Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Summer House with Swimming Pool" by Herman Koch

What would you do to protect your family? Koch explored the same theme in his book The Dinner.

SHWSP is a story about Marc Schlosser, Dutch doctor to the stars. He has built a general practice on the notion that patients want to be listened to, so rather than scheduling as many patients as possible every day, he sees a limited number and allows them each a full 20 minutes of his time. He gives them exactly what they want: a listening ear and a prescription. (And sometimes a rectal exam, which he is loath to do, but the patients seem to expect it.)

With this method and word of mouth he has accumulated a loyal following of well-to-do creative types: actors, authors, artists. As a result he is often invited to art shows and opening nights of plays (all of which he also finds loathsome, but he goes anyway). Slightly less ordinary is the invitation he receives to join famed actor Ralph Meier and his family at their rented summer home. Despite Ralph's blatant leering at Marc's wife Caroline (as well as any other woman who crosses his path), the Schlossers end up visiting the summer home, where Marc privately loathes Ralph and hits on his wife Judith.

But the story hasn't even begun by this point. The real issue is the harm that comes to the doctor's family, and what he does about it. Who is at fault? And what sort of revenge is deserved? As blanks are filled in (or not) and secrets are revealed (or kept secret), Koch develops a strong cast of complex characters the reader can never fully denounce, even in the face of some rather questionable decisions.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

This book first caught my eye at Books-A-Million because, well, why wouldn't it? It's called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. How can you not need to know the end of that story? So I did the dip test (opened the book to a random page and sampled the writing quality), which it passed. And then I did what any other bibliophilic cheapskate of the 21st century would do: whipped out my phone--right there in the store--and ordered a used copy from Amazon. This made me feel slightly guilty (especially after my husband said it was almost like shoplifting--which it WASN'T!!) but I figured instant gratification is the reward for paying full price, and I was willing to delay my pleasure.

This collection outwardly reminded me of Palahniuk's Haunted (in that both books contain disturbing short stories), but whereas I believe the stories in Haunted had one superficial purpose (to disturb), these scary fairy tales (which might more accurately be called folk tales, as I don't recall a single fairy in these stories, but somehow just calling them fairy tales makes them more appealing to me, so I'll stop complaining) had deeper meaning. Though, to be honest, I'm not absolutely certain I always grasped the significance on every level. Sometimes it's easy to be carried along by the story and forget that there are depths to plumb.

In my experience with short story collections, the stories are usually mostly good, with a few clunkers, and a small handful that stand out and stick in my memory. That's not really the case here. Even though I just finished this book, like, thirty seconds ago, I can't say there's one story that rises above the rest. This book is more like a strand of matched pearls than a necklace with one dazzlingly jeweled pendant. But I feel like I can't end this post without giving a synopsis of at least one of the stories (all of which I would describe as odd, desperate, somewhat nightmarish, and not very ethereal or magical). SO I have randomly chosen "Two Kingdoms," where a woman named Lina takes a long flight with her new husband Vasya to a magnificent city for post-operative treatment and healing. (When I put it that way, it's not hard to see what the title of the story refers to, but--surely this wasn't just my stupidity?--it wasn't so obvious while I was reading it.)

Monday, September 5, 2016

"The Interpretation of Dreams" by Sigmund Freud

I've always found dreams fascinating. Their strangeness, their mystery, their odd combination of the bizarre and the mundane; and how quickly they can slip through the fingers of your consciousness and disappear forever if you're not quick to grasp them after waking (and sometimes even then). So it's not surprising that a book about dream interpretation would interest me.

However, I think I picked the wrong book. What I really wanted was a kitsch, pop-culture dream dictionary--yeah, the kind Freud would despise. You know, something with alphabetized entries like "Cat, ill: dreaming about a sick cat means you need to listen to your intuition more," spoon-feeding interpretations to the reader. This book was certainly not that. Instead, Freud gives the skeletal framework for a method of finding meaning in dreams, but leaves it up to the interpreter to fill in the blanks.

Freud wrote a lot about the dream as wish fulfilment, a way for the unconscious to deal with repressed desires. Often dreams include influences from the prior day, but these obvious influences are symbolic of the more deep-seated, latent psychological issues that they disguise. An interesting concept is that if two people or objects with an insignificant link appear together in a dream, look for a hidden, more important link between the two. (OR . . . you may just wish there were another link between the two.)

I couldn't help but laugh when Freud gave examples of dreams that could in no way be attributed to wish fulfilment. He explained them away with the claim that the wish his patients' dreams purported to fulfil was the wish to prove his theory wrong! But surely there are people whose dreams fulfil no wishes and who have no interpreter to prove wrong. What then? It seemed to me that Freud stretched dreams to fit his theories. In short, dreams meant whatever the heck Freud said they meant.

I also found it funny that Freud wrote, "It may be said that there is no class of ideas which cannot be enlisted in the representation of sexual facts and wishes." In other words, everything symbolizes sex. I'd always thought maybe Freud's body of work had been over-simplified for greater ease of use as a punchline, and--well, it probably has, but it wasn't without his help.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Collected Works of Dr Kevin Leman

Ok, so I didn't read all of Dr Leman's books. But I think three is as far as I will go.

I started with Living in a Stepfamily Without Getting Stepped On. My mom gave this book to me five years ago (when I was first forming a stepfamily of my own), but I never saw fit to pick it up until recently. I'm not even sure why I chose to read it now--I think it was out of a sense of duty, and/or trying to rid my shelves of some of the non-fiction my mom has plied me with over the years.

Upon reading it, I found it doesn't really apply to my family; it's mainly for Brady-Bunch-style families where both parents bring their own kids into the mix. It focuses on birth order (firstborns are responsible Type A kids, middle children are easy-going mediators, last-borns are flaky entertainers, and only children are uber-firstborns) and what happens when birth orders from two families are combined. (In a nutshell, kids under the age of 7 end up taking on their new birth order; older kids retain the birth order that was set before their parents remarried, which can cause conflict--for instance, when two firstborns butt heads, or when two babies-of-the-family vie for the limelight).

I was both fascinated and repelled by the way Leman pigeon-holes people with one-sentence descriptions. I'm kind of torn between wishing I was an astute enough observer to have the ability to label people that way, and thinking surely no one can be boiled down to one sentence. (And, just as surely, no one wants to be!)

Next up: Have a New Kid by Friday. Another gift from my mother, which she coincidentally sent me (along with the third book in this post) while I was reading the stepfamily book (even though she didn't know I was reading it). I figured I might as well be on a Leman roll and get these all knocked out ASAP so I could move onto something more interesting.

This book is for parents whose kids are mouthy and disobedient or sullen and disrespectful (read: me). Its major concept: If you expect your kids to do something, say it once, then turn your back and walk away. If the something doesn't get done, either deduct from their allowance, or refuse to give them the next thing they ask for (or maybe both).

I can get on board with a lot of Leman's common-sense suggestions (use consistent action, not words: no harassing, threatening, warning, reminding, or coaxing; encourage rather than praising; use "tell me more about that" to buy time to formulate a response instead of a reaction) but as for the refuse-the-next-thing-they-ask idea, I can't help but see that as a passive-aggressive, sneakily vengeful way of lying in wait for a time when you can pounce on your kids and say GOTCHA! You can't have this because you were bad three days ago! Anyway, this book makes a certain phrase come to mind: If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. The title of this book is obviously meant to sell copies, not something that is literally possible. Raising a child takes a bit more than a week.

Last (and least), Have a New Teenager by Friday: a rehashing of New Kid with a couple of updates. It covers a few issues that the kid book doesn't cover, but otherwise relates the exact same concepts.