Friday, July 30, 2010

Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg

I get scared reading books that feature characters that suffer from bipolar illness. Well, that's not quite right. The truth is that I am both afraid of and drawn to reading about this subject, as if by conquering my fear and moving closer to this thing, I can capture a bit of the person whose bipolarity kept her at an unbreachable distance -- my mother. Although I believe some deep part of me, perhaps at the cellular level, will never forget the way her catatonic-like depressions and her raging manias impacted me, for the most part my mind reacted to the terror in the same way countless others have faced trauma -- by erasing it from my memory.
Maybe the only thing as frightening as growing up with a bipolar mother is discovering that your child has the disease. In Michael Greenberg's, "Hurry Down Sunshine," he tells the story of his troubled teenage daughter, Sally, and her descent into bipolarity. From the outset Greenberg tells his story with an unflinching honesty. When Sally's illness first comes to a head, Greenberg must hospitalize her and he struggles to navigate the health care system in order to find an appropriate setting. Greenberg details the ups and downs of the course of Sally's disease, and in doing so he looks back at the difficulties of Sally's childhood, as well as those of his mentally ill brother.
As Greenberg's story progresses, he shows how Sally's illness comes under control, with the help of drugs and therapy. In the end, though, she relapses. With his words, Greenberg paints a picture of his daughter, and we see Sally as a gentle and vulnerable person at the mercy of her bipolarity.
The stories we tell ourselves, especially when those stories involve difficult relationships, can be incomplete; I know the story my childhood memories tell me about my mother is. I think I'll carry Greenberg's lovely image of Sally with me as a reminder of just that.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore

I just got back from my niece's wedding, a five-hour drive each way, that I made solo. I had a big pile of audiotapes, but I couldn't decide which one to bring since none of them jumped out at me as you-must-listen-to-me-first titles, so I brought them all. I figured I would have an audio "tasting" party and sample a bit of each book, and that in the end, one would surely show itself as a "must-read." First I put in "The Big Short," by Michael Lewis, but there was so much detailed information on sub-prime interest rates, I decided it was just too much work for my drive. Then I tried Tana French's "In the Woods," which I might get back to, but at a whopping 18 discs felt like too much of a commitment. Then came "Days of Obligation," by Richard Rodriguez, which was also good, but felt too heavy for my drive. I liked the first disc of Andrew Sean Greer's "The Confessions of Max Tivoli," but still wasn't satisfied. I wanted something else. So I put in the first disc of the last audiobook in my stack, "The Other Wes Moore." I didn't hold out much hope for this book; its title made it sound flat. After the the first couple of tracks, though, I knew it was bashert.

"The Other Wes Moore" is the story of two boys who had very similar beginnings, but whose lives diverged dramatically as they grew up. Wes Moore, the author, grew up in a single parent household, in poor neighborhoods, and began to show signs of acting out and rebellion. His mother first had him attend a ritzy, private school, but when he continued to give her problems, sent him to a military boarding school to force him back on the right track. Not only did Moore end up on the right track, but he excelled, matriculated from Johns Hopkins, became a Rhodes Scholar, and wrote this book.

During his studies Moore became aware of another young man who shared his name, who had been convicted of killing a police officer and was serving a life sentence. Author Moore sends the other Moore a letter, and they embark on a relationship. The other Wes Moore had many of the same disadvantages as the author, but, for myriad reasons, had not been able to overcome the challenges of his life. In "The Other Wes Moore," Moore contrasts their lives, examining each in order to learn why their lives took such different paths.

I appreciated Moore's unflinching honesty as he wrote of the issues of the poor African American community in which both Moores were raised. He brings up important questions about how the things that happen to us in our formative years impact us as we mature. He shows how easy it is to get off track. The tales of both Wes Moore's are compelling, and author Moore ends his book with an epilogue and call to action that are poignant.

