It’s always the fault of the “Mother, Mother”

I received the book Mother, Mother: A Novel, by Koren Zailckas (Crown Publishers, 2013)  for free from Blogging for Books for this review. Given that I’ve spent the last year with family, friends, and mental health professionals trying to convince me that I’m NOT responsible for my son’s determination to distance himself from our family, it may not have been the best choice of book for me.  It has pretty good reviews, and in fact the writing is fairly decent, but I seethed throughout with frustration at the simplistic depiction of how a mother’s mental illness (in this case Narcissistic Personality Disorder) destroys her family.

I believe we live in a culture that blames parents, and specifically mothers, for pretty much everything that goes wrong in a child’s life.  As a teacher for thirty years, I was certainly guilty (especially early in my career) of the common conviction among educators that every problem kid is the result of a problem parent.  And in fact I did deal with some really “bad” parents.  However, motherhood and experience taught me that just as often a parent can truly and sincerely try their best, and their child will still struggle and be, well, human.  Which is why this book annoyed me so much.

Mother, Mother is narrated alternately by Violet and Will Hurst, two young people whose mother, Josephine, attempts to control every aspect of their lives.  It starts in crisis mode:  Violet is driven by her alcoholic father to a psychiatric facility after supposedly attacking her younger brother.  As the story progresses, we learn there is also an older sister, Rose, who disappeared mysteriously a year earlier.  I found all the characters to be one-dimensional, and was really only able to finish reading the book after I chose to see it as a caricature of what Americans believe about the destructive results of a “bad” mother…which I’m pretty sure was not the intent of the author.  There is a feeble attempt to introduce a “good” mother, in the guise of the mom of a friend of Violet’s, but even she is a stereotypical “hippy” type.  Josephine is awful,evil, and solely responsible for the disintegration of her family.  Period.

The lengthy psychological analysis disguised as dialogue led me to suspect the author was attempting to work through her own issues, and in fact in an essay and question/answer segment at the end of the novel, Zailckas shares that she is the daughter of a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder.  It used to be assumed that BPD was the result of bad parenting or childhood trauma, but recent research has uncovered a clear physiological component with strong genetic ties.  I hope Zailckas never has to deal with this disease in one of her children.  She might discover that family difficulties aren’t always the mother’s fault.  If I were inclined to try my hand at fiction, I would explore what happens when well-meaning and “normal” parents are confronted with mental illness in their child.  It seems to be a topic that has yet to be considered.   Certainly Mother, Mother does nothing to dispel the assumptions so prevalent, and hurtful, in our culture.


Out of the headlines and into “Prayers for the Stolen”

You don’t teach Spanish for thirty years in public high schools in Colorado without developing some strong opinions about the immigration issue.  While I don’t want this blog to turn into a political free-for-all, with the nasty (and I think unproductive) comments I read in so many other places, I feel like I have to introduce the astonishing book, Prayers for the Stolen, since it illuminates beautifully the reason why so many young people would choose to leave their homes for a chance at a better life in the United States.

Several months ago I was researching materials for a unit of study for my AP Spanish students about the drug trafficking “narcotraficante” culture in Mexico as part of the AP curriculum “World Challenges” topic.   I came across Prayers for the Stolen, a short novel by Jennifer Clement (Hogarth, 2014) which begins in the jungle outside of Acapulco, Mexico, moves to a mansion in Acapulco, then ends in a women’s prison in Mexico City.  Because it ended up not being something I could use with my class right away, I downloaded the book but only just now got a chance to read it.  All I can say is, WOW!

As with Southern Cross the Dog, I was unsure if the author had a trustworthy voice.  But it turns out that Clement, while American, grew up in Mexico and is actually a member of Mexico’s prestigious “Sistema Nacional de Creadores.”  I don’t like to read translations if I can avoid it, but in this case it looks like the book was written in English.  Beautiful English.  English that accomplishes the rare feat of feeling like Spanish.  As I read, I found myself thinking, “yes, that is how the young Mexican women I have known would speak!  That is how they might tell their story!”

The main character, Ladydi (the explanation of how she got her unusual name is part of the fabric of the novel), narrates her life growing up in an area of Mexico overrun by drug lords, where young girls pretend for as long as possible to be boys in order to avoid being “stolen”.  What happens when one of her friends is stolen, and when Ladydi herself is caught up quite by accident in the “narco” culture is a compelling story that will challenge all your assumptions.  The characters are not all sympathetic, in fact Ladydi’s mother can be quite frustrating, but they are all very human.  And as I’ve said, Clement’s language is a thing of beauty.

