Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, was an absolutely delightful read. The story, as you might imagine, centers around three sisters who return to their Midwestern home for varying reasons. On the surface, they tell themselves that it is because their mother has been diagnosed with the big C. While this is obviously one of their reasons, it becomes clear as the novel unfolds that their true motivations for their homecomings lie elsewhere. Each feels she has failed at life in some way, and each seems to be simultaneously experiencing a period of personal turmoil, transformation and growth.

The sisters' father is a professor of the Bard, expert in all things Bill Shakespeare. The family is one of readers, which I adored and of which I was in some ways jealous. Their house had no TV, and they were always reading in some haphazard way - picking up a novel here, setting it down in the pantry to be taken up by the next person to find it, etc. They had a habit of speaking to each other in conversation peppered with cryptic but usually poignant Shakespearean quotes - especially the father. Further following the Shakespeare motif, each of the sisters is named for a Shakespeare character that in some ways loosely maps out their personality. The oldest, Rose, short for Rosalind, from As You Like It; middle: Bean, Bianca from The Taming of the Shrew; and the youngest Cordy, Cordelia, from King Lear. Their personalities, their character's strengths and weaknesses, all seem to be shaped both by their Shakespearean character counterpart and where they fall in the birth order. At times, this seemed a little too constricting and obvious for character development (Rose was the reliable, responsible one; Bianca flirty and fighting for attention; and Cordy, the favorite, the baby, flighty and directionless), but in the end I felt it seemed to work.

The book was written in the first person plural, the collective 'we' of the three sisters. This was rarely awkward, and I liked the device as it presented an almost separate character of a composite of the three. Oddly, while I couldn't fully relate to any of the sisters individually, I could relate to them as a whole. I was thinking, while reading, that in real life, I might not be friends with any of these women individually, but could see pieces of myself in all of them. In the end, after they do their respective growing up, I think we all would get along splendidly.

Rose is held down by her attachment to feeling needed, her notion that she was the only thing holding the family together. She is a professor of mathematics at a college in the City (Columbus, OH), but it was not a permanent, tenured position. At 33, she felt she should have accomplished more than she had, and could not see that her need to be needed was actually a crutch holding her back. She is engaged to another professor, who takes a temporary job at Oxford without really discussing it with her (which bothered me), and after she is offered the 'job of her dreams,' a tenured position at the local, prestigious university, he is at the same time offered a 2 year position at Oxford. One or the other will have to put their career on hold... and initially, I did not like that it had to be Rose. However, Rose had never traveled far from home, had never lived outside of Ohio, her home state, and possibly needed to learn to take a few risks in order to experience all life had to offer. Who wouldn't want to go loll about in England? Well, okay, I'm sure there are many that would hate it.  Even still, her husband-to-be did not seem seriously to consider moving back to allow her career to grow and prosper, and that was a shame. Although, it's probably incredibly realistic. In terms of character development, Rose learned to take risks and try new things, to venture beyond her geographical comfort zone, and that is important. I do wish some other catalyst, other than a man's career, served that purpose.

Bianca is a 30 year old superficial flirt, on the surface. And a thief, it turns out, having stolen from her company by adding money to her paychecks (she handled payroll, so that's how that was so easy). Mostly, she suffers from the middle kid syndrome: she can't outshine Rose in the smartness and reliability categories, and she can't outshine Cordy in the everyone loves her naturally category. So she's left to be the impeccably styled femme fatale, making bad choices with men and deriving most of her self-worth from her looks and ability to attract a man's attention. Many women must be able to relate to such feelings, and while her character seemed to lack substance at first, she eventually evens out and shows the world and, more importantly, herself, that she has a lot more to offer than just a pretty face. She lucks into a job as the town librarian, one she resents at first as it's not at all how she saw herself. She does not want to be tied to the town she'd been so desperately trying to escape, and feels coming back, and staying, renders her a failure in some way. For anyone that's left their hometown for a big city, or several, these feelings of failure upon returning are wholly relatable.

