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 I’ve gotten on my soapbox before about how high school English ruins reading for kids.  And be forewarned, here we go again.   But before I begin, I just want you to read this:

“This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age.  In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.”

I have one question.  How the HELL does anyone expect a 16-year-old to understand that?

The fact is, course, that they can’t.  They’re sixteen, mere emotional fetuses.  They read John Knowles beautiful words, but they don’t digest them.  They hear but they don’t listen (isn’t that typical teenager behavior?). They don’t get what this book is really about, which is deeply sad, because there is so, so much to “get.”

I know this, because I was asked to read this book when I was sixteen and I even I, a practically professional reader, almost forgot about the third protagonist – the war.  What I remember most was wondering idly which of the boys I would have liked to date (Finny of course!).   In that way I am (or rather, as I like to think, was) no better than the scads of Twi-hards in their Team Jacob and Team Edward tshirts.

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Book CoverFull disclosure:  I read Marley and Me (hey, it has a dog on the cover doesn’t it?) and I enjoyed the book immensely.  I laughed at all the funny parts, cringed when required and even cried at the end (come on, you knew it was coming!).  I’ve read that Walking with Ollie is Britain’s answer to Marley and I agree with that in many ways. I also think that both men adore and love their dogs and any judgments that follow are solely in their roles as responsible dog owners, not as good people.

I have four rescue animals – two cats and two dogs.  They are all wonderful creatures, affectionate and loving.  They don’t know they are supposed to be thankful that I rescued them and often act quite cavalier about their living situation (they are, plain and simply, spoiled).  Three of them have stable personalities with no issues that need managing. 

One of them doesn’t. 

He came to us as a four month old puppy and the first time I took him to the vet (the second day I had him) she said “He’s a bit timid isn’t he?”  I wouldn’t realize her understatement until many months later.  By then I had come to realize the little guy was afraid of the car (he puked once he got in), strange men on the street (or boys past the age of 15 or so), my father (even after he’d known him for months), statues of people, holiday decorations, the vacuum cleaner, nail clippers (the dog version and the human version), baby gates, cats, and inexplicably, the Stop N Shop Peapod truck.   Unlike Ollie, he was not afraid of his owner (me) but he did give Tim the fish eye occasionally, just to make sure he wasn’t up to no good.

When I began reading Ollie, I couldn’t help but remember the despair I felt when I realized my dog was not normal.  I felt that I had failed.  I thought that my first dog attempt was a disaster and it was all my fault (did I make him this way?).  That I couldn’t help this poor creature who was just terrified of the world.  I felt for Mr. Foster, I really did.  I’ve been there. 

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I was worried about one of my pets, as I always do, when my mother said to me in frustration “Why don’t you just give away all your pets and. . .”

“Be miserable?” was my reply.  Because despite my anxieties on their behalf (are they sick, are they happy, are they getting all that they need????) I can’t imagine living a life without the little critters. 

Though I am not one of those delusional people who thinks of my pets as kids, they are certainly an important part of my family.  I smile even while getting mauled by the dogs each day when I get home (what human would ever greet you with such happiness?).   When away from home I cannot sleep, ironically, because it’s too quiet.  Though a purring cat can be loud, it sure is comforting.  Being flanked on either side by warm felines bodies leaves some folks cold, but I’ll take the subsequent crick in the neck for a few glorious moments of a group cat nap. 

Though I spend a lot of time attending to my pets’ needs, as an chronic worrier, it’s nice to have a respite from my own issues, even if it means worrying a little about someone other than myself.   When the dogs need to be fed or walked or the litter box cleaned, there is no time for self involvement – and that’s ultimately healthier than the alternative.

I’m not the first to delight in the soothing affect of pets. Ask any pet owner and you’ll get a litany of reasons why their pets are good for them (you may even get melodramatic or just highly dramatic accounts of noble acts and miracles, depending on the pet owner).  And more recently science has supported such anecdotal evidence with studies that show pets lower blood pressure, decrease depression and increase feelings of social support in those who live alone.

So it’s not surprising that Bruce Goldstein’s therapist suggested that Goldstein, a manic depressive, get a dog.  Where medicine and therapy failed, a tiny black lab puppy named Ozzy succeeded. 

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“The Middle Place is about calling home. Instinctively. Even when all the paperwork — a marriage license, a notarized deed, two birth certificates, and seven years of tax returns — clearly indicates you’re an adult, but all the same, there you are, clutching the phone and thanking God that you’re still somebody’s daughter.”

So yeah, those little blurbs on the book jacket are supposed to make you buy the book.  But I’m stronger than that.  Maybe for most books, but this one pulls you into a big bear hug, like I imagine the author herself would do if I met her on the street.

I’m a huge fan of memoirs of “regular” people, by which I mean not Burroughs or James Frey but instead people like  Judy Blunt, Alison Smith or Abigail Thomas.  Woman with complicatedly simple lives which they live with extraordinary ordinariness.  Real people.  With real problems. 