Often when I hear people complain about illegal immigrants they speak about the need to follow the law.  Which is a fair enough point.   But what if you had grown up in a place where the law did not protect you, where the police were just as dangerous as the criminals, where your education was hit or miss depending on the volunteer teacher sent to your tiny village that year, where families were split up because of economic hardship most of us frankly could not even begin to imagine?  Would you not maybe have a different perspective?  And, given the choice between any sort of life and almost guaranteed death, wouldn’t you do anything to avoid that fate?  Wouldn’t you encourage your children to do the same?

This novel challenges the reader to consider immigration and the drug trafficking culture through the eyes of one of its victims.  Since I’ve always felt that reading at its best moves us into other worlds, other viewpoints, and other realities, this book would be a good place to start for anyone interested in trying to gain a better understanding of the humanitarian crisis currently taking place at our border.  And I’ll end with one statistic, a statistic that my students find staggering, and that I find inexcusable:  in the Mexican Drug War (which has spilled over into Central America and is, I believe, at the core of the current crisis), more than 60,000 people have been killed from 2006 to 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. (CNN Library)


“Here Is Where” to take a fascinating trip through American history

Ah, summertime, when thoughts turn to road trips and new explorations – or at least they do if you’re a teacher who has usually had to cram their travels into that traditional June-August window!  I just finished Here Is Where:  Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, by Andrew Carroll (Three Rivers Press, 2013), and feel like I’ve taken a fascinating jaunt across America and through history.

First the legal FTC disclaimer:  “I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.”  In fact, this Crown Publishing Group program was the impetus for starting my blog to begin with!  But even if I hadn’t received a complimentary copy of the book, I would have bought it, it’s that good!  And right up my alley…

When I was growing up in Colorado, my teacher parents didn’t have the resources for elaborate trips or cruises or European vacations.  We camped and road-tripped our way across the country, primarily the Midwest and West.  My music teacher dad was also a history buff, so we sought out and explored abandoned mining camps in the Rockies, stopped at and read every roadside “historic marker” we encountered, and wandered through every obscure museum that presented itself.  From this childhood, I developed a deep interest in history, a passion for any sort of travel at all, and an imagination that impels me to seek out the “here is where” in even the most ordinary of places.  Macchu Picchu is awe-inspiring, but so is Independence Rock in Wyoming, where emigrants carved their names as they moved west on the Oregon Trail and where the wind-swept landscape inspires reflection on their courage and resourcefulness.

The premise of Andrew Carroll’s book is that every day we move past places where interesting, important, or little known events occurred.  He takes as his starting point the platform where the brother of John Wilkes Booth saved the son of Abraham Lincoln from being crushed by an incoming train.  He is inspired here to, in his own words, “…search for unmarked sites across America that have been forgotten over time.”  What follows is a delightful, insightful, and compelling hopscotch  from New Jersey to Hawaii to Alaska to Colorado’s own Pikes Peak  – and pretty much every point in between.  Carroll writes with a friendly, personable style that makes the reader feel like they are next to him in the car or plane or boat or hike.  And as he follows one story into another, it becomes striking how interconnected events and people can be.

If I were teaching an American history course, I would make this book required reading.  It may not be the most academic of tomes (though the research and notes seem quite sound and extensive to this trained historian), but through crisscrossing America in search of WWII plane crashes, missing (or duplicate) corpses, or the site of important scientific discoveries, the reader gets a glimpse of “real” American history.  When my high school Spanish students would complain about history, I think it was because so often in our schools it is boiled down to a series of dates, names, and issues that have to be memorized and regurgitated (after they’ve passed through the political lenses of various school boards and textbook adoption committees, of course.)  Andrew Carroll invites us to experience history in a different, more engaging, and ultimately more revealing way.  As he states in his conclusion, “…nothing has surprised me more than discovering how personal and intimate history can can be, that it’s not just some distant, abstract idea we study from afar.”

My best friend from high school and I share this passion for history.  One summer we met in her now-home state of Oregon for a week at the beach with our kids and on our return to Portland, we drove through Astoria.  As it happened, we were both reading a series of historical novels about Marie Dorion, a little known contemporary of Sacagawea who was the only woman to accompany the Astor Expedition of 1811-1812.  Looking at each other after consulting the maps in the books, we decided to search out the site where the expedition had wintered, eliciting groans from our children.  (Though now, my daughter has a history degree herself and volunteers for History Colorado when not working at the Denver Art Museum!)  Why this fascination with seeing the actual spot where an event occurred?  Andrew Carroll says it best:

…even if ‘nothing’ remains, there is value still in visiting the general area, I think.  The stories, not the physical sites, are what’s paramount, and they become more indelibly impressed in our minds when we travel to where they occurred.  The journey alone inspires thoughtful contemplation, and inevitably we chat with others about our endeavor along the way…At the destination itself all of our senses are engaged…