Moore's style reminded me of Mitch Albom's writing, especially since "The Other Wes Moore" and Albom's new book both contrast two people who share important touchstones in life. Coincidentally, one of the authors Moore says inspired him towards his literary path is Albom. Moore's book, however, has more gravitas. I suppose sometimes the student rises above the teacher.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

This is Not the Story You Think it is, By Laura Munson

At the beginning of the summer, when I pictured myself with my kids, I saw myself in standard mode, barking, reminding them to get their chores done. I decided to change that. It's not that my kids never had fun, but I wanted to put into practice something new, to put down the frantic lens through which I saw life, so that I wasn't focused solely on getting the next goal completed. I didn't want to be the person who, because she can only see the destination, missed savoring the journey. I wanted to be more present with my kids. Have more fun.

You might think my decision to have more fun with my kids would be no big deal, but that wasn't the case. As with anything, making this change was easier -- so much easier -- said than done. Putting this into practice was, and is, an exhausting proposition, because my mind always wants to go back to the same place, the place it has always gone, to the rush of completing tasks. To pry myself out the hamster wheel of "doing" and just "be" with my kids turned out to be no small task. It seemed like I was constantly pulling my mind out of the weeds of its old stomping grounds, where it nudged me to get something done. Getting my mind out of that place, took (takes) effort. It helped me to recall the chant they taught me in kindergarten, the one used to make sure kids crossed streets safely: Stop, Look and Listen.
I first read of Laura Munson's story in an essay featured in the Style section of the NY Times, adapted from her memoir, "This is Not the Story You Think it is." In her essay Munson wrote of how her husband, after many years of happy marriage and raising two children, told Munson he didn't love her anymore. He was distant, angry and cold, and treated her disrespectfully, coming and going when he pleased, speaking to her in a belittling and sharp manner. In Munson's eyes he acted like a two-year-old having a tantrum.

After much suffering and soul-searching, Munson decided that, despite her husband's crappy attitude, she was still in love with him and wanted to try to save her marriage. Even though at that moment, her husband thought his love for her had ended, Munson held steadfast to her belief that, under all his angst, he still loved her. As Munson saw it, she had two choices: She could take the obvious road, and react to her husband's unfairly treatment, or she could practice non attachment, and let his anger play itself out, and see what happened. In the latter scenario she didn't have to play the role of the wronged woman. She would set limits on what sort of behavior she would accept from her husband, and for how long, and then, without reacting to his provocative comments, try and ride out his tantrum. TINTSYTII is the story of Munson's decision to change her life and how she struggled to stay on that path.

Any story that focuses on an inner journey has to walk a fine line, and TINTSYTII falls into some of the classic pitfalls of stories of this type. Munson's story is compelling, but a fundamental part of her story is anchored in the endless, exhausting, work of changing your life from the inside out, and this work is rooted in inner dialogue -- a conscious changing of the way you think. In storytelling, though, inner dialogue only takes you so far. At times, plowing through the back and forth of the author's process as she worked her way through this tough marital time was tedious. I sometimes get weary of listening to my own chatty inner voice, so even though it's fascinating to be able to be in someone else's head, in this case it was also tiresome. The most riveting parts of TINTSYTII were not the passages that "told" the author's thoughts, but the parts that "showed" -- the scenes. When Munson described scenes in which her husband's angry, bristly anxiety led him to lash out at her, I became uncomfortable, yet I wanted to read on. In these scenes the tension was so thick, and the emotions so dramatic, that I wondered how Munson could possibly accomplish this task of continuing to let her husband's trauma run its course.
The other morning, it was my eldest daughter's 16th birthday, and I was faced with a choice. My husband and all three kids were getting ready to leave for the park to shoot off rockets. Rocket launching is a special activity, something my husband does with the kids two, maybe three times a year. I have never joined in with the rest of the family to shoot off rockets. In the division of labor that organically develops in a marriage, rocket launching fit nicely in my husband's realm, and that was fine with me. My realm? Well my plate was filled with the hustle and bustle of the everyday -- the schlepping to and from music lessons, orthodontist appointments, etc. I told myself it was good for my hubby to have an activity he enjoyed with the kids separate from me. But underneath this rationalization was my reluctance upset the applecart of the part I play in my kids' lives.

