Friday, August 26, 2011

Touching the Void: Surviving the Unsurvivable

Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous SurvivalTouching the Void by Joe Simpson
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I started reading this book at Holden Village in July and didn't get back into it until last week (I had to get it out of the library in Portland). Mike went to prep school with Joe Simpson in England (although Simpson's a few years older than him), so I've often thought about reading this book before it called to me from the Holden Village library.

Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, climbed a mountain peak in the Andes--the 21,000-foot Siula Grande. While ascending, Joe broke his leg...which can be an immediate death sentence for mountain climbers. However, Simon risked his own life to lower Joe 3,000 feet down the mountain while Joe kept digging "belays" into the mountain, allowing Simon to stretch out the rope once more. When the rope did not go slack (allowing him to affix a new hitch), Simon had no idea what was going on. He had no choice but to cut the rope, knowing that by doing so Joe would die. If he hadn't cut the rope, they both would have died on the mountain. When the rope was cut, Joe fell into a very deep crevasse.

The amazing piece is that Joe did not die--in fact, he survived. Over the ensuing three days, somehow he was able to crawl out of the crevasse and all the way down the mountain, and then 6 miles to base camp, just before Simon left to return to civilization. Joe writes about the deep loneliness, exhaustion, and terror that beset him on the mountain. He did not give up when most people would have. Not only did he survive with a horribly broken and painful leg, but he also did not have food and water for several days. The only thing that kept him going was a voice in his head--prompting him to keep moving and surviving.

Meanwhile, Simon was being tormented with guilt, even at the same time as he realized he had no choice in the matter. Joe writes from Simon's perspective as well (in italics), giving us a more complete picture of what was happening in both men's minds.

I woke up at night thinking about this book--it will stick with me for a very long time. It's clear that Joe is a mountain climber first and a writer second, because I often had difficulties following the technical descriptions of climbing and picturing everything in my mind. I didn't discover the glossary in the back until I was 1/3 of the way into the book. But even the glossary couldn't really help me understand fully.

Joe includes an afterword in the edition I read. He writes about returning to Siula Grande to film the documentary and experiencing post-traumatic stress (previously he had not even believed in its existence). It's the second book I've read recently where a British person discounts the value of psychotherapy--thinking it to be an American whim. When he calls the National Health Service to make an appointment with a therapist (realizing he needed to deal with his PTSD), he doesn't receive a call back until six months later. At that point, he's too disgusted to go forward with it. Instead, he realizes the healing, therapeutic power of telling one's story...and that's how he works through the stress and the trauma. At least he did come to realize the importance of working through it and the downsides of the British stiff upper lip.

He also writes about traumatic emotions and terror traveling hard-wired neural pathways in the brain...that's why what we think will be an easy task or experience can bring up all sorts of PTSD effects if we've experienced a trauma. I've experienced this phenomenon a few times myself.

Touching the VoidNext I plan to watch the documentary, and I'm sure it will help me have a better understanding of what exactly happened to Joe and Simon on the mountain. Joe Simpson wrote this book partly to defend Simon Yates' actions on the mountain. From the very beginning, he understood that Simon made the only decision he could have at the time. He's truly grateful to him for doing everything he could to save him--most other climbers would have left him on the mountain without even trying to save him.

A therapist friend of mine used to show this movie to the boys he counseled: they were sex offenders in treatment. It was chosen as a testament to the power of the human spirit and the ability to conquer seemingly impossible odds.

After You: Grief times two

After You: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)After You by Julie Buxbaum
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ellie Lerner's best friend, Lucy, is murdered in broad daylight--in front of her 8-year-old daughter--in an upscale Notting Hill neighborhood. Ellie flies to London to be with her goddaughter Sophie and help Lucy's husband pick up the pieces of their lives.

While she's grieving the loss of her close childhood friend, she's still mourning her son Oliver, who died in utero at eight months gestation. Ellie's difficulty in moving past her deep-seated grief has put her marriage at risk. While she's escaping her own commitments back in Boston, her husband wants her to return home, but she just can't.

