Monday, January 25, 2010

The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

Nearly 20 years ago I experienced the Sunday edition of The New York Times for the first time. I will never forget it. The primary cover story was about the Supreme Court and the Opinion section ran a Peggy Noonan column. While my consistency of reading The Times has ebbed and flowed with the duties of life, my enthusiasm for the publication has never waned. When I have the time, I always find the Book Review section first. I am awestruck with the reviewers, and have put them on a pedestal with the understanding that I would never be fit to ask them the time of day, let alone disagree with one of their reviews. They are, after all, the ultimate authorities of knowing what makes a book good and what makes a book bad. What follows is a review that goes against every grain of my being for two reasons. The first reason is that I never read a book review on a book that I plan on reviewing. I broke my rule this past Sunday, and I can't say that I regret it. The second reason this review is unnerving is that I'm going to disagree - vehemently - with The Times' review of The Unnamed.

The Unnamed is Joshua Ferris's second book. I am a huge fan of his first novel and couldn't wait to tear into this one. The Unnamed is about Tim Farnsworth, an enormously successful attorney who finds himself with a debilitating condition that causes him to walk. He is unable to keep himself from walking and only stops when his body collapses in complete exhaustion. His walks are described this way: "The path itself was one of peaks and valleys, hot and cold in equal measure, rock, sedge and rush, the coil of barbed wire around a fence post, the wind boom of passing semis, the scantness and the drift." The condition is one that numerous medical professionals are unable to diagnose, despite numerous efforts. They can't even determine if it is an abnormal mental condition that causes him to walk so much. His walking episodes occur randomly, but the ones that occur in the dead of winter throughout the night prove extremely dangerous. He loses some toes and fingers from frostbite, and that is just the beginning. The condition destroys his career, his body, and his mind. It also tests the resolve of his family to remain faithful to him.

Jay McInerney reviewed The Unnamed last Sunday. He didn't like it, though he is a fan of Ferris's first novel. In his review he says, "In fact, it's difficult to believe that The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End came from the same laptop." McInerney doesn't like the fact that this book was so different from Ferris's first. While I would agree that the books are different (this one is dark, the first is hilarious), Ferris beautifully articulates in both novels how people feel when they are dealing with a debilitating illness. He writes about it so well that I can only assume he has watched loved ones deal with similar situations. So, in that regard, the two novels are remarkably similar.

Mr. McInerney says that he does not see the point in The Unnamed: "What does it mean? Tim's affliction might be a metaphor for addiction, for careerism, for any compulsion that drives a man or woman to leave family and community and health behind. A preacher tells Tim near the end of his travels that not everything can be explained by reason - which seems like a mundane lesson for such a grueling course of study." I do not think this book was written primarily as a metaphor for those things at all. The point of the book was to give readers a close look at marriage.

Jane, Tim's wife, tirelessly tries to help him find a cure for his unnamed syndrome. Once it becomes clear that a cure will not be found, she does everything possible to help him cope with the condition so that he stays safe; "She was his support staff and counsel." At great personal cost, she becomes a slave to Tim's condition. Regarding Jane, the narrator tells the reader that, "Anger with God was a tired and useless emotion, anger with God was so terrestrial and neutering. She thought she had arrived at a peaceful negotiation but in fact it was only a dormancy and when her anger at God met her at the end of the drive she was exhausted." Jane is a main character in the book, and my insides were ripped to painful shreds as I watched her choose to sit and watch her husband walk. She struggles with wanting an easier life. Even when Tim tells her to leave and move on, she tries but simply cannot. She worries for Tim, not out of obligation, but out of a self-sacrificial love that is not generally found in the Hollywood story lines that seem to have defined love in our culture.

If Mr. McInerney needs a metaphor, I could read one into this novel. We are all walking, aren't we? Toward something, away from something, but we are all figuratively walking. Ultimately, this book is about marriage (and maybe Mr. McInerney missed this because he isn't married). While the novel is very dark and lacks redemption, it is a thought-provoking and insightful look at how a marriage survives "in sickness" and " for worse". It is a beautifully painted picture of love that goes beyond romance or even duty. If you read it, you'll ask yourself if you have Jane's resolve. You'll ask yourself if you have ever seen someone love like Jane loves. And when you read the following passage from The Unnamed, you may stop and wonder just what marriage is all about.

