#83 ~ Admit One

July 6, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Posted in Books, Family, LIfe, Memoir, Reading | 8 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cover to Admit One

Admit One: A Journey into Film by Emmett James

When I was offered the opportunity to read this memoir, I was extremely excited. I’ve always loved movies and this love is something my husband and I share in common. Danny studied to work in film during college, where he worked very hard to create and direct his senior project. I believe that if my husband were to ever write a memoir it would be a combination of Admit One and Love is a Mix Tape (hopefully without the widower connection). Knowing that my husband and James shared a similar passion made this book a must read for me.

Admit One details the childhood and early acting career of Emmett James as framed by the films that have impacted his life. A different movie provides the backdrop of each of the 22 stories making up this book. From The Jungle Book to It’s a Wonderful Life, James shares his memories and what he learned about life in both Croydon, South London and Los Angeles, CA. If you are a film lover, you will appreciate that James writes about the way this medium can interweave with our lives and shape our perspective on what it means to live.

Reading this memoir brought back a lot of wonderful memories for me. I believe that almost everyone has tried to dig to China or Australia (or vice versa) during childhood. It was the first thing Emmett James did after seeing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At first his dig started out as an archaeological excursion in search of some Indy-worthy treasures. After coming up empty, he changed his motivation entirely and that made this chapter came alive for me. There is something about watching dramatic representations of other people that can drive both the young and old take on the characteristics of heroes or even glamorous villains if only in our imaginations. That is the true beauty and worth of film.

Unlike for the James family, a trip to the movie theater was an infrequent yet beloved treat in our household. It was a reward for a semester’s good grades, or more often an excuse for my father to see an adventure film. Being of a similar age to the author, my childhood was likewise shaped by E.T., the original Star Wars trilogy, The Karate Kid, The Wizard of Oz, and Ghostbusters. Although our backgrounds are extremely different, we could most certainly communicate clearly and concisely using the language of movies. Reliving my life through each of these films, among others, was the best part of reading this book.

Whereas film has brought a great deal of joy to the author’s life and ultimately brought him to Hollywood’s door, this memoir isn’t entirely happy. James’ relationship to his family is distant and even a little cold. In the same section where he is dreaming of uncovering precious artifacts, James reminisces about the last time his family went to a movie together. He wishes he could recapture that experience once again, but the rest of his story is about moving further and further away – first emotionally, and then physically. When he writes that “movies have always meant everything to [him],” I believe that they have become his family in a way that his flesh and blood family never did. I can’t help but feel saddened by that.

In addition to weaving film throughout his stories, I enjoyed this peek at what life was like for a young boy growing up in a working to middle class neighborhood in South London. Once James left England and became acclimated to Hollywood, I felt that the book started to lose its direction. While he did learn about himself and what he wanted out of life working on the set of Lap Dancing, I’m not it was deserving of an entire chapter. It could have been tightened up and combined with Honeymoon in Vegas. I was also surprised by what he chose to write about when discussing Titanic, I eagerly anticipated reading about being directed by James Cameron or acting opposite Kathy Bates. Instead, he describes both the poverty of Mexico and an odd and somewhat alarming experience with a cab driver. As a result, those chapters lack the cohesion I felt throughout the rest of the memoir.

At its heart, Admit One is a love letter to film. The author rightly points out that movies can have a powerful effect on viewers. They can serve as entertainment, promote wonder and imagination, educate, help us communicate with one another, and challenge us. In addition to being a lover of film, James has the added pleasure of being a working actor in Hollywood. It is his passion for his life’s work that made this book a reality, and I was not disappointed. If you ever wanted to ride your BMX through the sky or fight storm troopers with your very own light saber, this is the book for you.

**************
To buy this book, click here.

#76 ~ Trespassers will be Baptized

June 3, 2008 at 4:54 pm | Posted in Books, Childhood Memories, Family, LIfe, Memoir, Religion | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Cover of Trespassers will be Baptized

Trespassers Will Be Baptized: The Unordained Memoir of a Preacher’s Daughter by Elizabeth Emerson Hancock

Trespassers will be Baptized tells the story of Elizabeth Emerson Hancock’s early childhood as the oldest daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher living in Kentucky. Miss Em was a precocious little girl who grew up certain that she knew exactly the way it was, only to find out that even her parents weren’t always so sure. It is her experiences coming to learn and understand how her parents, most especially her father, live within the spaces between their holy” (public) life and their “human” (private) life that make this memoir interesting and applicable to almost anyone who once was a child.

