicated. Tell me I'm not the only one who, on the day society mandates we express our love to our mothers, still wrestles with guilt, anger, and resentment -- and my mother died over twenty years ago. And, as if that's not enough darkness to navigate, there is the extra guilt that comes with realizing that the blessing of my own kids, which feels as though it should bring enough light to cancel out the shadow of the day, doesn't. Which is, of course, not at all a reflection of my great kids, but of the depth of my own mother-daughter struggle.)

Sue Monk Kidd's breakout novel, "The Secret Life of Bees," already feels like a classic, but the novel that followed, "The Mermaid Chair," didn't feel as solid. In "Traveling with Pomegranates," Sue shares the author- stage with her college-age daughter, Anne, as they each dish up the story of "their lives at that moment" during a trip they took together to Greece. Sue, who has finished up a decade's worth of Jungian therapy, is pondering how to continue to feel generative and creative as she enters menopause. Anne, who has just been rejected from a graduate school program for which she figured she would be a shoe-in, grapples with depression. Just like in real life (because this is the story of their real lives), a lot happens at the same time. Anne becomes engaged and begins to plan her wedding. Lots of transitions for both women.

Let me preface my complaint by stating the obvious: I have never been accused of under-thinking an issue. My brain is busy. Too busy. I can turn something over and over in my skull until I'm so dizzy I not only forgot where I started but also where I was supposed to be heading. So it's telling that, even for me, Sue's ruminations were too much. I love memoir, and I love personal essay, but in "Traveling with Pomegranates," Sue goes on forever. Or at least it feels like forever. I appreciate the hard work of introspection that she details, but the gesture of memoir calls for the author to "show" us, through the characters' actions, how she arrives at these insights, not to "tell" us. "Traveling with Pomegranates" gave me lots to think about, but I found myself wanting to shake the Monk women, saying I wanted more of their story, and less of their thoughts.

On a related note, also having trouble with Mother's Day is one of my favorite authors: Anne Lamott. Read of her beef, of how we glorify mother-child love when, more democratically and realistically, this intense love belongs to all of us in all our varied relationships, in the link below....

Why I hate Mother's Day

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Game Change, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Were you stoned in civics class? Do your eyes still glaze over at political commentary? Some of us, and by us I mean me, missed out on the learning the first time around and ever since have been too lazy and embarrassed to admit ignorance, pick up some books, and figure out the complicated maze that is American politics.
Will "Game Change" fill in those gaps? Nope, but it's so much fun to read, it just won't matter. This book, like one of those special People Magazines, could be titled, "People Magazine - The Presidential Election Issue." It was satisfying to read that the candidates are exactly as I've imagined them: a trip to "Hillary-land" brings to light a woman who is earnest, but hard, and driven by an insatiable hunger for power; Bill is a narcissistic, hungry for sex, blowhard (and I did NOT intend that as a pun); Edwards is a lying, narcissistic, pretty-boy, and Elizabeth a crazed, bitchy control freak. And then there are the Republicans. McCain as clueless and cranky. Palin as a charming, it's-all-God's-plan, neophyte. It's delicious and dishy.
"Game Change" was a fun, well written read. I didn't learn much, but I loved that my belief (although uninformed and unsubstantiated by actual knowledge) that, for the most part, our elected officials are bloated, misguided, and self-serving was confirmed. My only bit of disappointment came when I found that the one thing I was most interested in learning -- where the sparks of Obama's innovative, grassroots campaign ideas came from -- were not included. "Game Change" is about the defeats, the missteps and failures that abound at every turn of a campaign, and the candidates, who, like our most dysfunctional family members, we love to hate.
It is a well known fact that most men don't read. As hard as I try, it's near impossible for me to find a book to interest my husband (unless it's written by David Sedaris) but "Game Change" is a book that crosses gender lines. A Father's Day gift idea, if ever there was one....
Click the link below for a great article by Laura Miller on how the abundance of women in the publishing industry effects what we read.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On driving, and "Corked," by Kathryn Borel

This was a two-schoolbus accident day! Thank G-d everyone is fine, but this is indeed a strange confluence of events. This morning my oldest daughter called me to say that her school bus had been hit. A car, driven by another high schooler, rear-ended her bus. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Later this morning, after dropping my two other kids at their school, I drove past the flashing light of the police car, the tow truck, the offending car, with its hood scrunched up and its door open wide, and the inward-looking teenager, now with his mother.

Once home I caught up on my morning blogs, and found an essay by Kathryn Borel that tells the story of how she hit a pedestrian, nine years back, and how the weight of that event has never left her. Apparently, Laura Bush has a similar story in her new memoir.

This afternoon I picked up my two chauffered kids from school, only to hear that the schoolbus my son was about to get on earlier that day -- it was due to take him back to school from his fieldtrip in Brownburg -- had its stop sign torn off by a side-swipe-and-run lawn service trailer.

I can't help but feel pummeled by two lessons here. First, I can't help but think of how easy it is to let your full attention slip away just for a moment, and the devastating consequences that can follow. All the kids were lucky today -- my daughter, my son, their busmates, and the kid who smashed his car into their bus.

I also can't help but thinking about secrets, how toxic and weighty something becomes once shame's ugly hands fall upon it. The link to Borel's essay is below. I'm going to have my daughter, who is almost driving age, read it tonight. I'll be reading Borel's "Corked", and Laura Bush's memoir soon.

Laura Bush's deadly car crash and my own

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher spoke at the Jewish Community Center last night. The event, sponsored by The National Council of Jewish Women, was the first in a series dealing with family issues. Pipher recently turned sixty and sported a shock of natural, wavy, gray hair that seemed to echo many of the points she made about solving the problems of the modern family: a return to focusing on what we truly value in life; spending time with our family; taking the focus away from the pop-culture values of consumerism and superficial beauty; slowing down the rush of time.

She spoke of how, in these fast paced times of Blackberries, laptops, iPods and iPhones, we face an incessant barrage of media messages. We are constantly miseducating ourselves, and our children, about the value of family and community, the glue that had, until now, provided us with a safe foundation. Echoing the proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," Pipher said that raising children is a tribal issue, and that, unfortunately, the tribal wisdom has gone from our culture.

Here were some of her suggestions on how to begin to address these issues: Clarifying and redefining our values (what do the constructs of "family" and "wealth" really mean to us?); declaring "media blackout days" in our homes; designating a corner, or even an entire room, in our homes as a "calmness center."

Pipher's book, "The Shelter of Each Other," speaks to these issues in more depth, but her newer book, "Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World" is the one that has caught my eye. In a recent interview about "Seeking Peace," which is a memoir, she tells of her personal crisis and depression that came after the success of her first, and perhaps most famous book, "Reviving Ophelia." In this interview, which is linked below, she says something about specifically about herself, that she thinks applies to all of us, that I've always thought was true, and I'll paraphrase here to suit my own point: that, as we go through our day to day lives, it is uncomfortable to look inward. We wear the smiley face mask of every day life, walking among people in crisis, unaware of their suffering, and perhaps even our own.