Sunday, October 27, 2013

Literary Wives #4: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Have you ever loved a book so much, and related so well to the main character that it was difficult to distill a decent-sized review of your impressions? That is exactly what has happened to me with The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin! This was as much as I could condense my thoughts…and I’ve still omitted what I consider to be important items! YIKES! 

Please check out the other bloggers' reviews:
Ariel of One Little Library
                                        Cecilia of Only You

In my opinion, Charles Lindbergh left a “flawed” legacy, at best—yes, he was a brilliant, determined, and dedicated pilot in his time, completing heroic tasks, but he was a despicable human being in his personal life… Anne says to her mother a few days prior to her death, “You’re my hero.” Her mother replies, “You need to…stop looking for heroes, Anne. Only the weak need…heroes…and heroes need…those around them to remain weak. You’re…not weak.” So true…  

I felt sorry for Anne Morrow Lindbergh throughout her childhood and while raising her own children. I could rarely shake that feeling as I read this book. She was the “reliable,” dependable child of the family, not the “golden” daughter nor the footloose carefree daughter… Although her family was monied and privileged, she was prevented from following her own desires regarding college, forced to attend Smith rather than Vassar, her first choice! Quite obviously, Charles and his mother were invited to join the Morrows for Christmas as a way for their oldest daughter (Anne’s older sister) and Charles to meet…and hopefully…marry! There was no thought that Charles might be at all interested in Anne, who was upset with this intrusion upon her family’s Christmas celebration, a ritual that represented “home” to Anne.  

As Anne states, “…duty I understood all too well. If a history of our family was to be written, it could be summed up with that one word. Duty. Duty to others less fortunate, less happy, less educated, less. Although most of the time I thought there really couldn’t be anyone in this world less than me.” I consider Anne proof that regardless of money, children can still feel very marginalized emotionally and have little to no self-esteem. At least it seemed this was how she felt around her own family. I could understand her relationship with her mother—being unable to openly share with her—so many opportunities missed by a parent, never to be repeated, though they did become somewhat closer throughout the years.

Talk about a “whirlwind” romance! On the ride home from their third flight, Charles (let’s just call him less than romantic!) proposes marriage: “…there’s one other thing…I can’t quite get it out of my mind…for the first time I was afraid. Not for myself—I’ve never been afraid for myself… The strange thing is, I was afraid for you… At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it, to tell the truth… But now, I believe I did—not that you were in danger, but—it seems I have a strong desire to protect you, and that must mean something. It must.” Anne: “What must it mean?” Charles: “It must mean that I should ask if you would consider marrying me…” Enter me…my thoughts--What?!? Really?!? At this point I felt Charles was much like his mother: cold, distant, lacking affection/compassion. Anne then realized Charles had been planning this over these past months, for as he had stated, he would never take an unnecessary risk. And what was her response? “I would like to think about it,” she replied in a “grave” voice, realizing that he would not approve of her answering impulsively. I wanted to scream at her—“No-o-o-o-o, Anne!!! Don’t do it! Don’t just do whatever you feel you can to please and appease him! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” She was ALREADY doing what she felt he wanted her to do and in the way he would prefer her to do it! So sad and so wrong… She was definitely a “pleaser”! Four years later she realizes neither of them had mentioned the word “love” that day/evening, but “…we didn’t need to… We were too special for that. For ordinary words, spoken by ordinary couples.” At this point, I almost gagged…she was definitely just as strongly idolizing him as the rest of her family and the world had done. But then I reminded myself, who among us has not been “swept off their feet” at some point by a potential partner? After all, her hand was tingling in the aftermath of their first handshake upon meeting…that had to mean something, didn’t it? :) 

Anne felt that Charles, who was so good, brave, and driven (As she soon discovers, he could “drive” others as well!) had seen her “standing in the shadows” and realized she was braver than she knew herself to be; she found herself wondering just what she could accomplish beyond flying an airplane simply because he thought she could do it? Anne did accomplish much in her adult life: first licensed female glider pilot in the U.S. after allowing Charles to literally push her off a mountain, instructing her, “Aim high to find the best current, and then trust the wind!” She was convinced she would surely die, though she did not and was exhilarated as she was able to successfully navigate through the air. Charles forced her to learn celestial navigation, and he was the one who forced her to write, by having her edit his book, The Spirit of St. Louis, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, never even acknowledging her contributions to his manuscript in his acceptance speech! Though she did persevere to become a successful published writer on her own in later life with Gift from the Sea being her most well-known publication. Charles was definitely an emotionally abusive male, especially to young Charlie, who was kidnapped.

