Friday, October 30, 2009

Book #68: The Actor and the Housewife

Title: The Actor and the Housewife
Author: Shannon Hale

I stayed up late, late, late last night finishing The Actor and the Housewife. On the "keeps me reading late into the night factor" I guess I should give it a good rating. And barring that, Annie's looking over my shoulder, and her third-grade teacher is Hale's aunt, and Annie will be sure to tattle on me if I don't have nice things to say.

Honestly, though, it was a cute book. Becky Jack is a frumpy, thirty-something Mormon housewife and mom of almost-four when she meets Hollywood superhunk Felix Callahan (I kept picturing Colin Firth in Brad Pitt's body) and they immediately fall into an intense best-friendship. Over the next decade, they explore the age-old question "Can men and women ever just be friends?" In Mormon circles, Hale's characters frown on the friendship, and she often second-guesses her need to have a close emotional relationship with a man who is not her (amazing, ridiculously wonderful) husband.

This novel, like Hale's other books, has an audience wider than just Deseret Book readers, and I guess that's what makes me uncomfortable about parts of it. If there's something that embarrasses you about Mormon culture (dorky bishops giving bad advice, our oft-misguided culinary choices, kissing over the temple altar for the first time), Hale goes there. Jack is outspoken and abhors swear words and t-shirts with slogans. She's quick-witted enough to banter with the most flippant of Hollywood stars, but is overwhelmed by her wardrobe and the state of her kitchen counters.

I know I complained about the sappy-happy ending of Austenland, but I'm tired this morning after staying up all night to finish The Actor and the Housewife. To tell you the truth, I didn't get the ending I expected, probably based on what happened in Austenland. But the right thing happens, and the right thing is probably the only thing that would have satisfied Becky Jack. If you are a Mormon housewife, you'll probably enjoy the book as escapist fiction. If you're not, don't judge me based on Becky Jack. I've never made three pies a week to give away. No, I'm more of a brownie girl myself...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book #67: Rift

Title: Rift
Author: Todd Robert Petersen

Originally published at Blog Segullah.

I'm a city girl. I grew up in the great Northeastern megalopolis where it's possible to drive for six or eight hours along Interstate 95 without seeing evidence of the existence of rural America. During my BYU years, I looked down my nose with derision at the wrangler-wearing Animal Science majors, and viewed any part of the state of Utah south of Provo (with the exception of the national parks and Cedar City during the Shakespeare Festival) as one giant speed trap saddled with an unfortunate accent.

Somehow, I managed to fall in love with a boy from Springville whose ancestors hail from Sanpete County. Once we left Utah, he spent the next decade learning to say "field" instead of "fild," and we got regular updates about life back home in the land south of Provo, complete with Sunday drives to Fairview to decorate graves and picnic on the grounds at the Manti temple.

Todd Robert Petersen's novel, Rift, takes place in the fictional town of Sanpete, which he describes as "ringed on all sides by mountains. It had no interstate and no quick way to get to one. Other towns in the valley had junior colleges or BLM offices, but the town of Sanpete was frozen somewhere between between 1965 and 1972...." It's a town where the lone sheriff's deputy addresses people by name when he turns on the lights in his patrol car to pull them over, where the three-chair barbershop is the local hangout for the retired set, and where the buck stops with Bishop Darrell Bunker (whose counselor, incidentally, is named Bud Miner, and just may be my husband's fictional second-cousin).

Jens Thorsen, Rift's crotchety-but-eventually-endearing hero, has been engaged in a decades-long feud with Bunker, which apparently began when Bunker returned a broken drill to Thorsen (it wasn't broken when Thorsen loaned it to him, it just shorted out occasionally). The two men seem to delight in getting each other goats (figuratively, I didn't read of any goats in the story, just lots of horses, sheep and dead crows). The strife escalates from petty annoyances like tracking mud across kitchen floors and "borrowing" heavy equipment, to the arena of the heart when Bunker's daughter returns from "up North" and turns to Thorsen for help when she doesn't get what she wants from her father.

The novel won the Marilyn Brown novel award, and when I interviewed Brown last year, she said that the purpose of starting the award was to "encourage [Mormon] writers to write about themselves in the best language and artistic structure possible.” Petersen's novel is worthy of the award, with great descriptive writing ("Only a day had passed since Thorsen's showdown with Bunker, but in that time, talk volleyed furiously across back fences and shopping carts and checkout counters. It had come into restaurant tables on serving trays, and it left the hardware store in bags of concrete and roofing nails... By sundown the valley had been slathered in gossip."). Jens Thorsen is likely my very favorite character in Mormon fiction, including The Backslider's Frank Windham, who reminds me in some ways of a very young Thorsen. On one hand, he manages to hold a grudge for decades, grumbles at his wife, evades the police and buys cigarettes for a ward member, but on the other hand, he spends his days engaged in good works for the Jewish "gentile" doctor, an elderly nonmember couple, and others who have been cast off from Sanpete society.

