Friday, December 31, 2010

One Hundred Thirty-Two

It's nearing midnight, and we just kissed as the ball dropped in New York City. I finished my hundred and thirty-second book in time to pour the sparkling cider.

All the cool blogs have had their "year in review" posts today-- and I've don't have much to report-- I don't even have the reports on the last four books yet, but I promise to deliver the reviews tomorrow. I also have birthday pictures to post and Christmas to review. But tonight, tonight I'll grab a new book off the top of the pile, snuggle down under the covers, and read myself into 2011.

Book #132: An Object of Beauty

An Object of Beauty: A NovelTitle: An Object of Beauty
Author: Steve Martin

There's so much about Object of Beauty that I love: the education of how the world of fine art dealing works, the inclusion of relevant artworks in the text, the way the story sucked me in and had me reading even when we had company and I should have been entertaining them, and the way that Steve Martin is just a freaking genius in the breadth of things he does well.

The story reminds me a little bit of The Great Gatsby, in the sense that there's a vibrant, larger-than-life, amoral central character living a privileged life among the New York elite (in this case, Lacey Yeager, who starts her career as a backroom girl at Sotheby's and rises to owning her own gallery in Chelsea). This story is also told by a not-quite-central character, Daniel, an art writer and college friend of Lacey's who lives on the sidelines of the story (and is privy to details that he couldn't possibly know unless he'd been there, which might bug some readers as far as point of view goes) and has a minor role in her underhanded move to the big time (you could probably even call her a modern-day bootlegger). However, although Gatsby and Yeager are similar in many ways, Gatsby's so charming that the things that happen to him feel tragic rather than deserved, while I felt that Lacey deserved everything that she got (is it gender bias?). In some ways, the book reminded me of Jonathan Frazen's Freedom, because Lacey was almost as unlikeable as his characters, but I felt that An Object of Beauty was ultimately more satisfying than Freedom because of the world that Martin created.

Book #131: Dancing at the Rascal Fair

Dancing at the Rascal FairTitle: Dancing at the Rascal Fair
Author: Ivan Doig

I picked this book up cheap at an Audible sale a few months ago. I think it was $5, and for more than 15 hours of listening, that works out to be a little bit less than $.30/hour, which is a pretty good deal, in contrast to something like a first-release movie ($4.50/hour) or a day of skiing ($20/run the other day when I went with the kids). Ivan Doig is one of those authors about whom I've always heard a lot of good things, but I never got around to reading.

I'm really glad that I read Dancing at the Rascal Fair. Doig tells the story of Angus and Rob, friends from Scotland in the 1880s who decide to follow Rob's uncle to Montana. Once they arrive in the great wilderness, they become homesteaders, and the book follows the travails of the pair from youth to manhood. I absolutely loved the first 2/3 of the novel. Doig does a great job with his characters and with introducing plot elements that keep a reader turning pages (or, in my case, folding laundry). While the book centers on the relationship between Angus and Rob, it's Angus's tale, and the main secondary story is a love triangle that kept me aching for everyone involved, across time and space. The main drawback of the story is that while Rob is characterized so well in the first parts, he changes, for reasons not entirely explained, in a way that alters the action in the last third. I wish that his actions had been more consistent with the early Rob, or better explained because of a significant event in his life. I loved Angus's story, though, and was sad when the fifteen hours of the story drew to a close.

Book #130: Mississippi Trial, 1955

Mississippi Trial, 1955Title: Mississippi Trial, 1955
Author: Chris Crowe

As a disclaimer, I think I should say that my review of this book will be a little less than objective, since basically everything I know about fiction I learned from Chris Crowe. He taught my YA novel class last semester, and I'll be forever grateful for his encouragement. Without his belief that we could all accomplish the seemingly-impossible goal of writing a complete novel during a semester, there's no way I could have finished the first draft of mine (which is now sitting on the computer, untouched, since finals ended). Anyway, that said, I felt like I could see Crowe putting into practice many of the things that he taught us about pacing and dialogue and character development.

Mississippi Trial, 1955 centers on Hiram Hillburn, a sixteen-year-old boy living in Arizona who returns to visit his ailing grandfather in the Mississippi town where he spent his early years. He becomes acquainted with Emmett Till, another teenage boy visiting relatives from far away-- the difference is that Hillburn is white, and Till is black. While Hillburn finds a warm welcome in Mississippi, Till gets murdered for being suspected of acting too friendly to a white woman. Hiram soon finds that although the Mississippi residents are friendly to him, they have secrets he'd rather not confront. While the story is, on one level, a historical novel, it connects more with me as a reader as a story of fathers and sons and grandsons and the complicated relationships that they sometimes have.