In wise-father mode, Bean's dad dispenses my favorite advice:
We all have stories we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves we are too fat, or too ugly, or too old, or too foolish. We tell ourselves these stories because they allow us to excuse our actions, and they allow us to pass off the responsibility for things we have done-maybe to something within our control, but anything other than the decisions we have made...
...There are times in our lives when we have to realize our past is precisely what it is, and we cannot change it. But we can change the story we tell ourselves about it, and by doing this, we can change the future.  
Interestingly, I could relate to Bean's personality the least, but her predicament the most. I spontaneously moved to NYC straight after college, from the midwest, although I had nothing close to the lifestyle she chose (no fancy clothes and endless martini nights for me). I loved the diversity and anonymity of the city, the lively streets and public transportation, and fell for the illusion of endless opportunity. Unlike Bean, I didn't leave because I had to. I left because after 7 years, the non-stop nature of the city had become a constant drain on my mind and energy. But once I returned to the metro-area in which I grew up, I still felt a sense of failure that was incredibly hard to overcome. I had to come to the realization that the sisters' father so articulately states. It was that, exactly, that I realized, and what allowed me to move forward mentally.

Cordelia, the youngest at 27, has been a bit of a modern hippie wanderer, never having a permanent address, wandering from temporary job to temporary job across the country, constantly needing money from her parents to bail herself out of her latest crisis. She doesn't even learn her mother is sick until weeks later - apparently she doesn't carry a mobile phone either. At this time, she has discovered that she is pregnant, by a man she barely knew and didn't want to continue knowing. Not that he's a bad person, he just lacked a worthwhile character, being an artist drifter of sorts himself. She seems the most innocent and carefree of the sisters, but she also feels the least capable. She doubts her ability to raise a child as much, and much more, than anyone else doubts her.  Her main obstacle to overcome is her wanderlust - she comes to realize that returning home, having a permanent address, living a 'normal' life, is not such an awful thing, and may even be preferable.

I really enjoyed this novel. I normally don't read anything that has to do cancer, but this book did not center around that, not really. It was not a depressing read about a sick parent - the mother was not the main focus of the book. The focus was on her daughters.

Instead, this novel is more of a late 20s/early 30s coming-of-age tale. It deftly captures the modern ennui, focusing on that transition we all experience into 'real' adulthood. Most of us only feel as though we're playing at being adults in our early to mid twenties (or perhaps in some cases, perpetually). Life doesn't feel as if it progresses as neatly as our parents' lives appeared to unfold. We change jobs much more often, move more, are more likely to live in different cities, and are much more likely to view living near home as an indication that we have failed to make a claim in the world for ourselves. Valuing independence above all else can take it's toll. Unless we live completely on our own in the woods, make our own food and clothes and shelter and compose our own entertainment, none of us are independent, or completely self-sufficient - not entirely. And it's best to realize and accept our interdependence as a healthy part of life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Books have always been better friends to me than actual people. They show up when needed, are not usually judgmental but don't mince words, and often somehow have the right thing to say for a particular moment. Friends seem to fill a particular segment in time in my life, then vanish into the night or slow fade like fabric too long in the sun.

Nevertheless, I still seem to be required to line up a row of bestest friends for display at this impending public commitment of my affections to the co-conspirator, and aside from my sister, required by blood to stand by my side, I have no one quite right to stand with me.

A shame, it is, it can't be characters sprung to life in 3 dimensions, color coordinated and sweet and wise. But if it could, whom would I choose? This is still difficult, having read some of my favorite books so long ago but here's an attempt:
  • Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, for her wit and humor. 
  • Meg Carpenter, from Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas, for her creative overthinking and meandering, insightful observations
  • Larry, an old, dear friend from The Razor's Edge, by Somerset Maugham, which I haven't read in years so perhaps I'm romanticizing a bit, for the comfort of an old friend. 
  • And maybe Hermione, from Harry Potter (although I've only read the first three) for her knowledgeable reliability, and to keep us all on task.
Which characters would you prefer to know in your own life?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Unbroken: final thoughts

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand

This story has now rattled around and percolated in my brain for long enough to jot some final thoughts about Unbroken. There can be no doubt it was compellingly written, in a manner which drew me into the lives of these men as they suffered countless brutalities and indignities. I might have trouble commenting on the story, and the book, in any coherent way, so you have been warned. 

In high school, I was assigned to interview someone about an interesting experience or characteristic about themselves, and I originally chose my grandfather, who had been stationed at Pearl Harbor during the attack. When I tried to start the conversation, he immediately became gruff and annoyed, barking "What do you want to know? The Japanese attacked us." End of story. Although Louie, the focus of the story's main narrative, was not at Pearl Harbor, after learning of all the chaotic suffering of the men in the war, I might have a slightly better understanding of why my grandfather refused to talk about his experience at Pearl Harbor. Talking about the experiences, for many, was akin to reliving them. Who on earth would want to do that. I do regret that I did not have the chance to approach the subject with him later, from a possibly more sensitive and nuanced point of view. 