I've read a lot of books about women in small towns banding together to fight ignorance (like this year's The Help) and women in religious communities fighting gossip and small-mindedness (like The Ladies' Auxiliary), but one of the things I love best about Rift is that it's a book about close male friendships, and men engaged in good works. Petersen's debut novel is a beauty, and Jens Thorsen is a character who will stay in my mind, and make me think twice about the people who live in the small towns of southern Utah as I drive through them on my way to Bryce or Zion.

Book #66: The Angel's Game

Title: The Angel's Game
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I hate it when I break my own rules. One of my cardinal rules for reading books is that when I really fall in love with a book, I need to pace myself a little bit before reading another book by the same author, otherwise I always end up disappointed. It's like eating a second ice cream sundae in one sitting. The second one is never as good as the first, even when it would taste great a week later.

I think the rule especially applies for an author like Ruiz, whose style is so dark, so different from what I normally read that it's like entering a different world. But my reserve came through at the library after months of waiting, so I dove in.

The Angel's Game is the story of David Martin, a Barcelona orphan with a talent for writing, who starts out writing for a local newspaper, moves on to a long-term commitment churning out potboiler novels, and writes himself ragged in a creepy old mansion. It's also sort of a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, with a 1920s Sempere and Sons bookshop as a setting for much of the action. When Martin's mentor runs off with his best girl, he takes on an ambitious writing challenge for a mysterious patron. The project turns out to be much more than he bargained for, and once again, the reader goes on nailbiting journeys through the macabre streets of Barcelona (is all of Barcelona macabre, or just in Ruiz's novels?), watching Martin making stupid mistakes and also gestures full of grace.

The Angel's Game is a good book. If I hadn't just read The Shadow of the Wind, I think I probably would have liked it a lot more. But the thing that frustrated me most about the novel was not that I found some of the characters frustrating or unbelievable (although I did). It's just that The Angel's Game seemed to change the whole premise of The Shadow of the Wind. It's almost Halloween, so I'll use this analogy. I love movies like Hitchcock's Rear Window, where strange, almost unbelievable things happen, but they can all eventually be explained by events in real life. I don't like movies like Carrie, where events take place that are outside the realm of reality. When I read The Shadow of the Wind, I thought Ruiz was writing Rear Window kinds of books, but The Angel's Game is a Carrie kind of book. I thought I was getting one thing, and I was really getting another. The two books are eventually supposed to be part of a series of five novels. Will I read the other three? Of course, but I also won't be surprised when supernatural things start happening for which there can be no rational explanation.

Book #65: Bad Mother

Title: Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace
Author: Ayelet Waldman

I seriously doubt that any woman who gives birth to a baby goes into it aspiring to be a bad mother. But within days, hours, and honestly probably before the baby is even born, we all have moments where we're sure we're not going to be as good at this motherhood thing as we want to be. One of my first bad mother moments came when Eddie bought me flowers to celebrate my coming home from a business trip when I was pregnant. The flowers died, but instead of dumping out the glass they'd been in, I left it sitting out on the counter. The next morning, I grabbed what I thought was a glass of water, but instead it was dead stems and plant food. And I've wondered ever since what kind of damage it inflicted on my kid.

My point is, we all have moments when we worry that we're bad moms. Waldman points out that the standards for good fathers (that they're involved when they're home, that they show up to things when they can, that they wear the Baby Bjorn from time to time) and for good mothers (perfection, constant perfection) are vastly different, and the standards we place on ourselves as mothers are unattainable. So Waldman goes on to show how she, as a mother tries, her best, enumerates what her fears are, and worries that she still falls short.

Waldman is honest in Bad Mother. Perhaps a little too honest sometimes (she talks in a chapter on bipolar disorder that she both fears passing her condition on to her kids and recognizes that it makes her, and other writers, better at what they do because they're often not afraid to overshare). She writes about everything from the crushing boredom she found when she quit her job as a public defendant to stay at home with her oldest, to her fears that her sons will grow up and leave her (and she therefore wishes that they'll be gay), to the way she and her husband still enjoy having sex with each other (and the brouhaha that ensued when she wrote that she loved her husband more than her kids). Much of the book is light, but Waldman also writes about the wrenching decision she and her husband faced when she was pregnant for the third time and an amniocentesis showed the baby might be born with severe disabilities. They eventually decided to abort the baby, and while Waldman feels they made the right decision for their family, Rocketship (their pet name for that baby) has definitely had an impact on Waldman's mothering and the family's dynamic.