Although you should never judge the book by its cover, I really feel as though I got exactly what I was eagerly anticipating from the moment I first held the book in my hand. Hancock tells her story in a vivacious manner that pokes fun at her childhood notions and background while honoring it all at the same time. She sheds light on what it is like to grow up in a Southern Baptist home, but also provide insight on girls coming of age in the early to mid-1980s.

The stories she tells specific to her religious upbringing ring true, but so do her experiences as an oldest child. She brought back so many memories for me. I laughed as much at her story about fishing a pair of acid washed Guess jeans out of the Missions box for herself as I did about times when I used my advanced reasoning with my younger siblings to get them to go along with my schemes. Once I convinced myself that what I was setting out to do was okay, I could often easily recruit the rest to go along with me. The tricky part was working it so that they would get the blame if we were caught…

I very much enjoyed my time reading Trespassers will be Baptized. It was well paced and smoothly written. I reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel. It’s nice to read about childhood experiences that weren’t traumatic or abusive. Living in a Southern Baptist area, I am happy now to know a little more about how my neighbors might have been brought up and some of the characters they might have encountered at church. Even still, despite doctrinal differences, growing up in an religious yet open home and regularly attending church is more alike than it is different. I would most definitely recommend this book.

*********
To buy this book, click here.

#68 ~ Love is a Mix Tape

May 4, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Posted in Books, College Life, Inspiration, LIfe, Memoir, My Life with Books, Reading | 10 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cover of Love is a Mix Tape

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield

I found out about this book from Pop Candy, my favorite pop culture blog written by Whitney Matheson. As soon as I found out what this memoir was about, I had to buy it.. It tells the story of a man’s life and, more specifically, his love life, through his mix tapes. Rob Sheffield sounded just like my husband to me. I bought it for Danny, but I knew that I would eventually read it myself. So, when I found myself without a book I had to read, I plucked this off of the bookshelf having no idea what type of impact it would have on me.

A little background…

I “met” my husband in 1995 on Dreamscape, an Internet talker that required users to enter commands to do or say anything to anyone else. At that time I was obsessed – there is no other word for it as much as I care to deny it – with Michael Stipe. As ZenLauda, I would go on and see how fast I could get everyone to say something – anything – about Stipe. Of course, if someone said something nasty, I excommunicated that person from my persona. One time I brought Stipe up and HoneyPoison said, “Stipe is unripe.” I nearly axed HP, but then I didn’t and I don’t know why. I’d banished others for less. This started a long conversation about R.E.M. and music in general (Danny was in a band called “Ancient Astronauts” in 1989) that continues on to this day. I fell in love with him at an R.E.M. concert in Greensboro in 1995 and I moved to southwest Virginia 8 months later. The rest is history.

R.E.M. Monster era

The first thing I remember Danny giving me was a mix tape entitled 24 in honor of my 24th birthday. Most of the music on it was new to me and stuff that I still love today – Julian Cope‘s “China Doll,” Died Pretty‘s “D.C.,” and Miracle Legion‘s “You’re The One Lee” were my favorites, but the rest was great. Reading this book made me very nostalgic for that tape. Sheffield’s descriptions of the time and energy he puts into his mixes rings true to this woman made to another mixer. You know that you mean something to a man or woman like that when they make you a mix tape. In fact, one of the first things Danny thought to do after meeting our oldest daughter’s birth mother was to make her a mix tape for when we saw her after Emma was born. Knowing all of what goes into a mix, it’s one of the saddest things ever when a person being gifted with a mix tape doesn’t understand the significance.

Back to the book…

Sheffield grew up in Boston in a world of his own where all outside stimuli filtered into him through music. He loved music like nothing and no one else. From school to Catholic summer camp he tried to impress his peers with his mix tapes or, when necessary, he escaped into them. It wasn’t until he was in college that he made himself break out of his shell. And it is in grad school at the University of Virginia that he met Renee Crist, an Appalachian girl who stole his heart from the very beginning.

