Category Archives: books

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and the curse of envy.

I probably should have read this book with people.  I think I may have had more grace with the characters if I had.  Though, I still read it quickly and stayed up too late reading a few nights in a row to finish it.  Perhaps it was these characters seemed too realistic and I’m tired of this reality.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is about a group of friends who meet at a summer camp for the arts and follows them through adulthood.  Five friends who live in Manhattan invite Julie, the main protagonist who lives in a Long Island suburb and whose father just died, into their fold and christen her as Jules.  She can’t believe her luck as she becomes part of, what seems to her, as the most interesting groups of people she could have possibly crossed paths with: a budding cartoon artist, a son of a famous folksinger, a dancer, an actress.  As they grow up, they have varying degrees of success–the cartoon artist becomes incredibly wealthy creating a Simpsons-esque show, one is involved in directing, one abandons his talent to attend MIT and study robotics.  Jules makes an unsuccessful run at acting and ultimately becomes a therapist and struggles to make ends meet with her husband.  A lot of the book is dedicated to Jules envy of her wealthy friends and Wolitzer explores within all of the characters what it takes to be happy.

Though I moved through this book quickly, I lacked patience with the characters.  It seemed to be that everyone was miserable.  And that was depressing.  Then as I started thinking about it, so much of the fiction I read is about adults who are miserable.  That was even more depressing.  I tried to unravel where this was coming from in our culture: can we blame it on advertising creating a constant want for more? Or perhaps our susceptibility to advertising? Or the way that our attention spans have shortened thanks to social media? The instagram-ification of curating one’s life? No.  I think it comes down to a bit of mental discipline.

I initially sat down to write this post on the 4th of July and didn’t get very far.  While I was trying to write at my annoyance of the characters not being satisfied with what they had, or seeking out satisfaction in all the wrong things, I couldn’t do it.  Because I was moping about the fact that I didn’t have beach access or a lake house or outdoor space or a hometown parade.  I could not shake the hunger of want (the post I ended up writing that day touched on it a little bit).  In hindsight now, I am humbled at my own ridiculousness–let’s look at this pattern of the rest of my day:

 My fiancee (the best person I know) made me waffles (my favorite brunch food) and forced me out of the apartment to go on a walk to the park (my favorite place in Brooklyn).  We got coffee (mental relaxation) and browsed Park Slope Community Bookstore (a bookstore open on the 4th of July felt miraculous).  We went to have burgers with dear friends and later sat with another dear friend while she had to get an emergency medical test done (both the essence of community). See what I’m saying? I have a lot to be thankful for and the things with the most true value are the ones that make life the most full, if I stop and think about it–and do that more than I dream of someone else’s lake house.  And once I realized that I had the same kind of envy as Jules, I was able to have more grace with her as a character–I can’t judge because I’m no better.

Interestingly enough,  one of my favorite quotes is on the sidebar of this blog: Teddy Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” They told me in graduate school that learning is recursive–sometimes I have to stop and just keep remembering for the umpteenth time where true life resides.  It, of course, is easier to complain and compare and want–but, the quality of life outcome just does not compare with training my brain to be thankful in the moment.

Neil Gaiman’s "The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Safety & Conjuring a Fairy Ring

{Harper Collins}

When I was little my imagination ran wild–I have memories of playing pretend for hours: sometimes it was in the school I created in my family’s unfinished basement, sometimes it was playing Boxcar Children in the woods across the street, sometimes it was creating a sky-high circus in the tree in my best friend’s front yard.  In the daylight, the heroes and protagonists of these imaginary stories always won as if the sunlight could trump anything.  Of course, then, this imagination stretched past my bedtime, when my parents were gone and I was alone in my room, with only my books, blanket, and stuffed animals for protection from the bad guys who lurked in the periphery of my daytime musings.

For these, I made rules I could follow in order to remain safe.  I have no idea if this came out of my tendency to be a rule follower, albeit an adventurous one, as a child or if every child created boundaries of some kind.  My rule, though, that I reminded myself of every night was that the bad guys could only get me if my covers were on exactly half of me.  Exactly.  I knew about symmetry by then.  I knew there was very little chance my covers would ever line up vertically; I made my bed horizontally every morning and clutched my blankets way past my stomach when I curled up at night.  So whether it was pirates or ghosts that were drifting in and out of my pre-slumber worrying, I reminded myself that they couldn’t get me and fell asleep confidently.  I remember relying on this more when we had babysitters or when my dad was working nights.

I hadn’t thought of this in a while until I was reading Neil Gaiman’s newest book The Ocean at the End  last week.  (As a sidenote, I devoured it.  I read it while walking on the sidewalk.  I can’t wait to discuss it with my Southwest Ohio Ex Pat book club.  In other words: go buy and get lost in it!) The book is about a middle aged man who returns to his hometown and remembers when he was young and his family car was stolen and a man committed suicide inside of it down the street on a neighboring farm.  The nameless protagonist meets the wise-beyond-her-11-years Lettie who lives there and is pulled into a fantastical, terrifying adventure with her as a result.  There is a moment later in the story when Lettie has to go face one of the fantastical creatures and she leaves him at what she calls a fairy ring around a tree and tells him not to leave for anything: “You’re safe in the ring…whatever you see, whatever you hear, don’t leave it…nothing that wants to hurt you can cross it.”

