Sunday, October 31, 2010

Free At Last!

After about 3 weeks of reading, I finally finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and I have to say, I don't get it.  Not the story, mind you, the story is easy enough to understand.  I don't get the flurry of attention that this book has received, as it just didn't leave me all that impressed.

In 2001, The Corrections by Franzen came out with a similar media flurry.  Everyone was talking about it, from the New York Times to Oprah, and I had to read it!  When I finished that book I was also disappointed.  I had expected it to be life changing, but the only change was my realization that compared to the Lambert family, my family was really not all that screwed up after all.  But then, I kept thinking about The Corrections over the ensuing years, and finally, in 2009, I re-read it and I really liked it.  I think that maybe my expectations were too high when I first read it, and then when I re-read it I could see it for the great piece of literature that it actually is.  My feeling at this point, however, is that Freedom is not nearly as good as The Corrections

While reading The Corrections, I felt a bit like a malevolent grandmother, changing her last will and testament from month to month based on which of her grandchildren is "best".  The three adult children in the novel, Denise, Chip, and Gary, all took their turns being at the top, and at the bottom, of the best kid list.  They all made supremely stupid decisions that impacted years of their lives.  But, unlike the characters in Freedom, they all also made good decisions, and you could feel that at the heart of the matter, they were all good people who had complicated relationships with their parents, siblings, and significant others.

I was disappointed with the way the characters are developed in Freedom.  Even Walter and Patty, the husband and wife who are the main characters, are sort of one dimensional. Jessica, Richard, Lalitha, and Patty's siblings are all weakly characterized, and only Richard is really necessary to the story.  The development of Patty is  through her "autobiography", which takes up about 200 pages of Freedom.  Supposedly, Patty's therapist asks her to write about her life, and that autobiography becomes part of the novel.  What bothers me about this is that throughout the autobiography, Patty refers to herself as "Patty" and the voice of the story teller is no different from the voice of the narrator for the rest of Freedom.  In the second part of the autobiography, Franzen, through Patty, weakly apologizes for the limited use of first or second person, claiming that athletes, like Patty, always refer to themselves in the third person.  This comes off to me as lame, and I think that the autobiography could have been improved if Franzen had taken two days or two weeks or two months to re-write it with a different voice, with Patty speaking of herself as "I".

It also seemed to me as if Franzen found that he was writing characters that even he could not like, and that a change had to be made.  Up until Joey asks his dad, Walter, for help, somewhere around page 350, all of the characters are making bad decisions that don't seem consistent with their proclaimed visions of their selves.  Then, all of a sudden, when Joey asks for help, everything turns, and everyone starts getting along.  Maybe I've read the book too recently, and it will make more sense to me later, but for now, that turn is too awkward, and too complete. 

My other problem with the book, is that some inner part of me is a conspiracy theorist, and I can't help but think that this whole book is propaganda for a fight against overpopulation.  In Freedom, Walter is very concerned about fighting global overpopulation, and he comes up with a plan to fund a campaign against it.  The plan is that his friend, Richard, who is a rock star, will get other rock stars together to get young adults (i.e. people without kids yet) to start talking about overpopulation.  He feels that if he can just get overpopulation back onto nationwide consciousness, people will talk about it, and begin to take steps to address the problem.  Hear me out here.  Isn't Franzen, himself, really playing the role of Richard, in using his star power to get his readers talking about overpopulation?  Do you think Oprah could also be into fighting overpopulation?  She doesn't have any kids. . .and how else could you explain her picking this book, as soon as it came out, even after Franzen so blatantly snubbed her when she picked The Corrections?

All I can say is stay tuned to this blog, and if Freedom has the same power to stay in my thoughts as The Corrections does, then 7 or 8 years from now I will re read it, and apologize for my earlier (i.e. current) ignorance.

Next up:  Columbine by Dave Cullen

Listening to:  Yes, after The Memory Keeper's Daughter ended, I missed listening to something in the car!  My kids are at different schools now, so as part of my chauffeur duties, I spend about 45 minutes in the car alone each day after dropping off and before picking up kids.  So, now I am listening to The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and I am really liking it!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Book Group Report - 4

Last night, 6 members of my eclectic book group met to discuss Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  Of those 6, 3 had read the whole book, 2 had not even started it, and I had read 3/4 of it.  Because so few people had finished the book, the conversation was a little coded, with those in the know hinting about what was to come. 

What I was able to gather about the ending is that (1) something unexpected happens; (2) it is a happy ending; and (3) the happy ending may or may not be the wife and mother's fictionalization of their "real" lives.  That's enough to make me want to keep reading.

Due to the timing of Thanksgiving, we won't meet in November, but will meet to discuss The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson in early December.  That gives me lots of time to get through some books on my TBR list!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Coincidence of Choice

My daughter and I drove to Chicago and back last weekend. She likes to watch DVDs in the car during the drive, but because the car can get a little noisy, she prefers to wear headphones to listen to them. This leaves me driving with no one to talk to. Each time this happens, I curse myself for not thinking ahead and getting a book on CD from my library. This time, I did plan ahead, and while I could not get anything on my TBR list, at least I could get one of the books that was in my nightstand waiting for me to get to it, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards.

