Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Boy Named Shel

A few years ago, I was talking to my daughter's teacher and I told her how much she enjoyed Shel Silverstein poems. Her teacher told me that her older sister had dated Silverstein and did I know that he had written for Playboy magazine for many years? My barely concealed reaction along the lines of "WHAT?!" is probably what most adults of my generation would say, considering that all we know of the man is his delightful poetry and books for children. I walked away from that conversation feeling slightly dazed and curious about this man I had categorized as very talented writer for children.

Fast forward a few years and into my e-mail inbox appeared my library's newsletter with biography selections for the month. I usually skim over those because it tends to be celebrities airing their dirty laundry or shocking facts about people that I never needed to know. But this time there was A Boy Named Shel: the life and times of Shel Silverstein by Lisa Rogak and I remembered that conversation with my daughter's teacher. I decided to find out more about this man whose poems and stories bring back some the best memories of my childhood.

Like so many artists born to immigrant families in the Depression era, Shel's artistry was seen as nonsense by his father, who wanted him to take over the family bakery in Chicago. His mother was always supportive, but his father disapproved, which fueled Shel's insecurities for his whole life. He fooled around at school and college and got by during his short time in the military by cartooning for the military newsletter. He was determined to make it as a cartoonist and never to be tied down to a family and there began his life as a wandering artist.

Shel wrote travelogues and drew cartoons for Playboy magazine for most of his career, though it tapered down as he got into songwriting, playwriting and books. The magazine was his jumping off point and the notoriety he gained there opened doors for him to explore other aspects of writing. Even though he explored so many avenues it always came down to writing. He wrote hundreds of songs for his own albums and for other artists. He drew and wrote many different books, not all for children and some of them downright pornographic. In fact, Shel loved shock value and didn't clean up his mouth for anybody. He was also a famous womanizer and fathered two children with casual sex partners. He didn't change his lifestyle for anybody and he was the type of person you took as he was or he didn't have anything to do with you.

In all, I decided that Shel was a genius at what he accomplished but I would never be interested in being his friend. He was too demanding, unpredictable, morally skewed and his attention span was way too short. But he was generous and loyal, his creativity was unparalleled and he worked harder than anybody else at what he did. It's too bad he died fairly young because who knew what else he could have created with more time. The biography was interesting to get a perspective on how he worked and how his mind functioned, but I'm content to enjoy his children's books and call that good.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Co-Review: The Actor and The Housewife

Shannon Hale has gotten quite a reputation and following for herself. And for good reason. She won the Newberry Award for The Princess Academy, wrote the fabulous book The Goose Girl and one of my favorites, Book of a Thousand Days. A few years back Hale ventured into adult fiction and wrote Austenland, which I also loved. She's also done a graphic novel and has another on the way. She is proving herself to be a woman of genre flexibility.

Her latest book is The Actor and The Housewife and it is a big departure from Austenland and her young adult novels. For one thing, her main character's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plays a big role in the book, a membership that Hale shares. The other thing is that her main character, Becky Jack, is already happily married, not on the hunt for romance like in Austenland or a young girl who encounters love for the first time, like in her YA books. This book is more about friendship and what that friendship costs.

Becky Jack is pregnant with her fourth child when she goes to LA to sell a screenplay she has written. While talking to the agent, in walks Felix Callahan, object of Becky's screen crush. He's dashing and so very Hollywood and she finds herself having dinner with him, despite having mocked him to his face while wearing tent-like maternity clothes. She finds him fascinating and he feels the same, so when he shows up in Salt Lake City to see her, she's delighted and surprised. He interprets their connection as romantic and Becky sees it as potential best-friendship. She sets him straight and they go forward, with spousal approval, to be the best of friends.

Don't forget that we tend to spoil endings in our co-reviews, so beware. With that in mind, let us chat, shall we Caren?

Jenny: My first comment is positive. I love how Becky's religion is portrayed. Most LDS people (myself included) are normal people who work normal jobs, raise normal kids, deal with normal life stuff. I love how when she encounters opposition to what she believes she doesn't rant or rail against them, but is able to contradict misconceptions and attitudes with humor. Her faith is a guiding force in her life and she doesn't compromise her values.

