Saturday, October 23, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Never before has a new novel brought with it such hype and hyperbole. Franzen on the cover of Newsweek. Franzen on the Oprah show -- and this after he got his previous novel, The Corrections, booted off her book club list! Franzen on the president's reading list, with his new not-yet-released book phographed in the clutches of Obama. Franzen on the cusp of a dustup in the literary world, such that the word Franzenfreude is coined in his honor; well, honor may not be exactly the right way to characterize the word. (Franzenfreude refers to the phenomenon that the powers-to-be of the literary world take work seriously only if it's written by men. White men.

So it was with much interest and anticipation that I sat down to listen to the audiobook version of "Freedom," which I had to nab from the library of the shiny suburb to the north, as my local system didn't stock it. And it is with great pleasure that I tell you, YES! It did live up to its hype! Freedom tells the story of the lives and marriage of Patti and Walter Berglund over the course of several decades.

Franzen's great strength is in the fullness, texture and depth with which he draws his characters. It's shocking how completely he gets into his characters' heads. Sometimes I think that characterization is a writer's primary task: draw the characters precisely, completely, and believably and they will do the rest, behaving in a way that befits their personalities, and thereby creates the plot. Franzen is also spectacular at elucidating the world that his characters maneuver in, and showing us the interplay between the state of society and the state of the individual, and how each of these two conditions effects the other. (Which brings to mind the old adage: The personal is the political.)

Despite my under-developed fiction gene; despite that I think that nowadays memoirs have supplanted novels as the most culturally significant way to tell a broad, far-reaching story, Franzen's new novel reminded me of the power of that form. When a novel is executed with such exquisite care and attention it can't help but compel. I'm only sorry to have finished "Freedom," and that I'll have to wait for Franzen's next offering.

Oh, and by the way, if you're an audiobook fan -- get your hands on this one! The narrator does a fabulous job conveying the pessimistic, personality-disordered grouchiness that is part and parcel of Franzen's characters.

And, click on the link below for Salon's recent Franzen interview

Reading Club interview: Jonathan Franzen answers your questions

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman

I love to read young, Jewish authors, and Goodman's previous novel, "Intuition," a story about institutional dysfunction at a research lab felt spot-on, so I was psyched to begin "The Cookbook Collector."

Because I had such high hopes for Goodman's book, I went against my usual practice of bailing out on books that don't work for me and stuck with it until the end, but unfortunately, by the time I reached the end the novel had become a painfully boring, hum-drum read. In "The Cookbook Collector" Goodman portrays the lives of two sisters whose personalities and lives an diverge dramatically. Sympathetic characters -- no, make that relatable characters -- can allow an author to get away with a multitude of sins, but I never related to or felt invested in either of the two main characters' lives. This is a novel heavy on dialogue, in which the characters chat endlessly about their feelings and motivations. It could be argued that, in this case, the dialogue almost serves as exposition. The end result is that all that explaining slowed down the pace, and there was not a lot of forward momentum to the plot.

Also, as a side point, although not an insignificant one, although I love that Goodman includes a thread about a sect of Hasidim, (the Bialystockers, a thinly veiled riff on the Lubavitchers and the Chabad movement), I thought her treatment of this group was heavy handed and pandered to Hasidic stereotypes in such a way as to almost render those characters caricatures. Goodman concludes "The Cookbook Collector" by delving into the issues of family lineage and Jewish continuity, issues of great interest to me, but even so, in my eyes, "The Cookbook Collector" didn't quite capture the right recipe.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jean Valentine

Let me just say this upfront: I know absolutely nothing about poetry. I haven't read much of it, and the few poems I've read I didn't understand. Occasionally I'll come across a poem that is more accessible than the rest, and a glimmer of hope will flicker through me that I'll gain an appreciation for this art form, but most poems leave me perplexed, scratching my head.

The poet Jean Valentine spoke at Butler tonight. In preparation for Valentine's reading I visited the library, taking out every one of her books. Over the past few weeks I looked through the pages of her books, sampling the poems. I was intrigued, taken by the sequence of her words. Even I could tell there were layers of meaning within but, alas, even the outermost of those layers remained out of my reach. So when I took my seat tonight in the Butler auditorium, I brought with me a deep curiosity. I was eager to find if I could come any closer to understanding Valentine's work by hearing her read it. Also, I wanted to see what Valentine would bring to the table as a writer; if she, like last month's poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, would bring a sense of mutuality to the reading, share her experience as a writer and engage with the audience.