The Literary Wives Questions:

(1) What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Although Anne began and continued her marriage relationship with Charles for quite some time as a “follower” of his “lead,” she did eventually find herself and begin to live life on her own terms, much as a single person! This occurred once the children were out of the house, that “empty nest” can finally provide a double-duty mother such as Anne enough time and energy for self-nurturing. I can certainly relate to that! Anne had to try to “make up” for everything her children needed from a father and didn’t receive: warmth, understanding, and his virtually constant absence because his focus was always “on something bigger, something more important, than his family.” Although he had bothered to return home periodically while the children were still living at home, he stopped once they had moved out. Little did she know this other more important “thing” was actually three other families overseas. Honestly, this guy was full of energy, wasn’t he? Maintaining four “marriage-type” relationships, each with multiple children? Though I would assume he devoted little to no positive emotional energy to any one of these relationships… But I digress. At least Anne did have the official "wife" title which may well have enabled her to achieve more than she might have, though I believe much of her motivation was provided by Charles' insistence and prompting that she learn and do. I can't imagine that he had similar relationships with the other three women ("wives"?) in his life. Sometimes, being the one woman with the official title of legal "wife" may be a good thing. I am reminded of Alice in Sittinfeld's American Wife, as her adult life was definitely determined to a great degree by the fact she was the US President's "wife." 

(2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?

I believe Anne was defined totally by her role as Charles's wife while their marriage only involved the two of them. Once Charlie's disappearance occurred, however, I believe she actually served as both "father" and "mother" to her children, and much less as "wife" to Charles, particularly since he didn't spend much time around his (US) family. Though she did retain the title, she redefined herself once her children were raised and on their own, and I feel she emotionally and mentally disregarded her role as Charles's "wife," as a way to cope with her husband's absence, and to give herself permission to establish her own life and discover a kind and caring relationship with another man, at least for awhile. 

I was glad Anne finally received some true love, acceptance, and appreciation from a partner in her life; it is sad that person did not happen to be her husband. I ended by still feeling sympathy and much empathy in many ways for Anne…it is tough enough to discover that your partner/husband has been unfaithful to you in marriage, but to realize he maintained three other separate families? I consider that to be unimaginable, though it was Anne’s reality…in the end. 

As of October 25, 2013, another printing of the hardcover version of this book has just begun, and a movie is in the works! Congratulations to Melanie Benjamin! Have you read this book yet? If so, what was your impression? And if not, what's keeping you from it? I feel as if I know Anne intimately as a result of this book. What a feat for an author to achieve!

Monday, October 21, 2013

What a Mother Knows by Leslie Lehr

What a Mother Knows by Leslie Lehr
Published by Sourcebooks, May 7, 2013
ISBN: 9781402279560

I was fortunate enough to receive a free copy of this wonderful book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. (It always seems like a holiday when I receive a free book!! YAY!!) Additionally, I would have been thrilled if I had actually purchased it! I heartily recommend this book!

Unfortunately, I have not had time to read it until now--but it was well worth the wait!! I had to forewarn my co-worker this Monday morning that I was tired. Why? Well...huh-hmmm...that could be due to the fact that it was past midnight before I went to bed to sleep last night. You might well ask, why? Well...because I had begun reading this book yesterday morning and I just HAD to know; I just HAD to finish it before I could go to sleep! It was that enthralling for me! 

