Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Do Tell...

What are you reading right now?  My inquiring mind would like to know.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Empty at the Office - Book #3

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is the story of an advertising agency facing an economic downturn in 2001.  The copywriters aren't handling their pending unemployment well.  They know each other better than their own family members, and their desperation to keep their jobs seems to be more about maintaining relationships with their quirky co-workers than it is about maintaining income.

This novel is immensely funny and brilliantly constructed.  The entire story is narrated by one of the agency copywriters who refers to himself or herself (the reader is never given the gender) as "we".  Ferris deviates from this voice once, and in that section we hear the perspective of the copywriters' boss.  In a way, the book is very Don Quixote - esque.  Many times there are stories within a story that are within another story.  In other words, this isn't easy comic strip reading; ya gotta get some brains on to read it.

Like I said, the book is hilarious.  If you've ever spent time in an office, you will be laughing out loud and you will realize that any television series centering on workplace happenings pales in comparison to Ferris's humor.  Life isn't all fun and games, and, as life would have it, things get a little dark.  There are many places in the book where the reader can pause and ponder life's important questions.  Three of my favorites follow:

"Some people would never forget certain people, a few people would remember everyone, and most of us would mostly be forgotten.  Sometimes it was for the best.  Larry Novotny wanted to be forgotten for his dalliance with Amber Ludwig.  Tom Mota wanted to be forgotten for that incident involving the paintballs.  But did anybody want to be forgotten about completely?  We had dedicated years to that place, we labored under the notion we were making names for ourselves, we had to believe in our hearts that each one of us was memorable.  And yet who wanted to be remembered for their poor taste or bad breath?  Still, better to be remembered for those things than forgotten for your perfect par-boiled blandness."

"We had nothing in common with the dying and so never knew what to say to them.  Our presence seemed a vague and threatening insult, something that could easily spill over into cruel laughter, and so we chose our words carefully and moved with caution gathering around the bed and restricted our jokes and bantering."

"Some days felt longer than other days.  Some days felt like two whole days.  Unfortunately those days were never weekend days.  Our Saturdays and Sundays passed in half the time of a normal workdays.  In other words, some weeks it felt like we worked ten straight days and had only one day off.  We could hardly complain.  Time was being added to our lives."

When you read this book, you'll come to know the characters as well as you know the people with whom you spend the majority of your waking hours.  And you'll realize that every single one of the them, both in the book and in your office, is looking for significance.  My question is this:  when individuals seek significance through a career, do they come up empty?  How about you?  Does your work at the office fill you up?  Are the "free bagels in the morning" really all they are cracked up to be?  Or does your work, as significant to society as it may be, leave you, like the copywriters and April Wheeler, feeling empty?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Empty in the 'burbs - Book #2

Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road was published in 1961.  The setting of the story is a Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950's.  Frank and April Wheeler appear to be the perfect young couple with the perfect family in a perfect house at the end of a perfect road in a perfect suburb.  Except!  Things are not so perfect.  April tries to make something of herself in the suburbs and when that attempt fails, she puts her hope in helping Frank become something great.  As the book's summary says, "...they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner."  They silently focus on each other's deficiencies, and yet at the same time believe they have the potential to be better than everyone around them.  The story does not end in the form of a pretty package with a bow on it; it is an incredibly sad tale.  It is so sad that I didn't cry, and that's saying something.  The story as a whole sat at the forefront of my brain for three days after I finished it.

That said, I loved it.  I adore this book for two reasons.  The first is that it is beautifully written.  The second is that Yates poignantly shows how an average American couple becomes discontented with their lives.  Such writing is valuable as we seek solutions to make the world a better place.  Disclaimer before I continue:  I am not qualified to discuss this book well from a literary standpoint, so please remember that I'm just a reader with a reaction, which follows below.