This is more than just a book about history, it is also a travelogue.  Even if you’re not a history buff, I would encourage you to give it a try.  The narrative style makes it read a lot like fiction, except that the stories are true!  And it will cause you to reflect, which is the hallmark of truly great writing.  In his excellent prose, Andrew Carroll sums up what I’ve always known intuitively about my fascination with history and never articulated:

If learning about the past only infused our lives with a sense of passion and wonder by enriching our perception of the world around us, that alone would make it worthwhile…At its best, history nurtures within us humility and gratitude.  It encourages respect and empathy.  It fosters creativity and stimulates the imagination.  It inspires resilience.  And it does so by illuminating the simple truth that, whether due to some cosmic fluke or divine providence, it’s an absolute miracle that any of us is alive today, walking around on this tiny sphere surrounded by an ocean of space, and that we are, above everything else, all in this together.

Thanks, Dad (and Mom) for guiding me towards embracing this valuable lesson!  It has served me well and enriched my life immeasurably over the years!




What to read?

I’ve had several friends ask for book recommendations lately, so I thought I would do a quick “what I’ve liked recently” list.  If you look under “Books” on my Facebook page, you’ll see that I read A LOT (and some of my choices are pretty quirky), so I went through and picked out some of what I consider to be the better ones.   I’m not doing full reviews here, just my personal favorites and a brief summary.


  • The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.  I’ve had people tell me they really disliked this book, or couldn’t get into it, but I LOVED it.  First, I should say that I’m not a fan of circuses, and in fact when my husband gave it to me for my birthday I was a little skeptical.  But the circus is really only a background for the competition that turns into a love story between two “magicians” at the turn of the 20th century.  It struck me as an original sort of American magical realism, and the writing is exquisite.
  • Benediction, by Kent Haruf.  This is part of a trilogy, along with Eventide and Plainsong, all set in a small town on the eastern plains of Colorado.  The sparse language echos the landscape, and the characters and their stories are compelling in a quiet, gentle way.  Every time I read something by Haruf I hear the voice of my grandparents.
  • Sacred Heartsby Sarah Dunant.  Doing historical fiction well can be elusive, and while I enjoy authors like Philippa Gregory for the good stories they tell, Sarah Dunant is a cut above.  Her writing is excellent, and she really transports the reader to another time and place.  I also enjoyed her novels In the Company of the Courtesan and The Birth of Venus.  She has a new book about the Borgias out that I have not yet read.
  • The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, by Alexander McCall Smith, is part of a series about Isabel Dalhousie, a Scottish philosopher who “investigates” a series of unusual situations.  These are not exactly mysteries in the traditional sense, which may be why I like them so much!  Every book transports me to Edinburgh, and I end up feeling like I’ve taken a mini-vacation.  The nerd in me also really savors the philosophical/ethical musings!
  • Peaches for Monsieur le Curéby Joanne Harris, continues the story begun with the popular novel-turned-movie, Chocolat“.  I really like Harris’s writing, and have grown to care about her characters as they move around France.  Plus, there are always wonderful descriptions of food and, yes, chocolate!
  • Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd.  Reading any novel by Rutherfurd requires a certain level of commitment.  They are all lengthy, and I approach them knowing I’ll need to settle in for the long haul.  But the reward is an engrossing exploration of place told through several generations of families across the socio-economic spectrum.  His early novel, Sarum, still stands out in my mind as the first book that really gave me a grasp of the scope of English history.
  • The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian, is not an easy read, with a devastating story set in the early 20th century,  but the setting is unique, and the exploration of what war and genocide really look like is expertly crafted.  It is set in Syria, and as I watch what is happening in the middle East today I often reflect on this book.
  • The Revised Fundamentals of Caregivingby Jonathan Evison, is a book I downloaded to my iPad as a free weekly Starbucks offering.  I figured I would keep it as a backup in case I was “stranded” without a book, and after starting a few pages ended up loving it!  The protagonist is a flawed hero who finds a sort of redemption through a road trip with his severely disabled teenage employer.
  • The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman.  Here is another gifted writer who never disappoints me!  This time she ventures into historical fiction in narrating the story of the Jews who held out against the Romans for many months in the fortress of Masada.  Her other novels have a touch of magical realism (which I love), with strong contemporary female characters.  I have been known to sit down with one of her books and be so engrossed that I read it in one day!
  • La reina descalza, por Ildefonso Falcones.  Si lees en español y te gusta la ficción histórica, sugiero que intentes este autor.  Me encantan todas sus novelas, son muy inteligentes y bien escritas, con personajes inolvidables.


