Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hausfrau: Why I Quit Reading It

by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Random House     2015
336 pages     Fiction
The Shortlist

The buzz about Hausfrau began pouring in, and I suddenly remembered that I had a copy in my stack of advanced reader copies. Eager to see what the buzz was all about, I began reading. I became more and more distraught. What is this about? Why is it suddenly so popular? Who could possibly like this woman? So I stopped reading it. Now for me, that is a major change. I tend to plow through books, and try to understand the book from the author's perspective. What is the author trying to tell us? In this case, I just quit. And as you can tell from this posting, I am feeling a lot of guilt over quitting the book.

In the midst of this decision, I got into a discussion with a friend about what makes a good protagonist? Especially a woman protagonist? Do you have to like a protagonist? Certainly I hadn't liked Rachel from The Girl on the Train. I hadn't liked Hazel in Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. I hadn't liked Amy Dunne in Gone Girl or Annie in A Small Indiscretion--all books I had completed in the last few months. 

I read the review in Shelf Awareness. The reviewer says: "In Anna Benz, Essbaum has created a genuine, complex woman whose journey--no matter how dark it may be--reveals truths as only great literature can. She may have her roots in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina or Flaubert's Emma Bovary or Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, but she is a thoroughly modern and distinct character." OK, I thought, what truths is Anna revealing that I am not understanding. So, I picked the book up again.

But then I turned to the review in The New York Times. That reviewer felt that the author was intending to show the "loathsomeness that we hide behind the bland and drab."  I get that. But the New York Times reviewer also helped me to decide to quit when she said, "A few notes to book clubs: If you really must put yourselves through this thing, good luck finding the hot parts. . . .And if you turn out to have a member who feels everything that Anna says and does is marvelous, do feel justified in getting a replacement member." Ah! Finally someone feels like I do about this book. Our book club tried to read Madame Bovary, and not one of the ten members finished the book. 

Where I think the problem for me lies in the fact that I had recently read too many books with too many self-indulgent women as protagonists. "Anna was a good wife, mostly." Hazel felt so sorry for herself and her life situation that she drank to excess and drove recklessly with her children in the car. Annie felt that she had to explain her life's mistakes to her son, and Rachel couldn't live her own life so she inserted herself into the lives of others. Amy, the queen of self-indulgence, was so self absorbed that she created a whole other persona that set out to destroy her husband. 

I am watching a young friend pull herself together after a series of bad life decisions. She is beginning to see herself as a whole person for the first time. I hear her saying to herself, "I am better than this." Does she descend to self-indulgence on occasion. Of course she does. Do I eat ice cream sometimes—last night as a matter of fact. I think that the difference is in intent. Anna in Hausfrau has no intent of abandoning her self-indulgence. She wallows in it. 

So, dear readers, it is OK to quit reading Hausfrau. Read Life from Scratch where a beautiful young housewife finds a cure for a bad life circumstance in cooking or Kristin in Station Eleven, who resiliently tramps on through a dystopian landscape. Read about empowered women not self-indulgent women.

The Review in Shelf Awareness.
The review in The New York Times.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World

by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books    2014
293 pages     Nonfiction

Steven Johnson has created an eminently readable adventure into the history of innovation with How We Got to Now. Johnson has a unique way of looking at all the scattered fragments of innovation that come to the point that something new is created. He looks at six concepts that we pretty much take for granted: glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light and shows how inventions and innovations, logical and technological, came from those basic concepts.  
  For example, Johnson connects the invention of the printing press to the invention of glasses to the microscope to the invention of fiberglass to fiberoptic cables. See the connection? Or, how the invention of the mirror turns society from outward looking to inward looking. He tells the story of a man who built ships to take ice to the Caribbean in the early 1800s, and then he explains how that need for cold created the air conditioning and refrigeration that we now take for granted. I am old enough to remember the ice chest that we had at our cabin and the ice house on the other side of the island where we went to get blocks of ice, cut out of the lake in the winter by the iceman. 

Have you ever thought about how your city got their sewers? Not something that we tend to think about, or how the development of new toilet design is changing the culture of third world countries? Johnson tells us all about it. One of the most fascinating stories discusses how the invention of flash photography led to the antipoverty programs of the early 20th century. Jacob Riis used his camera with its flash to take pictures inside the tenements of New York. Riis had been appalled by the conditions and had been writing about them for a long time, but it wasn't until he published pictures created with flash photography that the world took notice. 

