The Death of Reading

O.K.  This is not a commentary on a book titled The Death of Reading.  I’m busy reading Alex Shakar’s Luminarium — a dense read.  Not dense as in somnulent, dense as in cheesecake.  I just can’t eat the whole cake at once.

The National Center for Education Statistics survey is reporting that 20% of eigth graders read for fun, whereas 53% of fourth graders do.  The homeschooler in me says that the relentless demands to identify theme, interpret setting, etc. without learning about the historical context of the writer and the characters.  While there is a lot of truth to this, my ten-year old would distill it to this sentiment:  kids are not reading to become depressed. 

The success of Rick Riordon’s and J.K. Rawlings’ books is not just the fabulous excitement their fundamental premise (your real parents are cool, you have super powers), it’s the fact that the negativity (specifically loss of parent(s)) does not overwhelm the reader.  There’s interest, and the death references are peppered in, not lathered on like alfredo sauce.  There’s also a detachment from the pain:  no middle schooler is worried about Voldemort killing their parents or their mythological father abandoning the family. 

Books tossed at me that got the big thumbs down from my almost 11 and 12 year old boys for their melancholia:

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
Jumping the Nail by Eve Bunting
The Giver by Lois Lowry

All of these are listed as books for 6th to 8th graders or 10 and up. 

I can remember taking a literature class in high school with this list of novels:  Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Death of a Salesman, Metamorphosis and some uplifting tome by Charles Dickens.  One depression book a term is plenty; book after book after book is too much.  The heaviness weighs down on the reading enjoyment.  There’s no recovery from the sadness.  Why look forward to adulthood?  It’s all one disappointment and gut wrenching pain after another. 

While I understand that the goal of all of these books is to get kids to think, to ask questions, to make connections (and make no mistake, the three boos from my boys are great books), is it necessary to overwhelm them emotionally?  Can’t we allow kids to escape into another time, another place, another dimension?  Don’t we want them to read?

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The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner
Ballentine Books

This commentary is second in line for books tossed at me, because they were thought to take place in Italy.  Yes, Catherine de Medici spent her childhood in Italy, but let there be no mistake:  she is oh so French. 

The interesting part of reading this book is that I had no preconceived notion of Catherine de Medici’s character.  This history minimalist had no idea that history has vilified the former queen of France; Gortner tells a very different story.  As a young bride to Henri II, Catherine was acutely aware of the politics of female survival in a royal court: produce an heir to the throne and protect the bloodline at whatever personal cost.   While members of the court sought to eradicate opposition along religious lines (Catholic or Huguenot), Catherine spent most of her life attempting to enforce an unheard-of level of ecumenism for the 16th century:  we are all French.  As her life progresses from one deliberate chapter to the next, her cryptic visions lead her to Nostradamus, the seer of all time. 

What could have really defeated this novel would have been a complex detailing of the geneology of European monarchs.  Instead, the political connections and implications thereof are embedded in this thriller of a plot.  I wanted to follow this warrior queen from beginning to end.  Booklist wrote, “Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory fans will devour this.”  If so, these are two authors I will be investigating in the near future. 

The Book of Madness and Cures

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny
Little, Brown and Company (coming April 2012)

The Book of Madness and Cures is a surprisingly light read interspersed with morsels of setting and culture across Renaissance Europe.  There was a bit of suspension of disbelief while reading this novel.  Although it was typical of Italian Renaissance women from families of means to receive university educations comparable to their male counterparts, Gabriella Mondini possesses an almost unbelievable situation.  Her life-long mentorship under her father, Dr. E.B. Mondini, allows her to practice medicine.  She is not a midwife with underground cures; she is a physician in good standing.  Her situation appears more believable when her father leaves for extended travel, then disappears, and the local guild of physicians tightens a noose on her medical practice.

Although our culture is programmed to sympathize with the abandoned wife, Gabriella’s mother is a difficult woman to pity.  Introduced as a vain woman filled with contempt for her husband, she is constantly complaining about Dr. Mondini’s studies, his relationship with Gabriella, his unusual habits.  She appears to deserve her husband’s estrangement.

Despite her intellectual brilliance, Gabriella is emotionally stunted by her father’s departure. She is bound to him as a little girl, desperate for closure. Her need for answers is visceral; no tragedy will deter her search for answers.  We are housed by the past.  As she begins her search for her father, his leaving appears more complex.  From Padua to Leiden, then Edenberg and finally, Algezer, Gabriella encounters townspeople and her father’s former collegues, each with progressively disturbing accounts of her father’s behavior.  What is strange about the entire journey across the European continent and on to Africa is that Gabriella persists, unscathed by witch hunts, bandits and obstructive prejudice (although her traveling companions suffer differently).

Interspersed with the accounts of her journey are her father’s letters and anecdotes of the diagnosis and treatment of madness.  The range of mental infirmity in Gabriella’s day appears no different than today:  her melancholia for our depression, her lapsus for our dissociative disorder.  Interestingly, while this search for madness and cures thereof persists today, progress since Gabriella’s time appears lacking.  The reader may even prefer Gabriella’s humane and tender approach to mental fugue.

Picking Cotton

Picking Cotton
Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo

*Jury Duty Reading List*

When this book was tossed in my lap, I just let it sit on my bedside table.  I stared at it.  I did not want to read a book about rape, much less about a white woman mistakenly identifying a black man for the crime.  The book sat and stared back until after a few weeks, I picked it up.

