Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

I love the title of this book.  As well as the opening line: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." As an individual who constantly questions her life path, I loved journeying with Rebecca Davitch, a 53 year old widower and grandmother, as she tried to make sense of her past choices and recreate her life.   In many ways middle aged Rebecca is going through adolescence for the first time.

At an engagement party for one of her stepdaughters, she finds herself questioning everything about her life.  Soon she is dreaming of a blonde teenage son (she is the mother to one biological daughter and three stepdaughters) and seeking out her high school sweetheart.

Rebecca, now known as Beck, and the center of a noisy family and the proprietor of a party and catering business run from her home (the Open Arms), was formerly a studious and analytical college student on the path to pursuing a Phd in history, while her childhood boyfriend  and almost fiancee pursued one in Physics.  On a fateful day she attends an engagement party at the Open Arms and meets Joe Davitch. Suddenly she is a college dropout, stepmother to three, and major source of organization for the family business.  Six years later her husband dies and she is left alone to raise his four daughters.

This book is a wonderful examination of regret.  Middle-aged Rebecca questions her choice and wonders: how did I get here?  It is a question so many individuals ask. And many at very different stages in life.  Rebecca reconnects with her ex fiance and realizes that she has assigned rose colored glasses to the path not taken.

Overall, I found this story to be unique and compelling.  The characters were vivid with nicknames such as Min Foo, (because of her eyes; real name Minerva), and Patch.  And it left me pondering my own decisions even more than usual.

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline

I couldn't help but think of the recent Taconic crash while reading the opening of this novel. A mother (who has been drinking, by most definitions moderately) gets in a car accident and a young child dies.  She was not technically at fault but that doesn't relieve the guilt and depression that plague her. Obviously the crash on the Taconic (where eight individuals died including the driver, who has since been reported to have been drunk) is very different than the accident in this story, and yet it all connects. Mothers and driving. Loss and blame.  Interestingly, since I finished the book, Baker Kline posted on her blog connecting the horrific crash on the Taconic with her inspiration for this story.

At the heart of this novel is two couples. In the past they made the perfect foursome. But now Claire is sleeping with her best friend Allison's husband. Obviously the dynamic has shifted.

Baker  Kline creates a complex narrative to explain the connections and experiences between these four well-developed characters.  The narrative of the book shifts in time, so that we learn about the events of the present at the same time that we delve into slivers of the past that explain the complex layers of the present.  For example, halfway through the book, we learn that Charlie,  Allison's husband, studied at Oxford with Ben and Claire. He fell in love with Claire, who was already engaged to Ben, and Claire realized that to keep Charlie in their lives their  threesome must become a foursome.  So she invited Allison, her childhood best friend to visit.

It angered me to learn about Charlie's complex emotions. At first introduction, he is a cheater, ready to ease out of his suburban life in a family of four.  While the reader yearns for an explanation for Charlie and Claire's terrible betrayal, the layered truth Baker Kline reveals did not absolve them in my eyes.  Claire comes across as a selfish woman, who seeks as much attention as she can. As a young person she wanted both Ben and Charlie. As a thirtysomething woman she is ready to hurt countless individuals in order to get what she wants: fame and the excitement of the unsafe choice she didn't pick as a young person, Charlie.

Baker Kline uses all four characters to explore the idea of wanting dual lives, and lamenting past choices. Allison years for her working life pre children while also wanting the life she has with her beautiful children. She realizes that she has never once made a decision based solely on her own desires. She is caught up in meeting the needs of her husband and children. Claire wanted a life with Ben, steady and solid, with the promise of his clear adoration and love.  He was the safe choice as his love was all-encompassing. Charlie, on the other hand, was the risky choice as he was infatuated with Claire.

Baker Kline uses this novel to explore the choices adults make. City life or suburbs. A life without children or a life with.  Suitor 1 or Suitor 2.  This makes the book refreshingly real. These are choices most individuals face and the decision is never easy.  All of the four main characters, like real individuals, have been forced to compromise. Charlie in particular seems to have thought his choices would lead to a different outcome.  There is a sense that he did everything right.  Worked hard, married the right type of woman.  It is obvious though that he hasn't truly committed to these choices.  I found myself frustrated by Claire and Charlie - not because they are adulterers but because they are so extremely selfish.  All of their actions seem driven by their wants, in such an extreme manner.  It isn't hard to believe that a father would leave his two children to follow his own desires; but it still angers me.