Book #129: Hooligan

Hooligan: A Mormon BoyhoodTitle: Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood
Author: Douglas Thayer

Instead of looking up my professors on Rate My Professors, since I started my MFA, I've taken to reading their books. Starting this week I'll be taking a fiction writing seminar from Douglas Thayer, so I wanted to read some of his work to familiarize myself with his style and what I might expect from the class.  Although Thayer has written several novels (including The Tree House, which is also on my to-read list), this particular book is the memoir of his childhood.

Hooligan charmed me. I loved reading about what Provo was like during the 1930s and 1940s, and made my husband take me to Kuhni's and the fish hatchery in Springville, places I'd driven by for years without noticing. I had just finished the book when the Provo Tabernacle burned down, and Thayer's descriptions of the building made me ache even more for the loss. I have a son who is about the age that Thayer was during the action of the memoir, and it's a little shocking to see how much more constrained 10-year-old boys are today than they were 70 years ago, when Thayer and his friends had free rein to travel all over Provo and the mountains and canyons around town. One of the most surprising things about Hooligan is the way that it's organized-- although it follows a very roughly chronological order, it doesn't focus around a central story-- it's mainly the ramblings of Thayer and his friends. And although he talks about his family a little bit, it's far less a family story than I might expect in a memoir about a childhood. It makes me wonder what my kids will remember about their own childhoods half a century from now. Will it be the family or the Sonic games?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book #128: The History of Love

The History of Love: A NovelTitle: The History of Love
Author: Nicole Krauss

I loved Nicole Krauss's The Great House so much that I had to read The History of Love too. As an MFA student, I've decided that the author whose style I'd most like to emulate is Nicole Krauss. I also know that it's probably an impossibility for me to write like her. Krauss's narratives are circuitous-- in this novel she has at least four narrators telling different stories, and like The Great House, the stories eventually wind together in the end (this time a little more neatly than The Great House-- it almost had a quasi-surreal feeling like The Shadow of the Wind-- though maybe I'm just reacting to the Spanish-speaking bent in both works). My writing isn't like that-- people always tell me it's clean and straightforward, and maybe I should work with my strengths, but I'd like to write my way out of a puzzle sometime.

In The History of Love we read about Leo Gursky, a retired locksmith who never married after the love of his life, Alma, moved to America at the start of WWII. Gursky hid out in the early days of the war, writing about his love for Alma, but once he finally managed to get his manuscript in the safekeeping of a friend and emigrate to the United States, he discovered not only that Alma had borne him a child, but that she'd also married another man. Gursky spends many years pining for Alma. Meanwhile, his story finds its way to publication, and inspires other writers and lovers around the world, including the parents of Alma Singer, who makes it her mission to find the author of the book. It's a complicated, beautiful, dreamlike story-- one that requires some concentration at times, but definitely rewards the effort.

Book #127: Let's Take the Long Way Home

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of FriendshipTitle: Let's Take the Long Way Home
Author: Gail Caldwell

I often think I could benefit from a little more solitude in my life. It's not as bad as it was a few years ago, when I had babies and toddlers, but with four small children, the only quiet time I get most days is when I'm running or when I'm driving to and from Provo for school. So it was interesting to listen to Gail Caldwell's engaging memoir Let's Take the Long Way Home, which is about two women who sought out solitude in their early adulthood like I sought out kids, and come together when the quiet of their lives is almost more than they can bear.

Gail and Caroline are both authors living in Boston when they meet. They both love dogs, are recovering alcoholics, and live alone. Once they overcome their initial reluctance to let someone else come into their lives, they become the best of friends-- drawn together by similar passions, but also by similar outlooks on life. Caldwell does a fantastic job showing how close the two women become-- they row or swim together in the mornings, call each other from their home offices during the day, then meet together to walk the dogs as the day winds to a close. It's a platonic female friendship that is, in many ways, even closer than a marriage.

Then Caroline, the younger of the two by about a decade, is diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, and dies within a few months. Gail explores how she handles the grief, and how she manages to continue living once the most intense, rewarding relationship of her life is over.

