MY PICTURE PERFECT FAMILY by Marguerite Elisofon

5146laoj58l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Marguerite Elisofon and her husband Howard had boy-girl twins named Samantha and Matthew in 1990. The twins were premature, but Matthew developed normally while Samantha started lagging behind from an early age. After many rounds of testing, Samantha was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, which changed the Elisofons’ lives in every possible way.

My Picture Perfect Family is a painstaking account of how the Elisofons – and particularly Marguerite – learned to accept that Samantha would never be the “picture perfect” daughter they had hoped for, and how they worked tirelessly to enroll her in programs and schools that would allow her to learn and even thrive. Marguerite’s patience and persistence saw Samantha through several New York City schools until she finally ended up at one that was committed to her intellectual growth. There are many ups and downs along the way: schools that decided that Samantha was too much for them, endless tantrums and disastrous family vacations, punctuated by small steps forward, unexpected breakthroughs and some surprisingly positive playdates. Through it all, Elisofon never gave up hope that her daughter would find a place that would encourage her and allow her to pursue the activities she loved – acting and singing.

As a mother of twins myself, I was particularly interested in how Samantha and Matthew related to each other over the years, and how Elisofon navigated balancing of attention between the two, even when one twin needed so much more intervention and involvement. She includes family photographs along the way, along with the backstory of what was happening that the camera didn’t capture.

My Picture Perfect Family is a dense, engrossing read. While it is quite detailed, it is never tedious. Elisofon is a skilled writer, laying out the complications in Samantha’s condition and treatment. And it ends on a hopeful note. Samantha graduates from high school and, like her brother, goes on to college. The book ends as she leaves for college, with only a brief epilogue talking about the years that followed.

I am glad I read My Picture Perfect Family. It’s a very poignant and powerful look at the challenges of raising an autistic child and the power of a stubborn, persistent parent who wants nothing more than her daughter to be happy and challenged.

 

WILLFUL DISREGARD by Lena Andersson

andersson_willfuldisregard-wquoteHere’s what happens in Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard: Ester, a young Swedish writer, is asked to write an article about Hugo, a famous artist. She meets him and within one week she is completely obsessed with him. Despite their age difference, they develop a close friendship which consists of long dinners spent debating philosophy and ideas. Ester’s obsession with Hugo persists as the weeks go by, and eventually, their relationship turns physical. Over the course of one week, they spend three nights together – Ester’s dream come true. And then Hugo turns cold and starts ignoring her.

The book tracks the ensuing twelve months – every interaction Ester has with Hugo, every text, every email, every ill-advised call.

Willful Disregard is the literary fiction version of He’s Just Not That Into You. It analyzes in painstaking detail the rollercoaster of Ester’s interactions with Hugo – the hope, the delusion, the fury, the rationalizations, the desperation. If you’ve ever suffered rejection from someone you were really into, then you will recognize much of what happens in this book. It’s beautifully written – translated from the Swedish – and while it might be too wordy or cerebral for some tastes, I enjoyed it.

Some passages I liked:

Her emotional life was now subject to the dissatisfaction of rising expectations. The only advantage of this is that after a time, the disappointment can turn into another law of nature, namely the delight that sinking expectations take in the tiniest possible detail.

She thought about the fact that seven billion people on earth did not have this reliance on hearing from him. Their health and wellness did not depend on it. So why did hers? There was no rhyme or reason to it. Why could she not feel the same toward him as the seven million did, living their lives with complete lack of concern for what he was engaged in? The girlfriend chorus said: Give up and leave this man. He’s doing you harm. The girlfriend chorus really didn’t understand. They were the seven billion.

I mean, it’s painfully familiar, right?

This is the book I was reading post-election, and for a few weeks it felt too small and inconsequential to keep my attention. But I came back to it and while I can’t say it lifted my spirits, I am certainly glad I read it. If it sounds appealing, give it a try – you won’t regret it.

THE ART OF NOT BREATHING by Sarah Alexander

Sadly, my month of non-reading continues. Hoping to snap out of it soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a review of our November mother-daughter book club book, The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander.