It didn't even occur to me that I was excluding myself from family fun until the moment they were all about to leave. "Wait for me," I called out, "I'm coming, too." It hasn't been easy staying on track, keeping the commitment I made at the beginning of summer. But amidst the inevitable backtracking, there have been mornings like the day of the rocket launch -- breezy and blue. Standing in a grassy field peppered with Queen Ann's Lace, the pop of the rocket alerted me to look up. A tail of white smoke faded into the Popsicle-blue sky as the three of the best people I know ran across the field to catch it, grinning.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

So I was driving to IKEA yesterday, finishing up the last disc of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and it wasn't until I had just about pulled into IKEA's parking lot that I got the irony of driving to a Swedish store while listening to a book by a Swedish author. It still amazes me how the simplest things escape me.

Here's a simple story. Charles recently told me about a co-worker's son. In response to his fiance's query as to why his carry-on bag contained no pants, he replied, "We're just staying a day. Why would I possibly need a second pair of pants?" He then proceeded to unwittingly sit down in the one seat on the airplane that had soda pooled in the cushion.

Here's another simple story: This just happened, on the very same trip to Ohio that included IKEA and Larsson, on an overnight visit to my mother-in-law's, and I can already tell this story will be one my husband will tell again and again, until the story takes its place in our family's mythology. Before we left, at the very last minute, thinking of the story of his coworker's son, Charles threw an extra pair of khaki shorts into his duffel. We drove off with Mischief in the van, as we were going to drop him off at the dog sitter's along the way. We we got out of the van at her house, though, Charles looked down at his khaki shorts and, to his horror, saw two spots of brown, each the size of pennies. According to the dog sitter, poor Mischief, who sat in Charles lap on the ride to her house, needed to have his anal glands emptied. (Just as an aside, does anybody ever tell prospective buyers about this disgusting issue when they are thinking of buying a cute little puppy? Honestly, it's no wonder the people who sell dogs never discuss it -- because NO ONE WOULD BUY A DOG IF THEY KNEW!) Anyway, I digress. Back to the shorts. Charles was tickled to have dodged this particular bullet and made a quick change in the van before we continued on to IKEA. Cut to later in the afternoon. At his mother's, we were all excited, gathered on the third floor of her over one-hundred-year old house, to explore one of the eaves, where Charles hoped to recover the toy fire engine of his childhood. As he put one foot into the hot, dark space behind the wall, his shorts caught on the edge of one of the door hinges and ripped. Really ripped. Not only did Charles need one pair of extra shorts, but two! Luckily, the dog-stained khakis were just about ready to come out of the dryer by the time he ripped the replacements.

If, like me, you need things simple, then heed this warning: Do not read Larsson. I don't think there is enough caffeine in the world to get my brain to kick in to a gear high enough to keep track of the intricate plot lines and business dealings in TGWTDT. Although Larsson held my interest at times, for the most part I found the story way too contrived and completely unbelievable. Do I sound too crass if I wonder if the author's recent death has created a hype that has elevated his work to mythic levels? I also wonder if the movie version of TGWTDT might be more satisfying, because I think a movie generally allows for more of a suspension of belief than a book.

Then again, maybe it's just me and my addled brain. Maybe the reason I've never been a huge fan of genres like murder mysteries or thrillers is that I just can't keep up with the facts. Who knows? But it's ironic that Larsson, from the land of IKEA, a store that specializes in furniture with clean, simple lines, has written a book that is not for the simple minded.

The New York Times Magazine recently published a fascinating article on Larsson's family and long time girlfriend, and the fight over his estate....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

So Many Books, So Little Time!