From the start it was clear Valentine was up for the challenge. She read poems from her new book, "Break the Glass," several of which incorporated the subject of Lucy, the 3-million year old skeleton unearthed in the '70s in Ethiopia. Valentine's reading was lovely. Did the reading bring me any closer to understanding these poems? Not really. My experience in hearing the poems read was not unlike my enjoyment the few times I've gone to the symphony: I didn't understand the meaning of the program but I took pleasure in the sound. But even though my poetry literacy hadn't changed, there was still a revelation in store for me and it came with the Q and A session that followed the reading. In conversation with the audience Valentine was generous, and I learned not only about her writing process, but also about the ideal way for a writer to navigate the world of readers and other writers.

When asked about her use of blank space within poems, Valentine reported that she employs this feature to accent the emotional effect of timing in her poems when they are spoken. When asked how it came to be that Lucy became her muse, she amused us by saying that she first saw Lucy's face in an issue of AARP's magazine, and joked that AARP wanted to show its readers someone older than themselves! She said that the photo of Lucy's face effected her powerfully in a way she couldn't (and can't) explain, only that it spoke to her. When Valentine was asked how she knows when a poem is finished she told us of the three poet friends she uses as readers, adding that she endlessly revises. In response to another question she told us her early influences were ee cummings, (she liked how he flaunted the established rules and had a dreamy sensibility), and Emily Dickinson.

I asked Valentine about her beginnings as a poet, and she said she knew from the tender age of nine that she wanted to be a poet. Then, in a surprise move, employing a phrase she would use a few more times with other audience members after she was done with me, she turned the tables and asked me, "How about you?" After a moment of stun, I managed to reclaim my composure and say that, like her, poetry has always fascinated me; which I suppose is true, but perhaps not exactly in the way she might imagine!

Valentine seemed to take genuine pleasure in taking part in a conversation about her work, and that open-hearted engagement with the world can't help but draw others in. Even someone for who struggles to make sense of poetry, like me.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Little Red Book, by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

"My Little Red Book," a compilation of menstruation stories by a wide variety of women, was published by Twelve books, a relatively new publisher whose goal is to publish a small number of books each year (one per, like a woman's cycle!) that illuminate less explored aspects of our culture.

The essays in "My Little Red Book" range from winsome to sarcastic to downright hysterical. The stories that stayed with me the most were the ones in which women told tales of how, as young girls who hadn't yet learned about menstruation, they witnessed evidence of it. In these essays we get a glimpse back into the strange ways our young, innocent minds explain things we don't have the ability to comprehend. These stories bring to mind the childhood memories we all have of various aspects of the adult world, and how dangerous and frightening the terrain of adults can seem when seen through the eyes of a child.

It's a great world when subjects that used to be taboo can be exposed to the light of day and discussed freely. Now, if I could only convince my daughters, (who automatically reject every book recommendation I've ever made), to read it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Unhealthy Truth -- How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, by Robyn O'Brien

Last month I received a copy of my family tree from a distant cousin. It's a scroll covered with rows of tiny black boxes, and each box is inscribed with even tinier black letters. The thing is huge -- end to end it measures over 8 feet! And, confirming the long held family legend, the name in the box at the pinnacle of this wide pyramid holds the name of the man who is credited with starting the Hassidic movement back in the 18th century, The Baal Shem Tov.

It's not just The Baal Shem Tov that draws me in, though. All the names on the family tree fascinate me, so I've taken it upon myself to try and find out who all these distant cousins are. My most useful research tool: Facebook! I'm still in the process of searching, but I've already found at least 50 cousins, and they reside in every part of the world. I never knew I had hundreds of cousins, but now that I know to look for them, I find them everywhere!

When I read "The Unhealthy Truth," this same scenario came to mind, but this time concerning the sorry state of our food supply: the not noticing, but then discovering it everywhere once you know to look for it. Robyn O'Brien wrote "The Unhealthy Truth" after learning that her children had severe food allergies. She began addressing this issue by doing what I'm doing: research. What she found is both illuminating and unsettling. She discovered that the rates of allergy and asthma have risen exponentially is the last several years. Just like my newly found cousins, O'Brien found that kids like hers were everywhere. She attributes the rise in these illnesses to 4 factors: our highly industrial environment; our overuse of antibiotics; increased pollutants and environmental toxins; and our increased consumption of processed foods laden with chemical additives.