The most fascinating part about this for me as a reader was that the protagonist believed her and as a variety of creatures and beings who look and sound like his family come up to try to coerce him out of the ring, he refuses to do it.  With each one, he pronounces to them the truth he believes: that Lettie told him to stay, that he trusts her, and that he wasn’t going anywhere.  And it works. The moment feels so childish, and like I said, reminded me of the logic I had as a small girl.  But maybe that is what it takes.

I started thinking about the different voices I hear in my mind sometimes, asking me to doubt myself and to doubt what I know to be true.  It’s amazing how much traction those voices can gain and how easy it is to believe them–and how they can lead me dangerously astray from the person I want to be.  So.  Today I am going to try to create my own fairy ring, my adult version of horizontal sheets.  I want to cast around me the truths I have come to believe and in moments of doubt dispel them–and then stand amazed and thankful when they slink back into the darkness and I can live wholeheartedly again.

An Unlikely Pairing: The Lost Generation & The 4th of July

Lately I’ve been on a Lost Generation reading spree.  It started with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a student book club and giving them some introductory information about the era and then I happened to read The Paris Wife, which is a semi-fictional story narrated from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Afterwards, I was fascinated by not only their relationship, but the ex-pat community in Paris, so I went on to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was a memoir of his time in Paris which he wrote not long before he died and published posthumously.  I was so entrenched in the era that I decided I wanted to read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was on my summer reading list, right away.  Then of course I re-watched Midnight in Paris and noticed all the inconsistencies (though I still love it).

Just like Woody Allen’s Gil Pender, it is easy to get caught up in the romance of the ex-pat community in Paris–the incredible art, literature, salons.  Though it is impossible for me to not say that what this reading spree brought up in my thought life the most was how glad I am to be a woman today.  The culture of multiple mistresses and people openly accepting it, coupled with double standards for women and hypocritical expectations for wives in light of it all was truly grotesque.  Zelda Fitzgerald’s own artistic life was stunted by Scott having her publish under his name or forbidding her to pursue dance or publish her writing work at all, saying that he had claim to the ideas within it.

The concept that struck me the most while reading, though, was that of memory, which I’ve written about quite a bit over the years.  It’s the great invention of the mind in Rodman Philbrick’s Young Adult Freak the Mighty. In Evening, by Susan Minot, it colors the narrator’s entire existence.  In Man Walks into A Room, Nicole Krauss’s main character loses his memory of all things relational.  In The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai talks about some parts of our narrative are lost and some are purposely forgotten.

I am trying to decide where it fits for Hemingway.  Early in The Paris Wife, he takes Hadley on a trip to where he recovered from being injured in World War 1.  In his mind, the field was still desecrated with loss of life and the town where he was taken care of was pristine and quaint–but neither was the case when he arrived:

“When Ernest found the slope where he’d been wounded, it was green and unscarred and completely lovely.  Nothing felt honest.  Thousands of men had died here jut a few years earlier, Ernest himself had bled here, shot full of shrapnel, and yet everything was clean and shiny, as if the land itself had forgotten everything,” (103).
“For the whole visit, Ernest wrestled with memory.  Everything had changed and grown dingy in the four years since he’d been here,” (102).  
I suppose it is one of those mysteries of being human–how we can long so deeply for times that are past, even if those times were accompanied by struggle.  Perhaps in our minds, they remind us that we made it through, or perhaps the struggle has been slightly erased so that we don’t remember that part anymore.  Hemingway himself describes it in A Moveable Feast: “There are many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now. Memory is hunger,” (57).  
Elk Lake, 2011.  I only wish I had a
picture of the American flag boxers
my best friend and I *sewed ourselves*
for 4th of July 1996. 
Today, for me, memory is hunger.  On some levels the memories I’ve been escaping to this morning seem insignificant–but it happens every 4th of July that I am in New York City–a city I love with all my heart.  All I want right now is to be watching my hometown’s parade, wearing my running clothes from the annual 5K, thinking about swimming in somebody’s pool and going up to the high school for fireworks later.  Or, sitting at a simple lake house, eating off the grill, and watching a homemade fireworks display planned by friends I’ve known since the mid nineties.  I keep finding myself wanting to justify my nostalgic longing for these simple memories or the audacity I have for writing them in connection to Hemingway–but I’m not going to, because it’s what is true for me today (which is interesting, because the quotes I wanted to write about in this post have been sitting in my blog drafts for a month)

What I do think is worth considering, though, is when you begin to appreciate what is past.  Hemingway did not write of nostalgia until the end of his life.  A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, was published after he took his own life and carries a tone much different from his earlier work.  In a painful-to-read confession he states that he wishes he had died before falling in love with anyone else.  I’m not sure that I believe him, completely.  Hadley asks him in The Paris Wife, not long after the visit to the town where he was shot and recovered: “When does it mean something? When everyone finally gets smashed to bits?” (145).  I think that is a fair read of Hemingway–and a terrifying way to live, but it pulls together my thoughts.  When he was with Hadley, he could only think of what might be next. The present didn’t take on any value until it was long gone.

