Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Hausfrau": A Murky Look Into the Life of a Lonely, Sad Woman

I don't know where I read that "Hausfrau" by Jill Alexander Essbaum was a great book to read.  Even the book jacket says "Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army knife." Hmm... not sure I'd agree with all that.  My biggest take away from "Hausfrau" is that life can be very sad and very lonely and very destructive for people who are bored  and totally disconnected with themselves.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and maybe if I had I would understand the references to the Swiss trains always being on time unless someone jumped on the tracks.  Maybe I would have understood Anna Benz's sulky, childish behavior and the ease with which she made horrible choices.  When I started the book, I had a hard time following the jumpy narration that vacillates between Anna's Jungian psychotherapy sessions with Doctor Messerli to Anna's German classes during which she often analyzes how the language mirrors her life to Anna's adulterous exploits with a fellow German class student (Archie) and then flashbacks to another affair she had 2 years prior with a man named Stephen who Anna apparently believed she was in love with.  The reader also gets glimpses into Anna's "real life" with her hot headed, banker husband, Bruno whose mother Ursula watches Anna's three young children while she is in Zurich sleeping around, going to German class, and lying to her therapist.

Anna's life seems comfortable enough, but she's bored and disconnected, and rather than "filling the hole" with food (as she later ponders while eating icing from a cake at her daughter's 1st birthday party), she fills it with tawdry sexual affairs.  I'm not sure how I was supposed to feel during Anna and Archie's trysts which were written in graphic detail, or how I was supposed to feel about one of Bruno's friends hitting on and then hooking up with Anna, or about Anna's flashbacks to her affair with Stephen. Mostly I felt sad and disgusted.  I know people have affairs, but Anna's ability to feel nothing - no remorse, no guilt, no emotion was the saddest part of all.

The final third of the book was the most engaging part after Anna is thrown into an unthinkable tragedy which exposes her for the liar and cheater that she is.  It sheds light on what she did have that she took for granted and maybe what she should have left behind before it spiraled out of control.  There are parts that were uncomfortable for me to read, but while I slogged through much of the narration in the first part of the book, I was compelled to read quickly at the end.

There was much to like about this book.  There are many questions about love, marriage, infidelity, lies, truth that we don't want to face, and more about the properties of fire than I ever knew.  The first line of the book is "Anna was a good wife, mostly" but by the end, I wasn't convinced about that.  Nor was I ever convinced that Bruno was a good husband.  The most redeeming character in the whole book was chattering Mary, the Canadian woman who becomes Anna's close friend and caretaker when Anna's depression impedes her from taking care of herself or her children. The conversations with Doctor Messerli brought up good questions about destiny and fate, and I especially enjoyed Anna's conversation with the priest about predestination.  "It's God who doles out the dominoes.  It is we who set them in line and tip them over.  We have no control over the particular lot we're given.  but we can choose how we arrange what we have. And we can choose to start over, when everything's been knocked down and broken."

Anna's life domino arrangement choices weren't so good, and she didn't really know how to mend the broken pieces of her life.  She ended just as sad and lonely and weepy as she began with little thought of who and what mattered in her world.

Maybe my biggest take away is to be emotionally connected to where I am and who I am. As Anna Benz's life proves, disconnecting emotionally or physically leads to more than one wrong turn.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"We'll Always Have Paris" : A Mother / Daughter Jaunt Through Europe

For Memorial Day weekend in 2007, my amazing husband surprised me with a long weekend getaway to Paris.  When my students asked, "Mrs. Thiegs, will you be doing anything fun over Memorial Day weekend?" I felt like a jet setter when I responded with, "I'm going to Paris" to their wide eyed disbelieving stares. It's not typical for me to just hop on an airplane and fly to Europe, but Eric and I decided to be indulgent. He had never been to Paris, and I fell in love with it when I visited when I lived in London and couldn't wait to get back.

I packed my suitcase full of cute sundresses that I imagined myself wearing in sunshine bathed sidewalk cafes while Eric and I held hands, sipped our Rose, and people watched.  I couldn't wait to take him to the Musee D'Orsay and amble through The Louvre.  Most of all, I wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower and check out the entire city from the air.