I read memoirs because they contain that spark of surprise – someone is like me!I like reading things that feel instinctually right, even though when I hear them in my own head I fear they are oftentimes weird or wrong.  Call it my need for external validation but to see oneself in another is comforting, no matter who you are.

I was drawn to Kelly herself, but more importantly I was also drawn (as she said I would be; she’s so smart) to her father, George.  He reminded me a lot of my late grandfather or at least how I like to remember him.  At least I know that my mother felt similarly about her parents, her kind, easy going and fun-loving father and her capable, tough and pragmatic mother.  As Kelly suggests, if you want to feel good or need twenty bucks, go see George.  If you want something done, go see her mother.   I remember thinking the same about my grandparents.  My grandfather always had candy, though he was diabetic.  My grandmother always had advice, usually of the unwanted variety.

While my relationships with my parents are quite different, I do feel Kelly’s need to be someone’s daughter.  To know, that even when you are a parent yourself, there is someone in your corner willing to help you out.  That you don’t need to have all the answers because someone else does.  She thinks of this as a delaying of growing up, of staving off adulthood.  But I think it gets to the heart of familial relationships.  It’s certainly hard for parents to see their children as adults, but I think perhaps it’s harder for children to see themselves as such.  It’s such a relief to let someone else take control, to know that someone else is in charge.  It’s a dynamic that all children and parents work through.

Kelly’s story of her family and her life is inspiring and I don’t say that lightly.  She’s a real person with real fears and needs and triumphs.  I won’t tell you any specifics, because I expect you to go out and read it.  Now.  Because it was with regret that I put down this book. 

I’ve been reading like crazy lately, so it seems strange that I haven’t had time to blog.  It looks like I haven’t done anything, if I assume that anyone’s actually reading this.  I may have been quiet, but I was cranking through some serious bookage these past weeks.  Unlike the industry, which seems to think that summer reading is more prolific, winter is, for me, the best time to stay inside and warm, snuggle up with some good stories (besides I hate sand in my books).

Here’s a quick summary to keep you posted:

I’m not a huge fan of what may be called Chick Lit, but I did read two books lately which could be considered as such.  One is a charming little fantasy novel called Garden Spells.  Though it probably borrows too heavily from Like Water for Chocolate and often seems to be a new rendition of the terrible movie Simple Irresistible,  it is a cute read, worth it if you borrow it from the library or from a friend (sorry, I gave mine away already).    The other, is a deceptively simple novel called The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.  I read this book in an afternoon and enjoyed this story of two sisters and a granddaughter.  The Esme of the title resurfaces into society after 61 years in a mental institution, but it’s not about her reintroduction to the world, it’s about delving into the past to see how she got there in the first place.  The desultory ramblings of her sister, well within the iron fist of Alzheimer’s, adds the necessary counter opinion.  This book is good in the reading, but where it hits you is later, when you’ve put it down and tried to move on.  It just won’t leave you. I found myself thinking about the implications of this books for weeks afterward.  Is that what reviewers mean by “haunting?”

In retrospect it seems I was trying to cleanse all that estrogen by picking up Dennis Lehane next.  He’s someone I summarily dismissed for many years because he’s so popular and well, I’ve seen the movies.  But Sacred and A Drink Before the War were all the fun of watching a movie without the $10.00 ticket fee (or Sean Penn’s ugly mug).  Lehane obviously writes in a certain genre, with movie dialogue, but I can embrace a good PI story, especially one set in my home state. 

Finally I picked up Anna Quindlen.  I just finished her book Good Dog.  Stay. and of course bawled my eyes out when the dog dies (I didn’t ruin it for you, of course it’s coming).  I’ve decided I want her career of writing small books that capture people’s emotions.  How Reading Changed My Life isn’t so much about how it changed her life as how it forged her life.  In this Anna and I have much in common.  We’re both that girl who would rather squish into an over-sized armchair with a book about far off place, then squashed into a plane seat on our way to said faraway place.   She’s the kind of reader I was and am and will be and it’s good to know that there are more of us in the world.

Cover ImageI’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately.  With everyone I know getting married, it’s inevitable that I’d ponder what marriage means, particularly when everyone is trying to push me into it (and I’m digging in my heels as hard as I can).  I can’t help but feel that they are all pushing me into marriage without any consideration or respect for the relationship that I already have.  Because to me that is what is important – what exists between two people, not how they go about it. 

There are as many treatises singing the praises of marriage as the salvation of society as there are polemics about why it is the road straight to destruction.  Marriage as a social construct has been studied to death (or divorce).   But very rarely does a reader uncover a fine-focused discussion about what is the relationship between two people.  Or what such a relationship could be, freed from the trappings of social obligation.

