Visual media have the advantage of providing quick comfort; if you need a change of mood or just an easy distraction, a TV show or a movie or even a YouTube clip can get the job done without too much effort, so long as said visual media is not designed by Ingmar Bergman or Lars von Trier. Earlier this week ToM offered up its suggestions for films that touch on the variegated vicissitudes of family, on the theory that watching Pan’s Labyrinth or Rachel Getting Married might put the craziness of one’s own family in gratifying context. Books, however, don’t offer the same kind of instant remedy. As Meatwad once said, “Books is from the devil, and TV is twice as fast!” However, we humbly offer up these previous posts from ToM about literature–both historical and literary–that explores the protean insanity of family life. If you want to flee dinner-table discussion of illegals, food stamps, and The Big Bang Theory, then these books can provide some pretty diverting comforts.
Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy
In Kennedy’s overlooked 1991 novel, a mousy, middle-aged loan officer at a small Massachusetts bank experiences a mental break one ordinary afternoon, an event that hurls her headlong into a brief but truly memorable bout with megalomania. The formerly friendly and demure widow suddenly becomes filled with overweening self-confidence and withering scorn for anyone less dominant than her, browbeating her friends, family, and coworkers and gathering a following of willing sycophants as she plots to take over the bank and bend the regional financial community to her will. Speaking a mile a minute and with unwarranted gusto, Frankie Fitzgibbons has a distinctive rhythm and patois that reminds one of Sarah Palin on smart pills. She seems to view her late husband, an apparently gentle, genial figure, with a mixture of fondness and disdain, but Frankie reserves her greatest antipathy for her poor daughter, an earnest liberal and environmentalist who eschews glamor for frumpy, practical clothes, even as her mother blossoms into a rightwing sexpot. “My daughter believes that glass pyramids have supernatural powers in them and that you can generate a sixth sense by listening to synthesizer music while chewing Sen Sen,” Frankie tells a news reporter. “Barbara is so liberal she cleans up after her dog with her bare hands.” After reading Ride a Cockhorse, your own mom never looked so good.
See “Frankie Fitzgibbons, the Coen Brothers, and the Free Market” (1/17/2013)
Someone by Alice McDermott
McDermott’s latest is the tale of a quintessential everywoman in the mid-twentieth century, but it seems to have more than the average share of sorrow packed into it. The “someone” of the title is Marie, a girl from a modest Irish-American family in Brooklyn, growing up with very poor eyesight in the 1930s and 1940s. The entire story is told through the fragmented and disordered impressions of Marie’s life, and readers get only an oblique glimpse at many characters and key events–a sickly, most likely alcoholic father, the mental breakdown of a tortured older brother, a beery night out as a teenager during World War II–but it’s clear to the reader that this very ordinary woman shoulders burdens familiar to many women, from insensitive boyfriends (one young cad blows Marie off to marry a wealthier, prettier woman, reasoning that it was the only practical decision–with his one leg shorter than the other–“gimpy me, blind you”–what chance would their children have?) to her own adult children, who hurriedly whisk her from doctor appointment to doctor appointment while juggling their own professional and family obligations. Perhaps all these sorrows are perfectly normal, but McDermott deftly takes the reader through the sweeping scope of a single life in a short book, putting all the small frustrations and heartaches in a bigger perspective.
Mom by Rebecca Jo Plant
Few archetypes seem as fixed and eternal as that of Mom. Yet in interwar and post WWII America, debates raged over the proper amount of mothering, particularly of male children; critics argued that those mothers who mothered too much were guilty of “Momism” or “Mother Love.” Progressive reformers saw danger in older Victorian ideals of motherhood and sought to eliminate the image of the Matriarch. Due to the success of urban reform movements, the work of women’s organizations came to be associated with the coercive power of the state. What Plant uncovers is that American ideals regarding motherhood changed over time, often tied to larger debates regarding gender and sexuality. Who knew too much mom could be a bad thing?
See “Making Sense of Mom: The Ideology of 20th Century Maternalism” (2/14/2011)
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
In a post-Full House world, families come in all shapes and sizes; three men can raise a family in San Francisco, and nowadays Uncle Joey can finally marry Uncle Jesse. It’s important to remember that couples without children are families too, and Fox’s 1970 novel offers a look into the inner life of the increasingly influential yuppie DINKs (dual income no children) who have transformed America’s cities in the age of gentrification. Like Mad Men‘s Peggy and Abe, the two leads of Desperate Characters, Otto and Sophie, are nascent creative-class types who struggle to deal with the pervasive anomie of a declining New York. As their marriage unravels under the pressure of mounting crime, paranoia, and a possible case of rabies, the couple’s disordered personal life increasingly mirrors the crumbling society around them; “God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside,” Sophie thinks aloud, a sentiment that struggling families today might relate to in the days of Sandy Hook and Fort Hood.
See “Desperate Characters: Best of 2012 Part II” (12/21/2012)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Refracting history through modern pulp culture lenses (as in the film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter or the play Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) can be both insightful and problematic. Yet, recasting fictional characters through the prism of modern obsessions can also yield surprisingly fresh new perspectives on old topics. The sociopaths at the heart of the The Sisters Brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, provide a very modern take on pre-Civil War western America and the complicated ties of family. “The Sisters Brothers takes a time worn genre and its related archetypes and infuses them with modern sensibilities and anxieties via a vernacular squarely rooted in the antebellum West,” we noted in 2012, and looking back it seems no less accurate. Including discussions of Clint Eastwood movies like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider along with the aforementioned Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, ToM notes the increasing tendency to stare back at American history like a hipster on an absinthe binge. Spend some time with the Sisters brothers and tell us you won’t welcome back Aunt Bee and her occasional racist diatribe? Then again, maybe you can get one of the Sisters to take care of her.
Intimate Citizenship by Nayan Shah
Travel seems like an unavoidable nightmare around Turkey Day. Airports bulging with harried twenty somethings struggling to get back to the midwest from their fancy East Coast gig serve as only one of several figures frequently seen sprinting through airport security with wild-eyed abandon. While this sort of transiency might be temporary, a brief respite from the sedentary grind of the work week, Nayan Shah’s award-winning Stranger Intimacy raised new questions about family, sexuality, and transiency, particularly in relation to South Asian and Asian workers in late nineteenth and early twentieth century North American west. Including a discussion of his previous award winning work, Contagious Divides, ToM explores the importance of domesticity, via Shah’s newest book, in debates regarding citizenship, community and belonging. Marriage, the subject of so many debates over the past decade and one of the principles methods of family formation stands at the heart of such discussions, as does state intervention into the institutions benefits and legal rights. Shah captures the complex intersection of labor, family, and state regulation to reveal the underpinnings of the modern North American west and America’s continued dependence on landless, migrant labor.
American Rust, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Industrial Small Town America
Few symbols seem as anachronistic as the mills that once produced American steel. Often when these jobs left, so too did many of the moorings that held small town American life together, chief among them family. With 2009’s American Rust, Phillip Meyer invites the reader to look at the state of these once prosperous small towns tucked away in the hills of Pennsylvania. In this sprawling article, ToM touches on how Meyer’s work aligns with the dark visions put forth by pop culture figures like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and movies like Zoolander, Field of Dreams, and The Fighter, revealing both blind spots in Meyer’s appraisal and very real, very troubling issues facing families in places like Buell, PA. Dig into that turkey because in all likelihood you’re better off than most of the characters in American Rust (honestly it’s hard not to be), though perhaps not Zoolander.