23203977The Art of Not Breathing is an odd, sad book. Elsie is sixteen and feeling very alone in her fractured family, which consists of her unhappily married parents, her older brother Dillon, and her twin brother Eddie, who died by drowning five years earlier. Elsie is convinced that her father blames her for Eddie’s drowning, and while she vaguely remembers that day, there are a lot of details that she can’t get a handle on. Why was Dillon there too? Did he try to save Eddie? What role did her parents play?

Elsie feels like an outsider in her family and at school too, but when summer comes, she accidentally falls in with a group of older boys who free dive, a rigorous sport involving diving to low depths and holding one’s breath before coming up. Elsie decides to try free diving, and her connection to the group of divers leads her to a boyfriend and, ultimately, the answers to her questions about Eddie’s death and the role she – and others – played in it. Meanwhile her family falls further apart as Dillon develops anorexia and her parents grow more estranged.

Dark, huh?

Yes.

The Art of Not Breathing is compelling in that it makes you want to read on and find out what happens. You also feel just terrible for Elsie, who is trying to hold things together but is breaking down inside. Her unwillingness to confide in anyone is frustrating, because it only makes her more isolated. But she is dealing with a lot – way more than someone her age should be expected to. Our group of twelve year-olds didn’t love this book (though it was recommended by someone in the group). They all found it very sad, and were frustrated with the adults and the situations Elsie was put in. We all found free diving intriguing but also scary. And of course, poor Eddie… the most tragic figure of all.

On the plus side, The Art of Not Breathing does send a message about being yourself and not caring what people think of you. It also conveys the importance of emotional trust, especially when dealing with grief.

 

 

Why I Am Not Reading Right Now

fc8a3eb0-400c-44d9-9378-d95b7a2e94acSo this is my first post since the election last week. I haven’t done much reading in that time, other than our November mother-daughter book club book, which I will review later this week.

It’s hard to concentrate on books right now. I find myself constantly cycling through the news and social media (which are increasingly becoming the same thing for me) looking for some sort of reassurance or relief, and finding none. The news seems to get worse and more hopeless every day, and the pillars I usually look to in times of uncertainty are slowly falling away – or expressing their own fears and concerns.

What is this country going to look like in 6 months? A year? Four? How worried should we be about our personal safety, not to mention the safety of our immigrants, the sick, the earth?

Living in DC, it’s hard to escape from the stress of this looming administration change, and frankly, I don’t think I *should* escape from it. I feel that it’s important to be vigilant right now, to watch what is happening like a hawk so that I am keenly aware of the dangers I see around us. Putting my head in the sand – or into a book – may provide an uneasy, temporary reprieve, but it won’t help me be an engaged, concerned citizen capable of doing something (but what?) to help stem the tide of disaster we appear to be riding.

I set a goal of reading 52 books this year – a book a week. I had ambitious plans for November and December to help get me to that goal – one that has eluded me for years. It’s looking less likely that I will get there. I will keep trying, but right now, reading isn’t serving its usual role of allowing me to focus and relax amidst a busy, multitasking day. It seems instead like an indulgent and likely ineffective distraction. And frankly, I am just too stressed out to concentrate.

Maybe I just need to give it a few more days?

Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take longer than that.

THE RED CAR by Marcy Dermansky

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky is an odd little book, but a good one.

28789723Leah is a writer in her 30s, living in Astoria with her possessive German husband Hans. One day, she learns that Judy, her former boss during her stint in San Francisco a decade earlier, has died in a car accident. Leah had been close with Judy, and she is sad to learn that Judy has died. She also learns that Judy has left Leah her beloved red car – the same car she died in. Leah impulsively decides to go to the funeral in San Francisco and collect the car, and ends up spending two weeks there getting back in touch with her former self.

Now, I know this sounds like a gauzy Lifetime movie: wise mentor challenges lost friend to find herself and rediscover joy, all from the grave. Nope. This is a quirky, dark, unpredictable book. Leah is lost, yes, but she’s also a little unhinged. She hooks up with random people in San Francisco, basically ends up giving away the car and avoids making any decisions about her life back at home. Meanwhile Judy flits in and out like a Greek chorus, commenting on what Leah is doing and alternately annoying and guiding Leah.

