Saturday, October 3, 2009

While I'm Falling by Laura Moriarty

I can remember one of my creative writing professors sharing a famous quote: there are only three types of stories in this world. All stories revolve one of three ideas. I wish I remembered the wording. But google searching for the answer seems to defeat the purpose. These three things are war, love and death. look at these categories and I think: what about loss, self-discovery, catharsis, victory, defeat? And yet I also believe that most stories are about the same basic ideas. Different packaging, same themes.  Most of the books I have read lately are about life choices.

While I’m Falling is a modern story. It ruminates on the sandwich generation, couples that get divorced after twenty-five plus years of marriage, career choices, college life. And yet, it is mainly a story that explores: what is the good life? While I was reading it, I stopped to consider my own life choices, the lack of a fire I feel in my belly somedays, the part of me that has wondered if being adult means accepting a more staid daily life. I yearned to be the protagonist, a junior in college trying to find her way, setting off course from the path she had previously chosen. I can’t even remember choosing a course in college. I was too busy having fun, learning, and living. Veronica’s life is nothing to really yearn for. But I suppose I just wanted to be back in an environment where it felt safe to make mistakes.

This evening, I started talking to a woman next to me on the metro platform. She asked about the book I was reading and I tried to explain it. A young woman in college struggles after her parents divorce, she realizes she doesn’t have what it takes to be pre-med, and a train wreck of negative events occur. And then suddenly her mother is at her dorm room, evicted from her apartment and living in her van. I explained to this woman that I felt disheartened reading the book. I didn’t particularly like the characters. Or I suppose at first I didn’t relate to them. I just felt propelled by the story. But something happened. An unlikely character emerged as the most compelling hero. The homeless mother, who doesn’t regret her life choices even as she has nothing to show for herself, made me feel reinspired. Even at her lowest moments, she is a true mother, a caring and considerate person, who truly appreciates the people around her, even the lowly waitress at an all night coffee place.

In the end, I loved this book. I love the way it captured the many conflicts of modern life. It showed that the choices we make alter our lives, but the most important thing is the attitude we use to face each day. The book is about a family unraveling, and yet it isn’t tragic. In the end, I believed that all of the negative events had to occur to get the characters where they needed to be.

Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Malloy

I loved this book. It inspired me, made me realize it’s never too late to try new things, to discover a new part of yourself, to set out to create a larger family.  Who would have thought a book about a 75 year old widow would be so engaging, informative and compelling.  I guess the truth is we don't have to read about people who are like us. We learn the most from stepping inside the mindset of those who are different from us.

Seventy-five year old Sarah Lucas is in mourning over the love of her life, her husband Charles. They lived a wonderful life together and Sarah suddenly faces each new day with dread, as she is without the biggest constant in her life. Now, as I reconsider this novel, I think of the 80 year old Jewish grandmother of a friend I met this summer.  She talked repeatedly of her beloved husband, who died a number of years ago, a chemist, "but brilliant, he could have been a lawyer."  This woman was smart enough to go to college but girls didn't go to college then (unless they had wealthy parents), and she still regrets this fact.  She didn't work and it is obvious that she always defined herself in terms of her wonderful husband.  I suppose similar things could be said of Sarah, whose husband was a beloved doctor.

Sarah, is suddenly able to find a new version of herself, defined only by her actions. Her memories take her back to the Great Depression when her parents opened their house to various relatives in need. The married wife of a doctor never imagined doing something similar but the widow who replaces her soon packs her house full.  With her teenage granddaughter, fighting for independence from the mother who doesn't understand, two of her teenage friends -one whose mother seems happy to lose a mouth to feed, an Israeli pacifist professor writing a book in Sarah's cabin, and a young mother and child whose husband and father (and breadwinner) lies in the hospital burned from the electrical fire that ruined their small trailer. In Sarah's house a new family forms, and Sarah discovers her inner artist. Young, old and middle aged mingle in the house finding ways to help each other overcome a series of hardships.  Movie nights are created, a sullen teenager crafts stories for the young fatherless boy.  Sarah and the Israeli widower ruminate on loss and violence, meditation and personal peace.

