Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Shotgun Lovesongs': Tribute to small town Wisconsin

Maybe it's been awhile since I've read a book that felt somehow familiar and introduced me to a new place all at once.  Maybe it's been awhile since I read a book by a male author who I felt really understood the complexities of human relationships and who was able to get inside the head of a female character and speak her truths with honesty and believability.  Maybe it's been awhile since a work of fiction captured my interest enough to read it in two days.  Whatever the case, Nickolas Butler's debut novel "Shotgun Lovesongs" felt like coming home, and it was exactly what I needed as I am in the process of selling my home here on the East Coast and moving to a small town in the Midwest.

My new town won't be quite as small as the fictional town of Little Wing, Wisconsin that becomes a character in Butler's book.  Little Wing reminds me a bit more of Foley, Minnesota where the people go to church together, have get togethers in the church multi-purpose room, where everyone could talk about the weather all day long and never tire of explaining the nuances of a winter snowstorm or a spring sunrise, where everyone knows everyone else, and where every once in awhile a small town boy  or girl makes it big in the world and becomes the topic of bar conversations and family gatherings.

Butler's story revolves around five childhood friends who all feel the gravitational pull (but experience it differently) of Little Wing.  Leland (Lee) is the small town boy who made it big by becoming a famous rockstar (rumors exist that Butler based this character on the lead singer of Bon Iver).  Kip also made it big but in a different way by becoming a big shot in the Chicago Financial District.  After making millions he returns to Little Wing to marry his city girlfriend, Felicia whose greatest desire is to have babies much to the chagrin of Kip who only wants to prove to himself and his friends that he actually belongs in Little Wing.  Ronney's success was short lived as a rodeo star after an accident that left him with a brain injury. He longs only to be treated as a peer instead of someone that everyone worries about and fusses over like a child.  The two most seemingly level-headed and salt of the earth characters in the book are the married couple Henry and Beth.  Henry is a kind, hardworking farmer who loves his family, works hard, worries about money, but never complains.  His devoted wife Beth loves him fiercely and although she sometimes longs for more feels complete as Henry's wife and the mother of their two children.

In the complicated way that friendships, love and marriage work, not all is wholesome in Little Wing.  Past secrets cause rifts, as does money.  Yes, hearts are broken and mended.  Marriages happen and fall apart.  Friends leave and return always with the nostalgic past in mind of four best buddies watching sunrises as teenagers with no idea of how their lives will turn out.  Each of them longs for the past in different ways and each of them reach for the future in different ways as well.

Even with the love that famous Lee holds onto from his brief fling with Beth before Beth and Henry were even together, the main conflicts aren't too heavy that they break the reader's heart.  All the conflicts presented could have happened or maybe already happened in all of our lives - we watch as our best friends marry people for the wrong reasons, or as a close friend longs for a baby when her husband isn't ready for that step in their relationship, or they go through bad business decisions or illnesses that we are helpless to fix.

At the epicenter of all of the conflicts is the never changing world of Little Wing with it's harsh winters (that almost claim the life of one of the friends), and unforgiving farm life.  It's winding back roads protect even the most famous people from artificial city life,  and there's no shortage of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, or hometown bars where everyone knows your backstory and everyone wonders about the jar of pickled eggs that seems to have been on the shelf behind the bar forever.

Butler's debut novel feels at once innocent and experienced, purple prosy in spots, and plainspeaking truth in other parts.  The familiarity of it made me think of the universal experiences of life - friendships, love, heartbreak, growing up, getting married, starting and raising families and trying to navigate the uncertainties of relationships. I do know that this book will make me sit up and take notice a bit more the next time I drive through a small midwestern town (which will be happening soon as my family drives the 11 hour journey to our new home about an hour outside of Chicago).  And maybe, just maybe, I'll be listening to the perfect love song and feeling nostalgic for home.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

'Siblings Without Rivalry': Learning how to be harmonious

I've been doing it wrong.