This was more suspenseful than I'd actually expected. Ms. Lehr managed the plot quite astutely, revealing a little more and then a little more, and then... Well, you get the idea. I typically am compelled by a narrative when the characters are well drawn and impassioned, and was I ever compelled! (See above note about late bed-time!!) I cannot begin to imagine Michelle's shock and disorientation after months in a medically-induced coma, then fighting for more than another year to relearn to walk and talk, etc. Although unable to accomplish a full recovery, it was remarkable the skills and abilities she was able to regain and maintain. It pleased me that Michelle had the satisfaction of knowing her intuition regarding her daughter was spot-on and she did virtually track her down, though Nikki was able to evade her at the last minute. Good for her! Especially considering the lies with which she had to deal once released from the hospital and returned to a "normal"/"routine" life! Her world had been turned upside down during those 18 months!

I was pleasantly surprised by the idea of limb regeneration briefly explored in this book. I have heard an experienced Chinese practitioner state that the only reason the human body does not fully regenerate limbs is the lack of pain tolerance. Quite an interesting proposition, in my opinion. Michelle and Wes seemed to automatically and unconsciously connect at such an intimate level! I was happy for both of them, however, it would be nice to find out how their lives continued in the aftermath of this particular novel. But isn't that usually how it is when a book resonates so clearly for you? You always wish you knew how certain things worked out in the future for specific characters...and that, for me is much of the enjoyment of reading! 

I was rather proud to have caught a major plot twist which Michelle overlooked (a rather rare occurrence for me! lol). I could empathize with Michelle and Laura, discovering (and remembering) their children's illicit activities. Which brings me to one of the main issues related in this book. Parents rarely deal with "bad behavior" in effective ways, yet it is virtually impossible to control emotional reactions to what can be identified by most parents as "betrayal" or "rebellion." Would you have "over-reacted" as Michelle did? Could you have been as kind-hearted, forgiving, and seemingly objective as Laura? It is amazing how a series of small decisions can create seemingly insurmountable and disastrous results. Ah...but such is life...

The final controversial issue surrounds Michelle's memory and the trial. Did you believe her to be "innocent" with regard to Noah's death? Or did it even matter by that time? Personally, I felt there was no positive result to be had by her revealing recently recalled memories, particularly since she was the only "witness" to Noah's last minutes of life. Especially given the fact that some neuroscientists now believe there is no "absolute truth" within human experience, but rather we each "create" our own individual and unique memories of any specific experience/event. (I listened to a TED talk addressing this issue.) This explains how multiple eye-witness accounts of the same event can differ so widely, and to a degree how people can so easily misidentify perpetrators, etc. I have experienced this in my own life; my children, now adults with their own families, recall quite differently various childhood events, and their accounts sometimes vary remarkably from my own memories! That never ceases to amaze me. Personally, I feel Michelle was doing everything in her power to save Noah... What would you have done in Michelle's place? Would you have felt compelled to divulge what you believe you've just now "remembered," or would you have kept those thoughts to yourself? Quite the conundrum! And will she ever share this information with anyone else in her life in the future?

I plan to read Lehr's first book, Wife Goes On.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Literary Wives #5: Ahab's Wife or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund

  • Ahab's Wife or, The Star-Gazer
  • Sena Jeter Naslund
  • ISBN-13: 9780060838744
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: August 2, 2005

This book was so much more than I expected! I was rather pleasantly surprised. I truly enjoyed the spiritual/philosophical discussions and exploration amongst the various characters, as well as the historical information. The writing style seemed to be different within the last 150-200 pages than the earlier portion of the book, though I enjoy epistolary writing, it was a bit disruptive and I felt that as a reader I had to adjust to this change. Likewise throughout the book I found myself needing to purposefully track characters and their inter-relationships; the flow seemed a bit disjointed at times.For me, there was much ironic symbolism in this book: with names (Judge Lord oversees all Ahab and Una's investments, and Liberty, bestowed upon two different children who died young, and one infant still living by book's end), shapes and objects (rather phallic lighthouse and Frannie licking it), and I'm sure many more that I missed! Other issues addressed in this book that I'll not discuss in detail here: cannibalism and the residual guilt of "living" in the aftermath; freedom of choice in many different aspects, choice of partners, of spiritual/religious beliefs, "lifestyle," vocation/career, and ultimately, of "family," or perhaps more accurately of friends who end up being "family you choose"; the "social construct" of madness/insanity--could such eccentric behaviors be acceptable elsewhere as was implied?

