American Wife

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

This novel is loosely inspired by the life of Laura Bush. Very, very loosely. It asks, what if the wife of a “pro-life” president had had an abortion as a teenager?

The action of the book focuses closely on four periods in the first lady’s life. First, when she was a teenager and fell in love for the first time and had an abortion. Next, her meeting the future president and their whirlwind courtship. Most of the pages of the book are devoted to a period in the couple’s life before his political career, a crisis in their marriage when he was drinking heavily and their values seemed especially at odds. The final section depicts one day in her life as First Lady, a day in which she’s confronted with her past and makes a decision of her own to oppose her husband.

Sittenfeld is one of those authors that I want to read everything she’s ever written. The reasonable, pragmatic voice of this narrator is one that I’ll remember for a long time. The book really made me think about why it’s hard when couples disagree over politics and what kinds of compromises can be made. It’s not the kind of book that gives the one true answer to questions like that, just poses the question and shows one particular character’s answer, and what it costs her.

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Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

This book was one of those that I couldn’t put down. It was like juicy gossip shared among moms at a playground. So many of the descriptions of the mothers and how they treated each other rang so true to me. Even the children seemed like realistic characters, each of them with a precisely drawn and unique relationship to his or her mother, and I feel that is a challenge for a writer to pull off.

I haven’t seen the show based on it yet, but judging from the novel, I will say that Reese Witherspoon cast herself perfectly. Her character is big and loud and hilarious, but with an edge of anger and sadness from a tough divorce. Another main character is Jane, a young mother who’s new in town, and has a hard time navigating playground politics with mothers a decade older than her. There’s a bully in the kindergarten class and the daughter of the PTA pres alpha mom has been victimized, but no one is sure which child is the bully until the end. Class and generational tensions are rife, but some of the strongest friendships in the book are the ones that cross these barriers.

I didn’t know that domestic violence would be a main topic of the book, but I was impressed at the way it was handled. It wasn’t easy to read the inner thoughts of an abused wife and understand in a deep way why she would stay and what it would take to leave.

The twist at the end was absolutely perfect. It’s a happy ending, tied up in a neat bow; justice is done and our heroines are in a better place than they were. An incredibly satisfying read.

Hag-Seed

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

This is from the Hogarth Shakespeare series, modern retellings of Shakespeare stories by well-known authors. I’ve read a couple from the series and this is by far my favorite, which makes sense because I love Atwood so much. It’s The Tempest. Prospero is Felix Phillips, a theater director who has been cast out from his regional theater and is now teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. He hatches a plot to teach the politicians who took his theater job from him a lesson when they visit the prison. There are at least 3 layers of play-within-a-play. It’s funny, redemptive, and has a happy ending. It’s kind of a master class in the multiple interpretations of Shakespeare’s play, as well. Felix teaches his students that all The Tempest’s characters are in a prison in one way or several ways. It’s a very appropriate and creative recasting of the old story.

The Gardener and the Carpenter

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik

This philosophical book about parenting was written by a developmental psychologist who uses insight from her research and discussions of evolution to explore the ultimate purpose of the parent/child relationship. I found it hugely reassuring and even inspiring. Gopnik titled the first chapter “Against Parenting,” meaning that she disagrees with the way “parent” has become a verb in our culture, a form of work rather than a simple, fulfilling relationship. She thinks parents focus too much on working to make their children turn out a certain way. Instead, she says they should focus on simply creating a positive environment for children to grow up in. Children are individuals, after all, and parents’ and schools’ efforts to standardize their outcomes are likely to be futile. Gopnik makes very reasonable arguments for why parents worry about the wrong things, and why the things we do as parents don’t make much difference anyway, not in the way we think they do. She even weighs in on the endless screen time debate, comparing the new technology of tablets and smartphones with the old technology of the book, pointing out that people have always adapted to new ways of communicating and processing information. Along with All Joy and No Fun, I consider this one of the most helpful and comforting books on parenting I’ve ever read.

MWF Seeking BFF

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertshe

Rachel Bertsche moved to a new city for her husband’s job, and found herself without any close female friends in town. So she made an audacious goal of going on “dates” with one new woman every week for a year, in the hope of finding a girl-soulmate. Over the course of the year, her goal changed. At first she thought she wanted someone she could call to meet for coffee or drinks at the drop of a hat, but then she realizes she actually doesn’t like last-minute plans. As she got to know new women and made choices about which ones to keep in touch with, she refocused her goal to a different definition of a good friend, one that’s more about how comfortable she can be with that person. She also lets go of nostalgia for childhood friendships and the lifestyles that enable them, which to me seems a more difficult than the other redefinition. The book reads like a journal of her year, and by the end, she describes feeling confident, adventurous, busy, and in-demand. 

The friendships we make as children and teenagers are intimate and easy, partly because kids have lives that enable the quick formation of strong bonds. Teens are in daily contact with people their own age, in environments (school, team sports, extracurriculars) that encourage them to put down their guard. Adults isolate themselves in houses and cubicles and don’t spend as much time in such friendship-conducive places, unless they consciously seek them out. It’s easy to wish adults lived more like teens in some ways, that we lived closer together in communities, and had social norms that allowed more casual contact with strangers and acquaintances. But short of building a commune or a time machine, that would be hard for an individual to accomplish.

Recognizing this reality, Bertsche gives a lot of great ideas for getting to know new people and building friendships that fit into adult lives. For example, I appreciated reading about “social identity support” because now I know the words to describe this phenomenon that I’ve seen make and break friendships. Many people like to have friendships that provide support for their own social identity, so they surround themselves with people who are in the same ‘life stage,’ or who have made many of the same major decisions about their lives. It helps to have people around who affirm your life stage and life choices just by being who they are, especially if you feel at all unsure or ambivalent about your decisions. It’s also simply convenient, as schedules are more likely to align. The lack of this social identity support is why friendships often founder when one person gets married and/or has kids and the other doesn’t. Not all friendships have to have this element, but it can make things easier for a new friendship. In some cases not having that social identity in common, especially during a vulnerable transition time, or for a person who is especially insecure, can jeopardize a relationship.