Caldwell writes beautifully, and I found myself in tears at many points in her narrative. It makes me appreciate the fullness of my life-- one that I can't imagine being lonely at this stage. Reading this book helped me see that there are benefits to solitude, but that a life where someone always wants a seat on my lap is pretty great too.

Book #126: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksTitle: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot

When I was driving down to the St. George marathon a couple of months ago, I hit southern Utah and my radio reception got spotty. Eventually, I managed to pick up an interview in progress with Rebecca Skloot about the interactions she had with the family of Henrietta Lacks. If you're in academic medicine or married to a doctor, you probably know about HeLa, a line of cells that has been used to test many of the drug therapies in common use today. What most people don't know is that those cells come from a young African American mother of five who died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951. I was intrigued by the story, but it wasn't until I got home and my mother-in-law said they were reading a book about Henrietta Lacks that I realized that the interview with Skloot was about the book. I'm a sucker for engaging medical nonfiction, so I decided to read the story.

Skloot, who spent well more than a decade breaking down the Lacks family to the point where they were willing to be interviewed, and then learning their story, organizes the book in an interesting way. In alternating chapters, she tells the scientific story of the HeLa cells, from 1951 to the present, and she delves into the ramifications of taking those cells on the Lacks family. Back in the early 1950s, Hopkins was committed to providing charitable medical care for the poor black patients who lived in and around the hospital, and like many other research institutions, they sampled human tissue from their patients without their consent. This was during a time when researchers were trying to culture human cells, and had previously been unsuccessful. But when cells were taken from Lacks during a surgical procedure, they grew in abundance.

For many years, the Lacks family didn't know about Henrietta's contributions to medical science, but once they learned that their mother's cells were still alive, it aroused all kinds of ethical and spiritual questions for them: could their mother's soul find rest of her cells still lived, did they stand to profit from the donation of these cells, would physicians come after them seeking more samples? Henrietta's family suffered after their mother's death-- one of the children was mentally retarded (probably due to congenital syphilis), the others suffered from hearing loss, the boys got in trouble with the law, and the remaining daughter married abusive men. It was difficult for them to understand what it meant that their mother's cells continued to live.

On the one hand, I admire Skloot's diligence in pursing a relationship with the Lacks family. I think she genuinely cared for the family and felt particularly close to Lacks's youngest daughter, Deborah. It's obvious that Deborah was not an easy person for an educated white writer like Skloot to get to know and learn to love, but she did it. On the other hand, there are times when Skloot's story sounds somewhat opportunistic. There's a passage toward the end of the story, for example, where Deborah and Skloot are traveling together in Maryland, in search of the death records of Henrietta's oldest daughter. Skloot shows Deborah slurping from a bottle of benadryl, rambling incoherently, and coming back to knock on her friend's door a dozen times before bedtime. In that passage, Deborah looks crazy, and although I'm sure it's accurate, portraying that part of the story felt a little bit unkind.

All in all, it's a fascinating story. I was more captivated by the first half of the book than the second, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Book #125: Unbroken

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionTitle: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand

I just right now finished listening to Unbroken, and even if it might make me late to pick Maren up from school, I need to write about it immediately. I somehow had it in my mind that I wasn't going to like Unbroken. I thought Seabiscuit (also by Hillenbrand) was a fantastic book, but I've never loved war stories (too much, well, fighting, I guess) and when I think about Seabiscuit now all I think about is Diane Lane (in all fairness, I've only seen the previews). But I downloaded the book anyway, just because I knew it was going to be the "it" book of the Christmas season and I never want to feel left out when it comes to what I've read.

Hillenbrand hooked me. I'm not much of a crier, but I started crying before the prologue was over. I cried so much on the way down to school yesterday that I had to stop my car in the parking lot and check my mascara before I got out to go to class. Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner (you know I have a soft spot for runners) whose plane went down over the Pacific during WWII. I won't tell you a lot more about the plot, although if you're like me you'll be so overcome with curiosity that you'll google him and find out whether or not he survived long before you reach that point in the book. And actually, according to my friend Michelle who liked the audiobook so much that she decided she had to have a paper copy, the photos in the hard copy of the book probably make it a better choice, although the narrator is fantastic (he does mispronounce "nihilism" though, or else I do).

