Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Books I've read recently

I've actually had some time to read recently - two for book club, two on my own.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

This book had a fascinating premise. The basic plot involves a doctor in the 60s who delivers his own twins in a snowstorm. His wife is in a drugged haze and only the doctor's closest nurse is at the delivery. When he realizes that his daughter has Down Syndrome, he decides to send her to an institution. He also lies to his wife, and tells her their daughter died. Their son survives. Disgusted by the nature of the institution, the nurse chooses to raise the daughter as her own. The book follows the lives of the families, the basis behind the father's decision and lies.

I will say, the characterizations were sometimes a bit stretched. Some of the events seemed improbable. I will admit to being a literary snob - expecting unique and full fleshed out characters with every novel. To my mind, one scene was very contrived, as if "they all woke up and it was a dream". It seemed like an obvious plot device to move the book along. I won't mention what it was, but if you read the book, it's not hard to determine.

What I did appreciate, however, was the notion of how damaging some family secrets can be. Back in the day, families kept silent about many things. Adoption, alcoholism, mental illness, mental disability, ancestry, etc. Sick as our secrets definitely applies here. And in the book, it's obvious that this secret impacted each of the main characters lives. I'd like to think that we are more open today, that we are more willing to face these issues and the supposed embarrassment they might cause.

I will say, in terms of secrets, I do think there are some things better left unsaid. Obviously, in terms of this blog, I don't often take that advice. But as a parent, and a friend, it's hard to know where that line is. But in each decision, a person has to weigh the costs and benefits. And most certainly, with the above list of adoption, mental illness, physical illnesses, death, etc. - I believe fully that a family should be as open as possible.

Which leads me to the second book I've read:

Secret Girl by Molly Bruce Jacobs

In the not so distant past, it was common to institutionalize the mentally disabled. Even today, some Americans find out that they had siblings, family members they never knew they had who had been institutionalized. This was the case for Molly Bruce Jacobs.

Her sister was institutionalized after birth. The author didn't know of her existence until she was thirteen, and didn't visit her until she was in her 30s. The memoir follows her life, as the author struggles to make sense of this impossible choice. She works to develop a relationship with her sister and understand this secret's impact on her life and her alcoholism.

It is an unbelievably sad and honest memoir. It tells how an adult understands and accepts their parents' actions and accepts and forgives their own actions and motivations. Molly wasn't defending her parents' actions, but by writing the memoir and developing a relationship with her sister - she was trying to make things right. As right as she could make them. Just like any of us, knowing we can't make up for the past, but trying to do the best we can with what we have.

On from family secrets/dysfunction:
Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

wikipedia entry about the novel

This is much lighter than the other two books. It's sci-fi/fantasy - good guys vs. vampires, light vs. dark. There is definitely a tradition of Bulgakov here, I don't get all the references but I'm pretty certain they are there. Like the best sci-fi books, there isn't a clear line between good and evil. Everyone is just doing their best, what they think is the best.

While there are some great female characters in this book (like Tiger Cub and Olga), it doesn't pass the two females having a conversation on screen test. At least not in this first book. There is, of course, one scene where Anton switches bodies with Olga - and has a conversation with his love interest, but that doesn't count (to my mind). That scenario is actually very Russian - from my experiences there. Many of my American professors would say that Russian culture (at least in the mid-90s) was as if the sexual revolution never happened here. It still may be true. At least, women are required to wear makeup, care about their appearance - otherwise they might be lesbians.

Okay, perhaps that isn't fair with the novel, but there is definitely a Russian cultural tradition there. And, with all the comments about switching bodies and Anton struggling with high heels and makeup - and other restaurant goers saying that Anton looked butch - it's not a stretch to my mind. I may be mistaken - but that was my impression. The women in the novel (and movies) do have a central role, but it was some of those stereotypes that really bothered me.

So aside from American cultural issues, it was a fascinating insight into current Russian culture (despite being about vampires). The reader knows that Anton's side, the light, is fighting a losing battle, but you can't help but root for them.

Last but not least is:
The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich

I've always like Louise Erdrich's work. She has an amazing grasp on language. She also has stunning insight into humans and their relationships. This was one of the books we discussed at book club, and one of the participants praised the use of native american culture and lore. It is, sadly, a perspective and story that is not often told. Just as with the first two books, some parts were particularly sad. One or two of the characters/sub plots did seem out of place, but all in all, an interesting read.

The issues she discusses of repatriation are incredibly important and relevant. It is difficult to decide which community an object belongs to, particularly a sacred object. In the novel, the drum has an intensely spiritual connection - and it restores community (either magically or coincidentally, depending on your perspective).

I think the nature of spiritual objects, respect, scientific study is one I will save for another blog post. But I believe these issues are very important. For many of these native cultures, their objects and culture were stolen. And genocide was committed against some of the native american communities by the United States government. There's no other way to view the small pox laced blankets or the trail of tears.

I found this article on the Smithsonian website when I was researching this topic. The author clearly understands how controversial this topic can be. From what she writes, I can also see the museum and learning perspective. That there may be some history that can be gleaned from specific objects and processes. But only when all parties agree to allow the research and respect is the foundation of the research.

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