Thursday, May 29, 2014

'Life After Life': The Author's Power to Create Time, Meaning, and the Perpetual Do Over

"No point in thinking," she said briskly, "you just have to get on with life . . . We only have one after all, we should try and do our best.  We can never get it right, but we must try."

"What if we had a chance to do it again and again," Teddy said, "until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

It would be wonderful if we were able to redo our life's mishaps, tribulations and tragedies - still births, Spanish Flu, falling accidents, drowning, suicide, the death of brothers and sisters, and even reverse the fate of millions by assassinating Hitler.  In Kate Atkinson's critically acclaimed novel, "Life After Life" she toys with the notion that life exists in perpetuity - a constant state of flux and do-overs. Outcomes can change with the twist of an ankle down the stairs, or a slight timing of events.  Even if personalities don't necessarily change, the events of life can.

I wasn't sure when I first picked up this hefty novel if I'd be able to make it past the first 20 pages.  It opens with a scene of Hitler's assassination, but the next very short chapter opens the novel again with the still birth of baby girl, and then the next chapter begins the birth chapter again with slight changes.  I restarted this book three times (thinking I was just to dumb to grasp the concept), and as the saying goes, three times is a charm because on that third try, my brain fixated on the characters enough to move me through the choppy first chapters and into the winding paths of "Life After Life."

Chronology does not exist in this book, but the continuity of the storyline flows.  I latched on to the familiar scenes - this is the part where she drowns, this is the part where she deals with WWII, this is the part that she deals with the fate of her family and the Spanish Flu, this is the part where she can possibly stop the death of her brother, the death of Nancy, the death of herself.  It becomes a dizzying effect of time, space, jumping from storyline to storyline, but following the same family of characters.  Ursula, described as a very intense child with green eyes and an old soul, has the power of reincarnation and she has an awareness of this gift enough that her mother, Sylvie decides that she should see Dr. Kellet who does not flinch at Ursula's knowledge of the future. Ursula both knows and doesn't know that life feels familiar.

What Atkinson created in the pages of "Life After Life" becomes a homage to the power of the author. How does an author decide on the fates of her characters?  How does she decide who lives and who dies?  How does the story connect and teach and create meaning for the readers?  Where does a story begin and end? These questions are also the questions of life, right? We are all a bit like Ursula - maybe not being reincarnated to stop Hitler or to befriend Eva Braun or to save our lovable brother, Teddy's life, or to pick up a stray dog after a bombing and name him Lucky, but we are all wading through the constant ebb and flow of life - making meaning of the past, looking toward the future and finding meaning in our present day.  There are those odd occasions where it all feels like we have been somewhere before or we'll catch ourselves saying "this is meant to be" or "I knew this would be the way things turned out."

For me, the magic in Atkinson's work stemmed from her playfulness even in the face of tragedy.  Her unending literary references (which I loved) made me smile even in the most tragic spaces of Ursula's life. Although Ursula was not the most engaging character I have ever read, I wanted to see her succeed.  I wanted her to live through the tragedies.  I wanted her to "bear witness" to the destruction of England during WWII and be strong enough to carry on.  I never stopped rooting for her to beat fate or to create fate or to be happy.

Atkinson's novel restored my faith in the power of the contemporary writer.  We are all products of our past and all working with what we have in the present state, and hoping that we can make a mark on the future.  "Life After Life" paves a very meandering path for future writers to aspire to.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

'The Divorce Papers': Making light of something not so funny

"Marriage is a counter-cultural act in a throwaway society."
—Dr. William H. Doherty, noted marriage scholar and therapist 

Researchers estimate that 40-50% of all first marriages end in divorce.  Even more disheartening is that 60% of second marriages end in divorce.  To find the lightheartedness in this VERY serious situation is not an easy task.  Susan Rieger's debut novel "The Divorce Papers" tries hard to accomplish this very feat.  

