Monday, May 23, 2011

Moving Backwards... (or perhaps Baxter-wards)

Finally finished First Light by Charles Baxter. (Yes, loyal reader, you are correct in noting that I began reading this book months ago. Life, and other books, intervened. But I persevered!)

Hmmm… shall I give away the concept? Yes, I think I shall. The book begins when Dorsey, her husband Simon, and their deaf son Noah are on a visit to Hugh, Dorsey’s brother, in the small-town Michigan house in which they both grew up. Hugh now lives in the house with his wife Laurie, who seems not too fond of him, and their children. It’s July 4th. They buy fireworks. They think and talk a bit about their dead parents, and about the quirks of Dorsey’s husband, which Hugh finds annoying and Dorsey finds endearing. Dorsey wonders why Hugh’s wife doesn’t want him to kiss her; Hugh doesn’t want to talk about it. We learn that Hugh works in a Ford dealership and that Dorsey is a brilliant physicist.

In the next chapter, Dorsey, Simon, and Noah are on their way to Hugh’s house for the July 4th holiday. In the chapter after that, Hugh is at work at the Buick dealership, anticipating Dorsey’s visit, which is still a few weeks off. And so we move backwards through the life of the siblings, and the book ends at the moment of Dorsey’s birth, when Hugh is brought to the hospital by his father to meet his new baby sister for the first time.

It is brilliantly done, this backwards movement in time (in a book whose main character is a physicist obsessed with the movements of astral bodies in space and time). And well before before the film Memento! (The book was published in 1987; the movie came out in 2000). As we go along, we learn details big and small: why Hugh’s wife is cold & why Dorsey’s husband is odd; why Noah is deaf & why and where he bought his uncle a sea shell; when and why the parents died & what life was like for the siblings when they were young. Each new detail adds meaning to something we read earlier but did not, when first reading it, realize was significant (the motel key on Hugh’s keychain, for example, or the photograph on Dorsey’s wall).

I waited along the way for stunning revelations, skeletons in the closet. I don’t think they were there. It was just the gentle and gradual unpeeling of lives back to the point where they began, where a relationship began, the innocent point where all that was to come was unknown and unanticipated – except by us, the readers, who, by the time we get to the end (which is really the beginning) know all that is to come.

This is Baxter’s first novel, which followed two published short story collections. His strength as a short story writer is evident in this book, where each separate chapter could stand solidly on its own, so packed with nuance and detail is it. Baxter has since published several more books, including novels and books about writing. This past January he published Gryphon, a collection of short stories, some of which are new.

See the rave front page New York Times Book Review by Joyce Carol Oates

I think Baxter is a writer to add to your reading list!

Monday, May 16, 2011

More for Moms (and a belated Happy Mother’s Day to you all!)

Two more books discussed in my Mom Salon class over the last month…

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis

Lewis is well known as the author of such bestsellers as Liar’s Poker and The Blind Side. This book comes from a collection of essays he did on Lewis’s wife, Tabitha Soren, suggested he write these pieces, saying something along the lines of: If you’re going to be such a slacker Dad, you might as well make some money on it and do some writing about your experiences! (Ok, I’m totally making that up, but the columns were her idea. And I’m glad to hear they were ok with her, because he does expose quite a lot of their private family life.)

Lewis is an excellent writer, and he crafts a beautiful essay, so it’s a pleasure to read this book, for starters, because it’s so well-written. And even though it’s a book about fathering, I chose it for my Mom Salon so we moms could have a chance to see things from another point of view. (One of the students said her husband saw what she was reading and said “Why are you reading that book?!”)

Lewis begins by telling us that he didn’t have much by way of a role model for fathering, and that his own father, though beloved by his children, was rather absent from family life, particularly when things needed to get done (as they always do when children are involved). So throughout the book, he presents himself as kind of muddling along, taking instructions from his wife – a sort of second string parent who is expected to muck up rather than succeed (sports metaphors are rampant in the this book, and they are apt). He says he is one of these new modern dads who must be forgiven their incompetence.

And so as he begins to father after the birth of their first child, Lewis is not really certain what he is meant to be doing, or what he should be feeling, and he notes:

“. . . this persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt. Expected to feel overcome with joy. . . I often felt puzzled. Expected to feel outraged, I often felt secretly pleased; expected to feel worried, I often felt indifferent.” (p. 14)

He notes that:

“. . . all around me fathers were pretending to do one thing, and feel one way, when in fact they were doing and feeling all sorts of things, and then engaging afterward in what amounted to an extended cover-up.” (p. 14)

Lewis’s pieces take us through a multitude of fathering experiences as he and his wife parent three children. He describes an entertaining visit to a French Gymboree class, an attempt to “Ferberize” his child, the jealousy of the older child when a younger sibling appears, his own trip to the hospital after an ice skating mishap, and more. While I don’t always agree with his parenting choices, his pieces are mostly entertaining—many laugh-out-loud—and often insightful. To the degree that I suppose I will be able to understand what it feels like to be a father, I have learned something from this book.

Next book was The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels.

This book, published in 2004, describes something the authors call “the new momism,” which is the idea of a perfect mother that surfaced in post-feminist America, and how the media contributed to creating this unattainable image.

The book is smart, packed with supporting information from a variety of sources, and includes smart and interesting analyses of popular culture. The tone is amusing and often, as one Mom said, “snarky,” so it makes for entertaining reading (although the pop cult references are a bit dated by now).

Some of what the book is saying also overlaps in some ways with Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, the idea being that there is this image “out there” of what a proper mother ought to be, and if you don’t match up, well then, you’re not a good mother (you may even be, as Waldman says, a bad mother). Douglas & Michaels describe how they think this new image developed, a model that is in some ways a throwback to the non-working 50s housewife, and why it is so frustrating. According to this image, mothers are supposed to love what they do, all of it, every minute of the day. They take great joy in their roles, and they need no other reward or occupation. If so if you don’t feel this way, well then surely something is wrong with you, so bring on the guilt!

This is, of course, a great oversimplification of their message, but we found it rang true, and that we all struggle with figuring out how to take on the Mom role in a way that works for us and for our families, even if we don’t think we’re matching up to some societal ideal.