To comfort themselves, Ellie and Lucy escape into Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Sophie is an unusually bright, too-blunt-for-her-peer-group child, and she has endured more than any child should. I had to chuckle while reading her father's response to Ellie's suggestion that Sophie go to a therapist (because of bed wetting and nightmares)...reflecting the prevailing opinion that therapy is too American and completely unnecessary for the stiff-upper-lip British. Sophie returns to school a scant few days after watching her mother be murdered, because the headmistress convinces her father that "she should get right back into the swing of things. Routine, structure, and all that. Good for kids. She said that breaking from that will shake Sophie up even more."

Through the process of mourning Lucy (and discovering that Lucy was keeping at least a few deep dark secrets from her and she didn't know her as well as she thought), Ellie realizes that she hasn't fully mourned for Oliver. Instead she's been trying to escape her own feelings of loss.

Buxbaum effectively and sensitively handled the issues of grief, including the different ways people grieve (and not to assume that someone is not grieving just because they grieve in a different way from you). One thing I realized about the characters, though: I would not have liked Lucy. She came across as shallow, unfeeling, and snobby. The most egregious thing she did was after Ellie lost her baby: her first response was to tell Ellie she could always have another one. Perhaps she was stunned and didn't know how to react. But after the losses I have experienced in my own pregnancies, I cannot imagine being able to move beyond that kind of completely insensitive comment. Although Ellie was upset about the comment, she didn't seem to think it was quite as horrible as I did.

I'm always attracted to stories about Americans in England or vice versa, so I enjoyed this book overall. Buxbaum lives in London and has done an excellent job representing the British culture through American eyes.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Unbroken, a great book according to my husband!

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

I haven't read it yet, but my husband just finished this book and loved it. You can read his review here.

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons: Women can survive more than they think

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons: A NovelAngry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, by Lorna Landvik
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As my book club selection for August, I wasn't too sure what to expect. I've read Landvik before and enjoyed her books, but I believe this one was my favorite yet. She typically sets her stories in Minnesota, like this one.

Kari, Faith, Slip, Merit, and Audrey are housewives in small-town Minnesota in the 1960s. They live on Freesia Court and start a book club (fairly unusual back then). Through the years, they share their heartaches, secrets, and intimacies in the ways that only women can.

Through 40 years, the Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons (a name coined after Merit's abusive husband angrily demanded she stop being in the group) each battle their own personal demons. Faith harbors the secret of her dysfunctional childhood and sense of abandonment and is convinced no one will love her if they know the real her. Audrey loves sex and food and lives largely, although her husband enjoys sex with other women as well as her. Daughter of a straitlaced minister, Merit ends up with a perfect-on-the-outside doctor husband who begins verbally abusing her and soon starts in physically. Slip, the impassioned activist, loves her family just as much as she loves peace and justice and gradually convinces the other women not to accept sexism without a fight. And Kari, the widowed and oldest member of the group, happily becomes a mother but can tell no one where she got her baby.

Beginning in the 1960s when home life was much more traditional, and moving into the 1990s when people began opening up their minds and their lives, the book charts the separate pathways of these close friends. In addition to these fiercely strong, loving women, Landvik includes portraits of several wonderful men--some of which you don't expect at first to be so likable.

As we discussed at our own book group meeting last night, for a story about books, Landvik didn't really let us into the book discussions very much. Each chapter was headed by a book club selection and why it was chosen, but beyond a few mentions in the text, we didn't really get to hear much of what the angry housewives thought or said about it. She could have woven the texts into these women's lives more effectively.

In addition, some of the supplemental characters (children and husbands) are well shaped while others are one dimensional and rarely described. Clearly, the angry housewives are the primary characters of this novel. The most heartbreaking scene to me was when one of the sons told his mother that he felt that no one loved him. Even though she knew deep down that he was gay, she could not reach out to connect with her son--she just wanted the whole situation to go away, and if she avoided it, she thought she could make it so. She chose to close the door on her own son because she was too afraid to face facts.

Even with the criticisms we had of the book, we all enjoyed it and give it a strong recommendation.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bitter Bitch: Fear of Flying revisited

Bitter Bitch: A NovelBitter Bitch by Maria Sveland
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bitter Bitch is billed as "the international bestseller that has shocked Europe"; however, the only thing particularly shocking was the title, which caused all sorts of commentary from my family (especially when my husband showed it to my visiting mother-in-law and sister-in-law!). Apparently the literal translation from the Swedish is even more schocking: "Bitter Cunt"!

