Tag Archives: Book

Lessons From Fictional Mothers: A Guest Post From Julie Gardner

Julie C. Gardner. Looking fancy. No kids. No dogs.

Back on May 13th, I celebrated my one year blogoversary. I had it in my head to surprise the person who posted a comment closest to my original launch time with a gift card for $20 to his or her favorite bookstore. I also decided that this “gift” would come with strings attached, as I planned to ask the recipient of the reward to write a little somethin’-somethin’ about the book he or she purchased. (Seriously, how manipulative is that?) As you can imagine, depending on your perspective, this “gift” could have been considered a heinous curse. Thankfully, the fabulous Julie C. Gardner responded to my May 13, 2011 blog at 5:21 PM, and became the winner of my extra-secret super-stealth-mode-blogoversary-contest. (*Cue the paper streamers and the cheesy horn.*)

But Julie was so gracious! She was not only excited to receive my offer, she took control of it. She told me not to fuss with purchasing a book or even a gift card; she would buy the books herself. She simply asked me for a few recommendations of titles – and I shot her a check in the mail. FYI: Julie Gardner is the easiest person in the world to shop for. Ever. She is also an amazing writer. When you visit her blog, By Any Other Name, you will see what I mean. Julie gets people to confess things. She knows stuff about me that some of my friends don’t know. How does she do that?

So, thank you, Julie, for giving me the best blogoversary gift: a piece of writing, inspired by a few books that I really loved, a reminder of the love we mothers have for our sons, and a mutual appreciation for truth-telling in writing. And now, here’s Julie. Call her “Awesome.”

• • •

So I’ve been reading. A lot. And not simply because I’m an English teacher-slash-writer; or because Renée bought me a few books* to celebrate her blogoversary. (Hooray!) No, to me reading is legal procrastination. It implies I’m serious about my work; researchy, even. (I know “researchy” isn’t a word, but neither is “complainy,” and I use that one frequently. I’m an English teacher. I take liberties. With frequentiousness. Or whatever.)

Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. Reading. A lot. More specifically, three books with a common theme:

Mother + Son = Complicated Relationship.

(That’s the only math in this post. You’re welcome.)

And now, cue the gist, with no Spoiler Alerts necessary:

First, in Emma Donoghue’s Room, five-year-old Jack and Ma are prisoners in the storage shed of their captor, a kidnapper who “fathered” the little boy. Young Jack has spent the entirety of his life inside Room believing nothing real exists Outside; until his fifth birthday when Ma decides he must attempt an escape, thereby risking a separation that’s unimaginably terrifying.

Next, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin explores the aftermath of a Columbine-esque massacre. The story unfolds entirely in letters written by Eva (the mother of the teenaged killer) to her estranged husband, Franklin. Having nothing left to lose, Eva admits to feeling ambivalent about motherhood, horrified by Kevin’s darkness, and ultimately resigned to surviving the downfall of the family she feels unsuited to embrace.

Finally, Lisa Grunwald’s The Irresistible Henry House follows the life of an orphaned baby named Henry who is “mothered” by a series of college coeds in the (historically accurate) Practice House of a well-intentioned university’s home economics department. Abandoned by his biological mother, Henry is adopted by Martha, the childless head of the program who treats Henry as her sole reason for being. This string of disproportionate attachments hinders Henry’s ability to connect and trust as he becomes a man.

Got it? Good.

Because I spent three weeks engrossed by these mothers and sons; three weeks witnessing their disasters; three weeks during which I’d pause and think, “Crap, I’m glad this isn’t my life!”

(Except in fancier words because I am, after all, an English teacher and therefore fancy.)

Like this: Woe to these women confronting fear and loneliness and death! I can’t imagine such depths of despair!

And also this: Hope leaks from them until they lose the will to fight the loss. What have they to do with me?

(Or whatever.)

Indeed, it’s easy to compartmentalize these mothers as Fiction-Only. Such tragedy wouldn’t happen in real life. Except it did. And it does.

The unlikelihood is irrelevant; because the best novels carry us to the unexpected, the unfathomable , the extreme; while holding up a mirror and daring us to look.