I didn't know how wrong, until I read "Siblings Without Rivalry: How to help your children live together so you can live too" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

Most mornings go like this in my house with my 9 year old daughter, Raina and my 4 year old daughter, Story:

Raina - "Story, stop chewing your toast so loud.  It's making me sick."
Story - Pretends like she doesn't hear her sister. Chews even louder in Raina's direction.
Raina - (trying to keep her calm) "Please Story.  I am asking nicely.  The way you chew your toast is really gross, and I would appreciate if you would stop chewing like a cow. You don't want to be a cow do you?"
Story - Chews even louder in Raina's direction.
Raina - (whose face is now red with frustration and anger at her annoying little sister).  "REALLY STORY! Why are you always like this? I asked nicely, and you can't do anything without being mean! Mommy, make Story stop chewing her toast at me!!! (very sarcastically with venom) She's a little white cow in here!!"
Me - "Raina, you chew with your mouth open, too.  Story, Raina asked you to stop.  Can you chew with your mouth closed?"
Story - Chews even louder at both me and Raina.
Raina - "MOMMY!!!!"
Story - "Stop it, Raina!!!"
Raina - (now in tears) "Mommy, make her stop!"
Story - (now screaming at her sister) "I DID STOP, RAINA.  LEAVE ME ALONE!" (pushes Raina)
Raina - "Why are you always so mean to me?"

I could go on with this little morning dialogue, but even writing it makes my blood pressure go up a few ticks.  I love my girls, but they are VERY opposite. Raina loves order and control.  Story loves chaos and passion. Raina loves to be in charge.  Story loves to create havoc.  They love each other, but the amount of time they can actually get along varies from day to day.  Some days, they find harmony for hours by building baby nurseries, or American Girl doll kingdoms.  In the yard, sometimes they can play together without even a peep for whole afternoons as they use the steps for their stage and play mock versions of The Voice.  Then, there are the days that they can't last for even 30 seconds in the same room together even if they are just watching a movie together.  It's a constant poking match between them.  Raina tries to control her sister's every move, and Story's stubbornness makes her rebel against the control.

After a long, harsh winter of too much together time, being outside and airing out is a welcome relief, but the shades of sibling discord still permeate the air in my house.  When I read the SMART MAMA article about the book "Siblings Without Rivalry" I thought it wouldn't hurt to give it a try.  The book offers helpful solutions to create more harmony amongst even the most volatile sibling relationships.

From the chapter on the perils of comparison (I didn't think I compared my girls until I read this chapter), to the chapter about not putting my children into set roles (okay, so maybe the angel and devil costumes two years ago for Halloween were a bit much), from the chapter about what to do about incessant fighting (not blame, not pick sides, not get involved . . . oops),  I learned that many times I chose to handle their fights in a less than constructive manner.  In my defense, I was doing the best I could with what I knew.  I tried to be compassionate.  I tried to listen.  I tried to solve things for them.  I thought I was being a good mom, but now I know how to handle things better.

Maybe my girls won't be best friends growing up like my ideal vision of a happy little family, but as Faber and Mazlish explain what I ideally want is to "equip them with the attitudes and skills they [will] need for all their caring relationships . . . I [don't] want them hung up all their lives on who was right and who was wrong.  I [want] them to be able to move past that kind of thinking and learn how to really listen to each other, how to respect the differences between them, how to find the ways to resolve those differences." I can help them to resolve their conflicts and not make their fights into a contest of who Mommy (or Daddy) loves more.

After finishing the book, the girls were in Raina's room, and Story wanted to play with one of Raina's Monster High Dolls (which creep me out).  Raina's voice was muffled at first and then I heard, "Keep your hands off my stuff you little brat. You break everything." Then, Story screamed and screamed just to annoy her sister even more.  The alarm in my head sounded, and then I thought of the tools in the book.  I walked upstairs gently.  I looked at the girls and said, "Wow, the two of you sound very angry at each other. Raina, you must be very frustrated that Story keeps touching your dolls. Story you must be very frustrated that Raina is making it look so fun to play with these dolls and she doesn't want you to play with her. This is a very hard situation." The both looked at me with watery eyes.  "I have confidence that the two of you can work out a solution that's fair to each of you." And then I calmly walked out of the room.  I waited and heard some more discord, and then silence.