Unfortunately, the weather was not sunny.  It actually rained the entire time we were there, and rather than sundresses, I wore the same sweater and jeans that I packed the entire 5 days since they were the only warm clothing items I packed.  The day we went to Notre Dame, our hands were wrinkled and purple from the cold, rainy weather, but we didn't care.  We were still in Paris.  Rather than staying in the rain, we ducked into little cafes and had lattes and stews, watched the rain and thought about how lucky we were to be together in Paris for a long, romantic (and rainy) weekend. We visited museums and held hands, and loved every second even if it wasn't sunny.

When I read Jennifer Coburn's "We'll Always Have Paris" I was not only transported back to the streets of Paris, but also to London, Venice, Florence, Rome, Salerno, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada and Amsterdam.  Coburn's recollections of her travels with her daughter, Katie, made me want to be indulgent again, and buy tickets for Raina, Story and my husband to fly to Paris and explore together.  There's a difference between going on a Disney vacation with forced fun and really traveling to a different country and experiencing a whole different culture.  Don't get me wrong, Disney vacations are fun, but reading Jennifer and Katie's travel adventures with language barriers, illnesses abroad, navigating foreign public transit, and eating amazing food in piazzas made me want to make those memories with my own daughters.

I loved the fact that Jennifer's husband wasn't with them (even though I would love for Eric to be able to come with us) because it changed the whole feel of their European travels.  Even though Jennifer's motive for taking her daughter on these adventures was because she had an irrational fear that she would die young and she wanted to cram memories of happy times into her daughter's head, the trips themselves were transformative for both of them.  I always marvel at how much more grown up my girls seem to me after we travel somewhere together.  When you are out of your comfort zone, change happens.

Jennifer didn't just recollect her European mother / daughter bonding adventures, but she also interwove her memories of her dad and their relationship.  As she experienced something in Europe, she would delve into a story about time with her dad who died too young from an aggressive form of lung cancer.  Both story lines, were heartwarming.  As Jennifer released some of the pain of losing her unconventional and doting dad, she also began to loosen her need to over control her adventures with her daughter realizing at an outdoor ballet in Florence "that life's most perfect moments could not be planned, scheduled, or even expected."

Katie's easy going wisdom, Jennifer's honesty about her neurotic and controlling behavior, and the beauty of Europe combine to make this a lovely memoir about holding on and letting go, about venturing into the unknown of life and making memories by living in the present vs. the past.

It brought back beautiful memories of my Memorial Day weekend in Paris with Eric as we huddled under our umbrella and got lost in the meandering streets, and it made me itchy to travel abroad and make memories with my own daughters.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"Brown Girl Dreaming": Changing the World, One Story at a Time

how to listen #7

Even the silence 
has a story to tell you. 
Just listen. Listen. 

I truly believe that sharing life stories with others can connect people together in a way that nothing else can.  It's the reason that we started Stageoflife - to change the world, one story at a time.  Over these last 5 years, I have read so many amazing stories from our writing community that have made me smile, cry, think, and above all connect with people who I would not have known if they had not taken the time and conjured up the courage to submit a true, personal story to a larger audience.  When I started this book blog, I wanted to share my love of reading with our writing community.  Most of us become writers because we read a book that we connected with in some way, or because we love words.  I wanted to help people discover great books or to steer them clear from the not so great ones.  Because this is my 100th book blog post, I hoped to read a good book that had a meaningful story to share and serendipitously I chose Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming." It's Woodson's memoir - the story of her childhood, her search for home, and her own unique gifts, but it's more than that; it's a validation to me that stories really can transform the world.

Written in free verse poetry, Woodson's memoir follows her childhood journey growing up in Ohio, then South Carolina and then finally Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s.  Her poems are simplistic and complex, poignant at times and other times funny, but always honest and real.  As she grows up, she searches for a place that feels like home - is it with her grandparents in South Carolina where her grandfather gardens and her grandmother bakes biscuits and preaches the strict Jehovah's Witness religion? Is it with her mother in Brooklyn where "there is only gray rock, cold / and treeless as a bad dream"?  She always feels in between homes (as many of us do or did as children), but she learns to find the comfort in each place and overcome the struggles as well (as many of us do).