This year I started talking with my students about the idea of being present where you are, whether it is in a class discussion, a book club, or with their friends.  I suppose that is what I wish the men of the Lost Generation understood (hoping that it wasn’t that restlessness that produced their drive and in turn art), and on a much smaller level, what I need to remember as I go over to the Brooklyn Bridge Park to celebrate Independence Day with dear friends later.  It is in view of the Statue of  Liberty, after all.

an aside, after my initial posting: I want to think later today about the implications of these American writers who chose to do so much of their writing elsewhere.  Looking at the title of this post, one might infer that my writing about it was a little more academic.  But alas.  It is a holiday, after all.

Summer Reading List & Notes

Each June I marvel at the fact that I have a job that affords me the opportunity to end a cycle, refresh my mind, and freshly begin again in September.  One of the ways that my mind refreshes itself the most is through getting lost in reading and being outside, so each June I revel in the creation of my summer reading list.  My last day of school is June 20th, as I’m taking a day off to travel for a wedding shower in the great state of Ohio, and I’m participating in 2 of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Projects summer institutes, which will end on July 5.  Technically my days of freedom start July 6th, but it does take over an hour to commute up to Teachers College, so I plan on getting lots of reading done that way, too.  After that, you’ll find me in the park.  
Reading conclusions of summers past can be found here, if you’re looking for books I’ve already written about.  Or, feel free to join me in reading some of the books below.  Outside of my book club, these are unintentionally overwhelmingly female and modern.  Also, as a note, I decided that for summer reading, I could take a break from my New Years Reading Resolution, and could purchase new books.  
Southwest Ohio Ex-pat Former English Majors Summer Book Club
Two of my great friends from home and I decided to read together this summer.  We each picked a different book for a different month of summer

June: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
July: Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
August: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Fiction: 
These come from the on-going list I keep on my phone from whenever I am wandering through a bookstore, a habit I highly recommend for those times when you have no idea what to read next or in an attempt to curb an out-of-control book buying habit 🙂

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (I’ve been on “Lost Generation” reading kick lately)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (from an imprint that brought me Elegance of a Hedgehog and A Novel Bookstore)
Mystery Books for my August Travels (& an e-book trial run): 
There is something wonderful about having a mystery read while stuck in airports or when flying across the Atlantic (!).  I am also trying something new with these titles and borrowing my fiancee’s e-reader in my first-ever attempt to not add 15 pounds of books to my suitcase weight.  I will probably add my August book club choice on it as well.  It’s best to travel prepared, you know? I’ll write more about my e-book experience upon return, as it’s bound to be a bit hard for this lover of turning paper pages.  I’m also trying to encourage public library e-book check out with my students in the fall, so I need to be able to speak knowledgeably by then!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackburg
Nonfiction: 
Though I’m generally heavy on the fiction, I like to mix it up and I’m pretty excited about all of these

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (Lately I can’t get enough of history)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (the description of this book of essays sounds perfect)
The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (because I adore her)
Young Adult (this could be a bit ambitious, but that’s a good way to plan for reading, right?)
I try to stay somewhat informed about what my students are reading, be full of recommendations, and be knowledgeable about the young adult literature world.  This summer’s stack has the widest variety ever, from 50 Cent’s novel to a transgender protagonist, to nonfiction picture books and collections about people who helped change and shape the world.  The only one missing is Wonder by R.J. Palacio, because I may have already pulled it from the stack and started it! 



Happy Summer Reading!!

Not just an escapist read: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

This book was exactly what I wanted it to be: an escapist story set in a small English village with protagonists who love to read.  There is something about such a premise that gets me every time.  And so, I read without taking notes and in long swathes on the couch and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson is about a retired Major from the British Army who is the epitome of upholding what most would see as old fashioned views of loyalty, trust, and honor.  His only brother dies unexpectedly on page 1 and throughout the story Major Pettigrew is thrown into a number of conflicts.

First,  his father left he and his brother a pair of shooting rifles that were meant to be rejoined and remain a pair when one of them passed away–yet his brother, though uninterested in guns, did not leave his to Major Pettigrew, who is an avid huntsman.  Through the story, he is forced to process through his devotion to this object–and the bitterness that it may have caused in his relationship with his brother.

He unexpectedly develops a kindred friendship with a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper in the village, who his neighbors sadly view as a foreigner rather than a neighbor.    The  Major must navigate his way through not only their prejudice and the deconstruction of the picture perfect world he thought he inhabited, but his own prejudice and the way he has existed and interacted with her for years before the moment that brings them together.

Even though this was an easy, escapist read, I thought it asked some important questions–mainly, about when is it time to reevaluate systems of living that always felt right? I’ve found that it is easy to maintain the same ideas about life if I never find myself in situations that require me to think outside of what I have always known–whether that is a belief of a region or a belief of a subculture.  But once someone meets and truly gets to know a person who is different from him or herself, it seems crazy to hold onto old views.  So, amidst the tea over Kipling and the countryside gardens, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand challenges readers to step out of their comfort zones relationally.