Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Club, Take One

A few months ago I had planned to “link up” to a friend’s blog to answer the question, “What do you do right, as a mother?” 

I thought about it.  And thought.  And thought some more.  And then, I kinda gave up. 

This is not to say that I feel like I’m a shitty mother.  Most days, I think I’m pretty good at my job.  (And it is a JOB, people.  Make no mistake.)  I run on a hamster wheel of meal preparing and school shoe shopping and teeth flossing and bike riding and piano practicing and t-ball cheering and board game playing and homework helping and library frequenting and Girl Scout cookie selling and…you get the drift, because most of you do the exact same thing.  I simply decided I didn’t have an answer that I could formulate into specific words.  Mothering, at least my mothering, is so overwhelming and all-inclusive and constant, and I couldn’t isolate one individual thing of which I am proud above all else.  The question was too vast, too complicated.  Plus, then I read this beautiful post, and knew anything I could possibly put together would fall desperately short.  And so I chickened out.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Emily’s question.

And now, I may have an answer. 

Sunday was the first meeting of my mother-daughter book club, and It. Was. Fantastic.  Better than I could have ever imagined.  So far, we only have two mother-daughter “couples” (me, Eloise, my friend Jenny, and her girl Lola, who is conveniently Eloise’s best friend), but it was the perfect balance for a first meeting.  We discussed The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall.

So we each read the novel, printed out some discussion questions from the internet, and met at La Madeleine French CafĂ© for dinner.  It was a perfect venue – no one had to cook, and the girls could enjoy gigantic hot chocolates while Jen and I sipped glasses of wine (because what is a book club without wine, for goodness sake?  Not something I’m attending, to be sure).  We’re planning to meet once a month, each time at a different restaurant, so the girls can experience a new cuisine at each meeting – next month is sushi, for example, and we’re talking about meeting at the Houston MFA when we do From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Perfect, huh? 

But here’s why it was so great.  First of all, Jen and I each have three kids, so it was amazing to have the opportunity to spend focused time talking (like adults!) with our big girls, without distraction – no diapers, no one falling out of a chair, nobody throwing a tantrum, no one refusing to go to bed or needing a bath or a hug or some goldfish crackers or screen time or I can’t find my other shoe! or WHATEVER.  No interruptions.  And no interruptions for the girls either, because they got to take a night “off” from the demands of oldest sister-dom:  No annoying younger siblings, no strict bedtime, and any dessert they wanted!  Plus, it was surprisingly wonderful to see Jen connecting with my girl, while I interacted with hers.  I think it must be so validating for young ladies to really be paid attention by an adult who is not her parent.  And the talk was remarkably insightful!  There was no silliness, no nonsense.  Just little girls being celebrated for using their brains to analyze, to consider, to formulate thoughtful responses via the gathering of textual evidence (the scholar in me weeps!  Weeps with joy!).  What an empowering way to bond with a daughter, and I’m so glad we did it.  I’m so proud of them.

Next month is Matilda, and I can’t wait.  Who wants to join us?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

I despised this hateful little book.

I honestly don’t even feel like thinking about why I hated this novel so much, but my conscience dictates that I positively owe you the service of instructing you NOT TO READ THIS.  I really went against my better judgment in choosing it off the shelf; I guess it was just a literary dry spell or something.  Remember The Time Traveler’s Wife?  Which was fashioned into a deeply unsatisfying movie?  Well, this is the same author.

So here’s the deal:  It had potential.  It’s a ghost story, featuring twins.  There are lots of these – and great ones, for heaven’s sake!  Remember The Thirteenth Tale?  The Shining?  The Dark Half?  (Not to mention the obvious:  Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley Twins:  Super Chiller Series.)*  Plus, Her Fearful Symmetry is kind of a kickass title, don’t you think?  But the main problem with the story was that all the characters are utterly, well, loathsome.  And I’m serious:  All of them.  The twins are pathetic and spoiled and co-dependent to the point of ICK, the love interests are, um, creeping pedophiles, and the main character, who is a ghost, is just, well, a MURDERING ASSHOLE.  And the ending?  Well, all the worst characters get exactly what they want.  THE END!  Thanks for reading, and aren’t you glad you wasted three entire evenings on this?!?  (Especially when I still have like seventy-five fabulous B*G episodes in my instant queue?)  So.  That’s the scoop.  Don’t read it, and I’d suggest not reading anything else by Niffenegger either, because the book was just.  That.  Bad. 

