Monday, February 22, 2010

Dairy Queen - Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock is Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) 's sister. This book was mentioned in Committed (I can't remember if it was in the acknowledgements section or actually part of the book - but Elizabeth Gilbert suggested checking out her sister's writing and since I am very fond of young adult novels it seemed like a wonderful suggestion).

Dairy Queen is the story of D.J. figuring out who she is and what she wants from life - which boils down to not wanting to be a cow. Probably a wise decision. Her family is very non-communicative which has resulted in two brothers who have moved away and are no longer on speaking terms with the rest of the family - the reasons behind this are cloaked in mystery - a father who was a farmer until an injury and subsequent refusal to get an operation has left him in charge of the kitchen, a mother working 2 jobs to try and make ends meet, and teen-age D.J. doing all the work on the farm with the assistance of her younger brother (when he can be spared from baseball practice and games and driving his father to physical therapy) who has completely stopped communicating with anyone - and now with the rather reluctant assistance of Brian Nelson, stuck-up rich kid who has been sent to help by his football coach in the hopes that he will learn how to actually work at something. Brian points out that when you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that winds up not getting said.

D.J. decides that the time has come to change her life, and in typical Schwenk family fashion proceeds to do this without actually discussing it with anyone for as long as she can get away with it. The book turns out to be her English writing assignment - sort of a "What I did on my summer vacation" essay - which is a style that I think works very well for this sort of story. You get to see inside the main character's head, but from her own point of view rather than an omniscient narrator. It is a lovely story. The ending is very satisfying without wrapping up all the loose ends so tightly that they can't possibly ever come unraveled again. D.J. has made a lot of progress over the course of the summer, but it is clear that while she is on the right track, things aren't going to actually be easy. On the other hand, if she continues on the way she is going, she stands a really good chance at actual happiness.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt

This book caught my eye in a bookstore one day. The cover was intriguing, the title sounded interesting, and the blurb made me want to read it. Impressively the dragonfly pin on the cover actually does appear in the book - too often cover art is either generic or wrong - this one is perfect.

Set near the beginning of the 20th century, this is a coming-of-age story about a large group of people - not all of them children - living through times of great change. Women are starting to be accepted as people in their own rights, but they must still struggle for it. The structure of society is beginning to shift, and yet change isn't always going to be a good thing. Some of the people who embrace the changes most enthusiastically wind up destroyed by it, and yet refusing to interact with the world is also not the right choice.

The most fascinating thing for me was the uniqueness of all the characters. They were all individuals, and it was obvious that they all saw themselves as the main character in their own narratives, which I found quite unusual. Fantasy novels too often have only one character with different names, and conflict between characters is generated by a lack of communication - but if you could only force people to sit down and actually talk to one another everything would be ok. That is not at all the case here. Many of these people have such conflicting world-views that attempting to communicate is almost futile. This is the best portrayal I have ever see of the difference between someone's mental image of a person, and the reality of that person. Olive (mother of a very large family) has a favorite child - Tom - who she writes stories for and about, and who she feels very close to. But as Tom grows up, he diverges from her mental image of him, and her refusal to acknowledge that he is a person in his own right, not just some aspect of herself, winds up destroying both of them. Her daughter Dorothy, on the other hand, has never been her mother's favorite, has always had a strong sense of herself, and copes quite well even though her path is not easy.

The thing which struck me most is that Olive's family, with its seven children, gorgeous house in the country, mother with an income, parents still obviously in love with one another, totally falls apart in the end. Olive's brother-in-law Basil on the other hand is very straight-laced. Their children are best seen and not heard. It is inconceivable that his son Charles/Karl actually tell his parents about what is going on in his life - and yet in the end, they seem to be doing much better - even adapting to the changing world in a way that seemed unlikely in the beginning. I'm looking for a lesson here - probably something along the lines of the early adopters of cultural revolution wind up being most damaged by it, while those who sit back and let other people take the risks but allow themselves to be flexible when change is forced on them cope much better in the long run.

The final thing which struck me is the ending with World War 1. Initially when the boys go off to war you can't imagine anything more horrible than that they might get killed. But very rapidly you see that dying isn't the worst thing that can happen. And neither is coming home again. It depends very much on the individual, their own experiences, and the home they return to.

