The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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The Corrections, at its fundamental level, serves up a dish of reality harshly truthful and bitingly accurate. Franzen’s depiction of the Lamberts, each in his or her own grossly human element, is convicting at best, condemning at worst.

No sympathetic characters present themselves at the beginning of the novel. As we are introduced to the Lamberts—Alfred, Enid, Gary, Chip, and Denise—we learn only the baser parts of their characters, their flaws, their shortcomings, their weaknesses, their failures. We learn that Alfred was less than a perfect father; Enid is a shrill, judgmental, and meddling mother; Gary is a depressed father and husband with a chip on his shoulder; Chip is the chip on Gary’s shoulder, the brother to whom Gary can’t measure up even though Chip himself is a less-than-perfect intellectual has-been whose life has no direction; and Denise is a sexually confused girl of privilege whose choices are made only in consideration of how shocking they might be to her family, if her family ever found them out.

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Of course, there are secondary characters. No novel would be complete without them, but these characters exist merely to amplify the discontent that seems all but genetic in the Lambert family unit, acting either as foils or reinforcements for their faulty personalities.

Franzen’s prose is unique in that it is both clear and poetic. He has a way of weaving story elements together here that, by the end, leaves his readers with a sense of completion and fulfillment, a sense that even if the story was, at times, too real, we still got the whole of it. The Corrections doesn’t just tell a story; it explains how the Lamberts arrived at their present circumstances without the reader realizing what’s happening. It explains, through Alfred’s degeneration, that there is an age at which we will eventually realize that it is too late for corrections.

Terminal Notes: By the end of the novel, each of the Lamberts has become a sympathetic character. We may not like them, but we understand them, which seems to be the book’s overarching. Sure, there are issues of class, sexuality, marriage, and ethics. The Corrections is nothing if not burgeoning with thematic material, and readers will find plenty of book club discussion fodder.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman.

“Be careful of choosing what you’re proud of,” warns Katey Kontent, the protagonist of this 1930s-era fiction, “because the world has every intention of using it against you.” In her chronicle of Katey’s experiences in 1938, Amore Towles weaves an intricate web of clever deception, wicked circumstances, and simultaneous self-preservation and discovery.

Katey is a sharp, independent female with a realistic understanding of the world in which she lives and a fierce loyalty to her sense of self. On New Year’s Eve 1938, she and her friend Eve encounter a well-to-do banker sort in a low-rent bar in New York City. For awhile, the three are inseparable, and Katey allows herself to develop feelings for Tinker, the banker, who willingly allows himself to develop feelings for her as well. But when tragedy strikes in the form of a car accident, the relationship dynamics change, and Katey is forced to suppress her feelings. Lack of family and true personal ties (outside her ties to Eve, that is) leaves her to find solace within herself.

Over the course of the year, Katey spends her time trying to avoid Eve and Tinker, and for the most part, she is nearly successful. She manages to occupy her time developing her career and reading and trying on new personas to see whether they fit. When she finally makes her way back to Tinker, her return serves no other purpose than to offer closure to both characters after which they both seek themselves in a larger world than either had ever previously considered.

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The title, Rules of Civility, is more of an indictment of such rules. Anne Granden, Tinker Grey, and Eve herself suggest that the rules of civility aren’t really rules at all. Or, in any case, if their behavior constitutes civility, we might all be better off without it, a fact Katey seems always to have known.

The audiobook incarnation of this book is every bit as moving as an actual physical reading of the book could have been. Narrator Rebecca Lowman (who also narrates Anthropology of an American Girl) is particularly gifted at interpreting nuances and expressing them in a way that seems inherent to the characters. Her reading provides a depth and clarity not always present in audiobooks and turns the experience of listening into a more meaningful one.

Terminal Notes: While love is indeed thwarted in a superficial way here, it is fully realized in a more significant way. Tinker and Katey love each other. They did from the very beginning. Although the outcome of their love is not what we might have hoped for, not what we might have expected, it proves to be the very definition of complete, the definition, as it were, of civility.

 

Happily Ever After: Fate vs. Fight

SoulmatesFlower2With Valentine’s Day upon us again, I can’t help thinking (as many others have, I’m sure) about the concept of a soulmate. I stumbled across a fascinating little story, one I’d heard before but admittedly forgot, and I was reminded that this whole idea of a soulmate, someone who was meant to be our other half, has been around for a really long time. We perpetuate the idea. We struggle with it, grapple with it, confirm it, and deny it. For better or for worse, the concept seems to be inescapable. But is there any substance? Is there anything that indicates truth in the idea that there is one absolutely perfect match for everyone on this planet and that only that one match can fulfill the ideal? Being the bibliophile that I am, I decided to turn to some of Literature’s greatest loves to ferret out the answer.