  • An Edible History of Humanity and/or A History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage.  I like any approach to history that makes it more human and relevant, and these books do just that by looking at how food and drinks have molded human behavior and events.
  • Hope Against Hope:  Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s children, by Sarah Carr.  This book was recommended to me by the owner of a small book store I visited in New Orleans, and I found it to be an excellent examination of the contemporary education reform movement.  While it is specific to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, many of the issues it addresses are universal ones.
  • Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle.  This is one of the most beautiful books I have EVER read.  Set in the gang world of Los Angeles, this narration of the efforts by a Jesuit priest to help move his parishioners out of poverty and the bloody gang-banger lifestyle is exquisite.  It left me really moved, and reinforced what I always tried to remember in the classroom, which is that every human has dignity and worth.
  • Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts, tells the story of the American Revolution through the women who raised funds (and children), rallied troops, paid bills, and otherwise supported the famous names we credit with the founding of our country.

I hope you see something on this list that perhaps catches your interest and introduces you to a new reading experience!  I’d love to hear your opinions!


Another trip to the American South with “Southern Cross the Dog”

Since I’m new to blogging, I’m still not sure if I’ll review every book I read or not.  But after finishing Southern Cross the Dog, by Bill Cheng (Harper Collins Publishers, 2013), it occurred to me that I had just been immersed in a vastly different experience of the South from my previously posted book, Finding Me, and that it could be interesting to explore the differences.

Southern Cross the Dog is another novel that I might not have chosen on my own.  My sister handed it to me a few weeks ago, and I trust her instincts.  (She’s the one with the English literature degree, after all!)  The description on the jacket intrigued me, as did the title.  In short, it tells the story of Robert Chatham, an African-American living in pre-World War II Jim Crow Mississippi.   I actually had no idea what the title meant when I started, but usually in these situations the book itself clarifies this by the end.  Not so here.  In fact, after the Epilogue, I put the book down and did a mental “Huh?”  So, this being 2014, I got on Google.  It turns out the title refers to where two railroad lines crossed in Mississippi.  Hmmm.  Given that there is only one passing reference to Robert being caught riding the rails during the Depression, I still don’t get the point of the title.  Bill Cheng mentions in his Acknowledgements that the book is dedicated to a long list of blues musicians, none which I’d ever heard of, so maybe there’s an explanation of the title buried in music I’ve never heard.  There’s also a “dog” that lurks around off and on during the novel, though that’s another confusing aspect of the narration.  I was never really sure if the dog actually existed, was a figment of Robert’s imagination, or a metaphor for the bad luck that “dogged” this character.

As I searched for an explanation of the title, I ended up reading several reviews by writers much better qualified than I to analyze the book (we’re talking writers for the New York Times and Boston Globe here).  What struck me repeatedly, though,  is that they had the same doubts and observations I did.  As I read, I found myself questioning the authenticity of a narration written by a young Chinese American man living in New York, and this was mentioned by every reviewer.  This is Bill Cheng’s first novel, and my impression was that he was “trying on” every narrative style to come out of the South, from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor to Toni Morrison.  The difference, of course, is that he’s not writing from a place of personal experience.  The result reminded me of a “crazy quilt”.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a powerful book worth reading.  There are moments of beautiful description and dialog, the story is compelling, there are fascinating and diverse characters, and the movement back and forth in time (from 1927 to 1941) kept me constantly wondering where the story would go next.  The reader experiences cataclysmic flooding reminiscent of Katrina, heartbreaking racial injustice, the birth of “blues” music, the disappearing lifestyle of Cajun swamp trappers, and the optimism of WPA projects.  I wonder, though, if a reader less obsessed with history than I would even be able to make sense of all these disparate threads.  And lurking at the back of my mind was a distrust of the entire experience.  I read because I crave learning as much as I can about this world, and because when I can’t actually travel and immerse myself in different cultures and time periods, reading is the next best thing.  I certainly did experience a different time and place, but filtered through one writer’s interpretation of what HE had read and imagined.  All fiction is, by definition, the result of an author’s imagination.  But I find that when a novelist writes from a place of authenticity, I find myself more willing to believe his or her voice.

Finding Me and Southern Cross the Dog are about as different as two novels can be.  In Beth Hoffman’s world, we experience a genteel and gentle modern South, narrated in a friendly and sometimes cloyingly informal manner.  If there are African-American characters, they are alluded to only obliquely, the inference being that race relations are a problem of the past and the real issue of the present is how to protect wildlife and the environment.  Bill Cheng shows us a brutal South in the not-too-distant past from the imagined perspective of black characters, where the environment is only one of many oppressors, and where white men (there seem to be no white women) are at best indifferent, and at worst blatantly evil and exploitative.  I’m not convinced that either novel is a truly accurate reflection of the “real” South.  But maybe that’s the point.  When I visit the South (most recently New Orleans), I sense a mysterious undercurrent that my white Colorado upbringing will never allow me to really understand, only observe and imagine.  Maybe that’s why so many authors search for material there and why so many readers are willing to go along.