Yet, in the interest of not ending this post on a sour note, I must make mention of a literary event I’m absolutely quaking over.  Tana French’s new novel, Broken Harbor, releases next week, and I’m considering checking into a motel for the evening to read it cover to cover.  If you haven’t read her yet, get on it immediately – In the Woods is one of the best crime/murder/mystery books you will ever encounter. 

Happy reading!

*By the way, here’s an interesting tangent:  Guess what’s being made into a screenplay?  Sweet Valley High, people.  And guess who is writing that screenplay?  Diablo Cody, that’s who!  (I might have just peed, a little.)  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading.  The reading of a book equaled complete absorption.  While between the pages, I wouldn’t hear anything around me (something that caused my parents endless frustration, since I constantly ignored them).  At night I couldn’t stop, so bedtimes were an enormous problem.  I would pretend to sleep, then open my eyes and read under the covers with a flashlight until I got too hot.  When my parents discovered this, I changed tactics.  I started sneaking to the bathroom after lights out.  I’d lock the door and sit in the bathtub with my novel until the wee hours.  In high school, I remember summer days in which I’d wake up, grab my book, and read in bed, still in my pajamas, until dinnertime. 

Today, I’m still obsessed, but I’m a grown-up about it.  Real responsibilities force me to be less reckless with my obsession, I suppose.  I contain my reading time to the stair stepper at the gym, and during kids’ naptimes, and in the evenings, after bedtime.  I usually manage to go to bed at a decent hour so that I can get up with my kids and face the day like a functional person. 

However, We Need To Talk About Kevin kept me up at night and I read the thing in about two feverish sittings.  I literally couldn’t stop.  It’s been a while since I felt this way about a book – I usually can bring some sort of mature detachment to reading, especially lately, what with the advent of the sewing mania (one obsession at a time, I guess).  We Need To Talk About Kevin is the story of a family – a happy couple has a baby.  The problem?  THAT BABY IS A SOCIOPATH, hell-bent on ruining the lives of everyone with whom he comes into contact.  Told in the form of letters from the mother to the father (the epistolary novel strikes again), it chronicles the family’s life and presents anecdotal evidence of Kevin’s psychological issues.  The book raises age-old yet still fascinating questions of nature versus nurture and most interesting (to me at least), Shriver’s narrative considers maternity in a unique way.  Eva, the mother, is not a sympathetic character.  She is not someone we want to identify with; her life is a horror.  Yet she is compelling because there are qualities in her that are hauntingly familiar to myself and, I’m sure, to many women – her episode with postpartum depression, for example – which make her all the more affecting.  Also, Eva is mother to a monster, and while she doesn’t love Kevin, she is intimately connected to him.  She understands him in ways that no one else does and knows his capabilities.  In her letters, Eva is unflinchingly honest about her son.  In this way I feel that We Need To Talk About Kevin redefines maternity in a feministic, non-essentialist, and therefore postmodern way:  Maternity without emotion.   Maternity is redefined as being about connection, not sentiment.

Anyway, you should read it, unless the topic is just too off-putting (which I totally understand).  Somehow, I seem to be reading lots of books about sociopathic behavior lately, which I’m certain can’t be healthy.  An aside:  We Need To Talk About Kevin has been recently made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton (who I LOVE) – and it is great, as well.  But read the book first, of course.

In other news, I got an iPhone.  It is a thing of beauty.

