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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael

Though Jane Eyre is my favorite book, I've always known precious little about Charlotte Brontë, other than the fact that she wrote the book under the pseudonym of Currer Bell. While this book is certainly a blend of fact and fiction and shouldn't be taken as gospel truth, it does provide a fascinating and engrossing glimpse of everyday life in the Brontë household.

This was a novel that I absolutely devoured, though I did it as slowly as possible so that I might also savor it. I was completely fascinated by it and absorbed by the author's deft depiction of not only the Brontës, but the times in which they lived. Every paragraph was like a revelation to me, helping me to gain some new insight. This was a novel that offered me everything I love best about reading, and that gave me a feeling of immense pleasure every time I opened its pages.

The tone is quite different from what I'm used to reading. Parts of it read as a novel but then, suddenly, a narrator breaks in and the book takes on a biographical tone. I found this a little strange at first, but then I became used to it and liked how it gave me an idea of where the author was using biographical facts and where she was taking some literary license. I thought she did a good job of imagining Charlotte's voice, and she painted distinct portraits of the personalities of each of the Brontë sisters, as well as those of Patrick, their father, and Branwell, their n'er-do-well brother.

What is truly astounding is how genius flourished in such circumstances. Branwell makes for an effective foil to his sisters. He was the man on whom everyone's hopes depended. He was the shining light, the chosen one, who seemed so graced with gifts that he could not possibly fail to light the world on fire. Naturally, his father's whole world revolved around Branwell, and Patrick scarcely noticed the three daughters who dwelt quietly under his roof and devoted their lives to caring for father and brother.

The genius, however, seems to have lived entirely within the three sisters. The wonder is that their brother, who was equipped with everything possible to help him succeed in life, squandered his gifts while the sisters, who were expected to simply settle for their lot in life, were the ones whose contribution to art ultimately endured. The sisters had very difficult, often bleak lives. Of all of them, only Charlotte enjoyed the pleasure of earning some of her own money, achieving fame, and seeing some of her work given its due. Yet, because she was a woman, she was not afforded the same status as the male authors of her time, and she fell victim to vicious critics who saw her through the lens of what they perceived to be her failed womanhood. They subjected her to savage attacks against her works, which were deemed inferior and improbable because she had dared to plumb the female psyche. Unlike most contemporary works, Charlotte's were peopled by female characters who had genuine feelings rather than merely serving as the vehicles for the moral lessons of the day.

Equally extraordinary is the relationship between Charlotte and Arthur Bell Nichols. Gael shows how Charlotte's prejudices against the man colored her perception of him. Unlike Jane Austen--who Charlotte is, at one point, advised to emulate--Charlotte found a man who loved her because of who she was and who was willing to wait a very long time to finally be with her, but his manners, which seemed very cold, rendered him unattractive to her. However, Arthur was a man of surprising depths, which the reader discovers along with Charlotte. What began as a reluctant marriage of convenience became exactly that for which Charlotte had spent her whole life searching.

It's heartening to know that this insightful, intelligent woman was able to find happiness in marriage, unlike the unfortunate Miss Austen. Far more heartening, though, is to know that the literary legacy of both of these extraordinary women not only lives on, but is very much alive and thriving, even today.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw

Some books that I read draw me in so thoroughly that the struggles, hopes, fears, and tragedies of the characters become my own. I feel linked to those characters, emotionally invested in them, and I continue to read in the hopes that they will resolve their problems in the end. Then, there are other books that, during the process of reading them, make me want to reach into the pages and shake some sense into the characters. I become impatient with the blindness of those characters, irritated with their inability to see what is right before them. The Swimming Pool belongs to that latter group.

The writing of The Swimming Pool was very deep, and I often felt that the author was really walking a fine line, but I also felt that, ultimately, she crossed it. I could certainly identify with why the characters felt as they did, but their emotions sometimes just struck me as over the top. To be fair, as a reader, we are very much inside the heads of these characters, and it's fair to say that if we could actually be inside the head of another human being--say, our neighbor--we might find that what's in there is shockingly more dramatic than what is on the outside. Still, while I think the psychology described was conceivable, I couldn't suspend my disbelief, particularly when it came to the character of Callie. It is so obvious that she is just not right, and yet her brother and husband don't do anything about it. While I can understand wanting to bury your head in the sand when faced with something unpleasant, I found myself becoming really angry with Jed and with Billy for their inertia.