Despite my comfortable “separateness” from Martha and Ma and Eva, I couldn’t help noticing similarities between these wrecked women and me. (And not merely of the “I have a son, too” variety; although I do have a son who will be fourteen next week.)

…These mothers have good intentions. Hey. I have good intentions!
…They’re redefined by the very existence of their sons. Most definitely.
…They commit themselves to their tasks; make sacrifices they question but endure; struggle with their own incidents of selfishness. All right. This is true for me, as well.
…They are, at times, disappointed by their sons. Yes. Sadly, yes.
…They have needs and desires; battle insecurity and pride; display strengths and weaknesses exacerbated by their sons. And, oh yeah, I do too.
…They learn that death is not, in fact, the worst dénouement imaginable. Because it isn’t. If you think hard, it’s not.

These three books chafed me with their honesty. Martha, Ma and Eva say what most mothers never dare to in words that made me nod and blush and fold the pages for revisiting.

Mothers do not often admit to having resentment or favorites or paralyzing regret. We foolishly expect to control our human frailties once we become parents. But then we don’t. Abandon our frailties, I mean.

In fact, our flaws announce themselves in stark relief against the backdrop of perfection we imagine.

These authors, however, tear down the backdrop and expose what parenthood – in its most distilled moments – can teach us:

That hope and love can be more difficult than loss.

But oh. We cannot ever give it up.

The hope, I mean.

And then, of course, the love.

What did you think you knew about parenting but have found yourself questioning? How has the truth of parenting been different from what you expected?

• • •

*NOTE: There is no way that Julie could have purchased all three of these books from my paltry $20. So thank you to Julie for subsidizing some of my blogoversary present. Seriously.

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How I Tricked My Book Club Into Writing

Cover of "Bitter is the New Black : Confe...

Cover via Amazon

My neighborhood book club has been going strong for nearly three years. A bunch of women who range in age, profession, religious background, and plenty of other things, we agree that we enjoy the following items (not necessarily in the order they are listed):

1. Periodically getting together at someone’s house (preferably not our own);

2. Eating chocolates;

3. Drinking wine;

4. Chatting it up a bit;

5. Discussing books we might not have otherwise ever picked up.

The last meeting was at my house. This time eleven people showed up for an hour of “eat, booze and schmooze” in the kitchen, and eight stayed to gather on the family room couches to “talk book.” Since the host selects the book, my selection was Jen Lancaster’s Bitter is the New Black : Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass (Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office).

Quick summary: Before September 11th, Lancaster worked as an associate vice president for a technology company prior to being laid off. In this capacity she made loads of many and acquired many pairs of shoes. After 9/11, the author whines – incessantly – about being unemployed, her boyfriend/fiancé/husband, Fletch, their neighbors, their pets, and how she can no longer afford the shoes she once used to buy so readily. I liked Lancaster’s wit and rampant narcissism.

And while Lancaster was not for everyone, we agreed the book was snarky and fast-paced: a good choice for February, when knee-deep snow and the winter white skies of Western New York provide enough gloom to make everyone question just how severe our vitamin D deficiencies might be. It’s hard to stay connected to neighbors in the winter; it’s just so friggin’ cold. People walk around with their shoulders up and their heads down. We rush from warm house to warming car. There is little time to casually chat at the mailbox when the wind is stinging your ears and making your eyes tear up. Our little club keeps us connected year round so that we remain in touch with our neighbors, something equally rare these days.

It is up to the host to facilitate discussion, and – big surprise – I have long wanted to infuse a writing exercise into a meeting, so I figured – since this book was devoid of any real literary depth – this was my chance.

“Okay,” I said brightly ,”Remember when Lancaster lists her ‘Jen Commandments’? The little quirks she possesses that people who know her and love her just have to accept?”

A few people nodded. (I had my suspicions that most people didn’t get that far.)

I referred to the text. I didn’t have to; almost no one brings the book to book club.  I could have said anything, but I quoted Lancaster:

I hate holding anything heavier than my purse. If I have something in my hands, I will attempt to trick you into carrying it for me?

