Tag Archives: Melissa F.

The Story of Beautiful Girl

The Story of Beautiful Girl

Every once in awhile, a novel comes along with the power to significantly change one’s perspective while simultaneously being a beacon of hope for people who have been forgotten, who are disenfranchised and who remain on the fringes of society.

It happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee that illuminated race relations in the Deep South. It’s plausible to draw comparisons with that and The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

(A bit of a disclaimer: Rachel Simon is someone whom I consider a friend, as I’ve been a fangirl follower of her career since 1990 when I attended a writer’s conference where she was the keynote speaker. I’ve taken a few writing classes of hers, and we hang out on The Facebook and The Twitter. I have tried to separate all this from the novel, but the truth is?  I love her work and have for quite some time. Even if she never gave me the time of day, I would still be saying what I say here about this book.)

As I was saying.  Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is, The Story of Beautiful Girl is also a game-changer, this time for people with developmental disabilities who were, once upon a time, “put away,” sent to stark and barbaric institutions with cringeworthy names like The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, forgotten by families and by the world as a whole.

That’s the name of the fictitious Pennsylvania “school” where Lynnie Goldberg was placed as a young child by her middle-class, Caucasian family who didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to cope with and accept her developmental disability. Such was common in the 1950s and 60s, a time when parents were advised to put their children away to better “forget” about their mistakes in the form of their children who were labeled as imbeciles, idiots, incurable.

(But as The Story of Beautiful Girl illustrates so clearly, forgetting becomes impossible to do when hearts are involved, even when the distance of years and place come into play.)

At the School, Lynnie — who is mute — meets Homan, an African American man who is deaf, but who is only known to the school officials as a John Doe, Number Forty-Two.  It’s important to note that he is based on a real person, representing the plight of people of color who had disabilities in that era.  Lynnie and Homan become friends and fall deeply in love amidst the neglect and abuse and racial relations that was all too prevalent in such institutions (and which still exists today, here, in the United States).  Lynnie is also pregnant, and during one storm-filled November night in 1968, the couple escapes from the School.  A baby girl is born, and the couple finds refuge — temporarily — with Martha, a retired widowed schoolteacher living in a remote place, both in terms of place (her home) and in terms of the fragile, unresolved feelings she still carries after her husband’s emotional distance and loss of their only child.

From the book jacket: “When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. Before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: ‘Hide her.'”

Lynnie and Homan choose Martha’s home because her mailbox is a lighthouse, a beacon of hope for those who are lost.  The symbolism of the lighthouse plays out throughout the novel, as Lynnie and Homan and Martha and the baby journey separately (but always interconnected) out of the darkness of their lives into the light. It is not an easy road, and as the reader, you find yourself holding your breath and turning pages to learn what happens next.  In doing so, you become immersed in a world that is rarely talked about, one that is shrouded in darkness even today. (For those who may be concerned that the abuse, neglect and race relations are too graphic in this novel, they are not portrayed as overly such.  It is more heartbreaking and eye-opening than horrific.)

The most significant aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how it sheds light on one of the biggest disgraces in our country: how we treat those who are developmentally disabled and the people who were put away. Another compelling aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how universal this story is, and Simon conveys that to her reader through the physical sense of place and the spiritual elements present throughout the novel.  In regards to place, there were times I wanted to know definitively where the action was taking place.  I like to be grounded as a reader, to know where I am.  You don’t always have this with The Story of Beautiful Girl, and it took me a few chapters to realize that this jarring was intentional. With the action sweeping literally across the country – from Cape Cod to San Francisco, for example — it illustrates that people with disabilities (and especially those of color) are everywhere in our society.  In every community.

Similarly, the spiritual aspect was one that I appreciated about this novel too. It’s hard not to miss the symbolism of the young couple traveling a long distance, the seeking of shelter, the secret birth of a baby in a barn. When the novel opens, it’s November, the eve of Advent and the Christmas season.  Yet, Lynnie was raised in the Jewish faith and The Story of Beautiful Girl includes a traditional Passover.  Buddhism comes into play, too.  These elements are not heavy-headed but again, included intentionally to show the universality of people with disabilities being part of a religious community, even though that community might not know how to address and minister to their spiritual needs.