When you live in southwest Virginia, it’s not every day that you pick up a book and it starts talking about places you’ve been or places you live. Renee was born in Georgia, but she grew up in Pulaski and attended Hollins College (now University) where I earned my Master’s degree. She lived in Roanoke for a time before heading to Charlottesville, where she met and feel in love with Rob. As he describes when he fell in love with her, the connection to Danny grew even stronger than I ever could have expected:

I squeezed into a booth next to her and we talked about music. She told me that you can sing the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme to the tune of R.E.M.’s “Talk about the Passion.” That was it, basically; as soon as she started to sing “Talk about the Clampetts,” any thought I had of not falling in love with her went down in some serious “Towering Inferno” flames. It was over. I was over.

While in Roanoke, Renee met Danny and hung around in the same circles with him. At one point, she was roommates with Claudia, the wife of Danny’s good friend from high school. While in Roanoke, Renee heard the Ancient Astronauts play “Talk about the Clampetts,” a song Danny, the lead singer, mashed up himself. Danny is responsible for Rob and Renee getting together and, therefore, responsible for this book being written!

Click here to listen to a live performance of “Talk about the Clampetts” performed by the Ancient Astronauts in 1989:

When we figured out that this book was about Renee Crist (at midnight on a work night – I didn’t end up getting much sleep), Danny went into his closet and pulled out his shoe box of pictures. In that box he found a picture of her with Jimm (with two Ms), the same person who was seeing when she moved to Charlottesville.

Renee Crist and Jimm

After seeing the picture of her at a New Year’s Eve party, this book came alive to me in a way I’ve never experienced before. Not only was it a reminder of the time when I first fell in love with my husband, my reading of Love is a Mix Tape became a couple’s project. It set us off on a mini archaeological dig of Danny’s musical past, and I’ve always wanted to be an archaeologist.

Reading Sheffield’s memoir made me feel very happy to be alive in a world of music and mix tapes. If you love music and have ever made a mix tape – even if you ever just taped songs off of the radio, you will enjoy this book.

***********
To buy this book, click here.

#60 ~ Eat, Pray, Love

February 27, 2008 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Books, Disappointment, Memoir, Religion, Worst of the Year | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
eat.jpg

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

I don’t typically read books about food. For whatever reason, I get bored reading paragraphs filled with nothing but food preparatory details. Knowing this about myself, I never considered even picking up this book off of the shelf to read the description. The only reason I am reviewing this here is that a co-worker offered to let me borrow this book on CD. In the end, my instincts to stay far away from this book were dead on – just not for the reasons I expected.

Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir which describes the impact taking a year away from home to heal from a hard divorce had on Elizabeth Gilbert. During that time, she stayed in three countries: Italy, India, and Indonesia. The book is separated into three sections for each country. She goes to Italy to learn Italian, to India to study at her guru‘s ashram, and to Indonesia because a wise man she once met there indicated that she would eventually return to stay with him.

During the Italy section, this book was almost poetic in its theme of finding and honoring oneself. However, the poetry of the book was too often interrupted with seemingly unnecessary references to current American politics. Because of how well the rest flowed, those comments, which ranged from off-hand comments to an entire chapter dedicated to thanksgiving that George W. Bush wouldn’t be president much longer, felt like huge potholes in an otherwise smooth road. They did not add to her experiences with struggling between career and marriage, her desire not to have children, and her spiritual longing. They simply dated a memoir that could otherwise be timeless.

Skipping over the political banter was as easy as pushing the forward button, but there was no way to avoid her agonizing discussions of her spiritual struggles as related to Swammy G, her guru’s guru. It didn’t take me long to start begging for a long soliloquy about cooking two cups of rice a single grain at a time. Still, I was committed to finishing the book until *it* happened.

Play by play of *it*

  1. 1. Open chapter with Gilbert’s thoughts on the merits of “cherry pick” from the worlds’ religions to discover appealing spiritual practices.
  2. 2. Literate Housewife rolls her eyes when Gilbert slips a closed minded and oversimplified statement about the Taliban and the Christian Coalition into an otherwise open-minded discussion.
  3. 3. Continued exploration of the idea that all of the worlds’ religions (sans Taliban and Christian Coalition of course) provide elements of Truth.
  4. 4. Literate Housewife looks out the window of her car and wonders what it is about grass that makes cows eat it so ravenously.
  5. 5. Hearing “That’s me in the corner.” jolts Literate Housewife back into Gilbert’s diatribe.
  6. 6. “Oh, no. She isn’t.” says Literate Housewife.
  7. 7. “That’s me in the spotlight.” says Gilbert.
  8. 8. “She musn’t!” panics Literate Housewife.
  9. 9. Choosing my religion.” says Gilbert.
  10. 10. Literate Housewife screams. She turns off the radio thinking that many fundamentalist Christians and Elizabeth Gilbert now have something in common – the misuse of secular lyrics.