A few people snickered then looked semi-spooked as I handed everyone one salmon-colored index card and plopped a pen onto each lap. As I stuck a small, non-threatening bowl in the middle of my tufted ottoman, I said, “I thought it would be kind of fun if each of us wrote one of our own ‘Commandments’ and put it into the bowl. Anonymously, of course. It could be fun to see if we can figure out who goes with what.”

Initially, some people looked panicky and began to protest, but thank goodness the majority was with me. A few women asked for extra index cards. At first, I thought it was because they goofed up, but for some people once the creative juices started flowing, the flood gates could not hold all our estrogen and soon the orange-bowl, index card confessional runneth over. I read the first one aloud:

I always sleep with 3 pillows. This is a need not a want. And, I will always travel with a pillow, even if it necessitates bringing another suitcase.

We laughed, especially because we were so dead wrong with regard to whom was attached to this statement. Surely our quiet, unassuming neighbor could never be so demanding. But there she was, shamelessly nodding her head.

I passed the bowl to my right so someone else could read another book clubber’s words:

If you say you’re going to do something, then just do it. If you talk about something but never get to it, then I start wondering about you.

Hilarious. And so true.

One woman wrote on the front of her card:

I’m in charge of almost everything… (and then on the back) … and I like it that way!

Another neighbor penned:

I obsess about making decisions and my good friends have to listen to me!

Everyone easily guessed mine.

I absolutely hate repetitive noises. If you tap something more than five times, I might have to kill you.

One that stood out was short and direct.

Do not screw up my coffee order.

This, of course, led to a hilarious story about how this neighbor had recently visited a local Starbucks where the barista dared to give her three squirts of vanilla in her mocha latte instead of one. There was hell to pay that morning. 😉 There were other “isms” that were equally excellent. And it was a hoot to hear each woman’s words read aloud. Everyone was honest and enjoyed poking fun at herself, sharing her quirks, her personal truths. As usual, book club was less about the book than it was about people gathering together to get to know each other a little better.

What my book club mates don’t realize is that they are totally screwed. Now that I have seen that they can write (even under pressure), the next time it is my turn to select a book and host, we are sooooooo writing.

To Kindle or Nook? That Was The Question.

Benjamin Franklin.

Image via Wikipedia

So you remember how I blogged about how I couldn’t decide which e-device to go with.

Well, I decided.

I went against the trend.

Nearly everyone said to go with the Kindle, except for the few diehards who said to stay with books.

(These were the same people who, when polled, said they preferred using an abacus to a calculator.)

But I went out on my own and conducted my own research and came to the conclusion that this was the right decision for me:

I decided to go with the Nook.

And I tried it. I really did.

But after a week, I returned it.

(*insert gasps*)

I know, you are all horrified.

The reality is I’m a Book Girl.

Although it is possible to make notes on the device, I found it incredibly arduous. Plus, there was no way to make smiley faces or stars! 😉 I didn’t like that I couldn’t refer to the back of the book. (You know, to remind me what the hell I was heading with my reading because, frankly, I need to be reminded). I didn’t like not being able to physically see how far along I was in my reading. I missed using a real bookmark – especially when the “save your page” feature didn’t really seem to work reliably. Despite all the reports from friends telling me that they are reading “so much more” with e-Readers, I found I was falling asleep almost immediately after starting to read! I guess I need to take notes when I read, or it’s lights out. Who knew? Even after just one week, I missed the idea of not going to the library. Benjamin Franklin was so friggin’ brilliant when he came up with that invention. When I finished my first book and I wasn’t dying to download another, I suddenly realized I do not want (or need) to own every book I read.

So I’m back on library books because I truly believe borrowing books is the most earth-friendly decision a person can make. And if I love the book enough after reading it, then I’ll buy it.

As for my decades of accumulated book clutter (as seen on the floor in the photo above), those are going to the library for the annual book sale. (I just haven’t said goodbye to them properly yet.)

And when I drop them off, I’m going to pick up a bunch of other books to borrow.

For free.

And then I’ll going home to listen to my transistor radio… and play with my abacus.

So… um… what have you been reading that you have loved?