This epistolary novel relies only on court documents, office memos, email correspondences and letters to tell the story of a marriage and family crumbling.  The story revolves around 29 year old, New England, criminal lawyer, Sophie Diehl who by doing a favor for her boss gets inadvertently roped into taking on her first divorce case.  Because Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim, the daughter of a VIP client of Sophie's firm, likes Sophie she decides very forcefully that although Sophie has no training in divorce law, that she is indeed the right lawyer for the job.  Sophie protests wildly to no avail.  If Mia wants Sophie, Sophie she will get.

Because Sophie has no divorce experience, Rieger is able to educate the reader about divorce law and documents as the story (and the myriad paper trail) evolves. Stories are told within the stories about Sophie's own troubled relationships with her parents who divorced when she was young.  She also divulges her crush on her boss, a tricky relationship with a handsome director, and an eventual probable romance with another lawyer.  We meet Sophie's best friend, Maggie, who is an actress and confidant, always helping Sophie to see the best in her parents and herself as Maggie tries to divert her from making horrible professional and personal mistakes.  

The main story of the Mia's divorce from her husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim and their custody battle of their 10 year old daughter, Jane takes precedence over the backdrop story lines and the drama Sophie creates in her own life.  I don't know about you, but divorce isn't funny to me, and the story of the overprivileged Mia and Daniel and their spoiled tantrums about trust funds, inheritance, $10,000 annual gifts from Mia's wealthy father, and a $3,000,000 vineyard property didn't make me giggle once.  Seeing the heartbreak and devastation that the feuding parents inflicted on their daughter made me sick to my stomach.  In divorce, the fight becomes more about damaging the other person, making them hurt either in their heart or in their financial future and neither of those things is very appealing or funny.  

As I read this book and waded through the documents that laid out financial assets and tried to divvy up a life in dollars and cents, I kept telling my husband, "We are never getting divorced.  EVER." The divorce procedure is common if by estimates almost half of all marriages end with a split, but the sadness of the dissolution of what was once a bond made me more angry at the two adults who acted like children.  I didn't rally for Mia.  I didn't care about Dr. Durkheim's future with the dermatologist.  I mostly just felt disgusted that they took so long to figure out that neither of them would be in any kind of financial necessity from the divorce.  Mia continually says that money is no object and that she is willing to pay double to have a criminal lawyer with no divorce experience represent her.   

Mostly divorce is sad.  I've seen my friends go through the battles.  I've watched them worry about money, worry about splitting up custody of children they love, worry about their prospects for happiness in the future.  I can't see many of the 50% of people who have gone through the battle want to read court documents again or giggle about spouses blowing up at each other in front of their child.  

I did read this book quickly and I was mildly entertained even if the epistolary style seems to be the M.O. of YA novelists mores than adult fiction writers. Mostly, I was reminded of the work that goes into marriage to keep love alive.  It isn't easy to stay in love, but this book was more of a warning to me to never end a once solid marriage in an endless paper stack of court documents, office memos and emails.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

'Little Failure': Coming of Age as a Jewish Russian Immigrant

It took me some time with this one. I don't know what my barrier was to Gary Shteyngart's memoir "Little Failure."  It has everything I love - humor, an almost unbelievable coming of age tale involving immigrant parents and the less than perfect son, wanting to please and separate from parents all at once, embarrassing moments in elementary school and middle school, underachieving in high school and college, and then the quest to become a writer and lover and human being.  I love that stuff.  I love memoirs that are raw, honest, and ache with the quest to find one's truth.

It's all there, but something stopped me from jumping up and down every time I picked up this book.  Something stopped me from laughing out loud in the funny sections (and there were so many that sometimes it's easy to overlook just how funny this book is). Now that it's over, I can appreciate the journey of the book even more as it meanders from Gary's Russian roots to his family's immigration to Queens, New York. From there it travels beyond his childhood to Gary's high school and college years where he decides he wants to be a writer and even beyond that into his adulthood of failed relationships and failed decisions.  Finally it travels back to where it started, in Russia, as Gary sees new aspects of his father's life and puts together pieces of his own.  This book truly is a triumph of a memoir even if I felt like I had to slog through it in order to finish it.