Anyway, listening to Unbroken was a lot like reading The Winter's Tale for the first time (when I cried so hard I thought I was going to make myself sick), or like the reaction I have whenever I see or hear anything about Elizabeth Smart (I still cry, even all these years later). I think that when I read about people who think they've lost someone, and then that person turns out not to be lost after all, those are the kinds of stories that really get to me. And Louis ends up lost and found more times than seems possible for one man. Does that mean I just gave away the story? Even so, read it. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Book #124: Matched

MatchedTitle: Matched
Author: Ally Condie

I probably should have spent today grading research papers (they're the albatross around my neck right now) but instead I read Matched because Ally Condie is COMING TO MY CLASS TOMORROW! While I love my MFA program for a lot of reasons, I think one of the coolest things about it is that I've gotten the chance to meet and listen to so many authors this season. And Ally Condie's Matched is the most highly-anticipated, most hyped YA novel of the year, so having her come to class only two days after the novel's release feels like quite a coup.

Having said that, does the book live up to the hype?

The story is a dystopian romance in which seventeen-year-old Cassia is matched with Xander, the boy next door, but before their first date, she finds out that she's actually also matched with Ky. Xander represents safety and status quo. Ky represents taking chances. Cassia loves them both, and ultimately has to choose what kind of life she'd rather live. I'd say that Matched does what it sets out to do, and does it well. It's the kind of book I can see working well as a film, but it's also well written. I loved the way that Condie worked poetry throughout the novel. I look forward to reading the next book, and to hearing what Condie has to say about the experience of writing the novel when she speaks in class tomorrow.

Book #123: Lockdown

LockdownTitle: Lockdown
Author: Walter Dean Myers

Lockdown tells the story of fifteen-year-old Reese, who's in a juvenile correction facility in New York state because he stole a prescription pad from a doctor's office and sold it to a drug dealer when he was thirteen. Now he's doing his best to stay out of trouble with the other boys and figure out what his life will hold when he gets back on the streets of Harlem.

Myers does a great job creating a sympathetic character in Reese. He's probably the kind of boy that most suburban teenagers would be reflexively afraid of-- he's in juvenile detention, he tends to get in fights, he has a smart mouth, but he's also concerned about his little sister, and his future, and finds a lot of satisfaction from his work-release job in a nursing home. Like Mockingbird, Lockdown feels like an "issues" book. While Mockingbird was concerned with school shootings and Asperger's Syndrome, Lockdown explores the plight of kids caught up in the juvenile justice system, and he seems to conclude that there's not much hope or justice for many of these kids. There were a lot of things I liked about Lockdown, but I think the thing I liked best was the narrator-- he does a great job with Reese and with the other characters in the novel. 

Book #122: Mockingbird

MockingbirdTitle: Mockingbird
Author: Kathryn Erskine

Mockingbird received the 2010 National Book Award for "Young People's Literature" and after the awards and finalists were announced, I decided to read a few. Mockinbird is the story of Caitlin, a ten-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome whose family was torn apart when her brother was killed in a school shooting. As Caitlin and her father try to put their lives back together, Caitlin as comes to terms with the ways that her condition makes it difficult for her to make friends, find closure from her brother's death, and feel empathy.

I really loved some things about Mockingbird. I think Erskine does a fantastic job capturing Caitlin's character, and writing realistically about life for a kid with Asperger's. I have a child who has social difficulties, and I recognized some of his struggles in Caitlin. I also like the straightforward way that Erskine writes; it's clear from the beginning that Caitlin and her father need closure and that Caitlin needs both friends and empathy, and all of the action in the novel seems geared toward achieving those things. The main downside for me was that the narrator had a very strong accent that reminded me of my relatives from Pittsburgh, and with Caitlin hailing from Virginia, that was something that didn't fit that really bugged me.

Book #121: Beautiful Darkness

Beautiful DarknessTitle: Beautiful Darkness
Author: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

You may remember that I loved Beautiful Creatures, which I read back in May. In fact, I liked it so much that I preordered Beautiful Darkness. I started it as soon as I received it, but I soon put it down, and every time I picked it up after that, I put it down after a few pages. I was reading other things for school, but even taking that into consideration it took me a LONG time to read Beautiful Darkness, and eventually I sat in bed one Sunday morning and forced myself to finish it. I fell asleep about ten times while trying to finish it. So either there's something seriously wrong with me, or else the book has some flaws. I think I'll go with the book having flaws.