_____________________________

Congratulations, Liz Gilbert. You’ve earned your liberal street cred. You just lost me along the way.

********
To buy this book anyway, click here.

#55 ~ Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

January 27, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Disappointment, Family, LibraryThing, LIfe, Memoir, Religion | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
buddha.jpg

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen

Sometime toward the end of the year I was adding some books to my library on LibraryThing and wanted to add a book I received from my parents for Christmas the year before. It is a book of vintage postcards from Grand Rapids, my home town. I was sitting in the office at the time and the book was in the living room. I was feeling too lazy to walk into the other room and, figuring that there couldn’t be that many books about Grand Rapids, Michigan, I just used “Grand Rapids” to search for it. Much to my surprise, there were quite a few interesting books about my home town. Of those, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen stuck out when I read the following description:

“As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bich Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity. In the pre-PC era Midwest, where the devoutly Christian blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme…”

I was one of those blonde-haired, blue-eyed (well, slightly green as well) Jennifers and I was very curious to learn how I reigned supreme (it didn’t feel that way at the time). Because I wanted to read this book very badly, I rented it from the library (I’m trying to economize). I figured that if I loved it the way I knew I would, I’d buy it later. In the end, I’m glad that I just rented it.

There is something fun and invigorating about reading about your home town and it was even more exciting for me when the author’s family moved to the Ken-O-Sha area. That’s very close to where I grew up. I recognized many of the locations mentioned in the book as well as the type of people as well. I may have been Dutch, blonde, and named Jennifer, but there are more ways of sticking out like a sore thumb in southeast Grand Rapids than by being Vietnamese: you could be Roman Catholic. In an area heavily populated by members of the Christian Reformed Church, being Catholic is just as “unfortunate.” As Nguyen describes her early experiences living next doors to CRC neighbors, it brought me back to my childhood as well.

This first third of the book felt very authentic to me. I laughed out loud at the way she described her uncle he discovered after enrollment that Calvin College was “serious” about being a CRC school. I related to the scenes where Nguyen experienced orchestrated attempts to “save” her under the auspices of a neighbor girl simply bringing other girls over to play. I know very well the disgusted way those other girls reacted when she made it clear that she was not interested in their God. I was five or six the first time I was told by another child that I was going to hell for “worshiping Mary.” It was so frightening and I can remember the way my chest felt as I ran home crying to my mother. When there aren’t vocal attempts to convert you, there is always the feeling of being held away at an arm’s distance. There was one CRC family that wouldn’t let their children play with my siblings, but they had no problem asking my parents to borrow our camper. That always made me so angry. So, when a scandal rocked our neighborhood in the late 80s, I did take delight in it. The neighbor lady from across the street had apparently been having an affair with one of the husband around the block. I did feel bad for the pain the children and the other spouses experienced, but for me also felt somewhat like a vindication. Although I’m not proud of feeling this way, it was nice to see two people from that group, who made no secret that they were better than my family simply because of their religious affiliation, fall in such a public and shameful way.

While I related to Nguyen’s early experiences, I did not find her memoir enjoyable as a whole. About a third of the way through it went back in time for no apparent reason. From that point forward, the book felt disjointed. There were also large portions of the book that described food and books in such minute detail that I found myself often jumping over large sections until the story picked up again. In the section where she describes the books she read and enjoyed at the time, I was taken back in time to the books I loved so well. Unfortunately, this section began to feel like a book report. Why spend so many pages describing each of the scenes in The Little House on the Prarie that made her wish that was her family? One example would have been so much more effective.

I really wanted to like this butt, but in the end I couldn’t even finish it. I set it aside with only 7 or 8 pages to go. I just didn’t care to continue to read every painful detail of her reunion with her mother. Yes, this should have been a strong way to end her novel. To me, it felt like it was going no where – and very slowly at that. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner would have been more effective if it ended about a third of the way through with the stories about her grandmother from later in the book added to that portion.