I find myself for some reason every so slightly unsatisfied with the conclusion of the book. As with any true story, wrapping it up after the bulk of the main story is over proves slightly awkward. Louie is indeed an inspiring character, and overcame a host of impossible atrocities. He did finally make it back home, and suffered tremendously from PTSD, about which very little was known at the time. His wife convinced him to come hear Billy Graham speak, and that's what shook him free of his alcoholic coping mechanism. He became a very devout Christian, which, due to my own experience growing up in the Bible Belt, I had to take with a grain of salt (explanation to be divulged at a later time). I cannot discount the dramatic importance of religion in providing meaning to people's lives, and I'm very glad he managed to find his way back to a functional, meaningful life. He did strike me as lacking the judgmental nature of so many die-hard Christians, and that was refreshing. He managed to forgive his main abuser at the camps, and to let go of his anger - for anyone, an outstanding feat. 

I think what I find slightly hard to swallow is that Louie's finding of religion, rather than his triumph over the anger he felt, somehow becomes the main focus. I realize the two go hand in hand here -- that he found meaning and comfort in his chosen religion which was instrumental in helping him overcome his anger and lead a productive and full life. Still, it seemed that the emphasis was placed more strongly on that Louie "found God" rather than he overcame his demons, so to speak. I am probably judging that aspect of the end too harshly, and through too thick a personal lens. However, I believe such an ending could come off as slightly preachy to anyone that is not Christian. The author could have highlighted finding meaning in religion generally as well as specifically, perhaps, bringing it more in line with a general human experience to which almost anyone (except, perhaps, atheists) could relate. But, perhaps that's expecting way too much out of the telling of one man's specific experiences. 

I would still, of course, highly recommend this book. I chose it originally because the subject matter is far out of my comfort zone, as well as not anything I typically choose to read. The writing is thoughtful and vivid, and I think I have a much better, although of course still hopelessly limited, understanding of the actual horrors people at war must endure. It's a wonder any of them can remain psychologically, let alone physically, whole.  I was very sad to learn that Louie's injuries ultimately prevented him from running in the Olympics again. The war stole too much from him, although, at least, not his life or resilience. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mind that Gender Gap

Image Credit: George Bates

The Vida 2010 Count was released at the beginning of the month, and it's the talk of the literary world... well, at least, the literary world in which women reside. Men, so far, don't seem quite so interested. Oh, wait, one just weighed in, remarking:
The bottom line at Tin House is that we are aware of the gender disparity, we are concerned about these numbers, and we are committed to redoubling our efforts to solicit women writers.
That's refreshing. So, actually, it's the talk of a small corner of the literary world in which mostly women reside, and not all that many women are talking about it.

Short synopsis: Vida compiled a comparison of women-to-men literary authors reviewing books, reviewed books authored by men vs women, and women and men authors overall throughout the magazines. They remarked on the great gender disparity, as a means to spark discussion:
The truth is, these numbers don't lie. But that is just the beginning of this story. What, then, are they really telling us? We know women write. We know women read. It's time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don't reflect those facts with any equity.
The biggest defenses of the numbers seem to be:
  • More men than women are published.
  • Men submit more work than women.
  • Laura Miller at Salon muses that while women are known to be avid readers, they tend to read books by both men and women. Men, on the other hand, tend to read books by mostly male authors. (I suspect this is true.)
So what now? Clearly the issue is much deeper than just the decisions made by mostly male magazine editors. We live in a society grossly colored by gender stereotypes, subconsciously teaching us the difference between the roles of men and women in society from a very young age. Ironically: stereotypically, women are "supposed" to be masters of language, and men masters of science and math. (These underlying stereotypes and how they affect our behavior, self-perception and actions are discussed at length in a book I'm currently reading - Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine.) Why, then, are men the ever-constant puppeteers of the realms of science, math and language?

We are still taught implicitly to respect men's opinions more, to admire their work as the standard by which all others must be judged. This, I would think, would have much to do with men submitting more work and being more likely to submit work after being rejected. Men are taught that that's how men do things. Women, on the other hand, aren't supposed to worry so much about success and achievement in the public world, so if at first we don't succeed, well, we tried that once, anyway. We have our homes and our own small private successes to keep us happy.