When I finished The Story of Beautiful Girl, I immediately thought of the phrase “faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.” That is, at its essence, what this book is about.  It is about having faith and trust in others, in rebuilding that faith and trust when it is irrevocably taken, and ultimately, having faith and trust in yourself to survive the darkest of nights and go on to do what might have seemed impossible.

It’s about hope that never fades, that survives decades. (“There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could. And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad” (pg. 313).

And yes, The Story of Beautiful Girl is very much a love story.  It’s a love story that illuminates how people with disabilities aren’t immune to the feelings of love that we all experience. It’s a story about the love between a parent and a child, and how those bonds aren’t always defined by blood or race. It is a love story “for those who were put away” (to whom the book is dedicated), to those who have who have been forgotten and neglected, and those — regardless of color, creed, disability and gender — who have risen from darkness into light and those still journeying on that path.

Reserve a copy of The Story of Beautiful Girl.

~ Melissa F.

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Bibliotherapy and Me

I’ve become intrigued with the field of bibliotherapy, having been the recipient of a few recent articles forwarded from Facebook friends who have told me that I should consider becoming a bibliotherapist when I grow up.*If you’re unfamiliar with bibliotherapy, it involves much more than suggesting a good book to someone going through a difficult time. Our colleagues at the American Library Association (ALA) offer the following description and background:

“The use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance. Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.” —bibliotherapy in ODLIS, Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science.

In 1966, the Association of Hospital and Institution Libraries, then a division of the American Library Association, issued a statement on nomenclature accepting the following definition:

“Bibliotherapy: The use of selected reading materials as therapeutic adjuvants in medicine and psychiatry; also guidance in the solution of personal problems through directed reading.” (AHIL Quarterly, Summer 1966, p. 18.)

For as long as I can remember, books have always been a source of comfort for me during times of personal struggle.  Like many teenage girls who grew up in the ’80s, my formative years were spent with Judy BlumeMargaret and Deenie made me feel less alone and Davey (Tiger Eyes) showed me that life can go on after the death of one’s father. Other books were transformative during our infertility journey, parenting a child with autism and many other life challenges.

novelcureI’m a believer in literary kismet, the happenstance of discovering the right book at precisely the right time.  And nothing makes me happier than matching a reader with a book that gives them new knowledge or insight — or simply some comfort or respite from the problems and worries at hand.

Bibliotherapy is more than this, of course. It involves specialized training and knowledge. Still, it’s a concept that I find fascinating and interesting to ponder.

In the meantime, while my job here at CLP isn’t one of a librarian, I love that I’m able to participate in opportunities to share my favorite books.  Those of you who have visited one of our neighborhood locations may have noticed that some books (and DVDs and CDs, too!) have slips of paper tucked inside as bookmarks, indicating that it’s a “Staff Pick.”  Displays in the libraries often highlight books that staff have selected as especially noteworthy. (My personal staff picks will be on display at the Main Library in Oakland next week. If you have a chance to visit, I’d love to know what you think!)

Who knows?  Someday when I grow up, I might explore the possibility of pursuing bibliotherapy more seriously.  (* Note to my bosses: I’m perfectly happy in my current job, thank you.)

And if I do, then I know I’m in the right place.

For more on bibliotherapy, check out our catalog offerings here.

What are some of the books that helped you through a difficult or challenging time in your life?

-Melissa F.

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In Appreciation: Pat Conroy, 1945-2016

The literary world lost another popular figure last Friday with the death of bestselling author Pat Conroy.  In addition to Flannery O’Connor, Pat Conroy bears responsibility for my love of Southern fiction and my attraction to the genre’s dark themes.

The Prince of TidesIt started — as with most of his fans, I’d imagine — with The Prince of Tides. Although it has probably been close to three decades since I read the novel as a teenager (a re-read may be in my future), it’s one of those books that has stayed with me since its 1986 publication. That’s probably because of the 1991 film starring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte, who captured all too well the emotional devastation of abuse, mental illness and familial dysfunction in Conroy’s prose. His subsequent novel Beach Music (1995), which took Conroy ten years to write in the aftermath of his mother’s suicide, had just as much of an impact on me.

South of BroadNext to The Prince of Tides, my favorite Pat Conroy book (of those I’ve read) is South of Broad. Spanning several decades in the lives of a group of close-knit high school friends in Charleston, South Carolina (Conroy’s home turf), each character brings personal baggage to this story. Like his previous works, there’s suicide, abuse in every form (physical, emotional, sexual), alcoholism, racism, infidelity, unrequited love, mental illness, celebrity, homophobia, and probably a few more -isms that I’ve forgotten since reading this one.