Which leads me to the real problem I had with this book: I just didn't connect with any of the characters. There was no point where I felt like I was really seeing things through their eyes. Instead, I felt like an observer. I couldn't really sympathize with any of the characters, and so their behavior was just frustrating. I'm not sure any of the characters were meant to be entirely sympathetic, but they pretty much all felt just very self-indulgent to me. This was so true that when a big secret is revealed, I was utterly unsurprised by it. And, yet, I didn't actively dislike the characters either, really. This is where the book really failed for me. By leaving me unable to engage with the characters, either by liking them or disliking them, I was ultimately indifferent to the novel as a whole.

The plot was also, to me, quite contrived. It felt like each event that happened was created specifically to enhance the drama even more. I would have found it a lot more interesting had more of the events struck me as coincidental. Instead, it felt to me as if the novel was written in such a way that its outcome was preordained and everything that happened before it was a building block in that construction. While I certainly think that most authors have a conclusion in mind when they write, it is necessary for me, as a reader, to feel like the plot grows organically and for it to take me in unexpected directions. That didn't happen for me with this book because everything felt rather formulaic. LeCraw does write well, but her writing is overshadowed by the shortcomings of this novel.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

"Englightened Sexism" is an excoriating repudiation of the view that feminism's work is done and that women have now achieved gender equity with men, so there is no further need for women to continue to fight for things like equal pay for equal work. By dissecting pop culture, Douglas makes a very convincing argument that sexism is, indeed, alive and well, though it has taken on something of a new facade: the titular "enlightened" sexism. Douglas argues that women have been fed the line that they now have equality and that this new era of "girl power" is proof. Pop culture would have us believe that women can dress however they want, be successful, and enjoy a life free of obstacles, but Douglas shows how this portrayal of women actually reveals the sexist mechanisms embedded within that are meant to keep women in their place.

What I found particularly convincing about Douglas's argument was the idea that there is a divide and conquer strategy at work that helps distract women from real issues. By focusing on girl-on-girl bullying instead of addressing the issue of the sexual harassment of girls in school, everyone (male and female alike) is being distracted from the bigger problem. Douglas is not trying to argue that these scenarios of female aggression do not exist but, as she points out, they serve as a very good way of creating the myth that women are incapable of getting along with one another and, therefore, cannot handle equality. As Douglas argues, enlightened sexism tells us that women have been given the keys to the kingdom, but are too busy having cat fights over who gets to be the queen to unlock the realm.

Douglas also makes a strong argument when she picks apart the claim that women are empowered because they can now dress however they like: read, the more provocatively, the better. As Douglas argues, this is not really any indication that women are empowered. To say that a woman has equality because she can dress however she wants and then to encourage women to dress like sex objects is sinister. We now live in a society that offers low-rise jeans for kindergarteners and thongs for sixth-graders. Ever walked through a department store's girls' clothing section and read some of the slogans on the T-shirts? Try it sometime. It's pretty much a guarantee that you'll walk away feeling the need to bleach your eyes.

Douglas's analysis of the 2008 presidential campaign is also very provocative. Douglas discusses the way Hillary Clinton was treated, and also has a great deal to say about Sarah Palin. What I found really interesting, though, was her commentary about Michelle Obama. How many of us have looked at a newspaper, read a blog, or opened a magazine and wondered why every story is about what she is wearing rather than what she is capable of doing? As Douglas points out, it really says something when one of the most educated, most powerful First Ladies in history is usually discussed in the news media in the context of her fashion sense.

What is especially important about this eye-opening book is that it encourages women the ignore the deceptive signals they're being sent and to focus on the issues that are important for people of any gender: pay equity, better and more affordable child care, workplaces that offer more flexibility for parents, and access to health insurance for everyone, no matter their income bracket. These are issues that no one can afford to ignore, whatever their gender.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

The Man from Beijing is something of a novel within a novel. It starts out as a murder mystery set in Sweden in 2006 and then delves into historical fiction, with vivid tales of China and the United States in 1863, when American railroads were built on the backs of immigrant laborers. Its style reminded me quite a lot of the works of Stieg Larsson. Its pace is somewhat sedate at times and, as with Larsson's works, is loaded with political information regarding modern day Sweden. Some readers might find that this drags, but I like this level of detail as it gives me a glimpse into a country about which I frankly know very little.