Once again, we have the story of Ethan, a mortal boy, who is in love with Lena, a Caster girl (Casters are kind of like witches) who isn't sure if she's good or evil, and who is now mourning the death of the uncle who raised her. In the first several hundred pages of Beautiful Darkness, Lena's in mourning. Remember the first several hundred pages of Harry Potter, where Harry is all hormonal and mopey and everyone wants to sock him? That's how I felt reading Beautiful Darkness. Lena's hanging around with a bad crowd, making stupid decisions, and Ethan doesn't understand why he's losing her. Rather than turn to the next available female (namely Olivia, a college student working with him in his summer job at the town library) Ethan enlists Olivia and his best friend Link to travel the tunnels underneath the DAR building (remember, nothing in Gatlin is really as it appears-- nearly everyone, even the mailman, has some contact with the supernatural world) to hunt for Lena and bring her back to him.

The book eventually picks up. The three leave Gatlin and search for Lena throughout the coastal South, and they discover that she's not really being a jerk. Beautiful Darkness has a satisfying ending, and I still appreciate that Garcia and Stohl are as concerned with good writing as with telling a good story, but I wish that the first 300 pages had a little more action. I'm not sure that I'll read the next book in the series.

Book #120: The Widower's Tale: A Novel

The Widower's Tale: A NovelTitle: The Widower's Tale: A Novel
Author: Julia Glass

I loved Julia Glass's novel The Three Junes and also enjoyed The Whole World Over, so I expected to like The Widower's Tale. It didn't disappoint. It's true that Percy, the 70-year-old protagonist of the novel is crotchety and fussy and incredibly set in his ways when the story opens (and the narrator reads Percy's parts with a British accent, even though he's originally from New Jersey and has spent most of his life in the Boston area-- perhaps the retired Harvard librarian is channeling Madonna?). Gradually, as we see Percy through the eyes of the other people in his life (his grandson, Robert, his daughters, and Sarah, his first girlfriend since the death of his wife 30 years earlier), we start to like him. Actually, I think we start to like Percy more not only because we get past the prickly exterior but because Percy changes over the course of the story. He begins to realize that people (yes, even himself) can be forgiven for their mistakes and sins and can even find the capacity to love again.  I liked the way that the story was not just about Percy, but also about Robert, Sarah, Percy's daughters Trudy and Clover, Clover's work colleague Ira, and even the Guatemalan gardener who works on the house next door.

One of the downfalls of the book is that it tends to reveal what I assume are Glass's own prejudices. When Sarah is diagnosed with breast cancer, Glass spends many pages talking about the problems of the uninsured. Entire chapters are devoted to the plight of the gardener's immigration status, vigilante environmentalists, and the discrimination Ira encounters in his job as a gay preschool teacher take over other chapters. At times parts of the book (mainly those dealing with the residents of Matlock and the parents of the preschool teachers) felt like satire, but I'm not sure that they were.

Despite the many perspectives and the tirades, Glass does a great job of wrapping up the story-- not too tidily, but entirely satisfyingly.

Book #119: This is What I Did

This is What I Did:Title: This is What I Did
Author: Ann Dee Ellis

I really, really wanted to love This is What I Did. Ann Dee Ellis teaches Creative Writing at BYU and writes for Throwing Up Words, a blog that I really like about writing for the young adult audience. I did like the book, but I didn't love it as much as I was hoping to.  

There are a lot of things I admire about the book-- I like the way that Ellis tackles a difficult subject (the main character, Logan, witnesses a vicious attack on two children by one of the kids' fathers, and he doesn't do anything about it, even when the son retaliates and appears to kill his dad), I like the secondary characters (like Laurel, one of the few people who isn't afraid of Logan at his new school), and I like the way that Logan has to work through the problems that are eating at him. I also like the way that Ellis incorporates things like email messages into her text.

If you look at the cover art for This is What I Did, you see a simple line drawing of a boy on a solid background. It's spare, and so is Ellis's prose. I can't figure out if I didn't like the spareness of the prose-- the way that everything Logan says or thinks feels like it's been wrestled out of him, or if it was just the way that the other kids were so cruel to Logan (he's bullied by the kids in his scout troop, the kids at school, and basically the kids everywhere). I do think it's a story worth reading, and one that I may give to my preteen boy, who I feel may end up dealing with more than his own share of bullies someday. I think he'll like the story, and I like it too, I just think I'd like it better if it were more richly detailed and fleshed out.

Book #118: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of SilenceTitle: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence
Author: Kim Dana Kupperman

I read I Just Lately Started Buying Wings for my creative nonfiction seminar, and Kim Kupperman came to my class to talk about her book and lead us through some writing exercises. She even read our essays and gave us some feedback.