What I found is that great loves of literature can be divided into two camps: those who are destined for each other and those who are compatible and find love through commitment and endurance. Within those camps, particularly within the camp of the destined, lovers can be divided into two further camps: tragic and comic. Take a look:

Comic Soulmates: 

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. While they inarguably get off to a rough start, their derision for each other in the beginning serves as the perfect “meet cute” in retrospect. By the end of the book, both characters are equally guilty of being both proud and prejudiced, and readers seem to find the two inextricably linked. Further, we are often confounded to think of a better match for either character, suggesting that, despite some turbulence in its making, their relationship is one in which each component improves the other.

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. What it lacks in age, Ron’s and Hermione’s relationship demonstrates, once again, that opposites can and do attract. Ron and Hermione struggle with the idea that they are meant to be together. Still, readers can see that one is meant for the other in the same way that toast is meant for jam, if you’ll pardon the cliché. They are as two sides of the same coin, intellect united with passion and loyalty. Destiny could do far worse.

That’s it. Those are the ones I could most readily describe as being in any way both divinely ordained and destined for happiness.

Tragic Soulmates:

Heathcliff and Cathy. If ever a relationship was doomed to ultimate disaster, it is theirs. Neither person is very likable. Neither garners much in the way of sympathy. Neither seems an appropriate match for anyone with even a shred of empathy. In fact, both seek to raise hell for anyone willing to give them a chance. But, as Cathy suggests, they are two people cut from the same cloth. “He’s more myself than I am,” she says. “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Apparently that cloth was found in the remnants bin. In any case, they end up together only in a geographical sense and only because Heathcliff has the gall to insinuate his own grave in between Cathy’s and Edgar’s.

Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. Proof positive that in this world, even love has a glass ceiling. Gatsby becomes the man he thinks Daisy wants him to be, the man who, for all intents and purposes, she has married. But the ugly truth does eventually rear its well-barbered, immaculately groomed, heir-apparent head, and shatters the illusion that love really can conquer all. The only thing love conquers in The Great Gatsby is a life of physical poverty, which proves not to be so very different from emotional poverty. The results can still be the same.

Romeo and Juliet. The ultimate paradigm of soulmates destined to fail, Romeo and Juliet are often given more credit than they are due. Their behaviors are largely the result of adolescent impatience and parental negligence, yet we are always quick to turn to them as a great example of two people fated to find each other. What we can really stand to learn from Romeo and Juliet is that sometimes we become our own stumbling blocks because of good intentions. Love does, after all, cover a multitude of sins. Even our own.

Conclusion: In Literature, it seems, happy soulmates are few and far between. We have some solid examples to rely on when we’re feeling hopeful. But the proportion of happy lovers to ill-fated ones seems unquestionably unbalanced.

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The Rest

To discredit the other relationships, the ones built on a foundation of commitment and loyalty and, of course, love, would be to accept that there is only one perfect scenario out there for everyone. Literature constantly proves that this isn’t the case. For example:

Amy and Laurie. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Amy is not Laurie’s first choice. In fact, she is only a child while he’s experiencing his burgeoning adolescence, allowing his feelings for Jo to amplify. When he is rejected by Jo, Laurie does the requisite self-pity wallow, travels to Europe, and finds Amy, who has blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Were they destined to be together? Who knows? The important thing is that Laurie worked hard to improve himself for Amy. There was no aligning of the stars. Amy did not “just know” Laurie was the one. But they found each other. And they were happy together, so that’s something.

William Dobbin and Amelia Sedley. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair encompasses all manner of personality types, each with different relationship needs. Among these personalities we find Amelia, sweet, tender-hearted, all-trusting Amelia, who at the beginning of the book is convinced she will marry Captain Osbourne, whose character is not altogether savory. After his death in battle, Amelia is pursued by Captain Dobbin. Ardently, but respectfully, pursued. He cares for her and she for him, although not in the way he might wish. That kind of care and devotion doesn’t come about until the very end of the novel when Dobbin  marries Amelia, albeit in a less infatuated state.

Hermia/Helena and Demetrius/Lysander. The very definition of complicated, the relationships in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream tangle and untangle themselves in rapid succession. At the beginning of the play, Hermia is hellbent on marrying Lysander, despite her father’s wish that she marry Demetrius. Helena, on the other hand, wants nothing but Demetrius. By the end of the play, each has managed to shake off Puck’s trickery (with the help of Puck himself, no less), and each girl has her guy. The important thing to remember here is that it wasn’t easy. Arriving at the ultimate conclusion took time, frustration, tears, and patience, a realistic portrayal of love in an otherwise fantastic world.

Conclusion: While none of these lists is conclusive (I’m fully aware the Literature offers up many contradictions and confirmations on the subject), certain patterns seem unavoidable. Soulmates, it would seem, fare only marginally well, while those who are persistent seem to ultimately find some version of happiness.

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Maybe there are soulmates out there, people who are suited only for one other person. And maybe those people will be lucky enough to find each other. But for the rest of us, it’s good to know that happiness in love is still attainable. Who knows? Maybe the commitment and the compromise and the learning and the growing make the experience of being in love that much more intense. Maybe this whole love thing is a lot simpler than we thought. And maybe, just maybe, we can all live happily ever after.

 

Why I’m a Horrible Blogger

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I started blogging four years ago for no other reason than to get my work out there. I liked to write. People had told me I was reasonably good at it. At boredom’s gentle prodding, I developed my first blog. I can’t even remember what I used to call it. At the time, I had only been on Facebook for two years, I barely knew what Twitter was, and Pinterest, at least in my world, wasn’t even a thing yet. There was no “promotion” of posts, no partnerships to negotiate, no real “sharing” to speak of, at least not in the sense that we “share” now.

When the idea for Just Joywriting came to me, I quickly abandoned the old blog (title and content–it all had to go), and I set about reformulating my online persona. I had what I thought was a great new name. The design was, at the time, unique and reflective of my personality. I was getting two or three readers a day. On the surface, I should have been thrilled. But I couldn’t help thinking something was off. The Internet was supposed to be a great tool for reaching readers, a great way to engage in a “virtual community.” I had friends with fashion blogs who were making friends everyday. Somehow people just found them and engaged with them. That’s what I want, I thought. Where are my readers?

At the time I thought that maybe it had something to do with my writing. It just wasn’t that good (maybe it isn’t–maybe I am just trying to rationalize here). I could take it. At least I had been brave and put something out there, right? Then I started really paying attention to these other blogs. I started looking at what they did that I wasn’t doing. The experience was enlightening. From studying and reviewing other successful blogs, I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s not the graphic design of my blog or the writing or the name. Maybe I’m just a bad blogger. Here are some possible reasons:

1. Voluntary self-promotion. The blogs I read seemed to offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the people who wrote them. There were children’s names, pet names, husbands’/wives’ names. There were details about professions and weekend hobbies, pictures from vacations and cozy dinners. I wasn’t offering any of that. Somehow I thought that my blog could be about the writing, the writing, and only the writing. Sure, it was based on things I observed while enjoying weekend hobbies, family vacations, and cozy dinners for two, but my life and the details thereof remained largely removed.

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2. Visual content. I started noticing pictures for the first time as I was studying what made some of my favorite blogs tick. They had not just pictures, but good pictures. The kind that make you want to be wherever they are. The kind that make you wish you were doing or wearing or having whatever the subject was doing or wearing or having. I had nothing of the sort. In fact, I thought I was doing quite well for myself when I included a thumbnail picture of the book I was currently attempting to review. The pictures, though, are what drew me to some of my faves in the first place. Apparently, that’s how to catch and keep a reader’s attention. Part of it anyway.

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3. An aptitude for social media. My favorite bloggers are invested in social media. They use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram and seem well versed in each, using them deliberately based on the post’s content. Fashion posts lend themselves really well to Instagram and Pinterest, as do design and style posts. Twitter allows for daily glimpses into their everyday experiences and how they encounter the subjects and ideas for their blogs. So it would seem. The thing is: I’ve never been a big social media fan. I didn’t necessarily want people to know that much about me. More than that, though, I just didn’t think anyone would care. I’ve given it a good hard try, but I can’t help feeling phony when I post on Twitter, and my Facebook feed, well, you could say it’s a bit neglected. I tried Instagram, but I found myself focusing on searching for subjects and settings rather than enjoying the subjects and settings themselves. It’s an effort I continue to make, though, this social media stuff. I want to connect with people (otherwise I wouldn’t bother with any of this), but the introvert in me wants to cower in the corner at the thought of so much interaction, virtual or otherwise.

4. Platform, Platform, Platform. I’m drawn to book blogs and fashion blogs. I read them everyday, with my mid-morning coffee and biscotti. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if somewhere out there someone else was having their midmorning coffee and reading my blog, my…what kind of blog exactly? When I first started blogging, I had no platform, and I continued that way for awhile. Over the years, I’ve played with the concept of platform, but I’ve never felt truly cemented to one. In my most recent overhauling frenzy, I’ve pulled the DIY section of the blog to focus specifically on reading, writing, and living, as these are the things I find myself doing most frequently. I’ve learned that by doing this I’ve not only given my blog more focus, but I’ve given myself more focus as well. When I think of a potential blog topic, I am now forced to ask myself under which category this topic would potentially fall. If I can’t logically justify its place, I don’t include it. This one, I feel, I’m getting better at.

I’m including a list of blogs I read regularly here. Take one look at any of them, and you will see exactly what I’m talking about. I still have a lot to learn. Obviously. The important thing is that it’s gotten better, this whole blogging experience. If growth is the point, if the process of improving is more important than the improvement itself, then I can honestly say I’m doing pretty well for myself here in my corner of the web.

Carrie Bradshaw Lied

Book Riot

Cupcakes and Cashmere

Could I Have That?

That’s What She Read

A Beautiful Mess

Life Abundant

Nerdy Book Club

Brooklyn Blonde

Poor Little It Girl

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

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The characters in Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us represent a number of different facets of a woman’s life, embodying everything from maternal love and disappointment to loyal friendship and betrayal. In a place and time in which caste and money are the truly governing factors of life, Bhima’s story, along with the stories of Sera and Maya, serves to expose the arbitrary nature of life, the universe, and our place in it.

While the cast is largely dominated by women, the men in the novel play a significant, if secondary, role in the story’s pacing. They do not fare well in the story. There are no male victors, no heroes, to rescue the damsels who are, in various ways, all in states of distress. In fact, most of the men are posthumous participants, active only in the women’s memories. Based on their characters, that’s the best place for them, as they tend to represent the most negatives parts of human nature.

Socioeconomic class acts as the governing force in this novel, keeping everyone where he or she is supposed to be in terms of behavior and interaction. While some characters, like Dinaz, rage against it, others, like Sera, seem to find it comforting that such a force exists to help them make sense of life and social interaction.

Maternity is also placed under the literary microscope here, and Umrigar examines even the harshest of maternal realities. Bhima’s relationship with Maya is troubled for the majority of the novel, but only because the emotions in which that relationship is rooted are so fierce. Bhima both hates and loves Maya, often simultaneously, because she is so committed to providing Maya with the opportunities requisite for a better life, one not mired in deceit, betrayal, and poverty. The flip side of that coin, however, is the relationship between Dinaz and Sera. Their relationship examines the effects of a mother’s relying too heavily on her children as the sole source of her happiness. In the end, that reliance only serves to reinforce earlier lies and bolster the boundaries that money and class so arbitrarily create.

Terminal Notes: Readers will find in The Space Between Us a raw examination of what life can do to those who are often undeserving of its wrath. The characters are, more often than not, the victims of circumstances beyond their own control, and the question then becomes whether they are better off by being blissfully ignorant, as in the case of Dinaz, or irreversibly aware, like Bhima.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

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Audiobook narrated by Lorna Raver

Women in history have gotten up to some pretty amazing things, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh is no different. She was educated, brave, daring, worthy of attention in her own right. But her achievements have all but fallen by the wayside, eclipsed by the shadow of her larger-than-life husband. His achievements are the ones we remember, the ones we are taught in school. In The Aviator’s Wife, however, Melanie Benjamin seeks to give voice to a woman whose guts and gumption not even her husband could match.

Benjamin’s work is one of historical fiction, largely biographical but fictionally personal. She seeks to lend a new perspective to the story of Charles Lindbergh, or “Lucky Lindy” as he is so often called. We see, through Anne’s eyes, a new perspective on the events of their lives, what it was like to be an early celebrity always in the spotlight, what it was like to have a child kidnapped and to have the whole experience chronicled by American media, what it was like to be married to someone who is emotionally unavailable. In some respects, these experiences are unfamiliar. Most of us will never know what it’s like to have the spotlight ever on us, watching every move, marking every fault and bad decision. In other respects, though, Anne’s story is one that’s been echoed by women across generations. She struggles with who she is (mother, wife, aviatrix, writer, lover) and who she wants to be. She questions whether she can wear so many hats all at once, whether anyone will ever remember her as anything other than “Charles Lindbergh’s wife.” In this way, Benjamin is able to capture the universality of some experiences, showing us that humanity is inescapable, regardless of the historical setting or the social context of our situations.

While the idea of having this new perspective is thrilling in some ways, making these historical figures more real to those of us who remember them only through textbooks, the unreliability of the narrator is a factor here, and at times readers may find themselves prompting a reminder that this account is fiction, even though it is based on real events and people.

For all its relevance to female life, some readers may find themselves frustrated with Anne’s apparent lack of backbone in the story when it comes to her relationship with her husband. She realizes fairly early on in their marriage that theirs is not one of equality and romance, and according to her narrative voice, she is at least somewhat bitter towards Charles throughout their whole marriage. But she never does anything about it, at least not in a way that Charles ever knows about. Call it the convention of the time, call it weakness, but Anne’s lack of backbone where her husband is concerned is nothing short of frustrating throughout the narrative.

Terminal Notes: Readers will be entertained by this version of Anne’s story, despite some unreliability and the tenuous relationship between reader and protagonist. While Anne’s inability to stand up to her husband in any real way is frustrating, she is also a surprisingly sympathetic character whose life is as worthy of consideration as her husband’s, albeit for different reasons.