My favorite part of the book might have been the concrete suggestions and guidelines that came from Bertsche’s research about the psychology and sociology of friendship. It’s good to have rules of thumb to help you make decisions when wracked with insecurity and self-doubt. Here were some of my main takeaways: 

  • If you really intend to follow up with a potential new friend, make the date soon, ideally before the first date is over.
  • Storytelling is key, and much better than “interviewing.”
  • Face-to-face > phone > email > facebook
  • Loneliness ≠ depression.
  • To become friends, you need to meet up with someone twice a month for 3 months.
  • Anthropological research says that each of us has enough room in our lives for about 150 relationships at any given time.
  • A simple definition: “Friendship is consistent, mutual, shared, positive emotion.”
  • Emotional closeness between long-distance friends declines about 15% a year.
  • Sharing secrets builds trust.
  • Facebook has made high school reunions obsolete.
  • Shared history is why lifelong friends are impossible to replace.
  • But on the other hand, new friends know only the current version of you, won’t pigeonhole you or tie you to your past, and don’t have the baggage old friends do. Also, childhood friendships are often formed out of convenience (she was your friend because she lived next door, not because you had anything in common with her), while adult friendships are formed by choice and mutual interests.
  • Laughter creates friendships.
  • Does real comfort and intimacy in a friendship mean being able to talk about the Big Stuff, or the minutiae of daily life? Or both?
  • Four necessary behaviors for making friends: interaction, positivity, self-disclosure, supportiveness.
  • Social media can make loneliness worse if you use it as a substitute for interaction and as a basis for social comparison.
  • The familiarity principle: the more you see someone, the more you like her/him.
  • The best relationships are synergistic: both people get more out of it than they put in.
  • “Couple-friends” are 2-4 times as hard to make as one-on-one friends.
  • Click accelerators, things that make people bond quickly: similarity, proximity, vulnerability, resonance, and a safe place.
  • Doing new, novel things together helps build relationships.
  • Carpe diem! Most people will not think you’re a creepy stalker if you admit to wanting to be their friend or express interest in getting to know them better. They’re more likely to be flattered.

I sympathized deeply with Bertsche’s quest and the loneliness fueling it. Like her, I moved to a new city for love in my mid-to-early 20’s and found myself disconnected from the social ties that had been most important in my life. Actually, her move and mine happened almost at the same time. I wish this book had been written back in 2008. It’s an inspiring read that could really motivate you to put more time and effort into making and keeping good friends. Her goal of one friend-date a week is ambitious and incredibly time-consuming, but even a smaller scale version of her quest could be a great way to enrich your life with new friendships! A possible New Year’s resolution?

What Unite Us

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Dan Rather draws on his decades of experience reporting on politics and world events to inform this set of essays, mixing anecdotes from the history he’s witnessed with stories from his modest childhood in Texas. His quietly inspiring exploration of what it means to be an American aims at bridging the current partisan divide to find principles that all Americans can agree on, ideals like inclusion, empathy, science, and service. Rather states progressive values in terms that conservatives can agree with, leaving the specific policy implications of these values for readers to decide for themselves.  He does all that without mentioning our current president by name. It’s a brilliant rhetorical move, one that I think George Lakoff would approve of.  Directly invoking that name would invite charges of partisanship, when Rather’s goal is to transcend party loyalties. Maybe Rather is too gentle and indirect in his arguments, and perhaps it’s impossible to change minds and hearts without offending someone. But I do think there is value in his project here, and that if we can all agree on these principles, even if we disagree on how to act on them, there is cause for hope. I’m considering giving this book to my Dad for Christmas.

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

I enjoyed John Green’s earlier books, so I have been one of the many fans eagerly anticipating his newest novel. In Turtles All the Way Down, Green’s first-person narrator, Aza, struggles with extreme anxiety and OCD, to the point of self-harm. She fixates on germs, gut bacteria, and her microbiome. Green manages to make her anxiety seem utterly reasonable–which is of course the exact right way to portray this disorder from the inside looking out. Mental illness makes the extreme thoughts that are its main symptom seem absolutely logical, even inevitable. Like, why aren’t we all always freaking out about our complex, fragile microbiome? How does anyone ever kiss, when it’s obviously disgusting swapping so many germs?

The plot is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of a millionaire CEO, and a romance with the CEO’s teenage son, Davis. Several times, Aza shows a lot of genre-savvy. She knows how the money should affect her relationship with Davis, and how her unique mind should help her to solve mysteries. but she doesn’t want to or can’t go along with those genre rules.

My one criticism of the book might be that Davis is too perfect, too accepting of Aza’s flaws, too poetic to be a real teenage boy. He’s obsessed with astronomy and writes contemplative reflections on Shakespeare quotes on a blog that Aza happens to discover through some lucky cyber-stalking.

I was almost more interested in Aza’s best friend Daisy, a fast-talking fanfic writer, than in Davis or the mystery surrounding his father. Daisy is super charming, and she took me in from the beginning, but there is a seed of meanness and selfishness and discord in her relationship with Aza that has to be revealed and fixed. I love it when strong female characters have complex friendships with deep-seated problems that are NOT rooted in jealousy over a boy.

In the end, there is resolution, but considerably less than in most YA books. There’s no happily ever after. Aza is certainly not cured. She will always have anxiety. The heartbreaking realism of Aza’s difficult future is not something Green flinches away from, and I really appreciate that.