Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - Book Review #13

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho has been around for a while, and, as of late, has been popping up everywhere I look. The reason for this is that it is the 20th anniversary of its original release. My Bac Ninh friend sent it to me in April. I read it then, but I'm just now getting around to writing about it. The reason for this procrastination is not laundry or dishes or groceries. It is that I have approval issues. I don't want to disappoint my Bac Ninh friend by telling her I didn't like it. Additionally, a person for whom I care immensely doesn't like it when I post negative reviews. And furthermore, it is listed as one of the best selling books of all time. There are millions of people I worry about disappointing. Do you see my problem? Well, here at Civil Thoughts we are all about the truth and what follows is the truth, the whole truth, so help me God.

This is a fable about a shepherd boy who travels to pursue his destiny. On his journey, he encounters many people who provide words of wisdom. At the beginning, the boy thinks, "People say strange things, the boy thought. Sometimes it's better to be with the sheep, who don't say anything. And better still to be alone with one's books. They tell their incredible stories at the time when you want to hear them. But when you're talking to people, they say some things that are so strange that you don't know how to continue the conversation." That is exactly how I felt about this book; it was full of things so strange that I just didn't know how to continue in the conversation. Clearly, the author's intent was to inspire. I was completely uninspired. Since millions of people seem to have been profoundly moved by it, maybe there is something wrong with me.

The most significant reason I didn't like this book is because Coelho tries to pull facets of every religion into helping the boy reach his destiny. Last time I checked, all the religions of the world don't mesh real well together. Pick one. Stick with it. Don't try to merge them all together. It doesn't work in a fable, let alone in real life.

There you are. I hated the thing. And now all of you know it and I've disappointed my friend, my person-I-care-for-deeply, and the millions of people reading this blog who loved it. Maybe I'll try reading it in the original language (Portuguese). If change my opinion maybe you all will like me again.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout - Book Review #12

Elizabeth Strout is the author of Olive Kitteridge, Pulitzer Prize winner for 2009. As I have waited to get my literature-gluttonous eyes on it, I've read Strout's Abide With Me and Amy and Isabelle. Both are excellent. I'm anxious to see what her Pulitzer writing looks like.

Amy, a teenage girl with a "lack of commotion in her face", is Isabelle's daughter. Isabelle is a single mother and a secretary who spends lots of time in "fruitless conjecture, hours of wasted thought". She is confident that she is giving Amy the opportunities in life that she missed. Isabelle loves her boss, Avery Clark. This is a secret she has shared with no one. Just as she has convinced herself that she is doing all she can for her daughter, she is equally convinced that Avery's wife does not love him as she would. Isabelle thinks, "Now, if she were married to Avery (rolling sheet of paper into the typewriter and getting rid of Emma Clark with a heart attack that would carry only a few brief moments of panic and pain), Avery might say in response to some one's asking, A nasty bug, but Isabelle took wonderful care of me." In short, Isabelle is desperate to love someone. Well. Amy would have been a good place to start. Amy, desperate to be loved, receives some attention from someone (who has no business giving her attention) and does every thing she possibly can to keep that attention coming. Strout writes, "Amy had become desperate, crazy, somebody else." The decisions that Amy and Isabelle make in response to their desperation for love direct the remainder of the story, which will make you think and laugh and cry just a little.

The characters on the periphery of the story will make you laugh. These characters (Dottie, Bev and Stacy) point out just how rotten life can be because of the way we treat one another. In one scene, Strout writes, "Intermittently glancing at Dottie lying on the couch with the afghan pulled over her, Isabelle had to keep looking away, for she was struck with the extreme ease with which lives could be damaged, destroyed. Lives, flimsy as fabric, could be snipped capriciously with the shears of random moments of self-interest." And then, there is this poignant paragraph: "She gazed at the stupefied Dottie in her rocking chair and had the sense to visibly witnessing a disaster, a house left in shambles, as though an earthquake had struck. But it wasn't any earthquake, it wasn't any "act of God." No, you couldn't blame these things on God. It was people, just ordinary, regular people, who did this to each other. People ruined other people's lives. People simply took what they wanted..." Did you pause when you read that? If not, go back and read it again. Self. It can be a dangerous thing. Is there any place in your life where your self interest is simply taking what you want? Yep. I thought so.