That said, what the heck is she doing having a best friend who is a married celebrity hunk? It's just weird to me. I read the book over a month ago and have tossed it around in my brain since then, trying to decide what it was that rubbed me wrong about this book. I believe that women need friends, they need wonderful best friends who are not their husbands. They need people to connect with that build them up and make them happy. I have friends who I adore and love to hang out with that do not diminish the relationship I have with my best friend, my husband. But I cannot even fathom having a best friend, someone I talk to on the phone almost every day and plan get-away trips with, that was a married man. It goes beyond my comfort zone and it rubbed me raw all through the book.

Hale goes to great lengths to make sure the reader understands that Becky loves her husband, Mike, and is absolutely faithful to him and that Felix is only a friend. But she wouldn't have to do any of that reassurance if Becky's best friend were a woman. It's like Hale knows we're going to have a hard time buying the concept so she's working really hard to sell it to us. And what makes them best friends, anyway? I have never had a best friend that I didn't share some commonalities with. Becky and Felix have nothing in common, not beliefs, not lifestyle choices, not family, not education, nothing. But they seem to find enough to talk about for hours on end on the phone. I just don't get it.

I sure hope you have wonderful things to say about the book that make me see it in a different light, Caren, because it's like an itch I can't reach.

Caren: I agree with you about the weirdness of having a male best friend. When the book first started there was so much comedy and delightful ridiculousness that I was really enjoying myself. (The Valentine Ball scene where she is only 4-weeks post-partum and wearing a pink cotton maternity dress with Fred Meyer earrings while dancing with the dazzling tuxedoed Felix was a hoot!) But as the story progressed and their friendship developed, I felt the same way you did. What is she doing?! She should know better! And I agree that with so little in common, how could their friendship really be that deep? The fact that she mourned for him after their first separation made me think that she had her priorities messed up, to feel that much of a loss. But then, later, when they lose contact during Mike's first cancer treatment, she only thinks of him as a passing thought. So that felt more right to me and more like she didn't really need him in his life as much as she thought she did. Maybe "best friend" was less applicable than just "most exciting and glamorous friend." And her other relationships (especially with her husband, Mike) were fulfilling enough that it seemed silly to think that Felix was really serving any special purpose that made it worth the risk.

And what in the world was she thinking going to New York by herself to comfort Felix after his wife leaves him? What happened to the Becky from the beginning who is hesitant to get into a car alone with a man who isn't her husband? There were so many times that she crossed the line that it just made me really uncomfortable. Hale acknowledged the dangers through other characters' perspectives, so I think it was clear that we were supposed to view this as an exception to the rule, but I still wasn't convinced that their relationship was so special that it deserved to be made the exception. I do think that there was enough pain and heartache caused by her relationship with Felix that in some ways you could title this book, "Why married women and men shouldn't have close friendships with the opposite gender." Seriously, who would want to go through that? But I guess another reader who only focused on the positives could easily see it the other way, "Why it's okay and how to make it work."

In your introduction you described the book as being "about friendship and what that friendship costs." But I got a different impression. I felt like Becky's relationship with Mike served as the real meat of the story. I thought it was more about what it means to truly love and honor your spouse (as opposed to the temporary thrill of infatuation), and the joy that comes from facing the challenges of life together. And then, as Becky loses Mike to cancer, the difficult question arises, "When you have been married to your perfect match, the person who completes you and fulfills you unlike anyone else, and then you lose that person; how do you go on? Can you ever love again? Can you ever heal from such a horrible loss?"

Ultimately, that's what I felt this book was really about. It only constituted about the last 1/4 of the book, but once we got there that's where I felt it was really leading to all along. And all the material about Mike wasn't filler or a footnote to the story about Felix, but rather, that was where the real heart of the story lay. Of course, the silly premise of a Mormon housewife being best friends with a famous movie star provided a more interesting and humorous backdrop than if Felix had just been a normal person. But the themes that stood out strongest to me were how mature love is worth far more than fantasy, and the paradox that a strong marriage can make your life so meaningful, but then can almost destroy you when you lose your spouse.

It made me ill when Mike first died to think that maybe she and Felix would end up together in the end, because it seemed like such an unfair conclusion to the story -- as though Mike was only an obstacle to overcome to bring them together. But as the years passed and Becky struggled to find her footing, I almost wanted them to be together just so that she could have some anchor in her life again (even if he could never measure up to Mike). Plus, I was touched that Felix would be willing to give up so much of his old ways to be worthy of her and make her happy, so I almost felt like he deserved it. But in the end, I was happy that they ended just as friends, with the promise that they would be there for each other in the years to come.

Jenny: Yes, Becky and Mike's relationship was the best part of the story. But even when they were going through all the cancer and you knew Mike was going to die, I felt like Hale was deliberately setting it up for Becky and Felix to be together in the end, even if that's not what happened. It felt like it cheapened all the beautiful writing she had done for Becky and Mike. I never wanted Becky and Felix to end up together because then it would make it seem like Felix was introduced into her life to be her spare husband when the first died. I was glad for Felix's progress as a person, but I never once thought they should end up together. There were too many fundamental differences. Plus, I was just mad when I thought that was the direction Hale was heading.

Another thing that bugged me was that I felt like Felix harbored feelings for Becky for years, especially after they made the movie together. They could laugh about the thought of getting together at the end, but when it came down to it, Felix would have married her on the spot if she had said yes. He wasn't the one who had doubts. Was that just me, or did you get that too? And how could they go on being friends when she has now turned him officially down for keeps?

So what do you think Hale's point of the book was? Did she write it to express all the beauties of mature love and the horror of losing your perfect match, like you said? If so, why did she need Felix at all? So Becky could make a movie? So there'd be controversy? So it would be more marketable instead of the story of how much a Mormon couple love each other?

Caren: Yes, Felix would have married Becky if she would have agreed. But the final kissing scene proved to her that she just didn't have it in her to love him that way. And while he went along with the joke, it was clear that he really was in love with her and I suspect won't fully give up on her until she's happily married to someone else. But he showed a sense of maturity too that his love for her was selfless enough that he could be for her what she needed (a close friend) and not insist on what he wanted (lover/husband).

I'm laughing that you got so mad thinking Hale was setting them up to be together that you couldn't get over it when that's not how it actually ended. I think Hale very specifically did not want them together as lovers either for that same reason -- because it would have cheapened (narratively speaking) everything Becky had with Mike. So even though I think Becky was foolish for getting that close to another man in the first place, I think one of the most mature aspects of the story is that it didn't develop into a romantic relationship even when they had the green light. Which brings us to another theme of how ridiculous fictional romance stories are compared to the real deal. According to the fictional story, she and Felix should have been together, so kudos to Hale for not resorting to that cliché.

You asked what Hale's point was and why she needed Felix in the first place if the real meat of the story was exploring mature love and loss. I think she started with the Becky-Felix idea because it was just plain funny. But in true Shannon Hale fashion, her characters weren't allowed to just be shallow pawns for a joke, and in developing their depth and complexity the natural outgrowth was into the deeper and more mature side of the story. So in the end, while the story may belong to Becky and Felix, the heart and soul of it is in Becky's devotion to her husband and children. (Children who did not drive me crazy, by the way, which is always refreshing in adult fiction.) You could enjoy it just as a silly "What if you became friends with your dream celebrity?" idea, or as an exploration of the question "Should a married woman have a close man friend (and vice versa)?", or as the poignant question I already brought up of "How does a person learn to love again after losing the love of their life?" I think it works either way, and I appreciate that she didn't just leave it as a fluff comedy, but explored those deeper issues.

Okay, you got me curious so I went to Shannon Hale's website to see what she has to say about it. She talks about the premise in relation to her dedication at the beginning of Austenland. Do you remember it? I do because it made me smile. It's dedicated to Colin Firth and says, "You're a really great guy, but I'm married, so I think we should just be friends." She says that idea must have been percolating in her mind somewhere because one night she had a dream about what ended up being the beginning of Becky and Felix's story. She also addresses the difficulty of incorporating religion (and mentions that the narrator doesn't share Becky's faith to help keep the objectivity -- did you catch that? I didn't), and of course mentions the controversial idea of whether it's appropriate for men and women to have opposite-gender friendships outside of marriage.

After recognizing the potential this story has to offend on multiple levels, Hale says this in relation to what she hopes readers get out of it.
I hope that readers want to talk about it. I have a lovely dream of groups of readers, women especially, sitting around and talking, heatedly sometimes, questioning the actions of the characters, debating some of the questions raised, what the characters did or didn't do, and the way I chose to tell the story. I hope there are lots of questions, debates, and listening too. And I hope that activity is fun.
Jenny: Well, I think she accomplished just that. It certainly has gotten some debate out of us, hasn't it? I wish I had read what her initial concept was before reading the book. Maybe it would have changed how I read it. I think you're right, that she started out with this question about having a celebrity best friend of the opposite sex and went from there. I've been thinking about this all day and I think that I couldn't get past Becky's inappropriate friendship with Felix and it colored how I enjoyed the story, whereas you could and enjoyed the story despite it. Do you think that's accurate?

Caren: Yeah, I certainly know why you would feel that way. I don't think I completely got past their relationship either, because I just felt kind of anxious the whole time I was reading it. But I really enjoyed her relationship with Mike and that helped carry me through enough so that I can say I liked it, but didn't really love it. Looking back, I remember a lot of humor and clever dialogue in the beginning, but not really throughout the rest of it. And yet, on second thought, that really wasn't the case. But I think the reason why I remember it that way is that I was so uncomfortable with their relationship for the majority of the book that I couldn't just relax and enjoy the humor like I could at the beginning when they were just getting to know each other.

It certainly wasn't my favorite Shannon Hale book. But I will always laugh to myself when I think of the pink enamel Fred Meyer earrings!

Okay, one more question for you. One of the assumptions in this story is that everyone has a dream celebrity for whom they harbor a secret crush. So, do you have one? And if so, who is it?

Jenny: I have to say, I truly related to Becky during that Valentine's dance with her maternity dress and cheap earrings. I have been to enough work events for my husband where I was pregnant, recently pregnant, or just felt like the frumpy mommy of the group while everyone else was glamorous. It made me laugh and squirm at the same time.

To answer your question, I did have celebrity crushes before I got married. I used to drool over Hugh Jackman back in college. When I was a teenager I had a thing for Leonardo DiCaprio. That's embarrassing to admit. I used to have constant crushes on a stream of boys though, and I think celebrities were just lumped in with them. But since marrying my own handsome hunk, no more crushes, celebrity or otherwise. I just outgrew it, I think. There are actors that I enjoy to watch and I'm more likely to watch a movie if they are in it, but it's more because I love their work than I love their looks. How about you? Any celebrity crushes?

Caren: Yeah, I'm in the same boat. The revolving door on celebrity crushes I had when I was a teenager was so plentiful that it would take way too long to list them here! (And don't be embarrassed about Leonardo DiCaprio. I don't think there was a young woman who wasn't in love with him for at least the first five minutes after Titanic.) Not just actors, by the way. Athletes too -- pretty much anyone famous and remotely good looking or enchantingly mysterious was up for grabs. But once I got into college I didn't have as much time or mental energy for it (or money, since our apartment didn't have a tv so any movies we watched had to be in the theater). And with marriage, that silly teenage part of me officially died once and for all. Which was another funny part of this book that I just couldn't really relate to.

Clearly not everyone grows out of it, though. My friend and I went to see Twilight in the theater, and after it was over a woman sitting behind us says as one long sigh of longing, "It gets better every time...." We had a good laugh at that!

Jenny: Oh man, those actors are like twelve years old! How could anyone older than thirty crush on Robert Pattinson? So weird.

Well, I'm a bit bummed that this book didn't automatically become a favorite, since Hale's previous books have always hit the spot for me. You can't win them all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Twittery tweets

I read a bunch of book-related blogs and run across random book and author information almost daily. It's my entertainment. I rarely blog about what I read because I'm too lazy. I just collect information in my brain and occasionally it'll drive me toward a book choice or blog topic. But why not Twitter about it? I said to myself recently. That's a great idea, I replied. I don't talk to myself much more than that because that would just be silly.