Overall, I found this story incredibly engaging.  While I found myself perplexed by some of the character's choices, I felt Baker Kline succeeded in capturing many of the complexities of modern life and modern marriage.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners by Luane Rice

I've actually never read a Luane Rice novel before. While reading, I figured that this book was connected to her last novel (The Geometry of Sisters) but I haven't read it.

I started reading this book at Borders (shush don't tell!) half an hour before the store closed and figured it was a perfect read for my bus ride the next day. The idea of a runaway mother drew me in. It is something I wrote about in a short story I composed in high school and I guess that was enough to engage me in this story.

Pell and Lucy have lived without their mother for ten years. Their father, who was both a father and mother to them, died three years ago, and Pell decides it is time to visit her mother and bring her back into their lives. Lyra, their mother, has been living in Capri, the one city she ever felt home in, among a cast of other expats.  In Capri, she gardens, despite the fact that her mother never considered this an appropriate career choice.

I loved the setting of this novel.  I want to journey to Capri immediately. Additionally, Rice grounds much of Pell, Lucy and Rafe's behaviors in psychology, and this leads the story to be incredibly realistic.  Lucy suffers night terrors and insomnia.  Pell, a sixteen year old, has decided she wants to study psychology as it has helped her understand so much of her own experiences. All of the psychological studies mentioned in the book added to my interest.  The explanation of Lyra's behavior is a lot harder to swallow.  I understand why she left but I still find it hard to believe that she could live happily cut off from her daughters who she so obviously loved.  The book speaks to the fact that we have no word in our society to match deadbeat dads.  Women who leave are considered monsters. But are they?  Nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.  And in the end we learn that Lyra's desertion of her children was a lot less of a conscious choice than it originally seems.

This was a highly engaging read with very realistic characters. 

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer Reading Update

So far my favorite book of the summer is Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck.  I found the book so thought-provoking I started taking notes while reading - something I haven't done for a fiction book since my English courses in college.  I had a long review composed but unfortunately a blogger mishap lead to me losing most of my response.  I will rewrite and post a review shortly. I highly recommend this book for book clubs. The book engenders so much discussion.  I can imagine classes sitting and discussing the book and how it reflects modern life. And that to me is the highest compliment.  

In other marnes and nobles news, I must share a recent BandN experience.  I was happy to spend some time in the Union Square BandN yesterday - it was formerly up there as one of my favorite NYC BandN's, mainly because you used to be able to sit in the large windowsills that overlook Union Square and the back of the store.  Apparently, every New Yorker must love this bookstore.  The place is mobbed on a Sunday afternoon.  And this has lead the powers that be to change the policy regarding sitting and reading. There are signs throughout the store saying: "Please do not sit in front of these shelves or in the aisles.  Thank you." There is some seating set up on the 3rd and 4th floor, but apparently people get there early to claim these seats.  It honestly it took me over half an hour to find a spot to sit that complied with the rules (I tried sitting in the YA section, as I used to, and was asked to move as I was blocking the aisle).  I am happy to report there are no rules about sitting in the aisle at my BandN in DC.

In store reading: Yesterday, I read The Impostor's Daughter by Laurie Sandel.  I had heard a great deal about this book before I picked it up.  The fact that the author's unique story is told in the format of a graphic novel intrigued me.  I haven't read many graphic novels so its hard to evaluate The Impostor's Daughter.  One doesn't really get a sense of Sandell's writing ability, but we do get a sense of her ability to illustrate.  The story itself is fascinating.  Her father, an economics professor, is actually a con man who has lied about successive university degrees. His larger than life personality greatly affected Sandell's coming of age, and her quest to understand the truth helps her find herself as an adult.  Sandell doesn't hold any information back. There are  "cartoons" of her and her boyfriend engaging in sexual activity, and of her interviewing various celebrities for Vogue. A dependance on Ambien is also explored.  One has to applaud Sandell for being so forthcoming about her past exploits, and the truth about her family. There is something to admire in her courage -- she felt she needed to uncover the truth even though the rest of her family did not really approve.  I really appreciate that The Impostor's Daughter is a unique format. It felt so strange to hold a hardcover in my hands, and then to discover that the whole story was told through images and words.  I always revel in individual's who find new ways to express themselves, new ways to manipulate and fine-tune the written word.  Sandell does exactly that.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Waiting on Wednesday: The Bradshaw Variations