(Also, it contains more than a fair share of unpolitically-correct language, which reflects what I’d imagine would have been common dialogue in the Deep South during the tumultuous ’60s. In these more enlightened times — presidential election campaigns notwithstanding — reading such language can be a bit jarring, especially when listening to the audio, which I did.)

The story opens in 1969, in Charleston, South Carolina, and is narrated by Leo King. A high school senior, Leo’s family has been shattered by his older brother’s suicide, an event after which Leo understandably is never the same. Each member of the King family deals with their loss – and personal demons – in their own way.

An innocuous request from Leo’s mother, the school principal, to befriend several new students at school – orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead as well as the King’s new neighbors, twins Sheba and Trevor Poe – sets in motion a chain of events, friendships, and alliances during the next 20 years. When they come together after years apart to help one of their own, they are tested and changed by everything that they know (or thought they knew) about each other and themselves.

Yeah, it sounds a little The Big Chill-ish (also set in South Carolina!) and in the hands of a less talented writer, this could easily fall flat. But this is a Pat Conroy novel that we’re talking about here. The man knew how to write, and he knew his material – the streets of Charleston (South of Broad takes its name from a section of Charleston that is home to most of that town’s elite and society folk), the Low Country, the food (oh my God, the food!), the class distinctions, the dysfunctional families and the dark subject matter. Even with some of the heavy topics, there are parts of South of Broad that are rather funny (Leo’s mother’s groupie-like devotion and downright fangirl-ism of author James Joyce, for one).

It’s not a perfect novel. Throughout the story, Sheba is repeatedly described as being exceptionally beautiful, perfect in appearance in every possible way. She has an aura around her, one that she uses to her advantage in her chosen career. At times, Conroy’s superlative prose about Sheba struck me as occasionally over the top (perhaps intentional, as Sheba herself is over the top, but slightly annoying in parts.)

This can be forgiven. Far better to remember Pat Conroy for his unparalleled ability to bring the rippling, tide-like emotional erosion from life’s darkest and most tragic of subjects to the page.  His talent will be missed.

Have you read any of Pat Conroy’s books? Which ones resonated most with you?  

~ Melissa F.

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Listening to Citizen

Print

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

It’s been nearly a year since I read Claudia Rankine’s award winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric. Up until now, I’ve resisted every opportunity to review this book or even participate in a discussion about it with others — yet when we Eleventh Stackians were self-selecting our topics for Black History Month, offering my thoughts on Citizen was the first topic that came to my mind.

It’s a book that’s difficult to talk about, yet one that has the potential to serve as the gateway to some of our most important conversations. For just as Claudia Rankine isn’t defined as simply a poet, a playwright, an artist or an essayist, Citizen is a book that defies being boxed in by a single genre.  Is it a poem?  An essay?  A meditation or prayer?

I think it’s all of these things, and it feels fitting that this book doesn’t conform to a singular label. In some ways, that lends itself well to the immediacy of emotions that makes reading Citizen an experience.

CitizenAt times, that immediacy can be an uncomfortable one — and maybe that discomfort stems from my being a white, middle class, raised-in-Suburbia person in today’s America. Sometimes it is hard to know how to talk about issues of race (Am I going to offend her? Is he going to get upset? Do I sound ignorant? Privileged? Something else? Maybe I should just stay quiet, pretend I didn’t see, didn’t hear, was distracted).  After all, how can we ever really know or understand someone else’s reality?  My reality is not yours and vice versa. Claudia Rankine’s point in Citizen is that the unshared experience doesn’t excuse us for not seeing and acknowledging the experience of others.

Understanding and acknowledging the hard truths of our lives begins with listening and by paying attention to others’ experience. By directing her reader’s attention to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) instances of racism that occur in American society, Claudia Rankine brings her experience and hurt and pain to the page where we see it in all its rawness and honesty.

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lung. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.

The poetry (the American lyric) of Citizen forces us to slow down, to listen, as Claudia Rankine writes eloquently of real-life instances of racism that we know from the headlines — the cover illustration is of a hoodie, symbolizing the killing of Trayvon Martin — as well as the more subtle, yet personally searing moments that too often get glossed over and dismissed altogether.

