Thursday, May 9, 2013

Happy families are all alike

I think my eyes were bigger than my eyes.  This is not the book pile of a non-traveling parent, but I will do my best.

So far, I've read Heaven is Here by Stephanie Neilson, who has the NieNie Dialogues blog. I enjoyed this book, but it would be better as a novel.  Sweet, shallow, pretty girl has the perfect childhood, marries the handsome love of her life, bears four lovely children, and then has a tragic accident that threatens to steal everything that she valued in life.  How good would that story be in the hands of a novelist, who would take care not to create the unbelievably perfect early life that Neilson describes.

As a reader, I feel free to critique Emma Bovary, Elizabeth Bennett, and Harriet the Spy.  They don't care if I look for their flaws and discuss them with the world.  Stephanie Neilson is a real person with thoughts and feelings, and ownership over her life story.  As a reader, this first-person age of memoirists, diarists, and bloggers is problematic.  Can you read a strangers life story in a way that is both compassionate and analytic?  Can you say anything to someone like Neilson about her own story beyond the equivalent of a gif hang-in-there kitten?

There is so much interesting material in Neilson's story about body image and gender roles.  She reports that after coming out of a months-long coma, her overwhelming emotion was guilt.  Not just guilt about choosing to get in a plane that then crashed, but guilt that she was burned and no longer pretty (she is still a very attractive person) and no longer normal.  A fictional piece would be able to dig into this idea of the burdens of perfection, while Neilson can't quite go there-and it's her story, so she doesn't owe us any feminist analysis.

I'm also reading The Magician King by Lev Grossman right now, and honestly, his fantastical world of Fillory is more familiar to me than Neilson's world of happy families.  It's interesting to read Neilson's blog alongside the blog of her sister Courtney Kendrick.  Kendrick tells stories of family joy, but also one of family pressures and constraint.  While Kendrick's writing is more understandable to me, I'm not sure that it's more honest.  It does seem to me that Neilson represents her own psyche, her own worldview, as authentically as possible, although the world she describes is barely comprehensible to me.  Shortly before reading Heaven is Here, I heard this speech by Elizabeth Smart about human trafficking and the lesson that will help young people survive and save themselves.

Interesting stuff.

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