I've been so happily devouring books I haven't had much time to scope out fall books.  Thankfully Breaking the Spine continues to pick excellent books for me to add to my list.  This week I am happy to take part in "Waiting on" Wednesday.

My pick is The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk.  It comes out September 3, 2009.

From Amazon:
From the award-winning novelist Rachel Cusk comes a timely and absorbing story of the harmony and discord of family life.

Since quitting work to look after his eight-year-old daughter, Alexa, Thomas Bradshaw has found solace and nourishment in his daily piano study, but his increasingly artistic way of life shocks his parents and his undermining in-laws. Why has he swapped roles with Tonie Swann, his intense, intellectual wife? And how can this be good for Alexa?

Tonie is increasingly seduced away from domestic life by the headier world of work, where long-forgotten memories of ambition are awakened. She finds herself outside their tight family circle, alive to previously unimaginable possibilities.

Over the course of a year full of crisis and revelation, we follow their fortunes. The Bradshaw Variations reveals how our choices, our loves, and the family life we build will always be an echo—a variation—of a theme played out in our own childhood. This masterful and often shockingly funny novel shows Cusk to be a writer at the height of her powers.  

I am excited to read about a stay-at-home dad or as my young self once coined in fourth grade a "house dad."

Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck

This is not the type of book one reads to escape.  Like so much in our modern world it raises endless questions. It prompted me to take handwritten notes while reading, something I haven't done in years.  I took notes because I wanted to ensure I considered all of the themes percolating throughout the book.

There is something both thrilling and exhausting about this book.  It explores the nuances and complexities of modern life with such a keen sense of observation and irony.  The characters are so real and so inherently a product of their modern world.  They (like many other experiences today) make me want to run away from modern society. Here are these individuals who went to Harvard and they are completely weighted down by their histories and their ambition.  Their modern life styles seem oppressive and exhausting.  At the end of the day, does all this striving make us happier?  I found myself connecting this story to a recent article in the New Republic about  a longitudinal study of males who graduated Harvard in the 1940s.  We expect these individuals to be happier.  But what does a pedigreed education really do to enhance a person's happiness?  Obviously it increases their earning potential but that in itself will not increase happiness beyond a certain point.

One of the four main characters, Jenny, is a typical type-A female, and what many would deem a "true success."  The youngest child of a canning plant foreman father and a mother who ran her own day care service while raising four children, Jenny journeyed from a small town with "ghastly colored houses" to Harvard and Harvard Business School.  She admires and loves her father "possibly more than any other on earth" and yet he has never visited her house in Boston. Additionally, Jenny clearly understands that she is raising her son to operate in a completely different world than that of her father, a quiet man with "hands like slabs of meat and a face as flat, ruddy, and impassive as a statue's."  Here is one of the many complexities of modern life. Many individuals seem to want their children to have more than they had, but what does that look like?  Is a woman with a Harvard MBA who excels at marketing pharmaceuticals happier than her quiet foreman father? 

I was particularly affected by the passage that talks of the chasm between Jenny's son and her father. Shattuck writes: "They would not speak the same language.  Even the simplest nouns would be attached to such different things in their minds: kitchen, school, transportation, meat....They would be left with nothing but the hugest most basic precepts: ocean, light, sickness, death.  Would this be enough?"  I suppose this chasm doesn't really exist in the world I operate in. My parents were raised middle class - my mother especially grew up in a similar manner to me and my brothers.  I no longer have grandparents and while I can imagine they might laugh at my high-flautin vocabulary we would still attach words to the same ideas.  Many of my friends seem able to have conversations with their own grandparents and parents without defining words in different ways.  I suppose part of this chasm has to do with class.  I defined school differently than my students who grew up in the Bronx.  It really isn't surprising that those who make it out of their low income communities rarely return. There is an idea of otherness, of being separate.