I absolutely loved this book. It was even better on re-reading as I had attention to focus on the gorgeous picture Byatt is painting with her words (there are just too many characters to keep track of to possibly focus on the setting the first time around). This is one I think I would like to own, and I suspect I'm going to get my mother a copy for her birthday.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Committed - Elizabeth Gilbert

I read "Eat, Pray, Love" back when it was the thing to do, and totally loved it. There was no question in my mind, when I saw that she had a new book out, but that I was going to read it, and I'm really glad I did.

Committed is a story of how, having totally failed at marriage once, it is possible to decide to try it again. I know this isn't going to resonate with everyone, but it sure resonated with me. So much of the emotional turmoil she describes is exactly what I went through. The feeling that getting married is somehow going to ruin a totally reasonable relationship, that it is going to turn you and your partner into strangers. That things will inevitably go wrong and then you're going to get dragged through the morass of divorce once again.

I learned a lot about marriage that I didn't know. Turns out that divorce used to be quite a common practice back before the Christian Church got involved in solemnizing marriages. Marriage is society's way of acknowledging that you are now a partnership, that you are taking joint responsibility for children and property. It lets you relax and know that the other person isn't going to just walk out the door on a whim. But I think that the possibility of divorce should always be there. Honestly, promising to love and be faithful to one person for the rest of your life just doesn't make any sense. People change. Situations change. Often divorce is better for everyone involved. Acknowledging this from the beginning - either formally with pre-nuptual agreements, or just informally as something that might happen but will be dealt with gracefully - goes a long way towards removing the incredible pile of guilt that often accompanies divorce.

I wish I'd had this book back when I was deciding to get married again. It would have made things easier. On the other hand, it is very reassuring that we both came to very similar conclusions and seem to have wound up in similar second relationships is both interesting and reassuring. The different cultural perspectives on marriage were totally fascinating. Having your whole community come together to do whatever it can to try and save your marriage is pretty crazy. It seems like such a fantastic idea, and yet I wouldn't want it to happen to me. And Elizabeth explained why: when women can earn enough money to support themselves, and when they can decide whether or not to have babies, they can hold out for better things in a partnership.

My favorite bit was when she interviewed a young man in a small town about their marriage customs. Everyone they know is invited, and people will often bring friends as well. This couple had over 700 people at their wedding. Each guest gave money in a small labelled envelope, and the new bride very carefully wrote down the precise sum given by each guest. This part was very important because when someone else gets married, the couple is expected to give back exactly the amount originally give them, plus interest! This means that every new couple essentially gets a loan from the community to help get them started. And the community has a vested interest in making sure the couple survives so that they can return the favor down the road.

I absolutely loved Committed, but I'm quite curious to know how other people react to it, specifically people who haven't been divorced.

It Sucked and then I cried - Heather B. Armstrong

I've been reading for years now. I think I first started reading it regularly when I found out I was pregnant. At the time she was writing about life with a small child and I was totally entranced by the story, the photography, and her voice. She just doesn't seem to have the boundaries that most people do, which got her fired way back when she first started writing this blog, but it means that what you get to see here is a little more genuine than what you get everywhere else.

She just recently published this book about the first year of Leta's life, and her own struggle with depression, including checking into a hospital to deal with it post-partum. This is the book I wish I had read when Elli was just a few weeks old and I felt like I was drowning. She is so open and honest about exactly how hard it can be to cope with a tiny and demanding little person, while simultaneously showing you how amazing it can be. But mostly it is that she is so funny than you just can't help but laugh out loud. Most people can't pull of the juxtaposition of seriousness and hilarity, but she manages almost every day on her blog. The book is a lot more than just reading through what she has written online. You get a really coherent narrative, and a lot of the details that just had to get left out as she was coping with a new baby, serious depression, and severals days in the hospital. You do miss out on all the gorgeous photos from the blog. There are a few colour plates included in the centre of the book, but she and her husband are both amazing photographers, and the pictures that appear daily on her website are totally stunning.

This isn't a how-to parenting manual by any means. But it is a very open and honest account of the downward spiral into post-partum depression, and the struggle to recover from that, told in a wonderfully entertaining voice that is a real pleasure to read. I know this sounds like something that shouldn't work at all, but that's only because no one else writes quite the way Dooce does.