There is no doubt in my mind that Shteyngart possesses an amazing writing gift.  These essays have been strung together in dizzying literary heft.  At times the writing is dense with details and others light with humor and then back to a dark sense of self-deprecation.  That self-deprecation (as the title suggests) stems from Gary's childhood.  His mother's nickname for him was "Little Failure" (how sweet) and his father's lovingly called him "Snotty" due to Gary's serious asthma issues.

I loved portions of this book like when his family receives the Publishers Clearing House that they won $10,000,000 and they believe it until they "find out the truth quickly and brutally"and he ponders that "In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies . . . but we cannot imagine that they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That." I also loved his descriptions of The Solomon Schechter School of Queens and his painfully funny retelling of his circumcision at age 8 ("In school, my penis is trying to put on a brave face. It can't tell anyone what happened or they'll make fun of its owner, Igor, or Gary, or whatever").

At times, though, the writing felt a bit too dense with too much meandering back and forth and then the repetition of some details due to the essay format being pieced together into a memoir.  The self-deprecation part of the memoir gets a little old, but honestly, that's just Gary coming to terms with himself.  He isn't all that likable, but at the same time there is a quality of sincerity in "Scary Gary" at Oberlin College where he spends most of his days drunk and high and underachieving as much as possible as he listens to Beatles records for college credit.  He's brutally real about his shortcomings and his life disappointments.

What I ultimately can take away from this book is that even our little failures (and in Gary's life there are many) can become huge successes when we are real about them.  I learned Jewish Russian history and saw a side of New York City that I never saw before - the plight of the modern immigrant, the hopes and dreams of his family, their struggles, their failures, their intimate moments as a family trying to discover their new identity while retaining their culture and history.  Gary sees himself as a flawed human being (as we all are) and can also recognize his own talent as a writer.

Did I laugh the way that I do when I read David Sedaris? No.  Did I emote the way that I do when I read Frank McCourt's immigrant experiences? No. Did I feel that I had read an amazing literary voice that will be considered one of the greatest contemporary voices.  Absolutely.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

'How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk': A Parenting Savior

After a particularly tumultuous day of sibling fighting, parent frustration, a few tantrums, and lots of tears, I decided to call a family meeting.  I invited my daughters and my husband very formally, and we all sat around the kitchen table.  All of us wore serious expressions on our faces.  "We had a bad day, family," I started the meeting, "but that doesn't mean that we need to continue to have bad days. This meeting is a way for us to air out our frustrations and come to some good solutions to what could help ease those frustrations."

I started by listening to everyone air their grievances which ranged from potty language (yes, my four year old, Story, loves to use the word "poop") to bossiness and surrogate parenting (my nine year old, Raina, sometimes believes that it is her place to parent her little sister which enrages both her little sister and her parents).  I wrote down what everyone said, and wrote down workable solutions to each problem.  I repeated what my children said and no idea was deemed wrong or bad. We talked very civilly for almost an hour, and even though Story squirmed a bit by the end of the meeting, she very much enjoyed raising her hand and offering solutions to the problems we discussed.  The best part of the meeting was when my husband and I both looked at Raina and said, "Rain, you have the best job of all in this house.  You get to be a big sister.  You leave the parenting to us."  With tears in her eyes, she looked at all of us and said, "But, how do you be a big sister?" As a family we wrote down what an ideal big sister would be (helpful, fun, loves to play with the little sister, shows the little sister how to do things), and what a not so great big sister is like (bossy, bully, a parent).

