August 19th, 2008

_The Poisonwood Bible_, Barbara Kingsolver (first half only)

This month's book group selection. I read the first 60 pages a few weeks ago and today (meeting night) I got as far as I could, which was about halfway through.

Short form: bat-shit crazy Baptist preacher Nathan Price takes his family (wife and 4 daughters) to the Congo, arriving a few months before the election which results in independence from Belgium and the election of Patrice Lumumba, followed by civil unrest (secession of Katanga), etc. Other people attempt to discourage them from going as missionaries, attempt to get them to leave shortly after Independence, cut off their funds. To no avail; in fact, they stay beyond their one year plan.

The structure of the book is each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the women/girls (mother Oleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, Ruth May), some told contemporary to the events described; some told from the tale's future looking back on the present which is then the past. The language used within each chapter represents, to some degree, each character's capacity for language, altho it varies as to whether one should interpret it as written language or oral. There are some other structural motifs: the things they carried (so we have a parallel to the Vietnam book/movie); sections of chapters marked off as "Genesis", "Exodus", etc.

Major themes include: colonialism straight-up, and also as a metaphor for Nathan colonizing his wife's body/life and the bodies/lives of his daughters; adaptation (or lack thereof, as the case may be); the falsity of language (intentional and otherwise) as compared to other forms of knowledge.

Not to put too fine a point on it: this is _literary_ fiction. Seriously.

I found the book Very Frustrating. It is well-constructed. I didn't have any particular trouble understanding the characters (all too many of them seem plucked from various sections of my extended family). Kingsolver's depiction of Oleanna is particularly on target, right down to her insistence that her decisions, her life are/were her own, that she was not pre-programmed to pick an abuser, that Nathan was fine until the whole head injury, etc. It took me a while to understand _how_ on target this depiction was, because it immediately got my hackles up: why do people who are abused persist in insisting that this abuser/situation is somehow new, startling, unique, unexpected, blah, blah, blah? (As near as I can tell without having actually _read_ Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy got it _exactly backwards_: all unhappy families are the same; happy families are where the diversity is at. Possibly this is The Theme of the novel, and I've just demonstrated, once again, my vast illiteracy.) Honestly, I did not even have any particular Issues with this book.

Name me one good reason I should read this stuff? These people are miserable and reading about them is No Fun At All. I didn't feel like I was learning a lot (altho I could readily identify several things -- minor and significant -- that I learned in the course of reading the first half), or at least not enough to justify putting up with this crew.

Doctor, it hurts when I do this.

Well, stop doing that.

Fair enough.

Example of a minor thing learned: possible mistranslation (is it camel? or coarse yarn) in the rich man-eye of the needle story.

Example of a significant thing learned: If you had major damage before The Age of Reason (neglect, abandonment, abuse, bad juju, etc.), you'll probably (a) repeat and (b) deny that there was any major damage. If you ever notice a problem and work to do something about it, mid-20s would be precocious; 30s more likely. I _should_ have put this together (I had all the pieces, between personal experience and the hilarious Adam Carolla on LoveLine with his impatience with woman callers with little-girl voices who insisted that nothing bad had happened when they were young, but when pressed about the age they were vocalizing, instantly regaled listeners with some horrific tale). But I had not. I was all primed and ready to go with this insight, after Nora Roberts' Three Sisters Trilogy, but Oleanna Price really brought that puppy home.

a sidelight on forgiveness

R. (not my husband or my sister) posted recently about an incident of forgiveness. Someone who had Acted Very Badly to her and others got called on it by R. in yet another amazing example of her willingness to instruct and enlighten, even the least deserving among us. Stunningly enough, the person in question took himself off and Got Help and Insight and Got Better or at least learned how to Act Decently in Public, apologized to R. and acted well enough that she discovered no further hardness in her heart to him, that is to say, she forgave.

To which I say, woohoo! Congratulations. And so forth. I am completely sincere. _Really_.

It reminded me, however, of a conversation I had last weekend with my friend A. We covered a lot of ground, but at one point, I was giving an example of how it is helpful to have insight into oneself so one can catch a not-so-good-impulse before acting on it and so not be a jackass unnecessarily. The example was: someone is "slow" to respond to a phone call/e-mail/etc., then I think, perhaps I offended them, no, they think I am a jackass, they've always thought I'm a jackass, they've told everyone I'm a jackass, everyone knows but me and they are All Laughing At Me. E-mail sent after traveling through this sequence is Rarely Well-Formed and I have, over the years, learned to Just Wait. Also to tell myself, oh, come on, that is Fear of Abandonment and Therefore Entirely the Fault of Your Mother.

To which my friend A. said, Amen, sister and high-fived me.