Read Bad Mother. Be prepared to laugh, to feel disgusted at times, and to ultimately be glad that Waldman and other women like her are out there who make you feel like the muddling-through you do each day isn't so bad, after all.

Book #64: The Shadow of the Wind

Title: The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A few weeks ago over at Segullah, I wrote about how I was completely spellbound by The Shadow of the Wind, to the point where I was ignoring my kids and my laundry and reading all the time. The Shadow of the Wind is the story of Daniel Sempere, a young man who runs a bookshop with his father and discovers one of the few remaining copies of a novel called The Shadow of the Wind written by the mysterious Julian Carax. As Sempere grows, he becomes obsessed by unraveling the story of Carax's troubled life, and he stirs up ghosts that many people want to stay buried. There's also a love story on the side (it ties in eventually), great writing, and a haunting portrait of Barcelona in the post-war years.

I loved The Shadow of the Wind. It was dark and twisty like the first few seasons of Grey's Anatomy. It was quick-paced and mysterious. It kept me reading, even as the laundry piled up and the kids begged for dinner.

Book #63: Shanghai Girls

Title: Shanghai Girls
Author: Lisa See

First of all, I have to get something off my chest. The previous Lisa See books I've read have not had a picture of the author on the jacket. This is her third book with a Chinese setting and Chinese characters. Her last name sounds like it could be Chinese, right? So I've been picturing a Chinese author all these years. This book jacket has a picture, and guess what? Not Asian. Not a huge deal, but interesting nonetheless.

Shanghai Girls is the story of May and Pearl, two spoiled and educated girls living in Shanghai in the 1930s. When their father's business fails, he sells them off to marry the sons of a rich American merchant. The girls, raised to be intelligent and independent, try to get out of the situation, but get caught in the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and see escaping to their American husbands as the best alternative. For the next twenty years, they try to adjust to life in America, which is not at all what they expect it will be.

As a story? Meh, I liked Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a lot better. May's character is fairly unlikeable. Pearl's was more complex-- her transformation from fashionable "beautiful girl" in Shanghai to a scared first-generation immigrant was realistic and interesting. But the story's ending seemed flat and rushed, and the book as a whole didn't move me.

Book #62: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Title: The Art of Racing in the Rain
Author: Garth Stein

Watership Down gives me the willies. I resisted letting my fourth-grader get into the Hank the Cowdog series solely on the basis that Hank is, in fact, a dog. In short, I don't, on principle, like books with animal protagonists. But maybe we've been watching too much Martha Speaks lately (it's on right now, sick kids lying on the couch), because Enzo, the narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain, is a dog I could actually like. He tells the story of life as he sees it, which is sometimes a life of running in the park and riding in a car with his head hanging out the window, but it's mostly a story about the humans he lives with: race-car driver Denny, his wife Eve, and eventually their daughter, Zoe. When Eve gets sick, the family's life starts to fall apart, and Enzo tells all in heartbreaking detail. My main beef with the book is that Eve's parents seem more like caricatures of villains than like real characters and Denny seems to have an awful lot of bad luck for one good man, but Enzo's dog-ness creates a distance that allows a reader to suspend disbelief more than if a human were telling the story.