Una was my kind of woman in many ways, or perhaps the kind of woman I would like to be... I've often stated that if not for my grandmother actually serving as my main caregiver, I would probably have been a runaway by age 16, had I been forced to live with only my mother. As with Una's father, Ulysses, my mother was very rigid regarding religious beliefs, disregarding any virtues such as kindness, generosity, or respect. Her main parental goals? Fairly simple: to control and manipulate. However, unlike Ulysses, she was rarely physically abusive. Kudos to Una's mother for doing something to stop the abuse being heaped upon her daughter. Though I cannot imagine willingly relinquishing my own daily parental rights to simply  accommodate an abusive man whom I happened to have married, and then remaining loyal to him! But at least she was proactive enough to protect Una, though in my opinion sacrificing so very much--credit given...

What an exciting gut-wrenching opening to this book! Immediately we are made aware of Una's beliefs regarding slavery (echoing her mother's); she helps a runaway slave escape. Susan managed to sneak into her cabin, and stayed to help Una through the labor, birth, and, unfortunately, the death of her first child, Liberty. Disappointingly, Una later learns Susan eventually returned to the deep South to reunite with her mother, hoping to lead her out of slavery, but being pregnant and learning of her mother's foot being cut off due to her own attempted escape, she is branded by her owner (directly on her cheek!) and remanded back into slavery... Susan's story reminded me of the prisoners who have related their inability to deal with "freedom" once released, and many again commit crimes simply because they seek the reassurance, routine, and "comfort" of prison life. I believe this is very much due to lack of resources once released: financial, vocational, and interpersonal, much as with Susan... Though Una very generously supplied her with money, she used it to bribe a bounty hunter who in return did not capture her.

I did chuckle a bit as Una related her appreciation of the fact that Ahab's experience with women of the tropical islands had taught him "to touch the magic places on [her] body." However, she was assured Ahab "went to the island women no longer, saying it was not right for a Captain." mention that it might not be in accordance with a monogamous marriage for him to continue other sexual relationships? Hmmm...

This brings us to one of my issues with the concept of "marriage" as presented in this book. Perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of the times, but it seems that anyone could virtually say they were married, and they were! In today's society, you must at least "sign papers" to prove you're "married"! My personal belief is that any two people (male-male, male-female, female-female) should be able to cohabit (or not), but claim and live in a monogamous relationship if they so choose with no implications regarding civil laws (e.g. taxes, benefits). I have always believed marriage to be a "religious" concept interjected into civil law, and I fail to understand why. I especially fail to understand why we retain it. Wouldn't it be much simpler and fairer to all to hold each person responsible for themselves once of "legal" age? Why is it anyone else's business whether any one of us is involved in a relationship? It should be a private matter totally removed from the public realm, unless we choose to share such information with others. I can only imagine how much more peaceful our society might be by eliminating so many battles over "legal rights" of people who choose to be in relationships: same-sex relationships/marriages, divorce, etc. If each adult was treated the same and only as a single entity, so much the better, in my opinion! Relationships would require NO legal paperwork/validation.  