When I went up in 10 minutes to check on them just to make sure they didn't kill each other, the girls were both happily playing in Raina's room. Raina looked at me, "Mommy, guess what? We figured out that Story can play in here with me if she brings her Barbies, and I can play with my Monster High Dolls." I gave them both a hug and told them that I loved that they came up with their own solution.

Parenting is a work in progress, and books like "Siblings Without Rivalry" helps the process be much more harmonious.  I may not have all the answers, but at least now I have a few tools to help me help my girls be more compassionate to each other.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

'Beautiful Ruins': Hollywood and Happy Endings

I read seasonally.  In the summer, I tend to love books that make me laugh out loud, love stories with sappy endings, and memoirs that show hopefulness in the face of hopelessness.  In the winter I read heavy books that stimulate my thinking.  I love to curl up on my couch under a blanket and read with my highlighter in hand as I learn new subjects and look out the window and see the snow knowing that I have no where to go.  In the winter I also love to read historical fiction rife with tragedy and triumph, but dark endings don't bother me when the sky looms gray every day.  During spring I crave transition books that can take me from the cold winds to warm breezy afternoons. When I saw the sunny Italian coastline on the cover of "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter, I reached for it knowing it was time to make the transition from my dark, heavy winter books to more springy sweetness.

This book screams "make me into a movie" possibly because so much of it reads like a movie.  The plot spans 50 years as it intricately follows the lives of a fallen Hollywood starlet, the owner of a hotel in a remote Italian village, an aging Hollywood mogul and his idealistic young assistant, a Hollywood wannabe writer, and an addiction addled musician.  Moving seamlessly from Italy to Hollywood to a festival in Edinburgh, Walters provides a perfect landscape for love, lost love, redemption, and reconciliation.

The novel opens in 1962 on a tiny fishing village on the coast of Italy as a beautiful Hollywood actress, Dee Moray, steps off of a boat and enters "The Hotel Adequate View" to rest from her recent diagnosis of stomach cancer.  The innkeeper, Pasquale, instantly falls in love with her beauty and grace and although his language cannot always communicate how he feels about her, Dee seems just as captivated by him.

In the present day storyline, Claire, an idealistic assistant of the Hollywood icon, Michael Deane, wrestles with her desire for movies with substance and finds instead the emptiness of the Hollywood facade.  On a "wild pitch Friday" where anyone can come and pitch a movie she meets two men, Shane Wheeler who wants to pitch a movie based on the Donner party, and Pasquale who is in search of Dee Moray.

The chapters alternate from past to present and weave together the paths of these unlikely characters whose lives intersect in Hollywood-esque ways.  The novel culminates in a search party for past love, present opportunities, and the quest for truth.

Although I enjoyed the story lines, I found myself skimming a few of the more wordy chapters and hoping to read more about Pasquale and Dee whose intimate, quiet moments ache with the pain of love that is within reach and out of reach all at the same time.  The sadness of the book intermingled well with the silly parts (especially Shane Wheeler whose whole life seems to be just as much a facade as the sets in Hollywood).  The gritty life of Pat Bender and his journey back to himself as well as the script chapter of how his story is made into a play made me want to applaud Jess Walter and his "play within a play" approach of bringing Pat's character home.

If you need a shot of bliss this spring, and you are looking for a good book to get lost in, find "Beautiful Ruins" and let the Hollywood ending transition you from the gray, oppressive winter to the lighthearted days of spring.

Monday, April 7, 2014

'The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia' : A construction of self in the wake of forgetting

When I was in college at the University of Minnesota, I took an Honors Seminar class that focused on memory and the construction of self. We met on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8am, and took turns leading discussions and bringing breakfast.  I've always been fascinated by the role that memories serve in shaping who we are as people, and during those discussions, I found myself questioning how I constructed my own identity.  What memories shaped who I am? What else shaped me into the person I am?

So what happens when you wake up on a train platform in India without the slightest idea of who you are or how you arrived at the train platform in the first place? No memories at all.