I read this book when I was a teenager, with no personal conception of love or committment or monogamy. I was “in love” with a new boy every five minutes (more if class just got out and everyone was milling around the hallway).  I was not exactly the target audience and to be honest I don’t even remember where or why I picked it up.  Still something about this book clearly resonated it’s dog eared like crazy.

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{Full disclosure:  I’m a little defensive lately.  My best friend got married in the last of the weddings for this season (what a relief) and we didn’t make it to rehearsal dinner before the “When are you getting married?” questions started.  I’ve mentioned before that reading keeps me sane and my choices this week are no exception.}

I’ve had my anti-bride rant already so I’m moving on to bigger prey.  In a long hot summer filled with wedding after wedding (really it was only three, almost four, but it seemed like exponentially more) I’ve become increasingly frustrated by social expectations being laid at my feet.  Everyone wants to marry me off. 

It still amazes me how rude some people can be.  When are you getting married is not, by any means, an innocuous or polite question.  And yet it’s completely socially acceptable.   Even if we excuse the blatant invasion of privacy there are issues with the semantics.  Firstly there is the “when” of it which implies there is no choice not to – it’s  pretty clear that this is not a question of “if” after all.  Secondly there is the fact that the questioner even has to ask the question, which implies that you’re taking too long (the poor, frustrated souls, I really feel for them).  This questions belongs, along with its sister when are you having kids, to a society where people had no choices in the matter – matrimony and childbirth were inevitable – and frankly, they had nothing better to talk about.  I for one think we’ve moved past that and our social manners should evolve as such.  Unfortunately it appears that I’m in the minority on this one.

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Cover ImageI’ve already mentioned that I’m a huge Jane Austen fan so it’s no surprise that I would pick up a book with the subtitle Pride and Prejudice Continues (there are dozens of them, but, dismissing the old adage, I picked this one because of its cover art).  Not all characters are interesting enough to follow after their story has ended but Elizabeth and Darcy are certainly two that are.  One can imagine a future relationship of adventure, love and shared wit.  Something interesting was happening there, which surely would continue.  But what exactly did their happily ever after include?

According to the author – lots and lots of sex. 

One of the characters in this book, (and I’m getting the feeling  she will add to the intrigue later in the story) is Juliette Clisson, daughter of a French Viscountess.  She is the unofficial mistress and well paid escort of Mr. Darcy for many years before he weds.  She is rich, beautiful and decidedly high class despite her profession.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (and yes, I can only imagine the title is meant to be ironic, because it seems like all he does is take her – in the bath, in the carriage, on the grounds of Pemberly) is similar to Ms. Clisson in many ways, but mostly because they are both high brow smut.   Don’t get me wrong, this book does not aim to hide the nature of its story, in fact it’s likely the book’s main selling point.  Alas, however, I expected a story in there somewhere.

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I don’t usually have any embarrassment about what I’m reading in public.  One notable exception was when I realized that I was reading The Position while in the waiting room at a pediatrician’s office.  Oops.  Fortunately all the patients were too young to read (or were too enthralled with Sponge Bob).

Since I started reading it, I’ve been quietly tucking One Perfect Day away in certain company and deftly hiding the title when on the subway. I carry it back cover out as I walk down the street.

 I feel so guilty about hating weddings.  

No one wants to be that asshole who rains on someone’s parade.  And not just any parade – a wedding is the biggest ticker-tape, socially acceptable,  self-congratulatory parade we have in our society. No other event (except perhaps the birth of a child) holds so much sway over everyone.   

Hating weddings is like hating baseball, babies, apple pie or the Bush Administration. Admit it and you’re sure to be on a list of dissenters somewhere.  You’re considered the worst kind of anti-American.  You’re dangerous and must be stopped.

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P&PI’ve never been one for “studying” literature.  Dissecting plot lines, themes and social context doesn’t really inspire me.  That is the main reason why I never pursued a degree in English Literature, despite my passion for reading it. I didn’t want to make it work.

My senior year in high school AP English is a perfect illustration.  We studied a lot of works that year (1984, Canterbury Tales, and Macbeth to name a few).  The total number of pages I read can be calculated easily – zero.  How did I pass?  My class was filled with the smartest of the smart kids that year (one major exception being my friend Christine who, I suspect for communist reasons, opted out of AP for regular English class *gasp*) and all I had to do was let them start the discussion and take their talking points a bit further down the road. 

I’ve never been haunted by the ghosts of AP English past, and I’ve never taken the time to read the books I should have read ten years ago.  In fact, I always felt as if I had already read Pride and Prejudice.  It’s such a famous book that it’s wormed its way, Jungian style, into the literary and popular culture (see it referenced in the movie You’ve Got Mail).  Between the BBC version, the new Keira Knightly movie and the pervasive Bridget Jones I’m sure everyone feels it would be a bother to actually open the pages.  We already know the story. 

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Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading