Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Beyond FICTION: SO Many Books

Lisa at Eudaemonia (pictured at left with some of her mile-high piles of books) recently struck up a lively conversation regarding Carleen’s video and her own desire to read books by authors of varied backgrounds. She subsequently also compelled me to finally write a post on books I read this fall. But first, the debate over whether suggesting white folks read books by black folks can be construed as condescending or even insulting. Here’s my take from portions of a comment I just posted at Eudaemonia:

“Regardless of a reader’s heritage, he/she should not hesitate to explore books by people of other backgrounds if he/she is interested in doing so. While many readers are fully aware of the wide range of fantastic contemporary authors, some do not even consider them for multiple reasons, most of which are not discriminatory. Perhaps they assume they wouldn’t enjoy reading about the experience of a young black girl whose mother was an investigator in the Atlanta child murders of the 1970s. Perhaps they assume they wouldn’t relate to a young Chinese woman who lived and died hundreds of years ago and returned to her world as a troubled ghost. But good writing is good writing, and authors of all backgrounds who eloquently portray strong characters and their life-changing conflicts produce stories that touch all of us simply because we’re all human. THAT’s the message of Carleen’s video and of Lisa’s post, I believe. The goal is not to insult anyone or to imply that awareness of different writers’ racial and/or cultural backgrounds is necessary to the reading and enjoyment of their work. But I think to remain blind to the forces that compelled a writer to write a stunning book is to miss out on intriguing aspects of the book’s creation that may make it even more enjoyable to read, even more fascinating to contemplate, and even more memorable.”

The books I refer to in this (long-winded) comment are Kim Reid’s No Place Safe and Lisa See’s Peony in Love, both of which I’ve featured in earlier posts. A few books I read earlier this year (I’m currently entrenched in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and have loads of new titles from Lisa’s and Carleen’s blogs to add to my TBR list. Will the madness never end?!) and have been meaning to feature for a long while are Bonnie Glover’s Going Down South, Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, and Robert Rummel-Hudson’s Schuyler’s Monster. I’ve no idea why I read all these books during a certain time period, but I was interested to find they all feature shifts of child-parent/parent-child relationships.

In Going Down South, hardships and discoveries bring a grandmother, mother, and daughter together in ways they never would have experienced otherwise. While the plot is compelling and the characters drawn with piercing precision, I most enjoyed the turns that gave the three strong main characters increased depth as they humbly realized and eventually acknowledged their own weaknesses and struggled to overcome them. By the end of this book, the hierarchy of grandmother-mother-daughter shifts to allow each woman not only the ability but the willingness to care for each other and to allow herself to be cared for. Meanwhile, they each earned (through blood, sweat, and many tears) a heart-felt appreciation for their close-knit living arrangement, an arrangement each at first dreaded and possibly even feared.

Another novel but one based on the author’s experience growing up during the Atlanta child murders of 1979, Leaving Atlanta explores the points of views of three different children whose classmates turn up missing and eventually murdered. Tasha leads the way in a section devoted to her family’s break up and eventual, but tenuous, reconciliation fueled ironically by the child murders that have just begun to terrorize her community. Before her father returns, she speaks with him on the phone about her mother’s concern that she (Tasha) refuses to eat, something Tasha is doing in protest of her father’s leaving:

“The timbre of his voice masked an undercurrent of pleading, as if her refusal to eat dinner made an adult difference.”

I love that line. A little mature for a 10-year-old? Maybe. I still struggle with the balance between using language a child would use to describe what that child is doing. The narrator’s not necessarily a child if the story’s in third person, correct? So why should all descriptions be appropriate to the child’s point of view. But I digress.

The contrasts between childhood perspectives and adult realities and the struggles of 10-year-olds to reconcile the sometimes harsh truths of what they understand, what they don’t yet understand, and what they wish they could pretend to not yet understand fueled this book for me. Especially in difficult times, the shattered image of the adults fully qualified and equipped to protect a child can lead to complete disillusionment and/or to the premature assumption of adult attitudes and responsibilities long before a child is ready for them. Jones handles this with a unique take on shifting viewpoints.

Jeannette Walls’ well-known memoir, The Glass Castle, ran for me along similar lines as the early part of John Elder Robison’s Look Me In the Eye (released in paperback earlier this year) simply due to the mental illnesses of the parents and the tremendous impact of disturbing or missing parents on each author’s childhood. Before long at all, Jeannette and her siblings assume responsibility for their own survival, and as an adult Jeannette cannot help but offer her parents aide when they follow her to New York and live as squatters fifteen minutes away. But when she offers help, her mother insists she and Jeannette’s father don’t need any. Instead, she says she’s worried about Jeannette. “Look at the way you live,” she says. “You’ve sold out. Next thing you know you’ll become a Republican. … Where are the values I raised you with?” Instead of allowing a complete shift in this parent-child relationship, Walls’ mother insists on acting like the competent parent she’s never been. Jeannette manages to come to terms with that without erupting in anger over the unfairness of her childhood and the many ways her mother could’ve helped their whole family. And she leaves a simple comment by one of her step-daughters to stand on it own merit and impact when, after first meeting Jeannette’s mother, the girl notes that while she’s very different, Jeannette’s mother laughs just like Jeannette does.

Another memoir, Robert Rummel-Hudson’s Schuyler’s Monster (due out in paperback in January) explores the ups and downs of parenting a child with special needs. But Hudson’s daughter, Schuyler, isn’t a typical child with special needs. As Hudson puts it, she is “simply wordless” due to a very rare neurological disorder. This book not only chronicles the Hudson family’s early struggles to attain a diagnosis for Schuyler and to learn to help her learn despite her inability to speak, it’s a study of one parent’s life-long challenge to overcome self doubt and to become the “right” parent for his daughter. While Schuyler eventually makes it clear—in her own inspiring, unique way—that her father is doing a pretty terrific job just by being himself, Hudson continues to call his daughter “an enigma, the most daunting one of my life,” the source of his joy and his sorrow. It’s been too long since I’ve visited Rob’s blog, but I suspect in the months since his memoir’s been published he’s discovered Schuyler is the source of more joy than he could’ve ever imagined.

What children teach us! And what books from so many parents and children reveal about the complexities of seemingly straightforward relationships. But nothing’s simple in really good books, is it?


Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks so much for adding to the discussion and also for the great reviews and recommendations. I'm especially excited to read about SCHUYLER'S MONSTER. I found Rob's blog a while back and this sounds like an incredible story. I loved LEAVING ATLANTA (and on a side note, didn't realize that the character, Octavia Butler was an homage to the great author). I enjoyed GLASS CASTLES and I thought it was very well written, but I was left with a nagging feeling that Walls' wasn't opening up enough. I felt like she was a little too detached from her own memoir -- but, this book has sold zillions of copies and has gotten rave reviews, so I may be alone in this assessment.

Great post!

11:42 AM  
Blogger Carleen Brice said...

Oh my. I guess I need to read more of the comments on that post over at Lisa's.

Merry Christmas!!

10:27 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Lisa and Carleen, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to you two ladies, too! Here's to another New Year of good books and lively conversations not only about beloved books and writers, but about issues that hit home and make us want to change the world. Enjoy! K.

7:03 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home