"They say it takes a long time to really get to know somebody. They say a good marriage requires work. They say it's important to change alongside your partner to avoid growing apart. They talk about patience, sacrifice, compromise, tolerance. It seems the goal of these bearers of conventional wisdom is to get back to zero. They would have you underwater, tethered by chains to the bow of a ship full of treasure now sunk, struggling to free yourself to make it to the surface. With luck he will free himself, too, and then you can bob along together, scanning the horizon for some hint of land. They say boredom sets in, passion dissipates, idiosyncrasies start to grate, and the same problems repeat themselves. Why do you do it? Security, family, companionship. Ideally you do it for love. There's something they don't elaborate on. They just say the word and you're supposed to know what it means, and after twenty years of marriage, you are held up as exemplars of that simple foundation, love, upon which (with sweeping arms) all this is built. But don't let appearances fool you. That couple with twenty years still fights, they still go to bed angry, they still let days pass without --
The trouble with these cheap bromides, she thought, is that they don't capture the half of it."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

My summary of the massacres at Columbine High School before reading Columbine: Two boys, named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed a bunch of kids because they were being picked on at school and they were angry about it. They wore trench coats and dressed kind of Goth, and because of that, they were picked on and decided to take revenge.

My summary of the massacres at Columbine High School after Columbine: The only correct part of the above summary is that the boys’ names were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

If you think you know what happened that Tuesday morning in April, 1999, think again. Columbine is an immensely important book, whether you are a parent, an educator, a citizen, or a human being. Dave Cullen is a journalist who began reporting at Columbine High School on the day of the tragedy, and continued to cover the story for the next ten years. This book is the culmination of his meticulous research. While it is tragic that this book had to be written, I am so glad that it was. I never sensed that Cullen was trying to profit financially from the tragedy. Should you choose to read it, you’ll understand immediately that he had one goal in mind: to get the story straight.

Cullen begins the book by setting the scene of the school’s event in the three days preceding the attacks. After the attacks, he explains what is happening with the killers, the victims, their families, the churches, the media, and the law enforcement. He writes in a steady stream of changing focus. At first, I considered this a choppy way to present the facts. I soon realized that this is the only way to present the story; this event was full of so much chaos within the lives of so many individuals that the structure of the book mimics the state of the community in the hours and days and years following the massacres. It also mimics, I would guess, the number of different aspects that Cullen had to address as he covered the story. That said, the book is easy to read, and yet difficult to process. Cullen comprehensively dispels the myths surrounding the killings. And the myths are stunningly abundant. He explains how those myths occurred and why they are not accurate assessments of the facts surrounding the case.

Cullen investigates the motive of Eric and Dylan incredibly well. He was fortunate to spend extensive time with Dwayne Fuselier, an FBI Agent who tirelessly searched for an answer to why the two young men did what they did. The findings are astonishing. He subtly shows incredible compassion for the victims and their families, and while I did not sense compassion for Eric and Dylan, he seemed to handle the revealing of their motive as objectively as a caring human possibly could.

The other stunning thing to read about in Columbine is the cover up that occurred within local law enforcement. Cullen repeatedly shows that the reason the myths surrounding the event have been perpetuated is because the report on the killings did not come out for a year afterwards. Once the facts were released, the public had lost interest and the assumptions that were initially made stuck, even though the report showed that the majority of those assumptions were inaccurate. Cullen also explains that there are facts the public will never know about the behavior of Harris and Klebold because records were destroyed. In another brilliant show of reporting, Cullen explains that, while the detective work regarding the evidence at the school was well done, there were mistakes made that were simply unconscionable. These mistakes, combined with the reaction of the Evangelical Christian community in the aftermath, are all parts of the tragedy about which I was unaware until I read this book.

In his quest to tell the whole story of Columbine, I think Cullen shows that on many levels, there was a great failure to do one thing: listen. Parents weren’t listening to children. Children weren’t listening to parents. Law enforcement wasn’t listening to facts that perhaps could have caught this crime before it occurred. Members of the media weren’t listening to facts. The public wasn’t listening to the media. Many of the Christians weren’t listening to the Bible. And, as any great book does, this one caused me to ask myself an important question about the way I live my life: Do I listen? I hear, but do I really and truly listen? Am I listening to my children? Do I listen to the media? Am I listening to facts? Or am I simply making conclusions based on the preconceived notions that are centered on what I am halfway hearing? I need to listen.

Thank you, Mr. Cullen. I hope more people take up your book and listen.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Some of the best stories are in books. Some never make it to the paper pages; they are lived out on the pages of our lives. The best writers find the words to tell the stories that end up in books. Some of us are not the best writers, and so, our stories will remain lived out on the pages of life. But that doesn't mean that these stories aren't worthy to tell.

A decade ago at this very moment (Kazakhstan time), I began to live a really great story. I became a mother for the first time and my oldest daughter became a daughter for the first time. We didn't meet each other in the usual way. We weren't at a hospital. We weren't even in a room with a birth mother and a social worker. We were in a country that most people have never heard of. We were united in an orphanage, full of hundreds of parentless children living in conditions less than favorable. Right there, in the most dire of conditions, began this beautiful story, a story that the best of fiction writers could not write. This child, my daughter, was handed to me. Dressed in a bright yellow sweatshirt and skin covered in scabies, she was seven months old when I met her. At all of ten pounds, she was the size of a newborn though not the age of one. As I set eyes on her for the first time, I was, well, completely overcome. I don't have the words to tell you just how. They don't exist. I wonder what she was thinking as she reached out for my face. I wish I knew.