In her search for home, she also searches for herself and what "small gift from the universe" is "waiting to be discovered" inside of her.  She knows she is a storyteller, and that even if the words don't always come or if she can't read as fast as her sister or the other kids, she loves the feel of writing.  In the chapter called "composition notebook" she recalls:

Nothing in the world is like this-
a bright white page with
pale blue lines. The smell of a newly sharpened pencil
the soft hush of it
moving finally
one day
into letters.

In her specifics she speaks of the universal truths that those of us who love reading and writing know.  I love the smell of new books and often flip the pages to my nose to breathe it in, just like I love the smell of a used book shop with all of it's stories waiting for me to take them home.  Woodson's words helped me to know that I am not alone.  I may not be a brown girl, but I was a once a girl who held books like I was holding a best friend's hand and dreamed about the places I read.  I know what it means to be home and not home and to feel in my soul that there is more to me that I need to share with others. For me connections have always come from sharing the stories of my life.  In the act of telling, they become real - regardless if I am writing them down or sharing them with a group of friends while drinking a glass of Pinot Noir and decompressing after a hard week.

Most reviews of Woodson's book compares it to other books such as the fictional "Out of the Dust" by Karen Hesse which follows the life of a little girl living through the Dust Bowl.  That book broke my heart a little bit more than "Brown Girl Dreaming," but both were written in verse and both showed the strength of a little girl who struggles to be who she is despite the odds.  While I was reading "Brown Girl Dreaming" I thought of "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros whose main character Esperanza grows up in a poor Latino community.  Esperanza also struggles with the definition of home, and she also shows promise early on that she will be a writer who transcends the lives that are almost predetermined for the girls from her community. Cisneros writes with a lyrical touch and soulful wisdom just like Woodson.

Regardless of comparisons, Woodson's book deserves all the awards that have been bestowed on it - National Book Award, Newbery Honor and The Coretta Scott King Award.  It's beautiful and simplistic, and complicated and soul-searching.  Mostly, it's a story that will connect others together when they read it.  Author and reader, culture to culture, mother and daughter.

I couldn't think of a better book for my 100th post.

how to listen #10

Write down what I think
I know. The knowing will come. 

Just keep listening . . . 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

"All Over but the Shoutin'": A Tribute to a Selfless Southern Momma

Sometimes books are like candy to read - sweet and a little indulgent.  Sometimes they are like an enticing snack - you can think of little else other than having more.  Sometimes they are like a fine dining cuisine - so refined and cultured that they make you sit up straight when you read them.  And then there's Rick Bragg's memoir "All Over but the Shoutin'" which to me was like a home cooked, heavy, stick to your ribs, Southern meal prepared lovingly by your mom.

My good friend recommended Bragg's book to me after I told her that "All the Light We Cannot See" was so well written that the writing almost made me cry.  She handed me Bragg's 1997 memoir and said, "The writing in this book is beautiful.  You have to read it." I knew after reading the prologue where Bragg explains why he wrote this book in the first place that I would love it.  He reasons, "This is not an important book.  It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeaster Alabama, in a time when blacks and whites found reason to hate each other and a whole lot of people who could not stand themselves." I was captivated and feel like I learned about the underbelly of Southern society - the poor whites who self destruct in their houses with no plumbing but plenty of alcohol, the people who work in the cotton fields and wear their shoes until their toes stick out of the ends, whose teeth rot and fall out because who has the money to pay for dental care?  And sometimes, there are people like Bragg who find their way out and even more importantly can illuminate what it was like to grow up in rural, northern Alabama and educate the world.

