Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book Tour: The Mermaid of Brooklyn

If I was planning on having children anytime in the near future (disclaimer: I am not), Amy Shearn’s The Mermaid of Brooklyn would make me seriously rethink that decision. And, actually, is making me reconsider having children ever.

The story’s main character, Jenny Lipkin, is one of those Park Slope stereotypes that most of New York City usually speaks of with disdain. (That’s my characterization, because that is how it is in real life.) She was a successful magazine editor who just decided to give up her career to have kids and stay home and raise them. Thus she becomes part of the Park Slope Bubble, spending days within a 5 block radius of home, where neighborhood politics gain a little too much importance—it’s almost like high school again, stuck in this small insular community where the smallest gossip inevitably gets blown out of proportion because there is nothing better to do and this small world becomes your ENTIRE LIFE and you think everything else in the neighborhood, in the CITY, revolves around you.

Ok, so now do you understand the type of world Jenny’s living in?

On top of that, her husband went out for cigarettes one night and just never came back. So now Jenny’s stuck with two small children, her only support system being in-laws that she’s never felt completely welcome around and her best mom-friend in the neighborhood. Jenny also appears to have a history with post-partum depression, though it’s never overtly identified or explored. When Jenny’s driven to the edge, she does the unthinkable and jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Except she survives. And when floating there under the waters of the East River (gross), her body becomes inhabited by a mermaid that brings her back to life, puts her on a train back to Park Slope, and helps Jenny put her life back together. But this mermaid bit isn’t really the main point of the story—don’t worry, it’s not that much fantasy. It’s more about the situation Jenny is faced with and how she copes.

This was an odd book for someone my age and in my situation. I live in NYC and can understand Jenny’s feeling of isolation 100%. I loved how she observed her own community with such a grain of salt, understanding “this place is ridiculous, but somehow I became a part of it and now it is my life.” What I can’t relate to, though, is the isolation that comes with having children. I’m sure it’s one of those things you don’t understand until you experience it, but Jenny frustrated me often because she was just so whiny, woe is me, no one understands my pain, self-absorbed. She focused on surviving but in the most noxious way possible, with a mentality of “I don’t deserve this” rather than “I can get through this.” For that, I failed to garner too much sympathy for her.

The pacing of this is slow as you become absorbed in Jenny’s small little world. And as you read, you’re left questioning the validity of much of the story. Did things happen? Is this all metaphorical? Does it even matter? Shearn has chosen an interesting way to tell a story that will connect with many readers—many mothers—who have probably felt very close to the edge one time or another. And so because I haven’t felt that, I’m not totally sure what to take away from the end, if anything. Maybe someone who has been there, done that would finish the last page and say, “YES.” But I was just sorta left with, “Okaaaaay….”

This would be a great book for a book club of ladies who can relate, because it has many discussion points. No issue is too obvious; they are presented subtly or somewhat hidden beneath layers. It would be a good one to explore with a group.

This post is a stop on The Mermaid of Brooklyn‘s TLC Book Tour! There will be many more fabulous bloggers posting their opinions in the next two weeks; the tour runs through May 3rd—visit the tour page to see the schedule and follow the discussion.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fiction | Finding Freedom on the Open Road

Usually, as one deeply committed to the literary realm, I am disinclined to admit that I judge books by their cover. But this one I totally did. I absolutely fell in love with this cover, and that was my sole reason for picking it up.

Luckily, the actual story in Nina LaCour’s The Disenchantments did not disappoint.

Colby and his best friend Bev have had a plan since they started high school. Upon graduation, they were putting college on hold and packing up to backpack through Europe instead. But not before their final farewell—a week-long tour with Bev’s band, The Disenchanments, from San Francisco up the coast to Portland. The tour doesn’t start so well, though, when Bev reveals to Colby that she’s abandoning their plans to start college in the fall.