The book centers around a mass murder that occurs in a small, fictional Swedish hamlet and then spirals out from there, the story picking up multiple threads at once. It is told from the perspective of multiple characters, some of them Swedish and some of them Chinese, but the most central character is that of Birgitta Roslin, a respected judge who discovers that she is connected to some of the murder victims. I like Birgitta as a character. She's a woman who's reached a certain point of her life, has had some marital troubles, and is reflective about her past and her future. I found her narrative interesting and her frustrations by the setbacks of the murder investigation were my own.

I think what the novel does best is to draw some comparisons between industrialized nations and those that haven't yet been developed. The books uses the historical narratives to show how countries like the United States reached the level of industry and technology they did, and how those nations on the brink of industrialization may be on the same path. I thought the author did a very good job of poking holes in some of the notions those of us in industrialized nations hold dear, and this book does a nice job of showing how the attitudes of Western nations tend to be rather hypocritical when it comes to developing nations like China. I found this to be extremely good food for thought.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book for me, though, was the connection to China. I found the Chinese characters in the book to be very interesting, and I thought Mankell did an excellent job of illustrating some of the tensions that exist in modern China. I also thought the theme of hypocrisy really hit home in this section, as the actions of some of the characters are motivated by the same greed and cruelty that haunt the characters' current existence.

The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

I am a huge fan of Butcher's "The Dresden Files". He has created a fantastic character in Harry and it's the charm of Harry that helps smooth out some of the rough edges with the rest of the series.

The same is true of the first of the Codex Alera books. I found Tavi to be a winning, endearing character and, from very early in the book, I really cared about him and wanted him to succeed. I liked that he was emotional and sensitive and I especially liked that he was resourceful. The idea of a character without furies who lives in a world defined by furycrafting is a concept I found very appealing. This makes Tavi something of an unconventional character in the realm of fantasy. Sure, he is at the center of events that threaten the future safety of his world, but this does not mean that he comes into awesome powers that make him nigh impossible to kill. Instead, he has to rely on his wits rather than brute strength or awesome furycrafting powers.

I'm not always fond of Butcher's female characters, but, for the most part, I liked the women in this novel. I initially wrote Odiana off as a sort of typical villain, but I was pleased to find that Butcher gave her facets I hadn't anticipated. Isana was also nicely drawn. Amara, though, is certainly the most well-rounded female character in the book. She is very believable as a capable, strong, and brave women who still sometimes finds herself frightened by the events unfolding before her. The biggest problem with Butcher's female characters, though, is the sort of misguided chivalry he shows them. The men in general tend to be pretty sexist, and whenever a capable female is in their presence, they are compelled to sneer and say, "But she's just a girl!" Maybe this is a device on Butcher's part, intended to show that his female characters overcome the obstacles before them. Still, it struck me as annoying that the male character automatically assume that the female characters are inferior, especially when there are so many examples of powerful women in the novel.

All in all, Butcher has created an interesting world that is people with various creatures and cultures, most of which I found to be well-realized. I found the concept of furies and furycrafting to be an interesting change for the sword and sorcery-type fantasy, and I also liked the pseudo-Roman world in which the novel takes place.

What I did not like were the villains. I didn't think that Fidelias and his cohorts were interesting enough to have chapters devoted to them and, moreover, I thought it would likely be more interesting if the reader didn't know exactly what they were planning. I found Aldrick particularly unappealing as he came across as little more than a stock character. The reader learns hardly anything about him, and what is learned about him is very insignificant and doesn't serve to give the reader a real sense of the character and his motivations.

My other real problem with the novel came about during the prolonged ending battle scene. In the interest of not giving any spoilers, I'll simply say that I found it very hard to suspend my disbelief when I found out who had survived and who had not. I think it would have been a lot more interesting if Butcher had made some different choices in that regard.

While I did like the book, if I were to recommend a Butcher book to a friend, it would definitely be a Dresden novel over this one.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen

"Every Last One" is the first Anna Quindlen novel I've read, and I can see why her novels have such wide appeal. I found Quindlen's writing so evocative and rich that it was as if I was experiencing Mary Beth's emotions as my own. This is a very deeply felt, genuine novel, the kind that you find yourself thinking about even after you've put it down.