Johnson shows us that progress is seldom linear, that little bits and pieces connect together in a seeming hodgepodge of relationships that fit together to create the world we know now. The people he talks about are for the most part obscure—Dennison and watch making, Birdseye—frozen food, Gorrie—artificial ice, or Babbage—computers. However, their innovations led to other innovations which led to the modern world.

My husband and I read about these miracles of innovation every morning. How We Got To Now is science for novices, extremely easy to read aloud and understand. There is also a connecting six part series on PBS, each episode covering one of Johnson's concepts. You will love this book. Suddenly the world becomes clear—just like putting on a pair of glasses!

Here is a penetrating review in the New York Times.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Small Indiscretion

by Jan Ellison
Random House    2015
323 pages     Fiction

I turned to A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison after All The Light We Cannot See thinking that because it was shorter, it might be lighter in tone than the novel I had just finished. Ha! Not the case at all.  A Small Indiscretion is a long letter written by a mother to her grown son, Robbie, following his near death experience and later disappearance. The interesting comparison is that the concept of light, in its many forms, is a metaphor in both A Small Indiscretion and All the Light We Cannot See.

Ellison's novel is part love story, part family drama, part mystery. It involves Annie, the letter's author, as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood taking her first independent steps on a European odyssey and more importantly as a 40-something adult facing the failures of marriage and business in the midst of her son's medical emergency.

All the characters are roundly developed, although perhaps we know less of Robbie, the son, than of the others. Both Annie and her husband Jonathan are in the middle of mid-life crises when Robbie's accident happens, and the plot evolves or perhaps unravels from that point. Much of the problem is precipitated by that arrival in the mail of a photograph from Annie's 19-year-old past. The photograph ignites a passion and longing in Annie that drives her to another trip to the London of her past.

My questions about the book mainly are concerned with Annie's descriptions of her sexual escapades in this letter, which she is writing for her son (and probably her other children) to read. First, I am much too practical to think in terms of unrequited love and longing for days past. Second, my sexual past is not the business of my children. Is it my age? I don't think so. I think it is sufficient that my children know that I have a past; they don't need to know all the details.

That being said, the book brings up many questions about regret and about how the past continues to haunt us throughout our lives. Additionally, many of us spend many hours of our later life trying to reason out the decisions that we made in the long ago past. We always tell our children; don't do something that you will regret your whole life. And for most of us, we speak from experience. However, it is how we move on from our past, learn from it, and grow beyond it that determines our stability and view of the world. 

My musings about A Small Indiscretion are precipitated, in part, by the current lesson I am planning for my church group. The lead off was a poem by author Brian McLaren. I think, to a large degree, McLaren expresses the longing Annie is experiencing as she writes her letter to her son.

When we think back on our journey over many years;
Nights of joys and laughter, and days of trials and tears,
With piercing, draining sorrows that broke us on our knees,
While deep inside hide our regrets that no one ever sees. . .
How can comfort find us locked up in our darkest room?
How can we leave the past behind and escape it like a tomb?

A Small Indiscretion is eloquent and beautifully written. The reviewer concludes her review with some fitting words: "As if our pasts stay where they were created—and never follow us home."

The review on
Jan Ellison's website

Thursday, March 12, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr
Scribner     2014
531 pages            Fiction

I was exhausted and emotionally drained as I read the last page of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which by the way is the most appropriately named book I have read in a long time.

Ostensibly, All the Light We Cannot See is a World War II novel, of which there are so many currently, including The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, which my book club read in January. All the Light is not an easy book to read; there is so much suffering, so much loss. Sometimes the light is very dim; sometimes there is no light at all. Certainly there is no light in Marie-Laure's eyes, because she was blinded by cataracts as a little girl. Yet she lives in a world of light and discovery because her father teaches her how to live with curiosity and grace in Paris, the city of light. Additionally, it would seem that Werner lives in a lightless world as an orphan in Germany in the buildup to World War II. He, however, lives in a world of light because he is brilliant and filled with a fascination for the technology of the day—radio.

The narration alternates between their two stories. The chapters are very short, and the reader knows that inevitably the paths of the two teenagers will converge, although initially, the reader can't figure out how it will happen. The pages are filled with fascinating characters—the professor who teaches Marie-Laure about snails; the German soldier whose job is to gather up the treasures of the lands defeated by the Germans; the baker who bakes codes for the French Resistance in her bread; the uncle who has not left his house since he returned from World War I. The New York Times review gives an excellent summary of the book. Frankly, it is a book that you have to read for yourself, and each reader will attach meaning and light to the characters, the plot, and the resonance. 