It’s not so much Bev’s abandonment of their plans, though Colby is mega-disappointed he won’t be traipsing around Europe with his best friend. It’s that he knows she has been lying to him for so long—long enough to apply, long enough to get accepted, and long enough to make plans—all while going on as if they’re really heading to Europe after the tour.

It doesn’t help that (of course) Colby is actually totally in love with Bev, making this situation 1,000 times worse for him.

The Disenchanments covers the week of that road trip, and it’s a pretty delightful, optimistic experience. We experience the story through Colby’s eyes, and he’s clearly feeling a lot. Not just about Bev and the situation at hand; he’s thinking all about friendships, relationships, love, and life—particularly, what exactly he’s going to be doing with his once this road trip is done. All the interesting people they meet along the way—never too “out there” and never “too much” to feel contrived—are like pieces of the puzzle Colby is working on about his life.

The thing I liked most about this book is like what I said about the characters not feeling contrived. It never felt like the author was trying to hard to make a statement about life and uncertainty and the freedom that comes after high school. For example, you’d think that, being on tour and all, The Disenchantments would have a following. But in reality, they kinda suck. And Colby knows it. And everyone who listens to them knows it. And the band members themselves probably know it. But they don’t care. They like to play, so they do. It would’ve felt too phony if, on top of everything else, the band was actually amazing. Instead, I think it provided this amazing message about originality in a tone that didn’t take itself too seriously. It felt authentic.

Overall, it made me want that exhilarating feeling of uncertainty when you have nothing but freedom before you—both on the road and in life.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Nonfiction | Under a Watchful Regime

I recently realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve read any nonfiction, despite having an abundance of nonfiction titles on my to-read list. I’ve been wanting to read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea after seeing it featured on several bookstores’ shelves and sporadically running across interesting articles and photo series depicting life in the insular North Korea. Demick tells the narrative of life as a North Korean through the eyes of six defectors, covering the county’s history from its split with the rest of the peninsula to the present day.

One of the first things I realized from this book was that Demick’s writing style was going to be very easy to understand. She opens with a history of the Korean War and how, essentially, North Korea is all our fault. It was Americans that chose the dividing line, causing ideologies to flock to each pole—communism in the North, capitalism in the South. Overall, Demick’s quick overview gave me a better understanding of the Korean conflict than AP US History did back in high school.

The second thing I realized from this book was I never knew I could feel so hungry.

Much of the narrative covers the North Korean famine of the 1990s. She went into great anecdotal detail of how her subjects had to scavenge for food, creatively finding ways to fill their stomachs. And how sadly, most of them didn’t even realize that this wasn’t normal. They were part of such a cult of worship, utterly trusting in their government and beloved leaders, that it was never even a consideration to blame the government. Many pages are filled with the day-to-day struggles North Koreans had to endure as they fought to survive even as an incredibly repressive regime watched their every move.

What’s so interesting is how long these rules of society remained, despite the desperation—rules against personal relationships, voiced opinions, and outlawed media; all things that are trivial when you’re literally fighting for your life. It’s as if the government expected people to just not notice the hunger and go one with their daily lives.

There was, of course, a breaking point for many, and this led citizens to begin escaping to neighboring China or South Korea. The stories of these journeys are perhaps the most interesting part of the novel, as you learn the risks, sacrifices, and hardships along the way. What’s even more interesting, though, is that the number of defectors is still an incredibly small portion of the North Korean population. There’s something that is keeping many citizens where they are, and it’s fascinating—and frightening—to think about the strength of this mental influence.

I thought Demick’s narrative style was a compelling, though terrifying, way to tell the story, because you are put in these particular shoes, following their footsteps. I was flabbergasted with the realization that I was alive during this. Not just alive because I was alive when the Berlin Wall fell. But alive as a conscious and aware individual that had the capacity to learn and understand such a situation. It seems so recent for such a terrible atrocity. This was an easy to follow, though sometimes difficult to read, solid piece of nonfiction that illuminates a mind-boggling reality.