This is something of a two-part novel. Quindlen devotes the first half to describing the everyday life of Mary Beth Latham, a wife and mother of three. Mary Beth is the kind of character with whom I think a lot of mothers can identify. Though she owns her own business and has an active social life, Mary Beth seems to struggle with defining herself outside of her role as a wife and mother. Her seemingly perfect life has left Mary Beth feeling restless, as if she is looking for something--but even she doesn't know exactly for what she is looking. As a result, she doesn't always acknowledge what she has before her, not until it is too late.

She's an imperfect character. There are times when I found myself questioning her actions, when I was pretty disgusted with the parenting decisions she made. I felt that this was deliberate on the part of the author. As Mary Beth herself reflects in the novel, it's easy to sit back and judge the parenting skills of others. Yet, how many parents really have a grasp of the reality of their children's situations--and how many would prefer to not really know? Mary Beth is a character who is blinded by her desire to create a perfect life for her children, a desire that leads her to gloss over things and to be content with what seems to lay on the surface. She is aware that there are deeper problems, but she is also convinced that they will all work out all right in the end, that the world she has created is the world that actually exists.

It is only when a horrifying tragedy strikes her family that it becomes clear just how much of what's been going on Mary Beth has overlooked. Preoccupied with worries about her son Max and his depression, she fails to recognize the disaster looming on the horizon. There were aspects of this disaster that were surprising to me, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. Is Mary Beth really so blind, or is it that the clues that Quindlen drops are a little too heavy? Mary Beth does acknowledge later in the novel that she didn't really want to see what was before her. Though I really liked the novel and felt that it was well-written, this was the one part that didn't sit entirely well with me. Perhaps it is easier as a reader to see some of the clear signals that Mary Beth missed, but I found it a little difficult to understand her failure to act.

However, I did find the depiction of Mary Beth's grief to be very realistic. In fact, her grief is a little characteristic of how her life has been up to that point. She has put on a facade, and it leads to her becoming rather alienated from others. The question I found most interesting at this point was one that Mary Ellen explores at length: How can things return to normal? There is no such thing as normal for her anymore. People speak of moving on after a tragedy, but is it really ever possible to do so? Mary Beth's experiences alter her fundamentally, as they would anyone. Just as the book is almost like two separate installments, Mary Beth herself is like two different people: the woman who existed before the tragedy and the women who is left afterward.

Friday, March 26, 2010

NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

NurtureShock is a book that had me constantly saying, "Wow!" out loud as I read. It probably drove my poor husband crazy to have me constantly interrupting him so that I could read portions of this amazing book to him. But that's the sort of book it is, the kind that you will read and immediately feel the need to share with everyone you know. This book is an invaluable wealth of information for anyone who has regular contact with kids (teachers, caregivers, etc.), but especially for parents. It is the kind of book that has led me to make a conscious effort to change some of my interactions with my own children.
Though the book covers a variety of topics concerning child development, it has a central theme: children are not like adults. This seems self-evident, until you read the book and realize just how many of our adult world views we tend to impose on children. As a mother of two, I know that there have been times when my children's behavior has baffled me utterly. Thanks to reading this book, I now have a better understanding of why my children act the way they do.

However, this is no parenting manual. Bronson and Merryman are not offering a step-by-step guide for how to best raise children. What they are providing is a wealth of information about how a child's brain functions and cognitive processes are profoundly different from that of an adult, based on extensive research into various child development studies. The authors lucidly deliver a great deal of very scientific information in the book, but do so in a way that is chatty, palatable, and utterly fascinating. This is no textbook, and any layperson can easily read it, enjoy it, and use it to enhance their own interactions with children.

This is a very provocative book that offers some information that will make most readers raise their eyebrows in disbelief. Bronson and Merryman show how many of the beliefs most of us adhere to quite strongly--that violent TV shows make children more aggressive, that couples should never fight in front of their kids, that racism must be explicitly taught--are patently false. They do so by distilling reams of study results that prove just how mistaken we adults can sometimes be in our approach to child rearing.

This book should be on every parent and educator's reading list. It is rare that I read something that I feel is truly life-altering, but this book fits the bill.