November 16, 2008

COST by Roxana Robinson

Originally uploaded by soyrosa
I have a confession to make. I read novels. I prefer to find ones that have relevance and redeeming social value, but I've been known to read trashy novels also. I don't read them for educational purposes, or even for self-improvement. I read them because I need to relax my brain. I read them because I can't afford to take a vacation, or even get out of the house, every time I need to. I reads them because I have to, because I get very grumpy if I don't.

Those of you who know me, know that I can be a little compulsive, a bit of a workaholic, and most definitely an extreme multi-tasker. So it is only natural and fitting that I multi-task my novel reading and let you all in on the fun. How about I give a little review of what I'm reading every now and then?

Most recently I read COST, a novel by Roxana Robinson. For me, the best thing about reading a novel is the sense of visiting another place, getting to know about other people's lives. But for the effect to really work, the characters in the novel have to be involved in situations that seem real to me. And it's much easier to become immersed if the concerns that run through their heads mirror the concerns of the people I see around me. In COST, the concerns are sometimes almost too close to home, or rather too close to that existential angst we all face.

We are treated to the perspectives of several family members during a family crisis around drug abuse. This would be a cliched topic except for the clear voice of self questioning that runs through the entire book. Each character metes out their own doses of self justification, come into contact with the reality created by the behavior they've been justifying, and then come to terms with it in various ways with different levels of success, depending upon their age and level of development. Husbands come to see the ways they haven't seen their wives in long years of marriage. Mothers try to untangle the webs of cause and effect between themselves and their children and even with their own parents. Brothers look to each other and come to see the adult that came from the child and in turn step into their own adulthood, or don't and fall into the abyss of drug addiction and personality loss.

Each character is believable. They share with us their interior stories about mistakes, about willful bad behavior and attempts and failures and good intentions, They share them in the sense that the author makes us privy to them, and in the sense that we know these stories and justifications from within ourselves. Seeing all these characters, all beside one another trying out their differing points of view of this same situation, brought the fact of my point of view into more clear focus. When immersing myself, serially, in the flow of these different perspectives I couldn't help but view my own perspective as just that, another perspective. Central to me, yes, just as the characters in this novel quite obviously experience their perspectives as central, but also existing beside the perspectives of the others in my life. Some novels buoy you up. This one puts you right down in the crowd, one of many and that's ok.

And, on a more somber note, each character quietly and with varying degrees of regret, come to realize the cost they paid in their lives for their personalities, for being committed to who they were. Ms. Robinson occupies the self of each character with such understanding that each cost seems to exist in a different dimension, in a completely different personal landscape with a different personal language. At the same time, it's the intersection of these personal dimensions in the real intimacy of their lives that creates all the action and interplay of the novel. This interplay and reckoning and regret is written in a sympathetic and loving manner. These characters do not come to hate themselves, but struggle to accept what they have, as we all do to some degree or another. In that regard, the novel is rewarding because it reinforces the value of our everyday emotional struggle to live in intimacy with those we love. And what is more valorous and worthwhile than that?

While I became attached to the people who lived in this world and understood their difficulties, it was not my world. The protagonist is a college professor struggling for tenure. The setting is a summer house, albeit a run-down summer house, but a summer house nonetheless. Her divorced husband lives in New York. They both struggle to pay thousands a month to send a son to a good rehab for an indeterminate stay. Their difficulties are not weighed upon by immediate abrupt financial hardship, as mine would be in the same situation. I'm used to that in novels. I look for my own working class background to be reflected but don't often find it. It gets a bit tiresome but I put up with it, even cheerfully, if the characters are as well written as these.

Alright, the book's tone is a bit glib. It move quickly. The sentences are not complex. But still, I can't remember reading such a good assessment of what it's like to try to be a daughter, a husband, a mother. Sons try to find their place. Brothers look at each other as brothers do and we get to see that. These people try to figure out what I've been trying to figure out, how do I be myself and still be these other roles, still have all this meaning for the loved ones in my life? It helps to see what they think as they go along, and it was enjoyable. And the little smattering of progressive politics doesn't hurt either.

