Monday, March 25, 2013

On Friendship

On Friendship – Michel de Montaigne

Hmm, I don’t particularly feel up to reviewing this one so I’ll be brief. “On Friendship” is a collection of essays from Montaigne including “On Friendship,” “That it is Madness to Judge the True and False From Our Own Capacities,” “On the Art of Conversation,” “On Idleness,” “On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children,” “On Moderation,” and “That we Should Not be Deemed Happy Till After Our Death.” Quite a range of topics, and he presents rather interesting arguments in each essay. His language is rather dense (these were all written in the 1500s), so it requires more than average (meaning, semi-distracted) effort to focus on what he is saying, but he does make some witty remarks and come to some astute conclusions. More often, though, he makes blatantly sexist and elitist comments about the abilities of different people, but don’t dismiss his arguments outright. Half the enjoyment of reading Montaigne’s essays came from thoughtfully refuting his points. In my head, of course. Reading his essays produces a conversation through active engagement with ideas in the text, which is exactly what books are supposed to do. So maybe don’t read the entire thing in one sitting, but it’s worth reading the essays and considering what he has to say. Or at least the shorter ones.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Beet Queen

The Beet Queen – Louise Erdrich

At the height of the Great Depression, Adelaide cannot afford to take care of her children. After selling everything she owns and sacrificing everything of meaning, she gives up, hops a plane, and flies away. Thrust suddenly into leading a family, young Mary makes a plan to ride a train to their aunt’s house, who will surely solve all their problems. But before they can reach their aunt’s house, the three children are separated. Karl jumps right back into the boxcar and spends his life in motion, while Mary grows a stubbornness that roots her to Argus, North Dakota for the rest of her life, and the baby brother lives apart from the rest of them, only to enter their lives again at rare intervals. Desperate to find a home, Mary attaches herself to her aunt’s family by becoming necessary to their existence. She takes over her uncle’s butcher shop when they have to move south, constantly annoys her cousin Sita, and forces her way into a lifelong friendship with Celestine. Meanwhile, Karl floats around, appearing at random intervals to disrupt life. He has a child with Celestine, Dot, who pulls everyone else together by pushing them away equally. In a life of uncertainty, sometimes the only thing that can be counted on is change.

“The Beet Queen” follows a cast of characters over more than 40 years as they grow from children who struggle with finding a place in the world into adults who struggle with finding a place in the world. Haunted by their past relationships and abandonments, each character adopts a different coping mechanism, which defines how they approach new relationships. Whether through flight, immobility, passive acceptance, or general disregard, each character seeks to build substantial relationships and establish a sense of home. The characters represent different perspectives on what home means, how to build a home, and how other people in life relate to one’s sense of home. The setting alternately reinforces and juxtaposes the importance of home. A tiny little town in North Dakota brings to mind a small, close community that is often associated with “home,” but it ironically serves as the nexus of life for so many characters in motion. Erdrich expertly creates a world where people, places, stability, and motion all question what it means to belong.

Admittedly, I think “The Beet Queen” is a bit of a bland novel. A tiny town in North Dakota that struggles to catch up as the rest of the world modernizes? Who cares? But upon closer inspection of the characters, their actions, and what motivates their lives, the story really comes to life. I love how Erdrich plays with the sense of home, how people and relationships relate to our sense of home, and how movement impacts or, sometimes, defines life. No, this isn’t a ground-breaking, soul-shattering novel, but it is beautifully crafted to make you reconsider how we relate to the world. It is simple, even understated, and well worth the read.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook - Matthew Quick

Pat Peoples believes in silver linings, and he is waiting for the movie of his life to come to its happy ending. Despite spending the past few years in "the bad place" with no memory of what happened to put him there, he believes he will be happily reunited with his wife if only he can prove that he is now a better person. To prove he is a better person, he spends all day working out, all night reading, and puts all his effort into being kind instead of being right. With the support of his friends and family, he manages to make a smooth transition out of “the bad place,” but his encounters with Tiffany, the sister of a friend, only confuse him. While Pat focuses all his efforts on reuniting with his ex-wife, Tiffany silently challenges all his notions of how the world works. She pushes him out of his comfort zone, provokes him into emotional outbursts (occasionally showing her own dark side), and supports him through his all-too-familiar struggles to function in daily life. As Pat strives tirelessly for his prized “silver lining,” he learns that silver linings, if they exist at all, may not be permanent, cannot be pre-determined, and are beyond personal control.

“Silver Linings Playbook” documents the struggles of an emotionally unstable man trying to live a normal life. He is alternately strong and fragile, his emotional balance delicately dangling between unflagging optimism and uncontrollable rage. In a world of uncertainty, the only routines he knows are his morning and evening pills, and his daily marathon of working out. Having missed the past few years of life, he desperately seeks something solid to hold on to, but must maintain a façade of calm because nobody else seems fazed by the information that astounds him on regular basis. While his friends and family are supportive of him as he attempts to return to the real world, they also barrage him with their own expectations of life and how he is supposed to behave, making his transition more complicated and burying his expectations beneath those of his friends and family. Written as a collection of journal entries to serve as his both his memoir and proof that he is improving his life, “Silver Linings Playbook” documents the naïveté of happy endings, but also shows that endings only bring more beginnings.

I absolutely loved the "Silver Linings Playbook" movie, and I think this is the first time I would pick the movie over the book (I'm going to blame this on the fact that I saw the movie first). The book is fairly simply written since it is written to sound like a journal. While this is good for embracing the child-like innocence/emerging into new adulthood that the main character has, I felt it wasn't quite substantial enough. It is a quick read, and very entertaining, but there is a lot of potential to expand the novel, add depth to characters and situations, and explore how mental illness manifests in the 21st century and how others react to that. I did like how the novel was a bit ambiguous about the reality of silver linings - that ending was a bit more satisfying than the hollywood ending the movie has. This was a really fun book, but if you absolutely had to pick one or the other, I would go with the move.