Sunday, February 10, 2013

O Tempora, O Mores

Much of my attention this weekend was absorbed by snowstorm Nemo, the latest in a series of meteorological insults to afflict the northeast. One aspect of this storm that irritated me (other than the fact that we are completely snowed in and are not likely to have clear streets for at least another day) was the complete lack of knowledge of what the name "Nemo" signifies.  I took an informal poll of the people around me -- and I work in a school -- and 99% of those asked identified Nemo as the clownfish in the extremely successful Disney movie.  Wrong answer.  Nemo is, classically speaking, the captain of the Nautilus.  The Nautilus was a fictional submarine that forms the center of the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.  The name Nemo means "no one."  I would have been satisfied if someone had identified Nemo as the opium-ridden law-writer in Bleak House, but no, not even that.  O tempore, O mores.

I promised a fiction post, so here it is.  First, The Impostor Bride, by Nancy Richler.  Scanning the jacket blurb, I initially thought that this was one of the genre of mail-order brides go west, etc., but I was wrong.  The impostor bride in question is Lily Azerov -- or so she says -- and she is a Holocaust survivor who has come to join her husband-to-be, Sol Kramer.  Sol, however, turns her down on sight, leaving his brother to pick up the pieces.  Nathan Kramer marries her and they have a daughter together before she disappears, leaving no trace.  This book gives a fascinating glimpse of post-war Montreal, and is also suspenseful enough to keep you reading until the end.

A Winter's Night, by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, also focuses on an environment utterly changed by war, but otherwise couldn't be more different from the above book.  A translation from the Italian, this book focuses on the Bruni family of the Po Valley.  Three generations and two wars pass before the book's story ends; it's not the easiest reading but it is compelling and full of emotion and complex characters.  The Kashmir Shawl also takes the reader far afield, but to India of the Raj Period.  By Rosie Thomas, this is more light-reading romance fiction than anything else, but it's a great story, if a little convoluted.  It's told in flashback, so it does get a little confusing at times.

If you've ever admired the work of Washington Irving, I would strongly recommend Seven Locks, by Christine Wade.  Set in Revolutionary Period Dutch New York, Wade retells an Irving tale from a completely different standpoint, but manages to keep much of Irving's feeling for setting.  It's an old story, but the author brings a fresh and new feeling to it, inviting in a generation of readers who may have never experienced Irving's work.

I think I hear snowplows outside, so I'm going to go cheer them on.  More next week.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Strictly Nonfic

I've been very fortunate this week -- the library abounded with new, interesting books, and it was a wonderful few days for this voracious reader.  As a consequence, I am going to post twice, and go through the nonfiction selections first.  Those of you who like fiction only can skip this and go back to carving watermelons or posting on facebook, or whatever you do in your rare free time.

Why Have Kids? is the somewhat alarming title of this new book by Jessica Valenti.  A feminist and a parent, Valenti revisits her own initial experiences as a parent in order to explore parenting in the United States as a whole.  I expected a diatribe calculated to create controversy; however, that's not what I found.  Valenti explores how the idea of American parenting doesn't match the reality; how parents (mostly mothers, as she discusses at great length the gender gap in parental care) see child rearing as a job, and feel forced at the same time to looooove the job as the "most important one they'll ever do."  Not so fast, says Valenti.  Seeing parenting as a job, and at the same time being forced by societal expectations to "treasure every moment" really messes with your head.  Parenting is a relationship, not a job, and American moms fool themselves into really believing that they have control over how their children turn out.  From the book: "[Mothers are] important, but not because we are women or because we are biologically related (or not) to our children.  We're important because we're one of the people that love and care for a growing human.  But if we want to take some joy in that experience, we need to let go of the notion that we are the only ones who can do it correctly, and if we are doing it right, it should mean some sort of suffering or tremendous self-sacrifice."  (Italics are my own)  Valenti goes on to write about many different issues of parenting, some sociological, others political. There's a long discussion of the stay-at-home mom phenomenon as well.  For me, the above is what resonates.  Of late, I've seen too many moms make themselves into complete doormats, shmattas, last in line for anything nice that's going around.  Whatever parenting is, it's not showing your kids that you are a pathetic nobody whose life is and should be completely consumed by theirs, and you're happy, so happy to do that!  I can't imagine that healthy relationships are built from a construct like that.

This blog has previously mentioned at least one book dealing with the topic of water; this new book by Jonathan Salzman, called Drinking Water, is restricted to that subtopic alone. Salzman discusses the public attitudes towards potable water, while tracing the history of its availability, ownership, and distribution.  This is written for the layman, and is very engaging.  Especially nice are the end-of-chapter vignettes that focus on a tangential water topic relevant to the chapter just concluded.

Last on the list for today is Coming of Age on Zoloft, by Katherine Sharpe.  Written by a woman who is approximately my age, it explores the development of identity of women (and some men) who were among the first young adults to use antidepressants.  At the time that Sharpe was reaching young adulthood, it was becoming more common to medicate young people who were experiencing issues of mood; often, these men and women would continue to use antidepressants well into adulthood.  Since this period of life is the time most people develop an identity, an idea of who they are as a person, Sharpe asks -- how does the drug they have been taking change that?  Does it make you a different person? Or does it help you become the person you would have been without the depression?  This is a really fascinating book that also delves into the relationship between people and the drugs they come to depend on, love, hate, need, and sometimes reject.