Two examples that have stayed with me:

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible — I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.

and

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so, sorry.

~ Melissa F.

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In Praise of Scroogenomics

Scroogenomics

Yes, I fully realize I’m a bit of a killjoy, posting a review about a book called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

And yes, I fully realize the irony that a good many Eleventh Stack readers might very well be out doing the exact thing that economist Joel Waldfogel cautions against, instead of reading my brilliant review of this intriguing book.

To that I say, bah humbug.  Because really, it is high time that someone tells it like it is in regards to holiday gift giving.  It isn’t a secret that every year we spend way too much on gifts people don’t want, don’t need and would never buy for themselves.

Walk through a major department store in December. The aisles are blocked not just with panicked shoppers but also with tables covered with “gift items.” In the aisles near the men’s clothing department, you’ll find lots of golf-themed knickknacks — mugs festooned with golf balls, golf club mittens, brass tees, and so on. Would anyone buy this stuff for him-or-herself?  Does anybody want it? I’ll hazard a “no” on both counts. But it’s there every year, along with singing fish — and it sells — because of a confluence of reasons that together make a perfect storm for wasteful giving (6).

According to Waldfogel, we spent $66 billion dollars on this type of crap during the 2007 holiday season (and that was eight years ago!). He breaks down how he came up with this $66 billion dollar figure in great detail, including examining the retail sales for November, December and January. You’ll just have to read the book for those calculations, while trusting me that his math makes much more sense than mine ever could.

Where the wastefulness comes in is with an economic term called “deadweight loss,” which describes “losses to one person that are not offset by gains to someone else.”   The way I understand this is if you buy me a sweater for $75, that same sweater might only be worth $25 to me.  (Or, in other words, if I was to purchase said sweater for myself, $25 would be the maximum amount I would personally spend.)  Hence, the “deadweight loss” is $50.  That’s the wastefulness aspect of the holidays and when you multiply this by billions of crappy cheesy sweaters and stupid singing fish, then you’re talking some big bucks being wasted.

I think this is a concept that most of us kind of already knew, but seeing these numbers tossed around is sobering.  It makes me want to never buy another thing again, for any holiday.

One might think that the solution is to give gift cards, which is logical and reflects the increase in gift card sales in recent years.  But Waldfogel states that even gift cards (while a better alternative to yet another FORE THE BEST UNCLE! golf mug) have some negatives.  They expire.  They get lost.  Sometimes they are for stores that the recipient isn’t interested in.

Waldfogel presents (heh … pun not intended) his theories in great detail, with many supporting facts.  Scroogenomics is more wonkish than whimsy, and since I’m not a mathematician (despite sometimes playing one in my day job here at the Library) some of the number-crunching made my eyes glaze over a bit.  Waldfogel calculates and compares the United States’ holiday spending with that of other countries and with the amount spent in decades past, as a way of stating that this over-consumption of gift-buying isn’t new. It’s a valid argument and one that makes much sense.

(And cents.)

Although Scroogenomics has a bit more highfalutin math than I was expecting, I still enjoyed this book, which I borrowed from the library (naturally).  It’s an eye-opening read jam-packed with information and facts that would likely appeal to fans of Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell (which I am.). It’s the epitome of efficient (it’s about the size of my palm) which makes for a fast (and sobering) read.

Bah humbug.

~ Melissa F., who hasn’t bought a single holiday gift yet and is more inspired than ever to procrastinate on her shopping.

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Reading Room

Room

Right on cue for the holiday movie season comes yet another film with its origins in a popular book.  The movie Room — based on the Emma Donoghue novel of the same name  will be released here in the United States next week.

Some people may shy away from the subject matter.  My initial reaction was that I wanted nothing to do with this book. A child and his mother held captive in a small room for seven years? No thank you. But one of the key things to understand about Room is that this novel is about so much more than the actual plot.  So much more.

(That being said, it is the story of a five year old boy named Jack and his Ma. From the book jacket:  To five year old Jack, Room is the world. It’s where he was born. It’s where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination — the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe below Ma’s clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night in case Old Nick comes.  