I was surprised by this, because while I knew A. had some Issues with her family, I also knew she had recently buried her mother after a few years of caring for her in a series of settings ending in a nursing home and A. agonized over this series of events/decisions to this day. I can't see that happening between me and my mother. But while A. did maintain a relationship with her mother to the very end, she had sufficient insight into herself, her mother and their relationship to see that this relationship had in fact done some fairly specific damage.

And A. seemed genuinely pleased at having a little tape to play in her head the next time she got wrapped up in that noxious sequence of fear and anxiety about abandonment and mockery, a little tape that said, It Is All My Mother's Fault.

While surprised, I am completely tickled at the idea that this thing that I do, this absolutely NOT forgiveness thing that I do and that is so effective and satisfying to me, might be useful to someone else.

So. If someone has wronged you, and you have been harmed as a result, this is my gift to you: Feel Free to Blame Them, whenever that scar twinges, or that joint aches, or whatever. Someday, like my friend R., you might no longer feel a need to blame them, and at that point, I celebrate that forgiveness has happened. But in the meantime, don't hesitate to give credit right where it's due. It's freeing. And it's the most effective way I've found to redirect those nasty little impulses.

You don't have to do it out loud or in person (in fact, out loud and/or in person might be a really bad idea) for this little trick to be effective.

one final comment: on mothers screwing up their children

A few weeks ago (and I may well have blogged about this already), I had a conversation with my friend J. about Parents Being Unfair. I think I just said this flat out, in response to a particularly ridiculous tale involving his mother and some photo albums, and another one about his mother and a condo in London. I may have expanded on it, even, saying that when parents go out of their way to treat all their children alike, it's unfair (because, after all, each one is different) and when they treat their children differently it's unfair (not being, after all, the same).

I _fully_ recognize that this is an impossible situation for parents and children alike. I didn't create this reality. I don't approve of this reality. I'm just saying, it's reality.

J. expressed some interest in how I felt about this as a parent. I said, I'm doing the best I can and I don't expect forgiveness, justification, rationalization or anything else for me on the part of my child or children. I may have further added that something along the lines that it's one thing to mess with someone; it's a whole lot worse to insist that they like it or approve of it.

Decades hence, when my children are going, Mama, you were a _wreck_ and you really did a number on us, my primary aspiration is to be able to say, Sugarplum, I know it. And I'm sorry for it. My one hope is that you will do better by yours when you have them.

I hope to be very entertained by what specifics turn out to be identified as the Real Problem -- and what will in that age be proposed as an alternative.

Nora Roberts, Irish Trilogy

_Jewels of the Sun_

In which the oldest Gallagher sibling, Aidan, meets Jude from Chicago who is renting the cottage. She has abruptly quit her job as a psychology professor and taken six months off in Ireland to visit her roots. It's a romance novel, so she'll find love. It's La Nora, so she'll work through her Issues from the Past (a very brief starter marriage, a poor career choice and a whole lotta insecurity) and Develop Close Friendships with the women who will be romantic leads in the rest of the trilogy.

Did I mention the ghost in the cottage? The fairy prince? No? Gosh. Dunno how that happened. I probably didn't mention the big ole diamond, either, hunh?

I picked up this trilogy because after reading the Three Sister Island books, I was damn certain the previous La Nora books I'd read had a whole lot in common. And these were those books. I don't know if I read the entire trilogy the first time around, or just entry three. I think just entry three.

_Tears of the Moon_

In which the second Gallagher boy, Shawn, dreamer, composer and lyricist, is confronted by his lifelong friend Brenna (carpenter and jack of all trades). Perhaps I should say, propositioned. He is quite surprised and handles it poorly. A business opportunity associated with the bar appears in this middle entry, and Brenna figures out a way to coerce Shawn into marketing his music. Sort of.

I refuse to say anything further about Gwen or Carrick, much less his flying horse. Please. I will make passing mention of the Big Ole Pearl.

_Heart of the Sea_

In which the third Gallagher child, Darcy, and the business opportunity associated with the bar, dance around each other in a really silly way. There's a trip to London that is cut short (and given it was only a weekend, that's saying something; La Nora _really_ doesn't like separating the couple from the support network). There's a trip to New York that doesn't happen. And there is a precipitous birth that is handled in a so-so way (as in, people sort of forget about the placenta. Nice. No risk of bleeding involved in that, right?).

Needless to say, once Darcy and Trevor declare their undying love, or some close simulation thereof, Gwen and Carrick are seen on that flying horse that I really cannot have anything more to do with.

ETA: There's a sapphire. Ignore it. I was planning on doing so.

Look. It's a Nora Roberts trilogy. It's fun. Don't ask for anything more complicated and it'll all turn out just fine.