They May Not Mean To But They Do by Cathline Schine

they may not mean to

Joy has been extremely busy – although she’s well into her 80’s, she still works at the museum, and she still cares for her ailing husband, who is needing more and more care these days.  As Aaron deteriorates further, Joy’s children seem to be more and more concerned that she can’t handle it all, which makes Joy feel ironically both supported and misunderstood.  She is truly exhausted, but she does not want Aaron to be placed in a nursing home, where he’ll be disoriented further and not cared for as well as she knows she can care for him.  As Joy’s world continues to change, her role in it seems to become a moving target.  Will she find her place?  Will she see where she fits in?

Every once in awhile, I read a book and do not realize how important a book it is until I’ve finished it and look back on it.  This is one of those books.

This story focused on seemingly small details of Joy’s life and her conflicts with her children, Molly and Danny, were often fussy and whiny.  This,  I believe, was the point.  Life is often fussy and people are often whiny.  Especially within families.  (And especially within Jewish ones!)  And I suppose it gave it that very realistic tone that we all recognize and maybe don’t want to hear more than we have to, because we hear it enough in our own lives!  But it certainly does ring true.

And the details of Joy’s life and her struggle to find her place, I believe, really gives one a feeling for what it is like to age in our society.  There is no good place for the aging individual in our society, especially those whose minds are sharp but whose bodies may not be entirely fit.  It might be a little hard for them to get around and do for themselves, but they still need to be involved and contribute to those around them.  For example, while Joy’s children sought to do the right thing, it was hard for them to accept her on her own terms in this next phase of who she wanted to be.  They tried to mold her into their idea of who she should be, but that wasn’t who she was or wanted to be.  Fortunately, Joy was not one to be pushed around.  I am not sure everyone who ages is this strong or independent, and when they are – and assert themselves – are listened to.

I think this is an important book for us all to read and to empathize with those growing older – because we will all eventually get there!

 

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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

state of wonder

Marina is heartbroken by the news of the death of her co-worker, Anders, who had been sent to the Amazon to assess the progress of research being conducted down there.  But when she learned that she now was the one being sent after him to investigate his death, her feelings were, understandably, quite mixed.  Why would her boss, Mr. Fox, with whom she had an “un-bossly” relationship send her down into a perilous situation?  And what would she encounter with the strong-minded and controversial researcher with whom she’d trained and had a checkered past with herself?  After seeing Anders’ wife and 3 boys and their sadness and disbelief that their father could truly be dead, she felt it her duty, though, to go and to see for herself how he’d died and what she could do to bring back his effects to help them in their grief.  What she found was beyond what she could have ever imagined.

This novel was stunning in both beauty and its depth.  As Marina learns more and more about the Amazon —  its people, its natural habitat, its dangers and its wonders — so too, does the reader.  Because of the crispness of the writing, one can breathe in the heaviness of the air, hear the insects buzzing around ones ears, feel the murkiness of the water they bathe in, and see the filth on the clothing Marina is forced to wear because she’s lost all of her luggage on the very first day.

But there is also a layering to the story which gives it depth.  There is the search for how Anders became sick with his undiagnosed fevers and the tenderness of the relationship he’d developed with the boy raised by the head researcher, Dr. Swenson.  There is the research itself, looking into why the women in the local tribe maintained their fertility well into their sixties and seventies – and the ethical concerns surrounding this.  There is the controversial character of Dr. Swenson – her avoidance of oversight and reluctance to be beholden to those who are funding her research.  What is she hiding?

I will not say how this book ended – but I will admit to you that I cried as I read the last few pages.  There unexpected twists that tug at your heart and at least caught me quite off guard.  So well done!

I have to say, this is a must-read!

 

The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

the arsonist

Frankie has just arrived home from her relief work in Africa, unsure of her next step, and immediately she is sucked into the drama of both her parents’ lives and of the small New England town they now inhabit year-round.  What everyone seems to be caught up in are the fires – fires being set in peoples’ homes.  First in homes of those not yet up for the summer, then gradually in homes of those who were up but not at home at the time, and then, most frighteningly, a few set when people were home.  As Frankie becomes more involved because of her parents’ involvement, she also becomes more involved in the newspaper reporter who is reporting on the fires – and this may disrupt her usual lifestyle of keeping herself unencumbered.  Will she change her pattern for him?  Will she change her pattern to help her more needy parents?  And who is setting these fires?

There is just enough suspense and character development to keep interest in this story, although it is only just enough.  It seems as though the author herself has only just enough interest in the story itself.  There is good character development and I liked each of the characters, particularly Bud, the newspaper reporter, who has given up the big city, political reporting for the small town, local newspaper gig.  He is down-home, and down-to-earth, and he connects to people genuinely with his heart.  She also creates a side story of Frankie’s parents and their tragic aging, which is painful and harsh, but also realistic and relatable.

I think the point is that the story is about relationships and not what is actually happening/the plot.  Maybe that is what the author intends all along.

Maybe that is life?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

handmaid's tale

After years of answering no to people asking me, “YOU haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale???” I can now, finally answer YES!  And now that it’s been both a movie and a Hulu original series, I can crawl out from under the proverbial rock I’ve apparently been living under and show my face.