What's a girl to do? I've got a stack of books (and audiobooks) I'm dying to read (and listen to) and there just aren't enough hours in the day. The uber-original plan I had for the summer? I figured I would make my way through all those great titles while the kids flipped around in the pool. The Book-gods are laughing even as I write these words. Sure, there is pool time, but there is also schlepping (to and from summer school for my high school girls, to and from camp for my son, to and from violin.....well, you get the idea), traveling coast to coast for relatives' Bar Mitzvahs (and I'm not complaining. I'm kvelling!), and downtime for the summer virus we're passing around (also as I write these words). My stack of books? I'm not making much headway.

And NOW, Tablet comes out with an article that lists new books by all my favorite Jewish authors (Well, almost all my favorites. One notable exception is Shalom Auslander, who now regularly writes for Tablet. Everything Auslander writes is great but I'm going to need something meatier than those essays, Shalom). Reading Tablet's article made my mouth water. Really. Click on the funky "Your" tab below (computer savvy I'm not) to get a head start on reserving the newest titles from Ayelet Waldman, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Franzen and more!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen

Just got back from visiting my brother and his family in California. I hadn't seen them for 13 years. The history of our estrangement is so long and complicated that neither one of us can clearly recall its origins. So often life is like this -- a narrative that intertwines the stories we tell ourselves about our hurts from the past with the facts of the present. Those unaired hurts amplify, and leave marks, like wounds that never heal. As my brother and I reflected on our past hurts, there didn't seem to be one pivotal moment that altered our paths. It was more like our past was a trail littered with misunderstandings and silence. As I work at owning my part in creating the rift between us -- something that is long overdue -- I can see that I have said and done so many hurtful things. During my recent visit our relationship didn't magically heal; we didn't become the close-knit family I had always dreamed we might be. As much as I wished for that, I knew it would be unrealistic to expect such a turn. Instead, we created a bridge. It's a narrow bridge, but one that spans the distance between us. My hope is that the conversations between us continue and the bridge that connects us widens.

I think most stories in life are like this, they don't distill into an easy, even slicing of time into a before and an after, either in the rift or the resolution. Sometimes, though, life dishes out an event so dramatic that one moment changes everything that comes after it forever. Anna Quindlen's new book, "Every Last One" tells such a story, one in which a life transformed by a single stunning moment. In the first half of the book, Quindlen puts a magnifying glass on the daily struggles of an upper-middle-class family. She paints the picture of the family with a fine brush, describing the subtle interplay between the physician father, the self-starter mom with a thriving landscaping business, their artsy, teenage daughter recently recovered from bulimia, their confident, sports obsessed son, and another son who becomes increasingly depressed as the story progresses. "Every Last One" is told through the eyes of the overprotective, helicoptering mother. As Quindlen details the mother's endlessly spinning anxieties about her children's well being, the writing was so true to life, so familiar, that I started to actually feel uncomfortable, as if a mirror was being held up to my own interior landscape. The telling was brutally honest and real, but, by the middle of the book I was feeling tired of the worrying, the never ending flow of maternal anxiety was starting to become a bit tedious.

But, just then, just when I was wondering if I would be able to make it through "Every Last One,".....ta, da!....something happens. The last half of the book is all about what happens after that pivotal moment, and it's a riveting story that I will not spoil.

Just as in Quindlen's story, life takes us all on myriad twists and turns. We might take an active role in creating drama or alternatively, the drama might unfold completely out of our control. Either way, and whether or not the drama comes suddenly, or is something more drawn out and murky, the most interesting part is what we decide to do next.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Power in the Blood, by Linda Tate

Recently I had a facebook reunion with Pat, an old friend from college, and she recommended I read "Power in the Blood." Pat had been a true friend back in college, and my renewed connection with her brought back memories of the tough times she helped me through, almost three decades ago(!), of struggling to keep my head above water while trying to navigate the waters of young adulthood. Those memories had faded over the years, like cushions left in the sun, but recalling that time now, I can see how my chaotic childhood replayed itself in my life back then as a newly minted adult. Although my parents had been well meaning, they passed on to me a legacy of fear and anger.