The parts of "The Unhealthy Truth" that intrigued me most were the sections in which O'Brien exposes how Big Pharma and Big Food have corrupted the realms of food and health. She tells the story of how, in her efforts to educate the public about food allergies, she tried to elicit support from FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network). She thought her work would naturally into FAAN's framework, but every effort she made at trying to form a relationship was met with stony silence, until finally they ended up suing her with bogus claims. As she continued to research allergies, and the organizations in place to educate the public about them, she discovered that the FAAN web site was subsidized by Kraft Foods and peanut growers.

Another provocative issue highlighted in "The Unhealthy Truth" is the potential downside to all the genetically modified food we are eating. Foreign genes inserted into a plant cause it to produce new proteins -- and these new proteins are potential allergens. A mother might think a certain food was safe to give her highly allergic child but, if that food was made with an ingredient that came from a genetically modified plant, it could potentially cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.

These are just some of the eye-opening facts in "The Unhealthy Truth." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the shelves of our grocery stores are filled with processed and unnatural stuff that masquerades as food. If you take even a cursory look at the state of our food supply, it is obvious there are problems everywhere, at every level. After reading "The Unhealthy Truth" I can't help but start being more mindful of the food I feed my family. You never know what you'll find out there when you take a really good look. You could find something really troubling, like the myriad issues plaguing our food supply, or you might find something that stuns and amazes you -- like constellations of cousins found all over the planet .

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

When I moved to Indianapolis, over 11 years ago, I met three neighborhood women. Back then we all had 1-year old babies, and 3 of us also had 2 older children, all roughly the same ages: 5 and 3. I didn't know it then -- at the time I couldn't see past the high maintenance child care -- but throughout the years we would forge long-standing friendships.

This year all 4 of our youngest children turn 13. They all have Bnai Mitzvahs scheduled. This weekend marked the second one. Last night, on the dance floor, I was thinking about the significance of the year. I love a good party as much as the next girl, maybe more but, while dancing with my three close friends, my mind wandered, and what settled in was the realization of how weighty this year of simchas is. I wasn't giving short shrift to the obvious significance of the year -- that our newly-minted teens are becoming responsible members of the Jewish community -- but I couldn't help but feel the passing of our lives as mothers to young children. It was a sad and joyful moment, looking back on our 11-plus years of mothering and friendship. I thought about our friendships and what came to mind first were the big, dramatic moments -- like when my friends swooped in and took care of my kids when I had my tonsils out; when they helped care for two of my kids when my middle child had an emergency appendectomy. Those are the things extended family usually help with, and because no one in our little group has extended family in the area, we have come to depend on each other. Then I reflected on the little, routine, everyday moments -- those smaller, everyday transactions like carpooling, venting frustrations over the phone, or joined holiday celebrations. Those are what makes up the bulk of the foundation of our relationships. Each one of those small transactions is like another pour from the pitcher, the layers of all these moments accruing, creating a deep, family-like bond.

Family. My parents divorced when I was young and my dad raised me in a town far away from our extended family. Sometimes I think the underlying theme of my life has been my attempt to recreate and recapture that elusive element. Even though I now have a family of my own, I think there is a part of me that is always searching. In "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Dave Eggers tells the story of his own family's dissolution. When Dave was in his early twenties, within a span of just months, both his mother and his father died of cancer. Because Dave's older brother and sister had commitments, Dave was left to care for his 7-year old brother. Eggers's memoir is a shining example of the type of fluid writing that many teachers nowadays encourage (and English teachers of yesteryear worked to quashed out of us). Eggers's story isn't easy to read -- I mean, how comfortable could it be to read a story about someone so young who had to deal with incredible loss, while at the same time bravely navigating the unknown by raising his own brother? Still, despite the difficult subject matter, because Eggers is such a lay-it-all-on-the-table writer, I found his memoir uplifting, in the same way you might be relieved after the burden of a long-held secret is revealed.

Family. Like Eggers, I guess we all strive to make the best out of our situations. Like Eggers, we may try to recreate a sense of family to fill in the gaps. Sometimes, like in Eggers's case, we may need to strike out on our own and be pioneers. Or, if you're really lucky, you might find family in unexpected places, like in the smiling faces of your friends on the dance floor.