Read the first third if you’re interested in what it was like to grow up in the midwest when you’re not a WASP or if you’d like to read about the Vietnamese experience in America in the 70s and 80s. Otherwise, I would pass this book by.

*******
To buy this book, click here.

#47 ~ Without a Map

November 11, 2007 at 4:29 pm | Posted in Adoption, Beach, Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Inspiration, LIfe, Memoir, Parenting Dilemmas, Post-Partum Depression, Reading, Religion, Secrets and Lies, Sexual Identity, Writing | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

nomap1.jpg

Without a Map: A Memoir by Meredith Hall

I am angry. Correction. I am pissed. Really, I’m f*cking pissed off after reading this book. I am angry and hurt for Meredith in specific and for all women in general. That one woman should have lived through a teenage pregnancy is horrific to me. That this is by no means an isolated incident makes this even worse.

Meredith Hall became pregnant, at the age of 17. This happened after a non-conventional summer romance that ended with one sexual encounter on the beach before Anthony, five years her senior, returned to college. Meredith’s mother, who had been left to raise her three children as a single mother, also found love that summer with a hippy. After spending so many years using negative pressure to keep Meredith a virgin, she began staying out until all hours of the night herself. She, in fact, left Meredith alone at the beach most days while she worked with her new lover. Going from suffocating boundaries to nearly none at all made that summer confusing for Meredith. She ended up paying dearly for it.

Meredith’s family was seen as an upstanding family in their small New Hampshire town. After her father left, Meredith’s mother became extremely involved in her local Protestant church. Once it was discovered that she was pregnant, Meredith was permanently expelled from her school. She was then abandoned immediately by her church and her mother. When Meredith’s father asked what they were going to do about the pregnancy, her mother simply replied, “She can’t stay here.” Meredith went to live with her father and step-mother, but being forced to stay alone in the house (and mainly in her upstairs room) for the remainder of her pregnancy was of no comfort. There was no one for her to cry with. There was no one to explain what was happening to her body. She was not allowed to take an active role in the decision to place her unborn son for adoption – except she was forced to set up a meeting with the baby’s father by herself and get him to sign the adoption papers. I will not even get into the verbal abuse she suffered at the hands of the obstetrician who allowed an abusive family adopt the baby.

I read this portion of the book on the plane from Atlanta to Denver last week. It was enough to make me want to lash out at society. Sex is a shame that is only worn by women, and most especially when they get pregnant outside of socially acceptable settings. There was no shame for Meredith’s father when he left his family with almost nothing to settle down with another woman. Yet, no one could speak to or about Meredith because her unplanned pregnancy was so shameful. I could scream.

So, Meredith was told either directly or indirectly by everyone who was supposed to love her that she was a dirty, shameful person. One sexual act and your life is judged as unworthy of any respect. You are shunned by the rest of society. She was not even allowed to have a roommate at the alternative school she graduated from after the birth of her son. No one wanted her to have the opportunity to even share her experiences with another girl for fear of “infecting” the others. Yes, because this was all working out so well for Meredith, right? Wouldn’t every young woman want to sign herself up for a complete societal shunning? So, alone in her grief and full of shame, Meredith did a lot of wandering after she graduated. The relationships she became involved with were not (in my opinion) good enough for her. They were only good enough for a woman who thought she was tarnished and trash. The reactions to her pregnancy became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is what happens when people and institutions only use principles to guide their choices and reactions instead of love.

I have the greatest respect for Meredith Hall. She ultimately discovered her own self-worth. She has raised two exceptional sons and has established a warm and familial relationship with her first son. Due to circumstances, she was not able to ever confront her parents about how they abandoned her when she needed them the most. Her mother developed MS. When she needed her children the most, Meredith did not abandon her. Although it was painful for her never to get the opportunity to even tell her mother how the shunning impacted her life, she was an ever faithful daughter. Even though her brother and sister’s families were always invited to her father’s house, Meredith was not allowed because of an argument with her step-mother. Still, she made a point of meeting with her father before he died to tell him that she loved him.