A couple summers ago, everyone was reading Memory Keeper, but for some reason, I didn't. Now I was able to listen to it, and by coincidence, I am also reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. What's so coincidental about that? I was surprised by the number of ways that the two stories are similar. At first, I kept getting the two books confused, as both husbands came from poor families, but different states. Then both wives had affairs. The most blatant overlap between the two books, however, is how the Berglunds, the husband and wife in Freedom, and the Henrys, the husband and wife in Memory Keeper, are all intelligent people, very capable of doing the right thing, but instead, they each make horrendous decisions that eventually tear their families apart. Both Freedom and Memory Keeper focus more on the son (both families have two children, one son, one daughter), and he also makes some bad choices. Additionally, the stories are shaped by outsiders, Richard, in Freedom, and Caroline, in Memory Keeper, who influence the family dynamic through questionable decisions that they make.

While I have not finished Freedom yet, my hunch is that in the end, I will find Memory Keeper to be more morally redeeming. In Memory Keeper, Caroline raises a baby with downs syndrome, and is a fierce advocate for her. That is something close to my heart, and I could appreciate that Caroline was working so hard for the baby, Phoebe, when she could have taken a much easier way out. At the end of the novel, the Henrys make the conscious decision to choose understanding over hate, and it seems likely that understanding will soon give way to love. I am questioning whether the Berglunds are mature enough to make that same choice.

Still Reading: Freedom The book group meeting is tonight, and I still have 120 pages to go. Ugh! I cannot get through this book!

Friday, October 22, 2010


As I have mentioned, the books that I read are borrowed from the library, bought at used book sales, or received as gifts.  I almost never buy new books.  An exception is Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen which I am reading now for my book group.  I had to buy it because I would have been 28th on the waiting list at my library, and would have never been able to read it before our meeting. At least I had a 40% off coupon!  Today, I went to a rummage sale, and found some good books to add to my shelves!

These are the books that I bought to add to my nightstand full of books waiting for me to read them:

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper
by Harriet Scott Chessman

I'm looking forward to reading this one, because I really liked Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, and I think this one has a similar premise - telling the story of the painting of a famous painting.

Not Becoming my Mother
by Ruth Reichl

I really liked Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (see below), so I am hoping that I'll like this one too.  It looks crazy short and gifty though.  We'll see how it goes.


Empire Falls
by Richard Russo

I don't know much about this one, but it looks good.  It won a Pulitzer, and was a NYT Notable book, so I have to wonder why I haven't read it before.

Also, I got three books that I have already read and loved, but which I don't own because I checked them out of the library to read them.  They are:  Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.  Although my kids are in 5th and 7th grades, I still read to them at night, and my son has been wanting to read The Art of Racing for a while now.  I'm looking forward to reading it again, but I seem to cry more when I read out loud.  This could get soggy.

Still Reading:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  This is not going as quickly as I thought it would.  I am sort of bogged down in the middle now, and trying not to pass judgment on it yet. 

Listening to:  Yes, I'm multitasking!  I have been listening to The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards in my car.  I probably wouldn't have noticed it if I was reading them at different times, but Freedom and TMKD have a lot in common.  I'll get to that in the next post.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Museums of Love

In Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close  by Jonathan Safran Foer, the main character, Oskar, scours New York in search of someone who can answer his questions about his dad, who died in the 9/11 attacks.  One person who Oskar meets is Georgia Black, who invites Oskar in to visit the museum which she has created in honor of her husband.  It contains his baby shoes, his war medals, his report cards, old photos, etc.  Oskar is feeling  "heavy boots" about the museum, which is how Oskar refers to the type of sadness that keeps him up at night. He thinks that the museum shows how much Mrs. Black loved her husband and he assumes that she must miss him terribly, like he misses his dad.  Suddenly, in walks Mr. Black, who is now anxious to show Oskar his own museum which he has created, presumably featuring Georgia.

With these museums in mind, I read The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, determined that I would not be fooled by the foreboding and ominous hints that the main character, Kemal, drops about the museum that he creates for his love, Fuson.  Pamuk even teased that he admired JSF, and that he was borrowing from his style, in that he introduced himself, Orhan Pamuk, as a guest at an engagement party, just as JSF uses himself as a primary character in his earlier book, Everything is Illuminated.  In fact, it was not until page 469, when Kemal states "After all, a love story that ends happily scarcely deserves more than a few sentences!" that I began to believe that this story really would be a tragedy.

The Museum of Innocence  is not a page turner, but I think that is intentional.  I got through the first 200 pages at a steady pace, but slowed down considerably from pages 200 through 450, while the pace of Kemal's relationship with Fuson stalls.  In fact, if I didn't remember Georgia Black, and wasn't so confident that it would all end well, I probably would have stopped reading.  With it all said and done, I am glad to have read Museum, but am anxious to get on to my next book.

By the way, today was the 2010 Chicago Marathon, which I so did not run, but which was the original reason behind this blog. When I first started blogging, I planned to chronicle every mile that I ran in training, and the books that I thought about while I was running.  Oh well.  I'm really not feeling heavy boots about missing it!

Next up:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
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