Offred, who never reveals her true name but who is now called this, is a Handmaid.  Her role in the current social structure in the Republic of Gilead is to become pregnant and give birth to a baby in order to repopulate the Republic.  Gilead has taken over what was the United States and has established a religious order, under which women have the sole purpose of reproducing and watching over the household and men essentially have complete authority over them.  It’s a dystopia that actually heeds backwards and justifies itself in claims of protection of the woman and eliminating the need for competition among women for men’s attention.

What is horrifying is the timeliness of this dystopian novel.  So many comments from the “Aunts” or teachers who indoctrinate the Handmaids in the book sound frighteningly similar to conservative republican comments, with their anti-abortion rhetoric which ignores the woman and focuses on the gathering of cells that happen to be inside her.  Or the hypocrisy, when the Commander (quite like our Commander-in-Chief!) who has his status because of his piety then shows his true colors by taking the Handmaid to a good, old fashioned brothel. Worst, anyone who is different, dissents, or can’t be broken to follow the new order is tortured and killed – and publicly so.

I know this book is fiction.  I know the difference between fiction and reality.  But as our current president chips away at our constitution and all that we’ve accomplished over the years since the 1960’s, I fear the difference between this dystopia and our reality will become smaller and smaller.

 

And I apologize that this book blog so frequently becomes political – but in the current day, it cannot be helped.  Please bear with me!

Hunger by Roxane Gay

hunger

This memoir by Roxane Gay — an author, celebrated feminist, and educator — is the story of her experience as a person going through life extremely fat.  She reveals early on that she had been raped at the young age of 12 years, and, sadly, did not feel able to tell anyone about it for years.  Her way of coping was to eat in order to gain weight, to make herself unappealing so that she would protect herself from letting that ever happen again.  Unfortunately, it also had an impact on everything else in her life as well.

While the book does tell the story of her life, regrettably it does so in a very rambling, stream-of-consciousness sort of way that is extraordinarily repetitive.  There are segments that wind back around to prior themes and scenes that are repeated over and over again, much like her thoughts.

Nevertheless, it is also extremely enlightening and enables the reader to really understand and what it means to be in the shoes of someone who, as she describes, takes up the space that she does.  Her descriptions of having to research restaurants in advance to assess the seating situation, for example, is something that I might not have appreciated.  Because of her size, she cannot feel comfortable in most chairs with arms, nor in most booths that have a fixed distance between the seat and the table.  Hence, she checks that there will be seating that can accommodate her before she will go to a particular restaurant.  Sometimes, when she doesn’t, and she has to sit in a chair with arms, she sustains bruises that cause her pain that can last for days.

This broke my heart.

There is a daily onslaught of taunts, sidebar commentary from strangers, suggestions – people even taking items out of her shopping cart at the supermarket!  Having to endure the humiliations that people throw at her, both intentionally and unintentionally is both unfair and relentless.

So while the writing and probably more so the editing of this book is not ideal, I think the author is incredibly brave in sharing her experience with all of us.  I think it is important for people to understand how it feels to walk in her shoes so that we can all be a little kinder to those who are different sizes than we are.

 

 

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

female persuasion

This new, very popular novel centers around Greer Kadetsky, who begins as a young freshman at what she considers a mediocre college in western Massachusetts.  If her disappointing parents had filled out the financial aid forms appropriately, she would have been at Yale, where she was really meant to be.  But then she wouldn’t have met her best friend, Zee, who then wouldn’t have dragged her along to hear Faith Frank, the feminist, speak.  And then she wouldn’t have had that moment with Faith Frank that sparked, really, the trajectory for the rest of her life.

This novel encompasses two stories in one.  On one level, it tells the story of Greer, a smart, ambitious young woman who is seeking love and approval from others because she doesn’t feel  it from her nebulous parents.  She has it from her boyfriend, Cory, who is steadfast, but has his own life and stressors, and she has it from her friend, Zee, but she seeks it from an adult, in the form of Faith Frank.  And as she goes through her journey, she learns that no one is perfect, even those who appear to be.

On the second level, it is also a story of the women’s movement.  In the telling of the story of Faith Frank, the author essentially recounts the story of the fractions of women and the various perspectives, both forward and backward (at least in my opinion) as it is going these days, particularly with regard to availability of women’s choice and control over our bodies.  Faith Frank, in her early days, helps a friend through a life-threatening, almost-botched illegal abortion and it drives her friend in a totally opposite direction from Faith (which is very hard to believe, but I imagine is true of some women).  Faith is empowered by this experience to push hard for women’s access to safe, legal abortion.  In this, I think the author opens up the debate where we stand very precariously now – where women are arguing over the rights over our bodies.  (As an aside, I have to say that I believe that no woman likes the idea of abortion.  On the other hand, I believe that the majority of women in our country do believe that this should be a matter decided by the woman herself and perhaps her doctor, as it is a physical and medical and emotional decision for a woman – NOT a decision to be made by mostly MEN in a back room somewhere having nothing to do with the woman herself.  THIS is what “choice” means.)  And this depressing backlash that we are experiencing here in our country is discussed in the book and lamented.  It’s hard to see it in a book and not just in the news – it gives it so much more permanence, in a way.

What is somewhat disappointing about this book is how it sort of fizzles at the end.  Most of the book is engaging and there are a few twists and major events that turn the plot around on its head.  Most of it grabbed me.  But as it wound down, it really wound down and sort of fell.  Maybe even fell flat.

Otherwise, I think this is an interesting story of a woman’s struggle with finding her place and meaning in the world through the lens of the women’s movement.  An interesting read…