We survived our six weeks together in Kazakhstan. It was quite the adventure. The adventure is a story in itself, one that some say has been told enough. She had been in Kazakhstan for nine months by the time we left, and while she acclimated to the conditions, her sick little body was giving the signals that it was ready to get away for a while, perhaps forever. By the time we left, I would have done anything for that child.

We arrived home, to throngs of family and friends who doted on her like nothing I'd ever seen. And as we recovered from jet lag and began the long process of reversing the daunting effects of her institutionalization, I threw myself into motherhood like nothing you've ever seen. My friend told me years later that I was a "hobby parent". I had the best of intentions; I was going to be the perfect mother with no mistakes on the agenda.

Of course, as each second passed, I fell more in love with her. I was joyful. Happy. Euphoric. Ecstatic. I had never known love like this. I rejoiced in every move of her finger, in every twitch of her mouth. I swear I watched her so closely that I could see her hair grow. For two and a half years, I did nothing but watch my perfect child and bask in the glory of her being.

And then, life happened. As we all know, life isn't all play. It isn't all fun. I had to get some things done. And so, I realized that I needed to make some changes. Begin a routine. Set some boundaries. Establish some rules. Expect certain behavior. As as I did, my sweet daughter wasn't sure what was happening. She didn't know that life wasn't all play and hugs and laughter when you throw your food off of the high chair. Her initial seven months of life were all about routine and rules and behavior. As she and I tried to get used to a new normal, I quickly learned that I had made a motherload of mistakes.

And as we navigated our new waters, something happened. This child would try to learn the new thing, I would correct her, she would try her best, I would correct her again and so the cycle would go. The poor girl. I was messing up. And each time I messed up, she would forgive me. She would love me even though I wasn't very lovable, even though I was changing the rules on her. This pattern of me changing the rules and her giving me another chance to get it right would continue for some time. A decade, in fact.

I still haven't gotten this mothering thing down. I screw up every day. And when I do, she is right there, ready to forgive, ready to love unconditionally, ready to give me another chance. Wait. Wasn't it my job to teach her unconditional love? Wasn't that what I, the parent, was supposed to do for her, the child? Oh, the surprises life brings. My daughter has taught me what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. She has taught me that I am loved in spite of my failings. She has modeled what I am supposed to be modeling to her. She has given me a decade of the gift called Grace.

And so, as I reflect and cry copious volumes of tears in gratitude and joy, I write this story because tomorrow night we will celebrate a decade together. And as we celebrate, the emotions will keep me from verbalizing just how much she is loved and what a gift she is. A gift completely undeserved by me. Grace.

To those of you who watched the adventure, thanks for being there through it all. And to John and Mom, who were there at the beginning, thanks for walking this road with me. I couldn't have done it without you.

Happy Gotcha Day, CPT. Your mom loves you more than words can say.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Resolved... read the following books in 2010:


Everything Matters, by Ron Currie, Jr….because I promised I would.

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, by Jeannette Walls…because it is one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2009.

A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert…because I am immensely interested how women navigate the responsibilities they have faced over time.

Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem…because I love books that are set in New York City.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore…because adoption is a primary theme and I’m curious.

Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E. M. Delafield…because it is fun to read about a character of whom I am the polar opposite.

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist…because the themes of morality appear to loom large.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel (P.S.)...because I love his wife's writing, I figured I'd check him out.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy...because this guy told me to.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz...because it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a few years ago.

A Happy Marriage: A Novel, by Rafael Yglesias... because I read about this book in July and have not forgotten about it.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy…because I loved Anna and I didn’t read it in High School.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert...because it is a short classic and it is on my bookshelf.

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien...because I should, even though I don't want to.


The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer…because she is my hero and I get to read it before it comes out as long as I promise to read it and write the review by February 22nd.

The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel…because I’m worried that my generation simply doesn’t get war.

Columbine, by Dave Cullen…because it was at the library and because I think I should.


Herbert Hoover: The American Presidents Series: The 31st President, 1929-1933, by William E. Leuchtenburg...because he was an engineer.

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls…because my mother told me to.

Ayn Rand and World She Made, by Anne C. Heller…because my husband is still working on Atlas Shrugged.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch…because I finally listened to my sister-in-law regarding O’Connor’s writing.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin...because everyone loves it.

On Education:

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, by Walter Kirn…because I want to read some books on education this year.

Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World, by Rafe Esquith...because this guy is inspiring.

On Writing:

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, by Carol Sklenicka…because I want to read about writing this year.

On Religion:

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N. T. Wright...because I hear it is an easy read .

Celebration of Discipline, by Richard J. Foster...because I've not read it and I should have a long time ago.

That's it, so far. I'll be adding to this as the year progresses, but these are my must reads for the year. I'd love to see YOUR lists and hear YOUR recommendations for 2010. Happy reading...