There are so many things that could have gone wrong with this book:  it could have focused on racial prejudices and alienated the reader; it could have emphasized religion to the point of becoming a born-again tome; it could have evolved into a feminist anti-rape campaign.  This memoir was a pleasant surprise (if one could possibly be pleasantly surprised by rape and incarceration).

Instead, the authors provide an honest report of the timeline of events and the concurrent thoughts and emotions.  I did thirst for a more in-depth explanation of the impact of investigator bias on the witness and the re-encoding of memory.  The point was nonetheless made:  memory is a fluid process, not a snapshot of fact.  REQUIRED READING for any prospective juror.

The Murderer’s Daughters

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers
St. Martin’s Press

I can just hear the Brooklyn accent of the Jewish mother, “He’s no good for you.  You can do better.  You’re a pretty girl.  You’ll find someone.”  Well, Celeste, this time you should have listened to Mom. 

The story of Merry and Lulu, Celeste’s daughters, reads like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder over and over.  Mom is murdered, a sister is stabbed, dad goes to jail, and on and on and on.  The traumas, though innumerable, could still be managed with years of therapy.  It’s the inheirited sin that plagues the daughters most.  The father’s misdeeds mark them, Maybe the poison came from Zelda [dad’s mom].  And who knows where it’ll go next. 

Lulu relives Eve: she is tempted by her father, Don’t worry Cocoa Puff, she’s opened the door against instructions, and terrible things have happened. While no one could ever blame the naivte of a nine year old, the possibility that the door could have remained locked persists. Through this choice, Lulu inheirits the sins of her father.   Each girl copes with the pain of loss, loneliness and shame in her own way:  Merry by never leaving the five-year-old’s daddy’s little girl role, and Lulu by constucting a fictional past.  The girls’ opposed coping strategies provide a central tension throughout their relationship. 

What struck me most about this book wasn’t the alcohol-induced horror, but, rather, the complete abandonment of the girls by their mother’s family.  Middle class families actually dropped kids off at orphanages?  If this book had been set in the 50s or earlier, I wouldn’t have thought about it at all.  But the mid-1970’s?  Shouldn’t the prevailing American culture frown upon this practice by then?  I had to probe into this possibility.  Well, apparently, orphanages (originially ‘asylums’ then ‘group homes’) flourished until the mid- to late- seventies when residential services were replaced by foster care.  (If you consider that the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment did not end until 1972, dropping a child off at an orphanage seems rather mild an offense.)  It terrifies me to think that decrepit, dangerous institutions for children are part of my generation’s history. 

I wanted to read this novel as redemption literature, but the girls’ suffering was too deep, too personal.   Only one’s mother or father could create this kind of pain.

The Dave Store Massacre

The Dave Store Massacre by Ron Ebest
Academy Chicago Publishers

First, let’s replace The Dave Store with Wal Mart, the small-business-choking, below-living-wage providing discount mega-store marring the American landscape.  This corporate Galactus has led to the decay and death of small-town Jackson, Mississippi.  As quality local businesses fold, steadily The Dave Store becomes the only job in town.  With a business model focused on cheap production, cheap labor, The Dave Store profits on the labors of the working poor. 

Because this message is so pervasive, because this story has been told repeatedly, I had to ask:  what is the story?  Really, this book is not just about the scourge that is Wal Mart (scourge that it is).  Rather, this novel outlines another decay:  the disease that destroys marriage.  This disease is Contempt. 

As the tensions from a labor walk-out rise, the histories of three marriages are revealed: those of the town mayor,  the sheriff and The Dave Store manager.  The direction of contempt is the same in each marriage; each wife shares a deeply seeded distain for her husband.  Each wife considers her husband a loser.  Each wife knew exactly what she was marrying:  one an alcoholic in the making, another a pot-smoker with a less than desireable income, the last a bean counting wimp. 

These wives hint at a peculiar tension in American marriage:  the demand of women to be not only equal, but superior, to their spouses while still desiring a head of household figure.  The suggestion is that the men are doomed.  Just as the only solution to the Wal Mart Effect is to never allow a Wal Mart, the only solution to the Contempt disease in marriage is to never be married. 

501 Minutes to Christ

501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballentine
Hawthorne Books

If you were looking for a self-help book on salvation, it is doubtful you will find it in Ballentine’s personal essays.  Instead, this book is more ammunition for career and marriage counseling.  Whatever you do, don’t major in English, or worse, Creative Writing.  Whatever you do, don’t date or marry a writer.  If he’s forty and single and teaching English as a Second Language in Mexico, walk away. 

This collection of eleven short stories opens with a narration by a homeless man in New Orleans and moves to stories of men with transient employment and flea-ridden daily motels as their domiciles.  In contrast, all of these men share high intelligence and brilliant descriptive skill.  Personal choice and clear missteps keep these men from successful professional lives.  There is a pervasive lack of motivation.  Perhaps the suggestion is that the modern nomad — the loser — is actually mirroring Jesus’ wanderings through the Holy Land?  Well, only if Jesus was a doped up dishwasher contributing nothing to this world. 

Ballentine closes by poking fun at himself: he’s the often overlooked, quality writer in a sea of highly successful, lesser authors (such as John Irving and Norman Mailer).  Well, Mr. Ballentine, while you have convinced me that your other collections are worth a look, I wonder if you could be, well, a little more motivated.