If you read this here blog in a reader, you won't catch my tweets. Too bad for you. If you've hopped on the Twitter wagon already, you can follow me by clicking on the link in the sidebar. If you're thinking to yourself, "What the devil is this Twitter business?" just hop on over to the blog and read them, if you like, and I'll strive to educate and entertain.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

It's pretty rare for me to take a really long time to read a book, unless it's painfully dull or tedious and I feel obligated to read it for some reason so I just keep plugging through it instead of returning it to the library. If a book is interesting, I'll dive in and ignore the housework until I finish it. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A year of food life by Barbara Kingsolver was a rare book for me since it took me weeks to finish reading but was one of the fascinating reads I've encountered in a long time. Why it took me so long to read probably had something to do with the fact that I would read two or three pages and then have to sit and think about it, or hunt down my husband and demand he talk to me about whatever it was that I just read. Takes a long time to get through a 300+ page book when you stop that often.

This book documents the year that Barbara Kingsolver, her husband and two girls spent feeding themselves entirely on food they had grown or acquired within 120 miles of their Virginia farm. The project started and ended in March, which if you've ever grown even so much as a tomato plant, you know that gardens don't really produce anything to eat until late July or August. This fact doesn't stop them and they are very clever in their acquisition of food. The exceptions to their rules include coffee, olive oil and some spices, but they took great measures to make sure they bought these through fair trade sellers, which means the grower received the greater portion of the profit instead of some huge corporation taking the bulk of the money while some South American farmer gets a few pennies. They also eat completely organically, which really isn't all that hard when all your food comes from farmer's markets and your own soil.

Kingsolver's descriptions of how they grew their own food, including chickens and turkeys was fascinating to me, but that was just half of the book. She fills the book with facts about how farming has changed in our country, how narrow our diets have become because of the lack of variety in big, industrialized farms, our national health issues related to additives in food, how the use of pesticides has done more harm to the land than good, the extinction of heirloom plants and animals, and so much more. I found it all absolutely riveting. I would drop the book and feel desperate to talk to someone about it. But most people that I approached, beside my husband, found the topic baffling or weird or incomprehensible. A couple of people gave me blank stares. "What's wrong with eating bananas?" was the general attitude. Even if I started a discussion based on the concept of feeding a family only on food that was available nearby, it was treated as a lunatic's mission, like I wanted to start a compound in Idaho and stop paying taxes.

I was already primed for a book like this, I have to say. A few years ago I had several allergic reactions to the most random assortment of food. When I narrowed it down, it was food dyes. I soon discovered that food dye is in everything. As is high fructose corn syrup and soy products. I became an avid label reader out of necessity because it's no fun to have your eyes swell shut, but soon realized that I didn't know what half the ingredients were in my jar of spaghetti sauce. Everything was packed with additives, chemicals and preservatives. It started to worry me what I was putting in my family's bodies. Then, when I kept having little girls, I started to think about the hormones in milk. My kids were milk guzzlers and I wondered if all that gossip about early puberty due to milk consumption might have some merit. When I became a fairly competent gardener last year, I decided that I wasn't going to use MiracleGro or pesticides in my garden, even taking care to avoid using treated wood in my raised boxes and hand-pulling weeds instead of using chemicals to kill them for me. I make my own bread, have experimented with making my own yogurt and cheese, I don't use boxed mixes for baking, bought 1/4 of a pig from a farmer and over 100 pounds of fruit from local growers last year, and have a subscription to Mother Earth News. So you can see that I'm a bit fruity, as my mom would kindly say.

I also live in Colorado which is rich with local produce, meat and dairy products. This is the first time I have ever had milk delivery to my home out of the three different states I've lived in. Walking into the produce section of a grocery store you can find signs everywhere that say, "Grown in Colorado". Farmers' markets are accessible, along with pick your own farms and free range meat. If I wanted to undertake the same project that Kingsolver did, it wouldn't be that hard for me. I live in the suburbs, so I don't know think raising turkeys would fly, but my husband and I have seriously considered moving to a farm some day in the near future to do that exact thing: raise and eat our own food. But we are very unusual Americans that way. I could give up bananas, oranges, kiwis and mangos to know that my food wasn't using fossil fuels by being shipped from Chile. Or I would spend the extra money to know it was coming from a fair trade farmer, not some huge corporation.