I loved the characters.  They were real, and their problems were universal.  Maybe communal living is the way to go.  This book made me a ready believer.  It also made me realize that one is never to old to try something new, to discover a new passion, savor a  new hobby, embrace a new family.  So many uplifting messages in a beautifully crafted story. What more could one ask for in a reading selection for a long bus ride?

The Promised World by Lisa Tucker

Jill from Breaking the Spine said she put down this book because it was too intense. I understand her completely. I wanted to enjoy this book as it is about boy girl twins, and I am obsessed with twins (I am one myself). I have only read one other book about boy-girl twins and the unique relationship. I purchased it in Australia, it was written by a New Zealander and it was borderline strange (the girl dressed like a boy and later it was revealed she was gay).

This novel was beguiling and intriguing but it also detailed the sort of story that makes you want to look away and not turn back. The protagonist is an English professor in Philadelphia. As a female twin and compulsive reader who studied English in Philly I felt a kinship towards her. But her relationship with her twin is something else entirely. There is a reverence in their relationship that confuses all of the individuals around them. Together they escaped a traumatic childhood. The story begins with Lila Cole learning of her brother’s death. The cause of death was suicide by police (I will leave you to figure out that for yourself). After her brother’s death Lila is consumed by grief and depression, her marriage is challenged, and her niece and nephew (her brother Billy's children) are suffering as well. The traumatic events pile up one after the other and it is a lot for a reader to take.

In the end, the reader gains closure, and yet there is still so much lingering trauma. There isn’t much really conveyed in this story about the relationship between twins; it is much more focused on living through childhood trauma and abuse.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen

I adored so much about this book. I read it, feeling more and more like a New Yorker as I understood so very much of the descriptions.  Quindlen clearly understand the pulse of New York and even of the Bronx.  She created a full picture, one I know myself, and I loved being able to see the two worlds I have contrasted in my head artfully juxtaposed.  I couldn't help but wonder: Where does Quindlen get this information? How much time has she actually spent in the Bronx?

I wondered if people ever read these sorts of fictional stories with an anthropological eye.  She is a white woman trying to portray the world of poor, non-white individuals.  Seems easy for one to pick at her portrayals.  Too stereotypical. And thus offensive.  I couldn't decide myself if she captured everything realistically.  It was all believable, but I suppose all the time I spent working in the Bronx makes me sensitive to the way some people misrepresent the culture.

It is clear Quindlen has an agenda. She talks about women in the projects being provided with yoga, job training, parenting classes, when they need jobs, health care, a world that will prevent their children from becoming statistics.  The novel focuses somewhat on the way the media responds to the shooting of a white affluent boy (the son of a famous TV persona) versus the collapse of a building filled with low-income families in the Bronx.  While Quindlen seems to be sending a message (I am still unclear exactly her point), the story is mainly about two sisters, one who is a cohost of a popular morning TV show, Rise and Shine.  Megan Fitzmaurice is the most famous woman on morning TV (Meredith Viera-esque?), married to her childhood sweetheart, with a beloved son at Amherst (his father's alma mater).  She is larger than life, the world she lives in is full of town cars and charity balls, while her sister, the narrator, is a social worker in the Bronx with a 60 year old cop boyfriend.  Through these two sisters we get a view into two very different worlds located only blocks apart.

While I was engaged by the story, and loved the prose, I felt myself questioning so much of Quindlen's choices.  Is it appropriate to name a low-income mother Tequila (although I did have a student named Hennessy)?  Why is Bridget portrayed as both a mess and a pariah? Are we really to believe such a loving woman would never desire children of her own?  And of course I had problems with the representations of the Bronx.   It seems many criticized this work for the same reasons.

From Amazon: "Some critics say Meghan's arc in the novel is too dramatic, the contrasts between the gritty Bronx and sparkly Manhattan are overly sharp, and class distinctions are sometimes glossed over. Others, however, find charm in this very modern retelling of the ancient riches-to-rags, humble-sister-saves-the-day story. Even those who struggle with the plot and characterization agree the novel is worth reading simply for the prose."

I do recommend this book. But I am still trying to decide the most salient message.