This is a huge development for me.  I’ve had the same flip-phone for like nine years.  Texting would take approximately fourteen hours, and I was basically a menace to society while driving because I had no mapping capabilities in my car.  (And absolutely no internal sense of direction, whatsoever, either.  Zero.)  So the iPhone is a serious game-changer.  Most notably, I’m getting prepped for a new television obsession, since I can stream Netflix on it any old time I want.  (Am in paroxysms of joy.)

Good hunting.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Some Suggestions for Summer

So lately, the pile of things-that-have-been-read-and-must-be-blogged-about is outweighing the pile of things-I-will-read-next, and it’s stressing me out a little.  I mean, as much as I enjoy telling you all what to read, lately I’ve been enjoying just reading even more.  So this is going to be a compilation post of several books I’ve read lately – we all need a bunch of good stuff to take to the pool, right?

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

I love a good old-fashioned ghost story, and this book is indeed that.  Inspired by and reminiscent of du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, it is the creepy-crawly tale of a marriage falling apart, an ancient, crumbly estate, and the South of France – and it’s told via several points-of-view (a ghost being one of them).  The novel’s central trope is the idea of disappearing women – there is a serial killer on the loose, the ex-wife has vanished mysteriously, as has one of the previous owners of the estate.  (Incidentally, this character is blind, which fits in tidily with the general idea of disappearance.)  One notable aspect of Lawrenson’s writing was its pure sensuality – the descriptions of the Provencal winds, for example, or of fragrances (one character is a celebrated perfume creator), or of music (another is a composer).  All of these provided a more physical experience for the reader.   But I must say that my favorite thing about The Lantern was the fact that it told several mysteries simultaneously, some even bridging the gap of a particular time period.  I do love a mystery.

These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner

When my book club picked this novel, I was not excited.  I really didn’t want to read about early settlers in Arizona; the “Wild West” isn’t something that holds any real interest for me, though I do enjoy historical fiction as a genre, overall.  But then I started reading, and the book is great.  Kind of like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but racy.  (It is a love story, in case that makes a difference to you one way or another.)  These Is My Words is an epistolary novel, a form I adore, written in the style of journal entries by one Sarah Prine.  Sarah, the “author,” is a wonderful female character – tough, smart, and good with a rifle – and this installment of her story (it is the first of a series) covers her young womanhood and early adult life.  (It appears that the real Sarah Prine was Turner’s great-grandmother, and the novel was inspired by her actual life.)  All in all, it is a quick read, and much enjoyed.  I’m looking forward to the other books in the series.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Another book club selection I was not initially excited about.  You might remember Hillenbrand – she wrote Seabiscuit?  (Which I’m sure is wonderful, because that’s what everyone in the world says, but I just can’t do horse books.  Sorry.)  So Unbroken is her new book, and IT IS AMAZING.  Amazing.  Here’s the story, in a nutshell:  Dude is a juvenile delinquent in California, turns life around by becoming effing fast runner.  Dude goes to the 1940 Olympics in Berlin, where he briefly meets Hitler.  Dude joins the AAF and is shipped out to the Pacific Theater during WW2, to drop bombs on Japanese-held islands.  Dude’s plane crashes in the middle of the Pacific, yet he survives.  Dude ends up on raft for something like forty-six days with no provisions, yet he survives.  Dude washes up on Japanese soil and becomes a POW and is systematically tortured over a period of years, yet he survives.  (And those are just the highlights.)  Anyway, it is the best description I’ve ever read of what things were like for the airmen of that time (those planes were totally unsafe, you guys.  Crazy death-traps; airmen during that time had a one in two mortality rate).  Hillenbrand’s research is impeccable, and her writing style flawless; she has a knack for including compelling personal anecdotes to invigorate the narrative.  My favorite of these concerned the airmen’s life vests that were included on planes in the case of a crash.  Many times the life vests failed to inflate, not because they were defective, but because the soldiers had stolen the compressors to carbonate their drinks back at the base.  Incredible.  Hillenbrand provides a million such details, which makes for a completely consuming book.

That’s all for now.  This should get us almost up-to-date.  Chime in with your thoughts, and happy reading!