The author describes the process of creating the book in an excellent interview on the Powell's book blog. It sheds some light on the process Doerr went through as he dreamed up the book, which took several years of creative thinking to compose. For instance, on a French book tour, he spent a day in the city of Saint-Malo. Totally amazed by the city, he was told that the ancient city had to be rebuilt after a significant battle in 1944.
Doerr then envisioned that walled city and that great battle as the scene of much of the book. This interview is a terrific look at the process of book creation. Doerr is able to articulate the process in such a clear and illuminating way.

Here are two of my experiences with the book. Last night, I was sitting at the kitchen table reading about the extreme danger Marie-Laure and Werner were in—each in their own versions of Hell that is war. Meanwhile, in the living room, my husband was watching a PBS special about the careers of Peter, Paul and Mary. Well-known anti-war lyrics were playing in the background as I read on—"Where have all the flowers gone?" and "Blowing in the Wind." I just started sobbing, so anxious for these precious characters. And then I read: "It seemed to Werner that in the space between whatever has happened already and whatever is to come hovers an invisible borderland, the known on one side, and the unknown on the other." All the time I am thinking, "No good will come from this. Where have all the young boys gone?"

I read All the Light We Cannot See as I was also reading Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren. The chapters I taught on Tuesday night dealt with asking God "Why?" These followed chapters about raging against God by shouting "NO!" The point of the chapters is that when you enter a dark tunnel of doubt, pain, and suffering, it may take a very long time to come through the tunnel into the light of understanding. Doerr deals forcefully with this issue as he closes the book by bringing resolution and connections to the characters, who by this time  have become much beloved. Long after the war is over, he has one of the characters muse: "Weeks go by when Jutta does not allow herself to think of the war...She does not want to be one of those middle-aged women who thinks of nothing but her own painful history." He also brings resolution to Marie-Laure when she thinks: "Is she happy? For portions of every day, she is happy."
I appreciated very much the way Doerr ends the book, because the characters all acknowledge that long tunnel of doubt, suffering, and pain, but all that have survived have found some measure of contentment and completion.

All the Light We Cannot See is profound on many levels. Doerr deserves all the awards that the book has won.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

by Roz Chast
Bloomsbury     2014
224 pages     Graphic Memoir

First a disclaimer: This is not a good book to read when you are almost 72 years old, have just had an accident that cracked your pelvis, are using a walker, and feeling very vulnerable. That being said, Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant is a remarkable memoir of parental decline and death through Roz Chast's eyes. 

Chast is one of The New Yorker's premier cartoonists, and in trying to memorialize her parents, she does what she does best and tells  her story as a graphic memoir. An only child, she was raised by educator parents—an overbearing mother and a sweet, but ill-defined father. Now, when they reach their 90s, she has to figure out a plan for their care and their eventual death. She must deal with the Brooklyn apartment where they have lived for many years. She must deal with their co –dependence, something  her parents celebrate. She must deal with her anger toward what she sees is the unfair way she was treated by her mother. The story, itself, is not so different from what most of us experience as we watch our parents decline and die. What makes Chast's book so special is the format and the tremendous impact made by Chast's style of writing and drawing.

The New York Times review says: "Cartoons, as it happens, are tailor-made for the absurdities of old age, illness and dementia, the odd dramas and grinding repetition expertly illustrated by copious exclamation points, capital letters and antic drawings. They also limit the opportunity for navel gazing and self-pity, trapping you in the surreal moments themselves. The recurring, maniacally angry face of Chast’s mother, which Chast eventually mimics, is one I have seen in my own mirror all too often."

Indeed there is much to learn from Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. First, we learn that there is a need to have a discussion about these important things—not pleasant, but necessary. There is a need to declutter households. (This is one of my big deals.) There is a need to grieve what isn't, wasn't, or what could have been. There is a need to come to terms with life and with death. The most important moments of the book are at the end when Chast sketches her dying and then dead mother, because "I didn't know what else to do."  By allowing herself to bare her feelings in the best way she knows how, Chast has given us all an opportunity to allow our own feelings to emerge. 
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is the winner of numerous awards. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, named one of the New York Times best books of 2014, and the winner of several other awards.

New York Times review.
Here is a sketchbook from the New Yorker with pieces from Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?