Book #61: Have a Little Faith

Title: Have a Little Faith: A True Story
Author: Mitch Albom

Originally posted at Feminist Mormon Housewives.
When I was in Young Women’s, it seemed that whenever our planned Mutual activities fell apart, the go-to Plan B was to pull some Books of Mormon out of a storage closet and have us write our testimonies in them. At that time in my life, I had zero qualms about standing in front of a congregation on Fast Sunday and bearing my testimony, or talking in a fireside about my conversion to the gospel, but for some reason my mind always blanked when it came to writing about my faith. I’d write and it felt stale and unconvincing, like what I was feeling in my heart couldn’t properly be put into words. It was ironic, because one of my most prized possessions at that time was a Book of Mormon that we had gotten from the missionaries at Temple Square, with a neatly-typed, sincere testimony from a beehive-haired little old lady from Northern Utah glued onto the inside cover. I loved reading about her testimony, but I felt like mine lost something in the translation from spoken to written word.
Mitch Albom’s most recent book, Have a Little Faith, is, in a way, the story of his gaining a testimony. He says, “This is a story about believing in something and the two very different men who taught me how.” He starts the story at a point in his life when everything was going well– he had a good relationship with his wife, great kids, and a satisfying and exciting career, but religion had taken a back seat because, well, he didn’t really need it at that point in his life. He went home to New Jersey to visit his parents and ran into the Albert Lewis, known as the Reb, the elderly rabbi of his childhood congregation, who shocked him by asking Albom to give the eulogy at his funeral. Albom was taken aback by the request, saying, “And as is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor, when in fact I was being given one.” Over the next decade, he came to know the Reb not just as a spiritual leader but as a man, and watched him grow old and eventually die. During the same time, he became close with Henry Covington, a pastor at an inner-city congregation in Detroit whose church ran a homeless shelter that got assistance from Albom’s foundation. Albom intersperses the Reb’s story with his own and with Covington’s, who came to Detroit and found his calling after an early life of crime, drug abuse and incarceration and now works to help change the lives of people who are as he once was, who need someone to have faith in them.
I want to come clean with you: I haven’t been Mitch Albom’s greatest fan. I read Tuesdays with Morrie when it came out years ago, and I cried with the rest of you when Morrie died. But my tears felt forced, like I was crying just because that was what was expected of me when the good professor finally succumbed to ALS. A few years later I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven for a book group and decided it was the worst book I’d ever read– the cheesiest “the circle of our love is more than just a rising sun that sets” kind of speculative spiritualism straight out of Saturday’s Warrior and Star Child combined with the emotional manipulativeness of a Jodi Picoult novel. After that experience, I disparagingly called all small, sentimental, expensive hardcover books (think Richard Paul Evans’s The Christmas Box or Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture) “Mitch Albom books” and avoided them on principle. A few years ago I ordered Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist from Amazon. When it arrived in the “Mitch Albom book” format I readjusted my expectations and was shocked to find a challenging, academic book, just in a fancy “gift book for grandma” presentation. The point is, I had some significant prejudices against Albom’s work going into reading Have a Little Faith.
So I was surprised to find that the book wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was pretty good. Albom was at his best when writing about the Reb, the story that felt closest to his heart and his own spiritual center. I wonder if Albom or his publishers felt that sharing another story about his visits with a dying mentor would be too similar to Tuesdays with Morrie. In fact, I had always considered Tuesdays with Morrie to be the story of Albom’s “secular conversion” from a selfish hotshot to a person who looked out for others and their needs. The chapters with Covington, while they help us see Albom’s initial prejudices and his conversion in action, seem almost out of place in the story, like some editor out there wanted the story to be more than just Albom visiting Lewis, so they threw the Covington chapters in as well. I think that the Covington story could have stood on its own, as either another short memoir or a longer article-length piece, but including them in the story with Lewis felt somewhat forced.
Through his relationship with Lewis and Covington, Albom maintains that he’s gained a spiritual conversion as well. But while he writes eloquently about his visits with the Reb and what they awaken within his own heart, and persuasively about seeing past his own mindset in his visits with Covington and his congregation, I think that Albom, like me, is ultimately uncomfortable writing about the faith he now holds dear to his heart. So he, like many of us up on the stand on Fast Sunday, tells stories to highlight experiences instead. And in this case, at least, I think he succeeds.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dining Room Wall

I've been collecting blue and white china all summer and fall, in hopes of covering the walls of my dining room with dining plates. After lots of searching, including making my mom fight with the people at the Jonathan Alder website on my behalf and sending smartmama all the way to Maine to browse flea markets, I have enough for one wall. Never one to keep my light under a bushel, I'm showing off the first wall. The others will come when I amass more china.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Early-morning running

This morning the alarm went off. I stumbled to the bathroom, pulled on my running clothes, and dashed out the door into the darkness. When I got to my friend's house to meet my running buddies, they weren't there, but my friend's son was up ridiculously early, practicing the violin. So I started off on the run by myself. I waved at some teenage girls at the bus stop (early band practice at Skyline?) dodged an unusual amount of traffic on 3300 South, and once I made it back to my neighborhood, noticed that it was getting light out. It gets light late here. Very late. Around the time my kids head out the door to school. But it was cloudy, so I figured that the cloud cover might just make it appear lighter than it really was. I asked a walker for the time and she said she had no idea. But I started seeing sun, and realized I was in trouble. I dashed home, and made it in the door, exactly an hour after I usually get home. The good news is that the kids still got out the door on time, and I got an extra hour of sleep, but I think I'll be double-checking the time when I set my alarm clock tonight.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Toddlers-- smarter than we give them credit for

My godmother Annie and I took Maren to The King's English Bookshop this morning. We wandered slowly from room to room, picking up and setting down dozens of titles and talking the whole time about the best things we've read lately. Fun for adults, for sure, but not great entertainment for a two-year-old. Still, Maren was remarkably patient, looking around each room. In one room, she spotted a bust of William Shakespeare and said, "That's Barack Obama's friend, Mama."

"Barack Obama's friend? Really?" We assured her that he was Shakespeare, and giggled over her precocity, and walked out of the room without thinking about it again.

Until I saw this picture:

See the resemblance?

Of course, now she's huddled in a heap on the floor, sobbing, because she can't articulate what she wants us to do with the ballerina costume she's wearing, but she does have occasional moments of brilliance.