After we finished with everything and everyone had a chance to talk, share and offer solutions, we concluded our meeting.  We left the table smiling and hugging, and I felt great knowing that Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish once again provided me with great tools of how to be a better parent and how to help my daughters be better communicators and overall better people.  The classic parenting book "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" helps. PERIOD.  I can honestly say that as I was reading the book, I felt better knowing I had new skills to help my children (and myself) stay sane in arguments and conflicts.

I don't care what kind of family you have, there are bound to be conflicts, and personally, I don't always know the best way to solve the conflicts that arise.  When my four year old invades my nine year old's space and ruins her toys, my first thought is "Raina, they are only toys - plastic, cheap ones at that.  Story is the only sister you will ever have and if you had let her play with you in the first place, she wouldn't have ruined the toys."  After reading Faber and Mazlish's sage wisdom, I have better tools to help both Raina and Story deal with their frustrations in this situation.  What do I do differently? I acknowledge the situation (Wow, it sounds like the two of you are really upset with each other.)  I observe and report on what I see (I can see, Raina, that you are frustrated that your sister ruined these toys.  Story, it looks like you are very upset that Raina didn't let you play with her and so you got mad).  Then, I let them know that I have faith that they can come up with a solution to the problem, and I walk away.  That's it.  There is no more yelling at Raina to get over it.  There is no more punishing Story for ruining toys.

Is it perfect?
Parenting isn't perfect just like life isn't perfect.  Some of the skills work sometimes, and some of them don't work right now, but I refuse to give up.  As a parent I get the super power of the permanent do over.

Gone are the days, though, when I make my children feel bad about their feelings (Raina, you will be fine.  You're a big kid now, and there's no need for tears).  Gone are the days when I put my daughters into roles (Story, you are always so wild, you just need to calm down.).  I catch myself almost daily doing things that are just old habits.  Like yesterday as we walked home from school Raina told me that she picked a track and field event for her end of school track meet competition.  "I want to try the softball throw," Raina said with enthusiasm.  I thought of the softball throw from the 2nd grade competition and how far some of the girls were able to throw the ball.  I immediately said, "Honey, are you sure? Don't you remember how amazing some of the girls in your grade are at throwing a softball? Why don't you stick with the jumping event that you did so well in last year?"  As soon as I said it, I recognized that I was taking away her hope and retracted my statement.  One of the best parts of the book was how to encourage autonomy and allow children to make their own choices.  The authors explain, "By trying to protect children from disappointment, we protect them from hoping, striving, dreaming, and sometimes from achieving their dreams." I then said, "So, you're trying a new event this year.  Tell me why you chose the softball throw."

Because I didn't discourage her, as soon as we got home, she went out in the yard and started to practice throwing a softball.  "Mommy, I have some big competition at my school in this event.  I'll need to get good practice in before the meet.  Do you think you could help me?"  I felt so proud of her at that moment.  How cool is it that even though she knows she might not win that she is willing to practice and try as hard as she can?

I don't have all the answers, and even Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish admit that things won't go smoothly all the time, but knowing that I have new tools to help my girls deal with their feelings, be more cooperative, and be more autonomous makes me happy.  I now have new tools as well to praise them, to help them to not get boxed into a "life role" and most of all how to come to solutions with them rather than use punishments that don't work.

"How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" was first published in 1980, but the lessons and advice still ring true with parents in 2014.  For over 30 years, it seems that "parents everywhere, no matter how different the culture, [are] dealing with similar problems and searching for answers." In their updated section at the back of the book, Faber and Mazlish admit "There are problems that cannot be solved by communication skills alone.  Nevertheless, we believe that within these pages parents will find solid support - strategies that will help them cope with the built-in frustrations of raising children."

Raising children is the most important job in the world, and yet many of us who are parents don't take time to be students of how to do it.  We rely on past experiences, or we just go with whatever emotion of the day overrides our patience or our knowledge that we could be hurting more than helping our children.  We all need advice from time to time, and the skills the Faber and Mazlish set forth in this book are both practical and easy, and best of all their greatest hope is that we raise good people AND keep our sanity.  What's not to love about that?