Bragg doesn't whine about his upbringing or his history.  He tells it honestly with all it's ugliness and torment. As he bravely tells about growing up with so little that often they wouldn't have food to eat, he pays close attention to his mother's perspective.  Her selflessness saved him and his brothers from his violent, drunken father, helped him find a sense of normalcy in the poverty and maybe even gave him the courage to get out.  Bragg eventually got a job writing for a local newspaper (he only got the job because the other person it was offered to decided to take a job at KFC instead), and went on to get a Harvard fellowship, and eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times journalistic work.

At times the memoir is heartbreaking and beautiful simultaneously, but other times, I have to admit that I got lost in middle of the heavy Southern meal with all of the detail. I forged through the middle and when Bragg wrote about his journalistic work in New York City, Haiti and covering stories of human suffering, I reengaged.  I don't know what that says about me, but it seemed like he was reengaged at that point in the book as well.  He made keen observations about his motivations as a journalist reasoning that "You pour it all into your stories, as your fingers hover above the computer keyboard, but when you get up, when it is done, you block much of it out.  You have to feel for the people you write about or the words don't amount to much, but you learn to put it down." That is his gift - to attach to the humanistic aspect for the story, but then be able to detach from the suffering and move on to the next story.

My favorite part of the story was when he convinced his mother to accompany him to the Pulitzer Prize award celebration in New York City.  She had never traveled outside of Northern Alabama and her experiences just traveling to the city were touching.

This book ultimately pays homage to Bragg's mother who suffered but never complained.  Although he talks about all of his accomplishments in writing, his biggest accomplishment came when he was able to buy his mom a home with cash - a real house that she could love, a house that had all the modern amenities so she wouldn't have to struggle so much.

It's a fitting book to finish on Mother's Day weekend as we think about our own mothers - their struggles, the sacrifices they made to help us be who we are, and mostly who we are because of who they are.

Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Flowers for Algernon": Not just for English Classes

When I first started teaching 10 Honors English, one of the books that I could choose to teach was "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.  I had never read it, but knew the premise and had even seen clips from the 1968 Oscar winning movie version of the novel.  Because in many other schools, it was chosen for 8th grade because the reading level is so easy, I opted instead to teach "Hamlet" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"to challenge my intellectual 10th graders.  I finally read the book (and gobbled it up in a little over a day), and I realized that I truly missed out on teaching my students an important work of science fiction.

In his memoir (1999), Keyes wrote about his inspiration behind writing "Flowers for Algernon." He said that he believed that his "education [was] driving a wedge between [him] and the people [he] loved." He then wondered, "What would happen if it were possible to increase a person's intelligence." Hence the creation of Charlie Gordon, a bakery janitor with an I.Q. of 68 who is selected by scientists as the first human subject for an experimental study to increase intelligence.  Before Charlie, the experiment was successfully performed on a mouse named Algernon.  The novel is told in a series of Charlie's diary entries which show how quickly his intelligence increases, but also shows how quickly Algernon's abilities are declining.  Charlie worries if he too will succumb to the same fate.

The biggest irony of the story stems from the truth that Charlie is no better off intellectually superior then he was when he was intellectually inferior to those around him.  As he gets smarter and tries to retain his job and "friends" at the bakery and they reject him, he realizes, "It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron.  I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies.  I had betrayed them, and they hated me for it." As his intelligence surpasses even the intellectuals who came up with the experiment in the first place, Charlie feels just as isolated as when he was unable to grasp what others were saying around him with an I.Q. of 68.  He is again alone because no one can grasp how he thinks, and even worse, his intelligence is superseding his ability to connect with other people.

We know from foreshadowing in this book that the inevitable will occur for Charlie, but in the process of gaining and losing intelligence he teaches a great deal about being human in his diary entries.  What does it mean to connect to someone? To love? To be a fool? To be intelligent? To outrun who we once were? To come to grips with the sins of our mothers and fathers? To be aware of our own shortcomings? To strive for superiority?  Keyes lovingly and humanistically explores all of those questions in his simply written story of Charlie Gordon.

The biggest irony for me was that I chose not to teach this book because I thought it wouldn't be enough of a reading challenge for my intellectually superior 10th graders, but maybe what my super smart students needed was a chance to really understand the difference between being smart and being human.  That is the true genius behind "Flowers for Algernon."