The writing style in The Red Car is acerbic and a bit meandering, but also terse and compact. Leah is weird but totally relatable at the same time. Not a whole lot happens in this book, and the interactions Leah has are at times unrealistic and sort of unsatisfying, but as an exercise in getting inside someone’s head and exploring all the conflict and confusion there, The Red Car succeeds.

The Red Car is probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. (It’s short, so if you don’t love it, no big deal!)

 

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

modern-lovers-review-ewOne of the hot books this past summer was Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. It’s about a group of college friends who, twenty years later, live near each other on the same street in Brooklyn. Andrew and Elizabeth are married with a son, Harry, who is in high school. Zoe is married to Jane and they have a daughter, Ruby, who has just graduated from the same high school. Andrew, Elizabeth and Zoe were bandmates in college, but have now settled into more middle age pursuits – owning a restaurant, real estate, parenting, etc. When an movie agent comes calling, hoping to get them to sign over their “life rights” so that a biopic can be made about the fourth (now dead) member of the band, the three come to face the fact that their kids are now almost the age they were when they met, and that they are no longer the same people they once were. Is what they have enough? Are they happy? Or should they be making some dramatic changes?

Typical middle age angst.

Here’s what I liked about Modern Lovers: clean, descriptive writing full of realistic details and observations (typical of Straub’s books); a mildly suspenseful plot that makes you want to keep reading (but not too fast); some humorous sendups of Brooklyn stereotypes, like the cult-like people at Andrew’s yoga studio and the private school kids; and Straub’s exploration of middle age.

Here’s what I didn’t like as much: the whininess of the main characters (except Harry, who I liked); the #firstworldproblems that they can’t stop complaining about; their preciousness (Ruby! Oy); and did I mention the whininess? It’s hard to get really invested in these people, with their ennui and the mild discontent that taints their whole existence. I don’t mind books about middle age angst, but I’d like for them to have something to really angst over.

I am not sure why Modern Lovers got all the fanfare and attention that it did. I liked it enough, but I certainly didn’t love it.

I listened to Modern Lovers on audio, and I thought the gentle but precise narration by Jen Tullock was excellent. She developed distinct accents for the different characters that conveyed their personalities well. (I especially liked her voice for Dave, the scammy yogi.) I recommend the audio if you want to give Modern Lovers a try.

ANNE FRANK: HER LIFE IN WORDS AND PICTURES

Anne Frank is one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust, thanks to the diary she kept while she lived in hiding in Amsterdam for more than two years during World War II. Her diary, which survived the war and was published by her father in 1947, has sold over 30 million copies (and is on our mother-daughter book club schedule for the spring).

51bueiext-l-_sx258_bo1204203200_Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures, is a companion piece to Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl. It provides background on the whole family, much of it provided by her father, as well as photos of the family, the Jewish experience in Amsterdam before and during the war, and the Annex where the Frank family hid before being discovered by the police and sent to concentration camps. Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures makes the family human and relatable, rather than abstractions. We learn about their personalities, passions and conflicts, and their aspirations before their lives were so cruelly diverted. The book also intersperses commentary from other witnesses – friends of the family, people who worked in the building where the Franks hid, even survivors who knew Anne and her sister in the concentration camps – which extends Anne’s story beyond the day when the family was arrested and she was unable to write in her diary again.

Needless to say, this is a painful and difficult book in many ways. I, of course, dreaded the day when the family was removed from the Annex, and the section on the concentration camps is unfathomably awful. But, as always, it is so important to understand and be reminded of what happened to the Jews during World War II, so that we may address the roots of genocide and ensure that it never happens again, to anyone.

Anne’s message, in hiding, was one of hope:

“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty, too, will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals! Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”

If only Anne’s life, like the millions of others who perished in the Holocaust, could have turned out differently. What a world we would be living in.

I recommend Anne Frank: Her Life In Words And Pictures to anyone with even a passing interest in Anne Frank and the experience of Jews in the Holocaust. While it’s a good format for young adult readers, with pictures that make it more real than a chapter in a history book or a discussion in a Hebrew school class, it’s also quite upsetting and should be introduced with care and discussed with a parent or teacher.