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a series of essays about Kupperman's life, and many center on her relationships with her parents, who divorced shortly after she was born, and engaged in a decade-long custody battle over her. I think there are people who have interesting things happen to and are able to tell a good story because of those unusual life experiences, and there are other people who life relatively common lives and manage to bring life to mundane things (if I ever make it as a writer, I'll fall into the latter category-- I live an entirely boring, calm, and happy life). Kupperman has a story to tell-- the story of a mother who was plagued by mental and physical illnesses and didn't seem able to put aside her own selfishness in order to do what was best for her young daughter, the story of a father who married so many times and seemed ultimately concerned with winning, and the story of the daughter who grew up somewhat scathed from her experiences with these parents.

Kupperman tells her story beautifully. Although the book was meant as a series of essays, and there are essays that deal only tangentially with the central parent-child story, I felt most engaged with the book when reading the essays that dealt with this experience directly. The book wasn't a memoir, but it almost felt like it should have been.

Book #117: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianTitle: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie

I've read a bunch of short stories by Sherman Alexie and knew enough about him to know that he's considered one of the preeminent writers of our day. And even though I've read a lot, I still seem to harbor a prejudice that "serious" writers can't be fun. But The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is really fun, and also so sweet and touching that I found myself sobbing into my treadmill several mornings in a row. 

The book tells the story of Arnold "Junior" Spirit's ninth-grade year. He's lived his whole life on a Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state, attracting bullies because hydrocephalus as an infant left him with a larger, more fragile skull than the other boys his age. When he unexpectedly chooses to leave the rez to attend high school in a neighboring town, he encounters challenges that he couldn't have fathomed when his life was defined by the borders of the reservation. While some of his challenges are the universal to growing up (a grandparent's death, friend troubles, discovering girls) other problems are related to life on the reservation (the untimely deaths of other characters, poverty, prejudice, etc...). Alexie does a fantastic job narrating the story, and I felt completely won over by Junior by the end of the novel.

Book #116: The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships

The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female FriendshipsTitle: The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships
Author: Kelly Valen

I published this review back at fMh in October.

Kelly Valen’s book The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships hits stores tomorrow. A few months ago, Kelly approached me about reviewing her book for fMh, because fMh played a small role in inspiring her to write it. In December 2007 Valen, an attorney and mother of four, wrote an article for the New York Times about running into a former sorority sister in a California Gymboree. Two decades earlier, Valen was date raped at a fraternity party, and this woman was instrumental in getting the sisterhood to band together against Valen. When they met again, the woman apologized for her behavior, but for Valen the encounter dredged up all the feelings that she’d tried to lock away after that experience as an eighteen-year-old when “I withdrew socially and pretended it didn’t matter. I hid under my Sony Walkman, hit the books and donned a defensive armor of sarcasm and cynicism. And I gave up on female camaraderie.”

The article spawned discussion all over the blogosphere, including this post by ECS. In the wake of the discussion, Valen felt both beaten up and empowered, and she decided to explore the themes she laid out in the article in a book. In all honesty, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to read the book (I’m a little busy these days with school and teaching and being a mom to four little kids) so I sat down yesterday intending to skim it, but I found that a simple skimming was impossible. Yes, there are lots of books out there about girls being uncivil and bratty and downright mean to other girls (Reviving Ophelia, Queen Bees and Wannabees, and Odd Girl Out, to name a few) but fewer that deal with the same issues in grown women. In researching the book, Valen interviewed over 3000 women, and found that a shocking 84% of the women felt significantly damaged from their experiences with other women. These damaging experiences sometimes came one on one, but more often when groups of women or girls ganged up on someone. She writes about women who avoided book clubs and Mommy and Me groups, because those groups felt like an extension of junior high school cliques, where women were constantly being sized up and compared.

Maybe I’m lacking in emotional intelligence, but I have a hard time recalling experiences from my past that have left me feeling significantly damaged. Yes, I was bullied by a girl in elementary school (who mixed foods on my lunch tray and then forced me to eat them), and I often knew that other girls were talking about me behind my back in junior high. My best friend as a child bossed me around. My first female boss out of college had an inner circle of “cool girls” who got promoted, and I wasn’t among them. But I had either a healthy sense of self-esteem, or a great mother, or an ability to forget, because none of these experiences in my young life have given me a lasting sense of self-doubt. I’ve stayed home from book club because there were good things on tv or because I’d already read that book, but never because I was nervous about facing a cadre of snippy women (although I have seen women feel very threatened when the topics of our discussions have veered from books).