Linda Tate found herself in grad school when she wanted to discover more about her family's history. She had niggling questions about her parents and their odd and hurtful ways and, in order to understand why her parents were the way they were, she had to uncover the mysterious history of their families. She was compelled to do this, knowing that there was wisdom to be found in the revelation. Ever curious, Tate dug in, never letting the myriad challenges posed by this laborious search stop her. Tate traveled, scoured through archives, found long, lost relatives, and traced her family tree back to the Appalachians, an area between Tennessee and Kentucky called the "Land Between the Rivers." At the end, along with stories of colorful ancestors, Tate found the words to detail the suffering in her family that went back generations and finally was able to put the pieces of her family's puzzle together. By solving the mystery of how her parents came to be the way they were, Tate, in turn, shined light on her own childhood, and on herself.

My relatives insist our family descends from The Baal Shem Tov, the 1770 Ukrainian rebel who is credited with founding the Hasidic movement. As I understand it, one of Hasidism's basic tenets is that God has imbued each of us -- in fact, all of His creations -- with a unique nature, and that the closer any of us can come to knowing ourselves, to finding and expressing our authentic natures, the closer we become to God. It's a concept that has fascinated me for years. How does any of us go about knowing, truly knowing, what's in our heart of hearts, especially if the circumstances of our upbringings has smudged the lens through which we would clearly see our own natures?

Because I have wondered about the effects my chaotic childhood had on me, I was curious as to how the process of researching and writing "Power in the Blood" effected Tate -- so I wrote her. This is what she said: The process of discovering the details about my ancestors' lives and the writing of the book itself changed my life immeasurably. I had a much fuller understanding of why things had happened the way they had in my own life, and as a result I was able to achieve more of a sense of peace and acceptance about all that had occurred. Ultimately, I found that sense of home in myself -- found a place to belong. All of this healing ultimately made it possible for me to invite love into my life, and that's why the last paragraph of the book mentions my husband.

Unlike Tate's, my parents' families came to this country from the "Fiddler on the Roof" type villages of Eastern Europe. My father's great-grandmother was affectionately nicknamed by her grandkids as Babalompola, because she was the baba from Yompola. The specifics of Tate's story are very different than mine but, at their bedrock, our stories are the same: suffering passed down from one generation to the next. I picture the pure innocence of The Baal ShemTov (known for communing with God by dancing ecstatically in the forests of the Ukraine) and then I think of my childhood in San Francisco, steeped in anxiety, paranoia and anger. Somewhere along the way, between the Ukraine of the 1770s and the West Coast of the 1970s, some thing happened that changed the course of my family, and its legacy was a cloak of suffering. For those of us who find ourselves at the receiving end of generations of suffering, "Power in the Blood" is an amazing story, one that shows how one woman stopped the chain by illuminating the stories of her ancestors and by doing so gained an understanding of how they impacted her. Maybe The Baal Shem Tov had it right, and that by seeing clearly what lies inside one's heart-- however that's accomplished -- the heart can open, and the suffering replaced with God and love.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Crazy Israel Propaganda

No book review today. While I work on my review of "Power in the Blood," (and watch for it -- I'm trying something new there, too, and including the author's answer to a question I sent her), I thought I would try something new and offer up my newest find as I stumble through, once again attempting to understand the political situation in the Middle East.

I've made no secret of the fact that I am no political science scholar. Recently I've been trying to sift through the myriad opinions, both pro and con, of the recent flotilla incident and that has been overwhelming. I'm left knowing only one thing: that I love my homeland, warts and all. If you're anything like me and feel perplexed by the flood of information and the battling pundits, you might be ready for a change of pace. A laugh. Three rather unconventional (I use this term generously) South Americans have posted a video promoting the land of Israel and its beauty. It's the strangest and campiest thing I've come across in a long time, and it was so unexpected made me laugh (No small feat. Ask my husband. ) Today, Tablet Magazine (a great online magazine with Jewish content) came out with an article about the video's origins. If this uber-hysterical utube video (which is linked on the link) hasn't crossed your path, check it out on the link below