Predictably, there are some strong mother/daughter themes in the book. When Stacy, a teenager adopted at birth and Amy's best friend, gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, she pontificates the following point: "I wonder if I'm like my real mother...Because if everyone just turns out like their mother, then what's the...point?" Here are some lines that have no doubt been screamed in kitchens by mothers to their teenage daughters many, many times: " 'You go right ahead and tell yourself that your mother is an illiterate moron and that she's too stupid to know anything about real life, but I'm telling you that you are the one who doesn't know anything!' It has become that senseless and awful, yelling at each other about who was the most stupid."

Amy and Isabelle provides a profound portrait of the female teenage mind. It is this aspect of the novel that I appreciated the most. Teenage girls are delightful and unique. However, they - generally speaking - have an extreme desire to feel loved by their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, boyfriends, teachers, aunts, uncles, and third cousins. Time and again I've seen them make unfortunate decisions to obtain this love. While Elizabeth Strout doesn't necessarily provide solutions for the teenager, she certainly reminds us that as the adults, we have a responsibility to give love and attention to these young ladies. Because if we don't, they are going to go elsewhere to find it. And the elsewhere might not be so lovely.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson - Book Review #11

I fell in love with this book while sitting in the lobby of a hotel at midnight while my family slept peacefully in Room 226. I could not have loved it more had I been reading it on the beach at sunrise.

Housekeeping, written by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead), is the story of Ruthie and her mother's sister, Sylvie. Ruthie's mother kills herself when Ruthie and her sister, Lucille, are young children. Ruthie's grandmother raises them for five years and then she dies. Enter Aunt Sylvie, who arrives to take over the rearing of these two girls into their teen years. As with Gilead, the themes are so rich and so deep that everyone will take away something different from their reading. Grief is the most prominent of those themes in Housekeeping, and the story radically portrays what happens when grief remains untouched.

The writing is gorgeous. It is so beautiful that anything else I've read since seems choppy and ugly. Robinson's gift of sentence construction is astonishing. As Doris Lessing said of the novel, "...every sentence is a delight." To tell us that Ruthie's grandmother died, she says, "When after almost five years, my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening,..." And then, to provide insight into the family, Robinson writes, "Then, too, for whatever reasons, our whole family was standoffish. This was the fairest description of our best qualities, and the kindest description of our worst faults." I read the following sentence and melted as I could see the picture of what she was describing so vividly: "If one pried up earth with a stick on those days, one found massed shafts of ice, slender as needles and pure as spring water." And in my final attempt to convince you of her beautiful writing, I share my favorite lines of the entire book:

"We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others and we had lost our sight."

Entwined in the fabulous sentences is a poignant story. Ruthie's grandmother did not grieve the loss of her husband. She simply did not address the death with her children, including Ruthie's mom and Aunt Sylvie. She just went on with life. Ruthie's grandmother did the same thing with her grandchildren when Ruthie's mom drove off a bridge; she just didn't address the death with the children. Aunt Sylvie shows up and because of her unresolved grief, she neglects Ruthie and Lucille in a seriously tragic way. Sylvie feeds, clothes and shelters Lucille and Ruthie. The negligence is of the emotion, the spirit. In Housekeeping, ignored grief leads to mental health issues which lead to neglect of children. The cycle begins again, with some children choosing to get out of the cycle and others finding it most comforting to stay in it.

Because of my place in life, the neglect of children theme was my focus as I read. We all know that neglect of children is bad. And we generally give children credit for being resilient. But how resilient are they, really? Robinson so powerfully shows just how damaging adult self-indulgence is in regard to the nurture and care of children. Ruthie says this about her Aunt Sylvie:

"For she could regard me without strong emotion - a familiar shape, a familiar face, a familiar silence. She could forget I was in the room. She could speak to herself, or to someone in their thoughts, with pleasure and animation, even while I sat beside her - this was the measure of our intimacy, that she gave almost no thought to me at all."

As good writing always does, it encouraged me to think about the world, my life, my parenting, my children. Why are so many children throughout the world neglected? Where am I negligent in the care of my children? When am I so self-focused that I'm simply seeing them as familiar shapes, familiar faces and, in our house, familiar loud voices? How can I listen so that I am not mistaking important life questions for inconvenient queries? What can I do to parent so that my children don't reach adulthood with Ruthie's conclusion regarding mothers:

"Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise."