Friday, March 27, 2009

Welcome to the Departure Lounge, by Meg Federico--a review

I often didn't know whether to laugh or cry while reading Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother, by Meg Federico, so I ended up doing some of both. This is a wonderfully honest memoir of Federico's "adventures in mothering mother" (as the subtitle puts it) during her mother's final decline. It is by turns tragic and funny, and it should probably be on the required reading list for anyone dealing with the care of an aging parent.

Federico's 81-year-old mother Addie, a patrician New Jersey matron, lives a topsy-turvy life with her volatile new husband Walter. Walter has Alzheimer's, and Addie is frail and nearly blind, and despite various spills and alcohol-fueled thrills, Addie and Walter refuse to stay put in a nursing home. So Federico and Walter's daughter Cathy set up a precarious home-care situation for Addie and Walter, helped out by a hodge-podge of hired health-care workers, and overseen part-time by Federico, her brother, and Cathy. And it is this crazy situation at home that comes to be known as the Departure Lounge.

So much of what goes on in the Departure Lounge is absolutely appalling, but Federico is able to see the humor in every situation, and writes with poignancy and warmth about the good, the bad, and the ugly of elder care. She also writes with insight about how becoming her mother's caregiver transformed their very complicated parent-child relationship.

This relationship was fascinating to me because of its complications. Addie was a rich, mid-20th century wife and mother who raised children the way upper-middle class WASPs raised them then--with lots of criticism, judgement, and rules, without listening to them, and even tying them to the bed at night if they got up and inconvenienced you with night wanderings. The stories of how Federico's mother treated her were horrifying to me from today's perspective, but it was also interesting to see how Federico came to terms with her mother's rotten parenting style, and how she came to, if not forgive her, at least feel she more fully understood her mother and where she came from.

That the author could write about some of this heartbreaking stuff with such grace and wit was why I would recommend the book. It's a bittersweet memoir, one with important lessons for us all.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

30 Poets/30 Days

My friend Greg over at Gotta Book is doing a really great thing for National Poetry Month. He's hosting something called 30 Poets/30 Days, a celebration of children's poetry. Every day in April, he will be posting a previously unpublished poem by a different poet. I'm thrilled to have this new way to celebrate National Poetry Month!

Some really wonderful poets are participating. Here's a list, in alphabetical order:

Arnold Adoff, Jaime Adoff, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Douglas Florian, Betsy Franco, Kristine O'Connell George, Charles Ghigna, Nikki Giovanni, Joan Bransfield Graham, Nikki Grimes, Mary Ann Hoberman, Lee Bennett Hopkins, X. J. Kennedy, Julie Larios, J. Patrick Lewis, Pat Mora, Kenn Nesbitt, Linda Sue Park, Ann Whitford Paul, Gregory K. Pincus, Jack Prelutsky, Adam Rex, Jon Scieszka, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, April Halprin Wayland, Janet Wong, and Jane Yolen.

One of my favorite poets, Jack Prelutsky (former Children's Poet Laureate), kicks the whole thing off on April 1 with a new poem, "A Little Poem for Poetry Month".

Sounds like just the thing for poetry month!

Monday, March 23, 2009

You Know It's Good When... stay up way past your bedtime reading, even when you know you have to get up at 6 a.m. the next morning to get your kid to the school bus on time.

That was me last night, finally cracking open something that's been on my list forever: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood. Yes, I am behind the curve on this one. But I'm so glad I finally got around to this book, because once I opened it I was completely sucked in. I didn't even look at the clock when I shut off the light last night, because I didn't want to calculate how few hours of sleep I'd be getting...

After I get my third child off to school, I think it's time for a nap!

I know you all have had this experience--reading far too long into the night because you just had to find out what happened next. Do you remember any of the books that you just couldn't put down, no matter how late it got?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Crossed Wires, by Rosy Thornton--a review

I was excited to receive a copy of Rosy Thornton's latest novel, Crossed Wires, before its debut in the United States in April. Last year I read her earlier book, Hearts and Minds, which I really enjoyed, so I was very much looking forward to this one.

In Crossed Wires, single mother Mina works the phones at an insurance company in Sheffield. It is while answering the phone at work that Mina first comes into contact with Cambridge lecturer Peter, who calls in to report an accident he's had in his Land Rover, hitting a tree while trying to avoid killing a cat. Peter is also a single father, a widower raising twin girls on his own. Peter and Mina are separated by geography, and they come from different walks of life, but they find a connection, and develop a relationship over the phone, bonding over the problems they both have raising children on their own.

It's hard to put this novel into a category. It seems that Ms. Thornton's publishers want her work to be firmly in the romance category, considering the covers that end up on her books. But Ms. Thornton writes romances in the same way that Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, or Edith Wharton wrote romance--it is as much social commentary and pyschological portraiture as it is the story of boy meets girl.

In this book, Ms. Thornton has created endearing characters with real problems, people you can really root for. I love that the sympathy Peter and Mina have with each other develops in spite of their differences, and that it helps each of them through tough times when they are misunderstood by those around them. Thornton's main characters are often put upon, or taken advantage of by family and friends, and you really just want them to find a little well-deserved happiness. That is the driving force of the narrative, what keeps me turning the pages. But I find I am really reading the book not to find out what happens, but to get to know the characters better.

The characters here are beautifully drawn. Peter and Mina are both outsiders, in a way; Peter as a widower raising two daughters, and Mina as a single mother who also has to referee the relationship between her prickly mother and her wayward sister. And as outsiders, they are happier when they find each other. The minor characters are really well done, too. I love Peter's friends, the gay neighbor couple, who babysit and offer comfort when needed, and I think Mina's mother is wonderfully brassy and difficult.

I found this book, with its endearing and colorful characters, and its attention to detail, very emotionally satisfying. I also found the author's earlier book, Hearts and Minds, to be similar--comforting, satisfying, warm and accessible, yet with a sharp sense of humor and a keen eye for the details of her characters' worlds. I was happy when Crossed Wires turned out to be satisfying, too--maybe even more so, as I thought the story was better realized. And I'll be happy to enter Rosy Thornton's world again when she writes another book.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Reading update and influential writers meme

I have been just terrible about posting lately, mostly because life with three kids is kinda busy. But, strangely enough, I have less concrete reasons for not posting than I did a few weeks ago. Somehow I managed to post fairly regularly while each member of my family fell ill with a nasty virus that really knocked us flat. Three out of five of us got secondary infections. My voice is still a little husky, three weeks later, after the laryngitis and sinus thing are finally gone. But last week everyone was fairly healthy, and I couldn't manage to post a darn thing.

However, I did manage to read quite a bit. I finished several books, including The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich, Crossed Wires, by Rosy Thornton, The Last Days of Dogtown, by Anita Diamant, and Welcome to the Departure Lounge, by Meg Federico.  Maybe mentioning these books will motivate me to write some reviews...

And Dorothy had a great meme up, so I decided to do it, too.  Here are the instructions:
“Name 25 writers who have influenced you. These are not necessarily your favorite writers or those you most admire, but writers who have influenced you. Then you tag 25 people.”

I'm skipping the tagging part, but please join in if you are so moved--I'd love to see your list!  Here's mine:

1.  Frances Hodgson Burnett
2.  Madeleine L'Engle
3.  Laura Ingalls Wilder
4.  L. M. Montgomery
5.  Charles Dickens
6.  Harper Lee
7.  Charlotte Bronte
8.  Jane Austen
9.  Louisa May Alcott
10.  George Eliot
11.  Leo Tolstoy
12.  Virginia Woolf
13.  Flannery O'Connor
14.  John Irving
15.  E. B. White
16.  E. M. Forster
17.  Agatha Christie
18.  Edith Wharton
19.  Raymond Carver
20.  Wallace Stegner
21.  Laurie Colwin
22.  Annie Dillard
23.  Nadine Gordimer
24.  Julian Barnes
25.  Robert Frost

I just typed out these authors as quickly as I could think of them. They are not quite in the chronological order of my life, but I did start with influences on my childhood.  I notice my list is weighted heavily toward my childhood reading, and the reading of my early adulthood. I guess I feel I was more "influenced" by writers then. And as I look at it now, I am pleasantly surprised by the number of women on this list. But only one poet. Now that's just sad.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson--a review

About a million years ago, I read Kate Atkinson’s novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and I was really taken with her prose style. It was the story of an ordinary English family, dealing dysfunctionally with what seemed to me to be an extraordinary amount of tragedy. I loved the characters, and I loved the dark sense of humor Atkinson displayed.

After that I was eager to read Case Histories, which I didn’t know was a mystery before I read it. It surprised me, because I didn’t think of Atkinson as a mystery writer, but it was a pleasant surprise. I don’t usually read mysteries, so I’m not sure how it stacks up against other mysteries, but I enjoyed it. It was character-driven, thoughtful, dark and really well-written. And I knew I would continue to follow private investigator Jackson Brodie, which I did through the next novel, One Good Turn. I guess you could say that Atkinson writes literary mysteries, and I’m finding it’s a genre I like.

When Will There Be Good News? is the third novel featuring Jackson Brodie, an ex-cop who now works as a P.I., and it again brings Brodie in contact with his former love interest, police detective Louise Monroe. Thirty years ago Joanna Mason was the only survivor of a brutal knife attack that killed her mother and siblings. Now Joanna is a doctor, married and a new mother. And she has hired 16-year-old Regina “Reggie” Chase as a nanny—which is a good thing, as when Joanna goes missing, Reggie is the only one who believes she’s been kidnapped. After Reggie saves Jackson Brodie from death in a terrible train crash, she enlists him to help her find the missing Joanna. Both Reggie and Jackson spar with detective Louise Monroe, and work parallel to her, as they unravel the mystery of Joanna’s disappearance.

Some people have criticized the novel for its complicated plot, and the coincidences that hold this plot together, but I didn’t mind these things at all. In fact, I feel that Atkinson is very skillful in her plotting, and has woven the disparate strands together so well that I didn’t mind any leaps I had to make to believe them. Atkinson also resists giving neat motives for her criminal characters, or real reasons for crimes. I love this, because I don’t think real crime is ever that neat. And instead of neat motives, Atkinson provides real insight into all her characters, and gives them wonderful flaws and foibles, so that you believe what they do.

But what really keeps me coming back for Atkinson’s crime novels is her dark sense of humor and her sheer talent. She is a really good writer. I love the novel’s cleverness, and I appreciate its darkness.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sunday picnic and reading

While the east coast is being pounded by a record-breaking snowstorm, we've had a few beautiful days out here in Southern California. Yesterday (Sunday) my family and I went to Descanso Gardens, where they are having their annual camellia show, and had a picnic with friends in 80 degree sunshine. Today it looks like showers, but temps are nice at 69. This is a picture of a flowering tree I took yesterday in the Japanese garden at Descanso.

I actually managed to do some reading on Sunday, but didn't have enough time to post for the Sunday Salon. I madly dashed through something like a third of Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves. I'm reading it for my book group, which meets this Wednesday night--so I've got to finish, or I owe $5.

This is the first book I've paid money to download to my Kindle. I'm enjoying the writing very much. It is much like earlier books of Erdrich's that I've read. The subject matter is life on and off the reservation in North Dakota, and the novel's story spans many generations of several families in the area. In some ways it's hard to follow the tangle of relationships between all the characters, but I've realized that you just have to let go and let the story wash over you instead. Erdrich is a master storyteller, and reading the book feels like listening to a spinner of tales who keeps you mesmerized with her voice. Can't wait to talk about this one in my book group!

As for reading on the Kindle, I'm getting used to it. Stefanie at So Many Books just got a Kindle 2, and wrote a good post on how she's finding it. I'm liking the actual reading experience, but I haven't figured out all the features yet. I've bookmarked several things I want to go back to in the novel's text, but haven't revisited my bookmarks yet, so I don't know how useful they will be. However, I foresee the Kindle being great for when I'm traveling--I think that is where it will shine.