Thumbs up for this book.

COSTS by Roxana Robinson is available at the Beaver Library (as soon as I return it).
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November 14, 2008


Obviously Tina has fallen down on the job here, so I feel compelled to step in. I tried to get her to write this blog herself, but she said something about sleep and the alarm clock so I'll give it a shot. For the record, I can't figure out for the life of me why she gets up so early and runs around the house doing so much stuff. Humans, who can figure them out?

My name is Pierre. Many of you out there know me already. Yes, it's me, the standard poodle that lives at Tina's house. (Shout out to Emma if she's reading this.) I must confess, it does sometimes get kind of boring just lying around the house, so I thought I'd try my hand at blogging. Besides there's finally some national news that interests me.

Generally I'm apolitical. Well, alright, yes, I do occasionally attend the anti-war/peace vigil with my tree-hugging owners. Alright, alright, yes, I also used to wear a "Bite Bush" sign around my neck at the vigil, but that was mostly Tina's idea. I just went along with it to be polite. Well, I did think Bush was an idiot. But generally I'm opposed to such obvious simplistic political sloganism.

Which is why I'm happy to see that finally the media has hit upon an issue that requires both intellectual depth and emotional nuance to fully appreciate. In other words, an issue worthy of my attention.

Yes, I'm talking about the first puppy issue.

Now, before you say I'm biased, consider what President Obama elect is looking for in a dog. I believe he said he needs a hypoallergenic dog? Well, what can I say? Poodle.
And, after all, whatever dog he chooses will have to be capable of holding up under the scrutiny of the press. And look good doing so. We standard poodles are refined and elegant, alert and intelligent. Even those of us that are slightly more excitable exhibit a sophistication and zest for life that's rare in a four-legged mammal. In fact we are so intelligent and savvy that we make the humans we live with feel and behave more intelligently themselves, just from being around us.
I have read that Sasha Obama wants a goldendoodle. That might be a good compromise, given President-elect Obama's stated penchant for mutts. I've heard that labradoodles are quite personable also, though I've never met one.

But why settle for less than the best? I'm sure there are many very nice goldendoodles, but we standard poodles are a breed apart. We are not working dogs. We've been companion dogs for centuries. We are experts at it. Think of us as the professional diplomats of the dog world. We don't often commit faux pas, but when we do we're mortified though we can still pull the situation off with aplomb.
I know the politically correct thing to do would be for the Obama's to bring home a "rescue" dog. But the fact of the matter is, standard poodles aren't abandoned. And what does that say about our personalities? It say that we are adept at insinuating ourselves into the very fabric of human life, not in an intrusive way of course, but in a pleasant, civilized and deeply satisfying way. Our humans soon find their lives unimaginable without us. We bring beauty, charm and a subtle sense of life's richness wherever we go.
Mr Obama, surely a man of your obvious intelligence would benefit by having a standard poodle in his life.
And don't worry about your image. You don't have to do all that frou frou stuff with our hair. Humans just get carried away because we inspire artistic feelings and they sometimes can't resist expressing those feelings with us. I admit it's a little embarrassing at times, but we forgive them because their hearts are in the right place. Just resist those urges and we can look fairly normal, though perhaps not, dare I say, redneck.
I hope you will take this request seriously. I make it with your best interests at heart. Tina worked very hard in your campaign, and so I want to see you do well in your presidency. In helping you, I also feel I am helping her. Tina has been good to me and I want only good things for her. I know she is anxiously awaiting your coming policy decisions. I think it would give her a feeling of confidence if you exhibited wisdom in your dog choice.
Of course this is only my humble opinion. There are many nice dogs out there and I'm sure you'll make a good choice, no matter which way you go with it.
Respectfully yours,
Pierre the poodle
PS The picture heading this entry isn't me. I found it on Openphoto (or something like that). Isn't she beautiful. See what I mean about standard poodles?

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November 5, 2008

YES WE DID, and so did I

I know everyone's happy and all that, but all I have to say today is this:
Never drink champagne from a styrofoam cup
in a Union Hall.

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