Sarah, mom of a toddler, has just turned 30 and is feeling like a bitter bitch. She flies to Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) for a week's vacation and reads Erica Jong's feminist classic, Fear of Flying, while she's away. However, she finds herself longing for quiet and uninterrupted sleep rather than the classic "zipless f--k."

Sveland examines the state of modern woman- and motherhood and peels back the facade that women can easily have it all. Although Sarah loves her husband Johan, she also has great unresolved hostility towards him. Having experienced horribly sexist men in television journalism and other areas of her life, Sarah reflects that "Refusing to admit your own part in oppression is an incredibly smart power strategy, since oppression is made invisible by diminishing it." Not only does this lack of awareness exist in men, but it also exists in the privileged--both men and women.

After Sarah is unable to nurse her baby Sigge successfully, she develops a life-threatening breast infection. Johan chooses to take Sigge home instead of having them both stay in the hospital with Sarah, an action that Sarah views as betrayal. (Having experienced the extreme bonding connection that exists between mother and newborn, I can completely relate to this feeling.) Their marriage is damaged as a result of this and the fact that Johan is gone for weeks at a time (because of his job) while Sarah is caring for newborn Sigge. She feels exhausted and completely alone, even though she loves her child passionately.

Sarah struggles with the fact that women still bear the burden in marriage: they do most of the housework and the child care. "I really do not think there is much difference between becoming a mother during the 1970s or in the twenty-first century. In the beginning you are just as alone with your child as most mothers have been for is sad, but becoming a mother seems to be one of the most difficult undertakings when it comes to equality."

When the couple goes to married marriage counselors, they tell Sarah that achieving equality in a marriage is impossible. Both Sarah and Johan storm out in disgust. But in fact, Johan's paternity leave (more common in Sweden) was what saved their marriage. "That's when he understood what it meant to take full responsibility as a father. Men should take longer parental leave than women, since women have a biological head start because they have carried and given birth to their children. Men need more time to get the innate experience."

She talks in detail about the great guilt work-outside-the-home mothers feel when they leave their children in day care (or take off for a weekend or week away). Fathers tend not to experience that same amount of guilt. Why is that? She concludes that women should be more self-serving: "The one who demands the most gets the most." For example, who is most likely to be doing the cleanup at a party? The women (especially with older generations). Sarah feels guilty when she doesn't jump up to help the other women, but the men don't seem to feel guilty at all. Why is that?

She also laments the fact that women are rarely able to relax or feel completely safe out in public. They can never escape the potential for men to harass them. (I discussed this very topic with friends at Holden Village late one night.) "I strongly doubt that men can comprehend the discomfort or ferar involved in having to deal with it. I wonder how this really affects women, deep down."

Sarah was raised with a doormat mother and a verbally abusive, alcoholic father, so she didn't have a lot of faith in marriage. Lest you conclude that Sarah is anti-men, though, she waxes lyrical about how much she loves men who peel oranges in public, bring packed lunches to work, bike or walk to work, and dance.

Reading this book, it made me realize how lucky I am to be in a marriage of relative equality. I nursed my sons constantly (and through the night) for many years, and then my husband took over the late night wakefulness after they stopped nursing. He is a stay-at-home dad and does the cooking during the week. I call him our "household manager," because of course he does much more than looking after the kids and cooking. We still fall back into gender stereotyped roles when it comes to some responsibilities: he takes out the garbage, mows the lawn, and deals with the car maintenance, while I am responsible for all of the gift and clothing buying and storing the kids clothes over various seasons. We both grocery shop. But he writes the thank you cards. I let him drive much of the time because he likes to, and I'd rather be reading. I'm the breadwinner but he still has a career and associated goals. I hope someday I can work less and he can get paid for the work he does (writing). We make decisions together.