This memoir stirred up many personal things in my heart. I can only hope that I can forgive as Meredith did. She was able to do for her parents the very thing that they and her church failed to teach her by example.

Meredith, thank you for sharing your story.

******
To buy this book, click here.

If I Had a Hammer

September 13, 2007 at 4:18 pm | Posted in Books, Childhood Memories, LIfe, Memoir, Post-Partum Depression | 1 Comment

I like Rosie O’Donnell.  I used to watch her talk show frequently and it was sure to make me laugh.  She made A League of Their Own for me.  I may not always agree with her politics, but I tune out when celebrities talk about that for the most part anyway.  I don’t personally turn to entertainers when that topic comes up.  I heard about her fight with Tom Selleck on her talk show way back in the day as well as her blow-out with Elizabeth Hassellback earlier this year.  I didn’t watch or read the exchange.  I know all about that kind of drama in the work place in my own reality.  The last thing I need is to revisit it on my own time.  I’m hoping that Rosie’s recent trend toward the serious ends soon.  I miss her comedy.

The reason I bring this is up is because I caught a headline on People about some of the contents of her upcoming book, Celebrity Detox.  In it, she apparently goes into detail about her proclivity to break her own bones.  This really saddens me one more than one level.  First, that her home life was such a disfunctional place that she would get to a point where breaking her own bones seemed good or logical to her.  Mostly, maybe, it saddens me that she is being so public about all of this.  I’m not saying to hide this in shame.  No way!  But does a person have to reveal every single detail of an abusive situation to be honest?  I’m wondering if being this open about everything in her life isn’t just another manifestation of her self-destructiveness.  It makes me feel all the more sad for Rosie as a child.  Not only did she suffer, but now the intimate details of all that suffering are being laid naked under the spotlight.  Why?

On another blog I was very frank about some of the things that I experienced during my battle with post-partum depression.  It felt good to know that I was – in that medium – about to explain exactly how I saw things and how they felt.  They weren’t pretty.  There was one post, though, that went over “the Rosie edge” so to speak.  I wrote it later in the afternoon and posted it.  By 2 or 3 the following morning, I removed it.  It felt good to write it out, but it wasn’t meant for public consumption.  It was sacred to every part of me and it needed to be kept that way.  Removing that post did not in any way say that it was something I should continue to feel ashamed about.  Removing it honored my experience even more than writing about it.  My deepest pains should be treasured for what they are and what they mean to me.  The more I thought about that post being “out there,” the more I felt that I was exploiting and even prostituting that part of me.  I found that it was time for me to be kind to myself both in the past and in the present.  Doing so was then being kind to my future.

I have no idea who, if anyone, read that post before I took it down.  For that, I am thankful.  Rosie is not going to have that luxury, especially once the book is published.

Rosie, I beg you to go back.

#33 ~ Special Topics in Calamity Physics

August 8, 2007 at 3:27 am | Posted in Amazing Narrator, Books, Brain Food for Thought, Childhood Memories, Inspiration, LIfe, Marisha Pessl, Memoir, My Life with Books, Reading, Secrets and Lies | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

12439131.gif

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Just 75 pages into Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I knew that I was going to enjoy it. When what I was reading spoke to me personally in conjunction with an outside conversation I had just moments before reading it, I knew that I was reading something spooky-spectacular. Now that I’ve completed this novel, I can say that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It is as fabulous in its story as it is original in its style and form. I hope to keep my mind long enough to see how this book is regarded by future generations.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of Blue van Meer, the only child of an amazingly intellectual college professor named Gareth. She lost her mother at the age of five in a terrible car accident. From that time forward, the van Meer’s traveled from one small college town to the next ~ usually once per semester. The main story begins just before Blue’s senior year of high school. As a special “treat,” her dad takes a year-long teaching position in a small North Carolina town with an excellent prep school which will help Blue get into Harvard. Truth be told, Blue’s intelligence matches her father’s. There’s little doubt that Harvard would pass her up.

Given Blue’s nomadic childhood, she developed a strong bond with her father ~ in equal parts because he was her only constant and because she tended to keep to herself. That all changed at St. Gallway. Through a fluke encounter at the local grocery store, she catches the eye of Hannah Schnieder, a beautiful woman who happens to be the film teacher.