Valen’s book did help me see times in my life when I wasn’t as nice to other women in my sisterhood as I should have been. Times when I’ve judged another woman’s parenting style or her food choices or her clothing. And because I’ve done (and sometimes continue to do) those things, Valen would argue that it puts my girls at risk for perpetuating the twisted sisterhood that exists among women, where we want to be friends, but we can’t help competing with and judging each other.

I felt that the sections in Valen’s book where she talks about a mother’s responsibility (she is a mother to three girls, ages 15, 10 and 10) were the ones that made me squirm the most, the ones that made me analyze my own mothering. And that’s exactly her point. In the second half of the book, I felt almost as if I were reading a book by Julie Beck, not in the sense that she was talking about religious issues, but in the sense that Valen feels it’s a moral responsibility for mothers to teach their daughters how to navigate the complicated waters of building positive relationships with other women. She says:
“This book offers up a tall order of issues, but possibly its greatest contribution would be to inspire more mothers to meaningfully commit themselves to raising a more compassionate, inclusive, and integrated generation of girls, and to give them the tools to define and feel good about themselves, and to help them protect and nurture that rather than look to others for self-worth and happiness.” (152-153)”

My own daughters are eight and three. I feel lucky to be exploring these issues while they’re relatively young. My older daughter, in fourth grade, already comes home from school stressing about various friendships. I talk through the problems with her, trying to help her see how she can be nice, try to stay above the fray, and still not jeopardize friendships, but it’s hard. I often wonder if I’m doing enough. Valen might say I’m not. She says, “One school counselor told me point-blank she thinks that not only are most mothers not engaged enough, ‘most of us are failing our daughters miserably. It’s a lucky girl who has a good enough mother.’” While Valen talks about some programs that mothers and daughters can engage in together, I gleaned from the book that in order to teach our daughters well, we have to be the example of women who aren’t catty and backbiting, who don’t compare ourselves to others, who don’t avoid the company of women who we feel inferior to. She also says, “I’ve come to crave a new default mode for my daughters and for me, one in which females a priori tend toward openness and propping one another up versus dressing each other down” (177).

Valen also engages in a lengthy discussion of feminism, and talks about how many younger women feel that feminism doesn’t apply to them. It’s another interesting conversation, but it felt a little bit far from the issue that seems closest to Valen’s heart– the responsibility mothers have to raise a generation of daughters who are smarter, kinder, and more self-assured than they were, and the mothers just might find themselves possessing those characteristics themselves in the process.

Book #115: Great House: A Novel

Great House: A NovelTitle: Great House: A Novel
Author: Nicole Krauss

I've noticed that I tend to read a lot of novels that have the ": A Novel" designation as part of their titles. Sometimes I think "well, duh, of course this is a novel," and at other times, like with Great House, I think that adding ": A Novel" helps dumb readers like me figure out exactly what Krauss wants to accomplish.

After that introduction, you probably think that I wasn't a fan of Great House, and that couldn't be further from the truth. It's just that Krauss's novel starts out as what appears to be a series of fairly unrelated short stories from five or six different perspectives. After a hundred pages or so, it becomes evident that a massive writing desk appears in many of the stories, and eventually, as characters reappear and become intertwined in successive stories, the story begins to take shape as a novel. But it's not a linear story from a single perspective.

That said, Krauss does a wonderful job of creating complex, flawed characters that readers still want to follow even if they're not especially likable. It seems that almost everyone who comes into contact with the mythical desk in the story has serious emotional baggage of one kind or another. And although I didn't realize it until the story was almost over, the characters are all Jewish, and the desk was stolen from one character's childhood home at the beginning of the Holocaust.

Here's where I feel like the story came up lacking-- in a chapter near the end of the story (probably in the last few pages, although I listened to an audio version of the story and finished it more than a month ago, so my memory might not be the best), Krauss ties the story together by bringing in the idea of a Great House, where Jewish authors collect stories that represent the fragmented experiences of Jews in the diaspora. While I think that idea might resonate for Jewish readers, it felt to me like too much "telling" at the very end-- Krauss did a beautiful job "showing" throughout, that bringing in the analogy at the end felt like unnecessary moralizing. Still, a beautiful book, beautifully read too, and I'm very glad I read it.