I feel that we have achieved as close to equality as I can imagine in our marriage. So thankfully, even though I feel that Sveland's observations about marriage and parenting are completely sound, I am not a bitter bitch myself. I must say that it's refreshing to read a feminist novel given all of the anti-feminist backlash out there in popular society. Here's Maria Sveland on feminism and marriage.

I'm not sure what I think about the depends on whether you are cynical or optimistic. As an optimist myself, I'd like to think that Sarah found some comfort and peace with her life. I'm glad that Sveland wrote this important book, and I have no doubt that many women would be able to relate very closely to this story.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Julie & Julia: Skip the book...see the movie

Julie & JuliaJulie & Julia, by Julie Powell
2 out of 5 stars

It feels like I have been reading this book forever, and I'm so glad to be done with it. I loved Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julia Child in the movie and liked Amy Adams enough to get through the Julie Powell bits. Stanley Tucci, another one of my favorites, played Julia's husband, Paul.

I'm all over one-year experiment memoirs, but I'd stayed away from this one because of the mixed reviews. But when this book was in my book group's "Yankee Swap" Christmas book exchange, I stole it from my sweet friend Caley. I took it to Holden Village with me last week, and halfway through I picked up another book (Touching the Void) in the Holden library because I needed a break from Julie Powell's incessant whining.

I'm not sure what her original blog was like, because it's virtually impossible to navigate through. I'm curious whether she actually chronicled her progress through the 536 recipes in 365 days, because in the book she writes about only perhaps 60 (?) of them, which is pretty strange since that's what the book is supposedly about. The recipes she does cover are mostly nothing I'd ever want to eat (many involve offal, brains, veal, or lamb). I wanted to know more about the actual cooking process of all of these recipes, not about Powell's tortured work life, strange friends, extremely squishy integrity, and pathetic house cleaning habits.

I definitely could have done without the maggots scene. The thought of her cooking all that fancy food in a filthy, maggot-breeding kitchen is enough to make me vomit. Her poor (dysfunctional) friends--they must have had the same feeling when they read her book and realized they had eaten the products of that kitchen.

Powell's husband, Eric, is faithfully devoted and long suffering. It didn't help me like Powell's personality knowing she cheated on her husband for 2 years and wrote all about it in her subsequent book, Cleaving. She's narcissistic and shallow and shares way too much information, even for a blog or memoir. I agree with her on some fronts (politics being one) and disagree on many others (she calls the World War II memorial in Washington "mind-bogglingly hideous"--but I liked it!).

Speaking of mind boggling, I question how Powell could hold down a mind-numbing bureaucratic job and cook 536 complicated and expensive recipes in one year's time, without gobs of vacation time and a hefty loan. It's hard to tell if she cheated--all we have to go on is her claim that she couldn't think of not finishing her project in one year's time. But who's to say she didn't skip half of the recipes?

One thing I'd like to know is how a notoriously fussy eater (she had never eaten an egg, for God's sake, before starting the project) was able to get past her food foibles and eat all sorts of bizarre ingredients (such as beef marrow and calf's feet). She does not address how she conquered her food issues, but she does mention she gained a lot of weight during that year. She relished eating innards and also in butchering, slicing, and killing (lobsters).

Powell is crushed to learn that Julia Child was not impressed with her project. After reading this book, I do not blame Julia Child one bit. Perhaps if Powell were more likable and spent more time focusing on the cooking and less on the drama in her life, Julia Child would have been entranced and intrigued by her blog.

At the end of the book, Powell claims that the project rescued her. When Julia Child died, she wrote, "I have no claim over the woman at all, unless it's the claim one who has nearly drowned has over the person who pulled her out of the ocean." If this is true, though, why did she start an affair with another man a few years later because she was filled with self-loathing or some other ridiculous reason? Julie & Julia is full of soppy adoration for her husband Eric (except when he's having a "Blanche" day or gets in her way when she is having a tantrum). What happened to lead her to not only have an affair and have a quickie with a stranger, but to rub her husband's nose in it?

Throughout Julie & Julia, Powell scatters made-up vignettes about Julia Child and her husband Paul. They seemed out of place and only made me want to read Julia Child's My Year in France to learn the real story. Julia Child was a fascinating, dynamic woman who loved life and her husband with a passion. Julie Powell, not so much.