But it's 2011, you say! All these silly gender disparities have long since been abolished! We've achieved equality!

Actually, we haven't. Women still make only 75-80 cents for every man's dollar, are routinely overlooked for jobs if there's a man available with the same credentials (unless, of course, the job is a traditionally female position, such as nurse or secretary), and if you're a mother, well, forget it. Clearly your focus is on your kids and you're not going to give your job the mathematically impossible 110% of your capabilities and focus.

It's not much of a surprise, then, that the literary world is no different. It's not only that these magazines need to be more gender-conscious, it's that we ALL need to be more aware of the choices we make, and how all of us make judgments about other people based in part on subconscious gender- and race-biased attitudes and expectations that too often reside far below the surface of our awareness.

These underlying reasons for the choices we make and the judgments we pass must be brought to the forefront. Gender parity must be reflected in every aspect of our daily lives, public and private. Men need to continue to share more responsibilities at home, and women need to encompass an ever increasing roll in public life - in executive and editor level positions throughout the business world.

The Vida 2010 Count, then, is yet another tool to bring this awareness, and the need for change, to the surface.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I'm not quite half way through with Unbroken, and the read is a somewhat harrowing experience. The savage cruelties of which humans are capable are unfathomable, and seem to be compounded dramatically in war. It's incredibly uncomfortable, nauseating and even disorienting to read of all the amazingly horrific atrocities these people suffered on a daily basis at the hands of their brutal captors. I know the main 'character' survives, but that knowledge is cold comfort, with another half book's worth of unimaginable suffering to be endured. On the one hand, this man actually endured and lived through all this sadistic brutality; surely I should be ok reading about the experience. On the other, in some ways I just don't want to know.

I think this not wanting to know, this fooling oneself into thinking "Well, war's bad, but it's not that bad" is how we seem to fall into war so easily. Yes, it is bad. But it is so much worse than we allow ourselves to think about. It's almost a protective coating we apply to our psyche that disallows us to fully empathize with the radical suffering everyone experienced--continues to experience. Because if we did, if we allowed our minds to go there, we're not sure we'd have the strength or conviction or hope to go on. How these people managed to retain the will to survive still remains inexplicable to me.

And yet I will persevere through the story, because, after all, they did. It's really the least we can do, we that have been fortunate enough to remain at a comfortably great distance from such battles and their aftermaths. I'm learning a lot more about the Pacific front of WWII than I ever knew before. Most education about that time period focuses on Europe, the Nazis, and the horrors of the concentration camps. Of course we learn about the atomic bombs that ended the war, but it's never really fully explained why, and why they felt such measures necessary. It's becoming slightly clearer. Apparently such inhumane barbarities were carried out in the eastern hemisphere as well. It really is so much worse than I ever let myself imagine before.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Nonficiton Reader's Block

I may have taken on a few too many non-fiction books at the moment, and might have to mix in some fiction. The problem is, the fiction will most likely become my book of choice, shoving the non-fiction options to the wayside.

Currently on my plate:
  1. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
  2. Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine
  3. The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor
All: fantastic books. I say this, of course, not having finished any of them.

I'm not sure how much I'll participate in the NPR book club -- it just happened to have sprung into being the day after I started the book! Unbroken is great so far, actually, but so intense -- I wanted to read something out of my comfort zone, so a story-like tale of a man surviving through Olympic trials and WWII seemed an excellent choice. The other two are feminist texts that I want to read, and almost wish I had to for some post-graduate class. Delusions of Gender is also a fantastic read so far - packed with witty, well-researched and well-supported debunkings of our favorite gender stereotypes.

The Bookeater makes some insightful and timely suggestions about reading nonfiction, and I really do believe the rewards will be great. It's just harder to curl up by the fire with a feminist essay or fall asleep to scientific studies turning absurd stereotypes on their head - not at all to knock those topics, as I love them. But I love them by day... not as much by night. Perhaps it's that night feels like more of an escapist time - a time to retreat away from the harsher realities of this world and into an alternate reality, soothing because it's not entirely real, but instead only shares certain aspects with my own reality.

Possibly this suggests it's time to explore and expand my reasons for reading to encompass grander purposes outside of escapism. I'm hoping that writing about what I'm reading helps offer a more grounded raison de lire.

We shall see.
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