David Stuart MacLean's debut book "The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia" answers the above mentioned question with articulate prose and profound self discovery.  On October 7, 2002 when MacLean woke up and "could feel a heavy absence in [his] brain, like a static cloud" on the train platform in Hyderabad, India, he sobbed as a kind officer took him to a halfway house assuming that he was just another American tourist who was addicted to drugs.  MacLean ends up in a mental institution where he regains some memories, but mostly fades in and out of short bouts of waking and sleeping nightmares.  As he realizes after his parents arrive, his memory loss stems from a severe allergic reaction to the anti-malaria drug Larium (which was routinely prescribed by his doctor after David received a Fulbright scholarship in India).

MacLean's short, choppy chapters of hallucinations, recovery and missteps take the reader on a journey as he rediscovers who he is and asks the questions that my Honors Seminar class asked - what makes us who we are? How do our memories create our present?  What do we remember and what do we forget, and what if we forget everything and need to be reconstructed by the stories from our friends, family, girlfriends, students, and photographs.  David even tries to find who he is / was by reading the marginalia he wrote in books.  As he tears through old email correspondences, he finds aspects of himself that he likes and others that he doesn't.  When he tells people about his Larium induced amnesia, some are reluctant to believe him because he was the type of guy who would make up a practical joke like that.

Along with MacLean's harrowing journey to remember who he was and construct a present forward life, he includes the history of the drug Larium that stole his memory.  The frightening aspects of this legal drug shocked me.  Even more shocking is the fact that people who are endemic to India or other malaria susceptible areas in the world have built up a natural immunity to malaria.  David makes the point that "malaria separates the native form the visitor . . . When we travel to places we don't belong, even our blood is conspicuous."

The power of the book resides in the first half while David fluctuates between psychosis and clarity.  His darker hours before his parents arrive and when he first returns to Ohio led me to read on, but as the book progressed David's very understandable depression, alcohol soaked evenings, vacillation between good and bad choices and self discovery felt a bit monotonous.  I still can't explain why.  Maybe MacLean isn't a very likable guy - neither the guy he was before Larium claimed his memory nor the guy he becomes after his recovery are particularly endearing.  There are tender moments and moments of writing brilliance as David navigates his new life.  In one chapter David and his girlfriend, Emily, come upon a motorcycle accident, and Emily, without hesitating leaps out of the car to help the people injured in the accident.  In retrospect he reasons, "In the chaos of this world, where we carom and collide in the everyday turbulence, there's something about the specific gravity of the helpless individual, the lost and the fractured, that draws kindness from us, like venom from a wound." And that drawing of kindness mirrors David's experience with "Josh" the kind policeman who helped him from the platform and all the friends and family members who help him to answer the riddle of himself regardless of what kind of wise cracking fool he was before he woke up without him memory.

That helplessness and vulnerability that he shows in his memoir gave me just enough to like it and keep reading his metaphor heavy writing.  At the end, though, I wish he would have spent more time with the questions that we asked so many times in my Honors Seminar.  How do we construct our sense of identity? How much of our lives are built from memories?  What memories are worth holding onto and which are worth letting go? And when we don't have a choice of holding on, how do we construct a new sense of self?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

'The Impossible Knife of Memory': Teen and Adult Angst

"Having to parent your mother or father is a challenge that way too many teens have to deal with. Teens whose parents are dealing with substance abuse, financial hardship, job loss, mental illness and divorce deserve our love, support, and compassion. I wish America would stop judging and criticizing teens and instead, try to understand the battles they have to fight every day." - Laurie Halse Anderson

Maybe after being out of the high school world and not being surrounded by teenagers all day makes me think that Laurie Halse Anderson's latest YA move, "The Impossible Knife of Memory" teeters on the edge of too angsty.  The premise behind the book proves both thought provoking and important as Anderson probes a subject that many don't discuss PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in war veterans.  As Anderson says in the above quote, teenagers do deal with so much and adults need to recognize this fact that many of them deal with too much.  Too much misery and pain, though, clouds the relationships and characters in Anderson's latest YA novel. 