April Wheeler did not receive Caddie Woodlawn's father's monologue about women and how they make the world a better place.  Or, if she did receive some such counsel, she ignored it.  She's living in the 1950's, a time when keeping house and raising children was, as I understand, heralded as a noble profession.  As a housewife/stay-at-home mom, April essentially rejects housekeeping and child rearing, and oh by the way, she never wanted to do it in the first place.  Her disdain with life turns around when she concocts a plan to go to work.  She does this under the guise of  giving her husband the opportunity to find out what it is he is really meant to do with his life.  Life puts a kink in that plan, and things in the Wheeler house come unraveled.  April thinks that getting away from the emptiness of her home will completely change her life.  And when that dream fades, she is sitting in an even emptier hole.  Implied in the book is that perhaps April had some mental instability that caused the emptiness.  I'm not convinced that there was any instability at all.  I think she just felt that her life held no meaning.

This story lurched my gut on many levels.  This is a book that I'd love to discuss theme by theme.  However, the empty housewife/mother theme is the one that screamed for my attention.  As a housewife/stay-at-home mom who does joyfully embrace her role but sometimes misses working, I could somewhat understand April's struggle.  Ultimately, I found her reaction so very, very tragic.  I wondered just how many other women in 2009 reject what used to be an honored role in life.  I pondered whether or not I'm imagining that rejection.  And if there is no financial reason for the wife to be earning money, I asked myself this question:  "What makes women think that working outside the home is less important than working in it?"  I'd love hear your thoughts.

Monday, March 23, 2009


...from Saturday.
I attended a book discussion on The Bluest Eye.  Regarding her novel-project, Ms. Morrison said "...many of the readers remain touched but not moved."  "Touched but not moved" was precisely what I heard at the discussion.  That was a little disappointing.

...from Sunday.
I listened to a woman tell the story of how, on her first wedding anniversary, she and her husband had to SHARE a 15 cent hamburger because that was all the money they had.  They will celebrate their 50th anniversary soon.  The wife said that they are going to go to that same fast food restaurant to mark the occasion.  The husband piped up and said, "That is the only anniversary I remember out of all of the anniversaries, and it was by far the best and the happiest."  Enough said.

...from Monday.
I finished reading Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt to the children today.  I cried.  And the conclusion turned my Saturday's "a little disappointing" into "very disappointing".

...from Comments.
To Stoic:  Certainly, prejudice, bigotry and racism exist for all kinds of reasons other than skin color, including eye shape, religious preference (or lack thereof), social status, etc.  And yes, history does show that powerful people tend to thrive on having a group of people to which they assign a "lesser" value.  Why is this?  It think it goes back to pride.  I'm not talking about the pride I feel when I've folded seventeen loads of laundry.  I'm talking about the pride that creeps in the moment I think I'm better than someone else.  Thanks for your insightful comments. 

To Gail:  I appreciate your "different is not deficient" comment.  Gently pointing out racism is a good start.  This is not always easy.  I often find myself in such situations (mostly in the grocery store!) as strangers question the makeup of my family.  And to your point that raising children is a day in and day out effort...thank you for that reminder!  It is a good one.

To abbiegrace:  I don't know the ages of your children.  I just wanted to let you know that my oldest children, ages nine, seven and five, all enjoyed Caddie's adventures.

To Tulip:  What stands out in my memory about Caddie Woodlawn when I read it as a third-grader was that there was a little girl in my class who chose to read Caddie Woodlawn for HER diorama project when she found out that I was reading Caddie Woodlawn for MY diorama project.  I was incensed.  The book had a significantly bigger impact on me with this latest reading.  

Friday, March 20, 2009

On Raising Daughters

This post belongs in the category of "Read This Book to Your Children and You Will Benefit Greatly."  I'm a huge fan of reading aloud to my children.  More on that in a later post...