And now (for me, at least) the overarching theme of this epic work: spirituality. The definition I assign this word is "of or relating to a person's spirit" (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary,; my preference is to assign NO religious connotation to this word. I am deeply spiritual, but organized religion or belief in a deity of any sort no longer holds any attraction for me. My spiritual beliefs are very practical and pragmatic--easily demonstrated in my daily interactions with others and my attitude and behaviors. I believe every human being's intention, thought, and action enters the Universal flow and makes its own contribution to the positive (or negative) energy that encompasses us all. Each bit of energy we contribute then influences others in either a positive or negative way. I believe this is fairly close to the interpretation Ms. Jaslund depicts in this book overall.
Una and her mother Bertha discuss religion and God (in the Christian/Biblical sense)...
     Una: "It might be quite a different thing about God."
     Bertha: "If it makes you happy, believe it."
     Una: "But I want to know the truth."
     Bertha: "The truth about the unseen makes little difference to me."
     Una: "It would make a difference to me. But I do not believe that a man was God."
     Bertha: "Perhaps we each adopt or create our truth." 
Bingo! [Picture me ringing a very large bell! :)] That is exactly what I believe; we humans have created our own understanding of our world as we know it, hence, the large variation and diversity of "religious"/spiritual belief systems around the world and throughout our history on this planet. Una's Aunt Agatha contends we each should believe what we will. Una attends both the Universalist and Unitarian churches and compares these two belief systems, preferring the latter. Jaslund also interjects Margaret Fuller's feminism and transcendentalism, but once Una moves to 'Sconset her spiritual beliefs seem to culminate in the stars and universality of the human experience. Jaslund also interjects scientific knowledge and process through the Mitchell family, particularly Maria who was an astronomer herself who embroidered the message "We are kin to the stars" on baby Justice's dress. Finally Una believes that the fact that she is alive and can see the stars' (to my mind the Universe's) glory is her purpose. "'Little scrap, little morsel,' the stars sing to me, 'we are the same.'" Rather ironically, I just heard on a TED talk last week, a scientist claim that some scientists have discovered humans and stars have developed from the same materials/energy. And among the findings of the high-energy physics colliders (CERN, Fermilab, etc.) is that there truly are no static "particles" as we delve into the ever smaller bits of energy, but rather this energy appears to be in a constant state of flux, alternately taking the shape of two different forms, but NOT remaining in one form or another. So...our world is literally constructed of nothing more or less than ever-changing energy; so what, if anything, is truly "permanent" in the world in which we find ourselves?

As Kit says to Una, "That's the way it is in life. You let go of what is beautiful and unique. You pursue something new and don't even know that the wind of your own running is a thief." Much to ponder...

Now for the "wifely" questions!

1) What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

As stated above in my review, it appeared to be quite easy to become a wife with little to no legal process involved. With life expectancy so limited compared to the present-day, it was not uncommon for spouses to die and another to take their place very quickly: Mr. Hussey, the tavern owner, had at least three wives; the Gaoler had at least three women as partners, though Frannie (the second one), Una's cousin, refused to "marry" him while she cohabited with him and his children and bore a child with him. In effect, it seemed as if a woman could be a wife in a variety of ways, and she could basically choose how she played that role, based upon her husband's needs/guidelines, however. For example, any wife of Mr. Hussey's MUST cook chowder and tend to the tavern. The relationships appeared to be based upon geographic availability moreso than choice in my opinion, which makes sense given the lack of transportation and portability in the mid-nineteenth century. Being a wife appeared to involve doing for your husband and being what your husband expected. However, Frannie seemed to defy these traditional roles. Una was the traditional wife to both Kit and Ahab, but it seems as if she may be more independent with her relationship with Ishmael at the end of the book.     

2) In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?

Upon meeting the Judge, "You must take tea with me, Mrs. Captain." This connected directly with Anne Morrow Lindbergh's claim that any wife would only be known by her association with her husband: "Mrs. Doctor," "Mrs. Lawyer," etc. I believe Una was defined by her role of wife to Kit, though it seemed she was truly dedicated to him simply as a result of her love and compassion for him. Everyone else certainly referred to her as his wife. I believe that many times, society identifies a person within a role and that person feels they must live up to society's expectations of them. I believe Una certainly tried to do this to the best of her ability with Kit, however, he was unable to play the role of a sane person, and therefore, was rejected by the society. I loved Jaslund's interjection of an indigenous culture where "madness" was accepted and not classified as aberrant behavior to be controlled. I vaguely remembered that from an Anthropology course years ago. In her role as Ahab's wife I felt she was a bit more independent, however, she had the advantages of financial independence and the fact that her husband was gone more than he was home with her. I believe her relationship with Ishmael was much different in this regard and much more independent, at least that was my impression. 

Don't forget to check out the others' reviews:

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.

Cecilia of Only You

The sixth Literary Wives read is The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhorn, for December 1.