Most of that is my ideal, though. I don't buy organic produce or dairy products (other than my milk delivery) because it feels like I can't afford it. I'd rather grow or cultivate it myself than pay $4 for a container of organic sour cream. But I don't do either at this point. Kingsolver and her family were much purer disciples of their ideals than I am. I still have a long way to go.

The point of this very long post is that Kingsolver's book opened by eyes. She did a ton of research to support her opinions, but a book about the virtues of industrialized, government-subsidized corn farms could accomplish the same goal. I'm saying that I'm not naive, anybody can support their opinions with well-researched facts from any angle of any topic. But it would do our country a great deal of good to examine where our food is coming from and how it was grown. Kingsolver's book is a pretty interesting place to start.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I am currently engrossed in the southwestern frontier world of Sarah Agnes Prine, but I just realized that I have a stack of books that need to go back to the library this week and if I don't take some time to review them now, they'll soon be out of sight and out of mind. So I will tear myself away from Sarah's tale and the amazing voice talents of Valerie Leonard bringing it to life in my audio book, and try to stir up some recollections of something not related to frontier survival.

I'll start with Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and co-authored by Stephen J. Dubner. What that really means is, Levitt provided all the brains and research that the book was based on, and Dubner presented it in a format that would be interesting to the average reader. This popular book really deserves all the attention it's gotten. It is fascinating, engaging, and easy to read. It reads like a conversation, or rather, like an interesting fast-paced monologue because really, when someone is throwing that kind of stuff at you, what can you really contribute besides, "Huh, no kidding," and then let them continue?

Levitt's position is that economics is basically the study of incentives; why people do what they do; what are the incentives that drive them? I can support this idea because I've seen it at work. My sister-in-law studied social work in college and is a master of developing behavior modification programs that use incentives to encourage desired change. It was a strength professionally when working with mentally handicapped young adults, but it's also been a powerful tool in her personal life in helping her with her children, her husband, her volunteer work, you name it. Everyone responds to incentives; the trick is to discover what incentives work for an individual and (assuming you have a conscience and don't believe that the end justifies the means) how to constructively use that knowledge to encourage them to improve.

Levitt's research leads to surprising conclusions. He makes unusual comparisons and turns conventional thinking on its head (even attacks the whole idea of conventional thinking). He tackles a variety of subjects such as the Ku Klux Klan, real estate agents, crack dealers, school teachers, the gameshow The Weakest Link, and even parents who give their kids stupid names -- all in an effort to get to the bottom of why people do the things they do. And ultimately to illustrate that we need to be asking more questions to try to see things the way they really are instead of how the news media or various experts and authorities would spin it.

Some of the material is controversial (e.g. saying that parents don't have as much influence over their kids as genetics), and some could be downright offensive (e.g. insisting that legalized abortion was the biggest force behind the big crime drop in the '90's). But I never felt like he was pushing a political agenda so I felt free to agree or disagree with him however I wished. And sometimes I just had to say, "Huh, no kidding," and then continue drinking my 8 glasses of water a day and reading to my children even though he claims that neither activity is proven to have any benefit. As a side note, one drawback of encouraging the reader to question everything is that I couldn't help but question him and wonder how watertight his conclusions really were. And since the supporting empirical evidence was a bit sketchy at times (which I suppose it had to be for a book like this -- I wouldn't have understood it anyway), it was hard to know how much to trust him.

But a few things were clear. First, Levitt is a very smart man who asks interesting questions of the world around him. Second, Freakonomics is full of compelling insights into human nature (both the good and the bad). And third, it's a fun, quick read that will entertain you and just might make you question some of your long-held assumptions about the world as we know it and your relationship to it.

And now, I'm sorry, but the Siren song of Sarah's western drawl is filling my head again and calling me away, so the other books will have to wait this time!