Poor Caddie Woodlawn.  Not only is her true story pushed aside for the more popular Laura Ingalls Wilder, but she also desperately wants to be like her brothers.  Being a tomboy is what she wants to be, and she is caught in the middle of her father's desire to let her "just be" and her mother's longing to refine her into the young woman she was meant "to be".  Carol Ryrie Brink's delightful accounting of one woman's Civil War-era recollections  gives children an historical picture of what it would have been like to live during that time.  It gave me, a parent, a beautiful picture of what it means to raise daughters.

Caddie consistently gets into trouble with her brothers.  Her biggest gripe, however, is that she is held to a different standard than they.  In one scene, Caddie and her brothers scheme to put an egg down cousin Annabelle's dress.  Caddie's brothers run free while Caddie receives punishment from her mother.  The injustice is just about more than Caddie can bear.  A few hours after the incident, Mr. Woodlawn goes into Caddie's room and gives this monologue, which about takes my breath away every time I read it:

"Perhaps Mother was a little hasty today, Caddie,"  he said.  "She really loves you very much, and, you see, she expects more of you than she would of someone she didn't care about.  It's a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys.  It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful.  What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way!  A woman's task is to teach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness.  It's a big task, too, Caddie -- harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers.  It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things.  They have them just as much as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness.  A woman's work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man's.  But no man could ever do it so well.  I don't want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners, whom folks sometimes call a lady.  No, that is not what I want for you, my little girl.  I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind."

Having carved a road (or ten) through the wilderness, I know it took nerve and courage and patience to do that.  I'm finding out that raising daughters to have wise and understanding hearts and honest minds is a much harder task that damming a river and that it is taking much more nerve and courage and patience that I ever imagined.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Looking for a Solution to the Problem - Book #1

Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970.  In her forward to the 2007 edition she writes, "This project, then, for this, my first book, was to enter the life of the one least likely to withstand such damaging forces because of youth, gender, and race."  This book is, indeed, a project.  It is, at a minimum, a masterpiece that deserves a long, hard look.

In The Bluest Eye, the reader learns the innermost thoughts, visceral feelings and subsequent actions of several people living in 1941.  The focus of the book is an 11-year old girl named Pecola Breedlove.   She is faced with every possible obstacle, both emotionally and physically.  Pecola longs to be beautiful.  The world seems dead set against allowing her to feel, see, touch, taste, or love anything of beauty.  Morrison convincingly places the burden of responsibility for this robbery on society's images which portray white people and their things beautiful and black people and their things ugly.

My parents raised me in a racist-free house.  They didn't just tell me that white people are not different from black people.  They didn't only keep our home free of crude, stereotypical jokes based on ethnicity.  They didn't simply make sure I didn't think I was better than someone because I had fair skin.  They refused to distinguish people based on race.  I never heard them describe someone based on their skin color or from where they came.  As a result, I am a person who is absolutely horrified by racism.  It makes no sense to me.  I agree with the horror that shines through Morrison's writing as she paints the picture of racism in this book.    I don't claim to understand what it feels like to be the brunt of racism because I've never experienced that.  This book gave me a better understanding of what that experience would be like because it vividly describes emotions resulting from having your character judged based on the pigment of your skin.  Last I checked, we don't choose the pigment of our skin.  I know there is a problem.  I see the reason, nonsensical to me as it is.  What I longed for as I read the book was a solution.  

Morrison repeatedly shows how white people think they are better than black people.  What is that?  It is pride.  C.S.  Lewis says, "pride...leads to every other vice...Pride is essentially competititve... Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.  We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.  They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better looking than others..."  History shows that along way white people started feeling richer, cleverer, better looking.  The images produced in society reflected that pride and wah-lah! you have racism.  As Lewis also says, "A proud man is always looking down on things and people:  and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you."

I am baffled by Morrison's view that this book is somewhat of a failure.  She says in the book's Forward, "...many of the readers remain touched but not moved."  May you, reader, take up this masterpiece, and be moved.  Moved enough to remember in whose image you are made and to look up instead of down.