Hannah has mentored a group of five classmates called the “Bluebloods” by the rest of the class. Upon Hannah’s insistence, Blue is reluctantly included in their weekly Sunday dinners at Hannah’s house. After a couple of months, she’s even seen as one of them. In one form or another, they all get embroiled in figuring out Hannah’s mysterious life away from them. When Hannah is discovered dead, Blue’s newfound life is destroyed along with it. Worse still, while the “Bluebloods” are nearly violent in blaming Blue for Hannah’s death, no one else will believe that her was anything other than a suicide. Blue is forced to go it alone to detangle Hannah and why she was so mysteriously attached to her.

This book is written in first person by Blue as a memoir of her childhood. Pessl uses the experiences of this interesting father/daughter relationship to construct this novel. It is full of references and hand-drawn reproductions of pictures used to illustrate her points. One might think that references would bog down a novel written as a memoir, but they were nothing short of a delight. Blue never used a quotation unnecessarily. Although I never bothered to check to see how fictitious (or not) they were, this novel would not have worked without them.

I would have to say one of the most amazing things about the construction of this novel is the Table of Contents. It is created in the form of a syllabus from one of Gareth’s courses. Each chapter title is that of a well known novel or story. Each one (for at least those that I was familiar with) was absolutely perfect for that chapter. I could not believe how ingenious and creative that little touch is. How could I not buy a book with a chapter entitled, “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man?” For that matter, how could I not adore a character who makes up a Ulysses study group to get out of her house and out with her mentor? There were times that the Table of Contents alone made me happy to be alive as a literate human being.

There is still some summer left. Do yourself a huge favor. Buy this book.  I swear you’ll want to keep it. Take a long weekend (Labor Day if you must), sit back, crack open this book and be delighted. You may find yourself reading way into the wee hours of the night without being exhausted the next day.

Yes, my friends, it’s that refreshing.

#20 ~ The Mistress’s Daughter

April 30, 2007 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Adoption, Books, Memoir | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes

After reading a review of this book, I was eager to read it. It is the story of A.M. (Amy) Homes, an author and an adopted child. This memoir explores her experiences as she learns that her biological mother would like to contact her and her journey through reunion. As an adoptive parent, I am interested in reading about the world of adoption, especially from the perspective of adoptees. I hope that buy reading their stories in print or online that I can be a better parent to Emma as she grows older.

The Mistress’s Daughter is a well written memoir. You experience the roller coaster of emotions that go along with the reunion experience. It’s especially heartbreaking because it doesn’t come with the fairytale, TV movie ending that always seems to be expected to make the book worthwhile. There is honesty found in this book that is painful to read.

My initial reaction to the book was lukewarm. After Amy decides to go through the boxes she took from her birthmother’s house after her death, it seemed to me to lose focus. I appreciated her interest in her biological and adoptive genealogies, but her need to the stories of ancestors took away from her story. I was enraged as she was when her birthfather for not being recognizing her. His stubborn refusal to provide this simple information kept her from being a member of the Daughters of the Americas, where she hoped to learn more about her heritage. Still, pages upon pages of legal questions written by her lawyers to be asked to her father about his life were a mistake to have in the book. The accusations were not answered and it wasn’t clear if she took the man to court. It felt like reading a book that didn’t know where to end and didn’t want to end.

As I think further about her story and the way in which it is told in The Mistress’s Daughter, I like it better. Just as she wrote honestly about her adoptive mother and her reactions to this situation, Amy was honest about herself. It wasn’t explicitly written, but she did not hide the fact that she frequently met with her birthfather and even subjected herself to a blood test in hopes of meeting his “family.” She kept putting off a face-to-face meeting her birthmother. Then, she met with her for lunch only once. Amy held her birthmother to a higher standard. Her mother had to live up to all the mental pictures and stories Amy had created for her and she miserably missed the mark. Her birthfather had nothing to live up to. She bristled when she didn’t seem to live up to his expectations, but that made her want to be more of what he wanted her to be. It didn’t stop her from treating her mother in the same way. It was only after her death that Amy regretted not spending more time with her, even if the woman seemed so needy all of the time.

Adoption is as unique as each adoptive relationship. In the same manner, a book is unique each time it is read by a new person. If you have read this book, please leave a comment. I would be interested to know how others have reacted to her story.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com. | The Pool Theme.
Entries and comments feeds.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.