Jenny believes that motherhood "did not fit logically into the modern, well-educated career-driven woman's life."  Shattuck offers Jenny as a lens through which to hone in on modern motherhood.  We are left to ponder, when a woman was brought up learning to cook, garden, and keep house, when a "woman's primary aspiration was to achieve reproductive potential" as opposed to the more elusive form of recognition modern women strive for today, monetary or otherwise was it easier to mother? While Jenny questions these ideas I couldn't help but find fault with her own arguments. She talks of women who were taught to take care of sisters and brothers and grandparents, as if this was all so foreign to her, even though she worked in her mother's day care. It seems easy to  look at the past with a rosy view without realizing that of course with more options and a high powered career traditional motherhood is not easy.

I can't help but wonder, what are we all striving for?  In many ways some of the characters in this book seem like gerbils on a wheel grasping for what those around them covet, circling back into the lifestyles of those who came before. That isn't to say their aren't a variety of lifestyles portayed. Elise, one character, seems to love her world as a scientist. It is her niche and that is uplifting.  She has also found peace in a loving relationship with her partner Chrissy, but all of that is affected by their decision to have children (carried by Chrissy).

Biology is a reoccurring theme in the novel.  What makes someone a parent, blood or their actions?  This question is offered up through more than one story stream.  Additionally, how should biological parents be considered in a world with more rampant and acknowledged use of donors.  Is it better to know your donor? 

At the heart of the story are a series of even larger  questions: What is the good life for a child? What is the good life for an educated individual? What is fundamental? What is normal? Do modern individuals overuse their brains when they should be better using their bodies?  Shattuck uses Neil --the individual the other characters view as troubled, unstable and even teetering on crazy-- as a tool to question many of the experiences and ideas that have become normal.  He is concerned with human suffering and hates the way coddled people have inflated their own low points.  He questions if people actually deserve to be happy.  He wonders if symptoms of social psychological issues serve a purpose.  He wonders if antidepressants are a cultural force and an arbiter of normalcy.  He puts forth the idea of "all American delusional," for example, getting caught up in the minutiae of something as small as a video game without considering  its frivolity and utter insignificance in the larger world.  While he may have been the character with the most problems, I sympathized with him, saw things more through his lens than the three female characters (even though I myself am a woman).

 Shattuck offers a beautiful and magical story that stops the reader and causes them to ruminate on modern life. The novel, like its characters, is complex, intense, and varied.  I immediately recommended the book to friends. And if I had words to convey high praise without sounding ridiculous I'd offer them here.  I loved being in this world even though it was frustrating and at times nauseating.  I loved wrestling with these questions and I know I will continue to do so for a long time.

The Summer House by Nancy Thayer

This was a pleasurable read.  At the heart of the story is the interactions of an extended wealthy family.  The Wheelrights are a family of bankers.  Charlotte, one of the granddaughters, has rebelled against what is expected of her and has started an organic vegetable garden on a parcel of land on her grandmother's Nantucket estate. This has created some tension with some of the other members of the family who feel the grandmother is favoring Charlotte.

The novel mostly focuses on the secrets and experiences of three women in the family. Charlotte, her mother Helen, and her paternal grandmother, Anne, who is celebrating her 90th birthday.  Anne has been keeping  a huge secret from her son, Charlotte's father.  Helen is dealing with the repercussions of her husband's actions.  And Charlotte has a secret that explains why she fled to Nantucket.  Further drama is added as Charlotte's youngest brother returns home with a pregnant girlfriend.

As always, I enjoyed watching the events unfold for a dysfunctional family. I was rather irritated by Grace, and her daughters (Anne's other child).  I enjoyed the historical aspects included in the novel: Anne's husband was stationed in Germany during WWI and this actually forever altered their family.   This is a good escapist read.