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held since she was nineteen — for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven foot space.  But Jack’s curiosity is building alongside her own desperation — and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer. )

It is original in respect to the writing, for it is the mark of a true literary talent to sustain the incredibly authentic voice of a five year old over the course of a novel, which Emma Donoghue (a mother herself) does brilliantly.  The pacing is perfect and has you on the edge of your seat.  While Room is indeed very tense in parts, this isn’t a gory or graphic novel. (Donoghue could have easily gone down that road, but didn’t, and it works just as well.)

As a reader, you don’t know where this story is taking place nor do we ever learn Ma’s full name and those elements add to the absolute straight-from-the-headlines feeling that Room has. (This inspiration was the Fritzl case in Austria and I found myself thinking a lot about Elizabeth Smart and the stories of the women held captive in Cleveland as I read.)  We also know that this takes place in the modern day; there are references to a website with “lots of faces,” and emailing friends, and Lady Gaga and children’s show characters such as Dora the Explorer and Barney. There are so many small details that add meaning and depth to the novel, such as the time of year in which it takes place (springtime, right around Easter weekend, symbolizing death and resurrection).

You find yourself caring about these characters, rooting for them, wondering what exactly happened for Ma and Jack to wind up in this predicament in the first place.  (And when that is revealed, you realize how this could have very well been a memoir.)  You find yourself falling in love with Jack, wanting to adopt him and cheering his mother’s feisty spirit.   From a literary perspective, everything works in this one.

This is the type of book that you want to buy a hundred copies of and give to everyone you know who hasn’t read it yet.  It is that good, that powerful, that affecting.  This is a book that completely engulfs you, that you are compelled to read in practically one sitting. (It took me three, but one was spent reading almost 200 pages straight, and I vowed not to go to bed until I knew what happened.)

But most of all, you read Room in utter and complete awe, for this is a story about love and the lengths to which someone will go to in order to give a child the best life possible, despite being trapped in horrific circumstances.

~ Melissa F.

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Fun-Sized Morsels on Foodie Books

In the spirit of just-finished Halloween, I thought I would offer you a post of fun-sized reviews of some food-related books that I’ve recently finished (and which are inspiring me to eat a little healthier):

Salt Sugar FatSalt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
by Michael Moss
Random House, 446 pages, 2013

It’s fitting that the cover of Salt, Sugar, Fat looks like a ransom note because in a sense, the food giants that Michael Moss calls out by name in his Pulitzer Prize winning look at the industry are holding the health of millions of Americans hostage with obesity, high blood pressure, skyrocketing cholesterol counts, diabetes and much more.

What makes Salt, Sugar, Fat especially eye-opening is how deliberate and strategic these efforts have been on the part of nearly everyone involved in getting food on our plate. This is a very well-researched book, with countless examples of how the food manufacturers, chemists, and marketers have exchanged one crappy ingredient for another (reducing fat but increasing the sugar, for example) and how government incentives (who remembers free government cheese?) exacerbate what is an epidemic and major health concern.

Pandoras LunchboxPandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal
by Melanie Warner
Scribner, 267 pages, 2013 

Pandora’s Lunchbox is similar to Salt, Sugar, Fat, but with a little more of a “just-a-regular-mom-like-you” kind of tone. It is inspired by Ms. Warner’s quest to discover how long a slice of processed cheese really does last and other similar experiments. Like Michael Moss’ book, Pandora’s Lunchbox also is incredibly well-written and well-researched (Ms. Warner has a background as a reporter writing about the food industry) while shedding a light on the marketing of processed food and the chemicals in some of the most common things we (and our kids) are eating.

Animal Vegetable MiracleAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Perennial, 2008 (audio)

My first reaction was that this didn’t seem any different from other books and blogs promoting eating locally-grown, in-season food  — until I remembered that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was published in 2008, before concepts like farm-to-table and eating what’s currently available were household words. Seven years later, it’s still relevant and worth reading, because there are still people who don’t understand this — although, chances are, if you’re reading this, you probably do.

The Kingsolver family decided to eat locally for a year, either by growing their own food or purchasing very locally, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle chronicles their efforts by the seasons. While this tends to get a little preachy and repetitive at times (you kind of feel bad if establishing a vegetable garden that’s the equivalent of a small farm operation isn’t for you) but it’s well-written and includes brief sections by Ms. Kingsolver’s husband and daughter.

Bon appetit!

~ Melissa F.

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