The two main characters, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, decided to settle down in Andy's late mother's home after Hayley spent five years with her dad while he worked as a truck driver.  The life on the road seemed to suit Hayley and Andy just fine as they drove away from problems and memories, but Andy, in an uncharacteristic thought as a responsible dad, thinks Hayley will fair better in a more traditional school system. Returning to a "normal" life creates abnormalities for both Andy and Hayley who both refuse to face the demons of their past and therefore have issues in their present situations.  Hayley needs to learn how to be a high school student, how to get along with the other students that she calls "zombies" and how to figure out how to deal with teachers who all seem a bit on the mean side.  

Andy, on the other hand, needs to fight through each day as his PTSD threaten to destroy his life.  With flashes from his war experience peppered throughout the book in italicized chapters, the reader gets a brief peek at the horrors of Andy's battles that still rage in his head and lead him to bouts of anger, madness, and into the clutches of drugs and alcohol.  

It isn't only Andy who suffers.  His ex-wife suffered, and ended up leaving him and her step-daughter Hayley (even though she loved them), and Hayley needs to learn how to be a responsible adult and basically tip-toe around her father's explosive behavior and bouts of depression.  

At school Hayley meets a friend and a sorta kinda boyfriend, Finn, whose charming demeanor and quick wit make him different from the rest of the zombies at the school.  

All the elements of a classic YA novel, Laurie Halse Anderson style, are there.  Loner girl. Cute and charismatic boy. Problems at home. Issues waiting to erupt.  Secrets kept and incubating in the dark recesses of the characters' minds.  But . . . the lack of likability of these characters made my enjoyment of their tales of survival feel a bit lukewarm at best.  Hayley has a shroud of misery and "don't touch me" around her which is understandable given her home situation with her father.  She has emotional flare ups, bouts of depression, an air of discontent and superiority about her, an inability to change or care about growth, and an addiction to being a bit mean and snarky.  

Finn, who at first seems sweet, does "creepy" boyfriend things like giving Hayley the silent treatment, telling lies about their first date (which is a set up at the football game that he told her she was supposed to cover for the school newspaper.  It turns out he tricked her into a date complete with a picnic blanket on a hill and flowers).  I guess his first date trick could be seen as sweet, but I thought is was creepy.  Neither Finn nor Hayley tell each other many truths and they spend a disproportionate amount of time making out.  

As I write this, I just wonder if I am that out of touch with teenagers.  They aren't all angst-filled, trouble at home sorts.  Most of my students in the past 15 years dealt with something, but out of the 4 main teenagers in the book, 3 of them were dealing with MAJOR issues at home.  Hayley's best friend falls apart because her parent's marriage was crumbling complete with affairs and shouting and an impending divorce. Finn, who seems trouble free in the beginning, divulges the truth about his sister whose drug issues bleed his family dry of money and trust.  

I know that teens deal with so much.  I know that many of them have a disproportionate amount of issues to deal with at home and school from boyfriend and girlfriend issues to parents and abuse and so many things that they should never need to deal with at their age.  Anderson does a good job of incorporating these teen, real world issues into her books (in her novel "Speak," for instance, she tackled the issue of date rape and in "Wintergirls" she went into the dark realm of eating disorders and created a haunting narrative of best friends who were willing to die in order to be their ideal thin).  This book just felt flat in terms of the characters who all became a one dimensional ball of sadness.  There is just too much sad, too much misery.  Not like I need puppies and rainbows to make a story happy . . . I actually prefer the sad story lines, but the blackness in this one just overtook the entire storyline.  I actually got a little depressed as I read Hayley's bleak life with her dad, and her relationship troubles with Finn.  There was just so much brokenness that even in the very rushed ending which was tied up with a pretty little bow at the end, I didn't feel tied to these characters.  

Teenagers do deal with more today than they should, and I appreciate that Laurie Halse Anderson and many YA writers shed light on issues that aren't always talked about but are present and ripping the seams apart of kids and their parents.  "The Impossible Knife of Memory" showed the storyline of Hayley and her dad with compassion and energy; their story line was enough, but the addition of too much extra teen angst and misery made the whole book feel less like reality and more like misery.