Motherhood in Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered

While I had a few issues with Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, Unsheltered, her thematic employment of the obstacles that come with motherhood were interesting. The book is divided into two sections, one the present, focusing on the struggles of main character Willa's family, and then the past, which is centered around a young science teacher named Thatcher Greenwood, a man who desperately wants to introduce Darwinian studies into a conservative town. Motherhood is definitely more obvious in Willa's sections, although there are definitely subtle, underlying maternal threads in Thatcher's too. 

My attention was first drawn to the role motherhood plays when I double-took after reading the line "A mother can be only as happy as her unhappiest child" (Kingsolver 56). I ruminated over this one for awhile, running different scenarios in my mind (I even put up a poll on Instagram, which garnered split results). While I definitely grappled with this, Willa really seemed to live it. Her oldest son, recently widowed, with a newborn, and unemployed, was struggling to find his way and she also believed her younger daughter, Tig, was floundering (she was not; she was thriving by her own personal standards but just not living up to traditional ones established by society). Willa had lost her job in journalism, was living in a dilapidated house, and was charged with caring for her grandchild and dying father-in-law. More than anything, though, Willa seemed to define herself by her children. Were they successful? Were they engaged? Were they interacting with her in the way she felt they should? Were they interacting with each other in the way she felt they should? Where they happy? She took their happiness so personally, which she really had no control over, as they were both grown. And yet because she had not control over anything else in her life she returned to what was innate: caring for her children. 

While not as prevalent, the storyline set in the past also had a great deal of maternal undercurrent. Thatcher's wife, Rose, is prim, proper, and spoiled, despite their total lack of resources. Meanwhile, Thatcher starts spending more time with the woman next door, Mrs. Treat, who ends up being a self-taught scientist who is more successful than Thatcher. Mrs. Treat defies societal pressures, happy to be separated from her husband and to live alone with her insects and plants. Rose, however, struggles to get pregnant and ends up miscarrying. The whole Darwinian focus of this section becomes even more important, in those regards. Rose's baby was not fit and could not survive, just as Rose and Thatcher's marriage struggles as well.

I don't want to give anything away, but Willa makes some progress and there's a great deal of upheaval within the past story as well. And while I have been finished with the novel for a few weeks, I still think about the quote I opened with often. Can a mom really only be as happy as her most unhappiest child? If I have to choose, I choose no. My child is insanely important to me- I'd run into a burning building to save him, throw my body in front of a freight train to push him out of the way, and fight off ten men twice my size on his behalf. But when it comes to matters that are not life and death I disagree (notice I said "life and death"- if he was ill or injured or missing my unhappiness would be equal to or surpass his). I am an individual- I am not defined by motherhood. It is a huge part of who I am, but I lived thirty years of life before him. I wasn't just waiting for a baby- I was learning, doing, growing.... living. You have to diversify your investments in every way, I guess. My family is at the top of the pyramid, of course, but there are so many other parts of my life that help me be who I am. While I will always want the best for Sawyer, I'm not going to wrap my life up into his so much that my happiness depends on his. That's simply not fair to him, either. That's so much pressure.

So while this book maybe wasn't the best I've read this year, it was still really solid in terms of story and writing, and clearly thought-provoking. 

Writing Update: The Beginnings... (2)

It’s been a few weeks and I’m back with a report on my progress. My only goal since I last wrote was to create proposals for the ideas that I have floating around in my head, so I chose two and wrote one-page sort of synopses for both. Nothing crazy or detailed at all, but enough to where I finally put my ideas on paper. This is, sadly, more progress than I have probably made in a year or two, which is so pathetic that I can’t believe I’m publicly admitting it. I want to be a writer, some day, and yet I prioritize literally everything else ahead of it.

I honestly have no idea what one to choose- that’s the biggest problem right now. They are both topics that I connect easily to and stories I would like to read. Both play around with format a bit (one more than the other) and present their own challenges. I think one of my biggest hang-ups is that I don’t know how either of them is going to end, which feels a little, I don’t know… unstable? It’s like going for a drive and having no destination. Some people thrive off of this sense of adventure, but I’m just not that kind of girl. I need an end goal, along with a way to get there.

Interestingly, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest that I feel such a need to be regimented in creating a plan. If you want something huge like this to work it can't be forced from a place that isn't natural to the person doing the work. I have been to dozens of author events over the years and there is such a wide variety of writing. Some know every twist and turn and minor character before the actual prose writing begins, while others opt for a more organic, flexible route and just jump right in. The idea that there are so many ways to go about this task is simultaneously reassuring and daunting.

So, that’s where I’ll start, after choosing one. I’ll work on the path, aka the outline. While doing this I’ll set up major plot points, start creating characters, and figure out that gosh darned ending. Since the holidays are approaching I have to maintain realistic expectations, which means that I am hoping to have an outline done by the end of Christmas break, which is the first week of January. I’ll still post on my progress sometimes the first week of every month, though, just for accountability purposes.

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

[womp womp womp]

1. This past Saturday I came down with severe vertigo that was really shit-icing on a shit-cake that has been my life lately (I’m going to start off negative and whiney, but it will get better, I promise... you can always just skip to number two if you're in no mood for this kind of nonsense, which I TOTALLY get). I have never had vertigo before, so I have no basis for judging my experience, but even the emergency room doctor said it was an intense episode and seemed to feel genuinely bad for me (as he watched me retch for what seemed like eternity). I woke up at 4am to the worst dizziness I’ve ever felt and alternated between that and throwing up for nearly four hours. Even moving my head enough to take a sip of water caused the room to whirl, and attempting to brush my hair made me literally sick. I called the advice nurse, and my mom (duh), and both advised me to get medical treatment to help take the edge off, so I went in (my first ER visit ever). They pumped me full of fluids, gave me anti-nausea medicine, some drugs for the spinning and tried to perform the Epley maneuver on me (I had the type of vertigo that happens when the crystals in your inner ear become dislodged and mess with the nerves that send messages about stability to your brain), but it made me so violently ill we had to quit in the middle. Luckily, by the time I went home I had finally quit getting sick and was able to sleep for the rest of the day. I felt better and everything went back to normal on Sunday after I was able to do an alternative to the Epley that a friend sent me. Nonetheless, it was a horrible weekend and now I am slightly terrified the vertigo will strike again (let’s just say giving birth was better than those initial hours with it). October was a horrible month and NOVEMBER WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BETTER. There was no scientific proof for this or promise from a higher being, but it was what I decided and I’m pretty upset that I haven’t had the improvement my entitled-ass DEMANDED from the universe. I know it could be worse, I do, but I am finding it harder and harder to roll with the punches. I also know that it will pass- that’s the most important thing.

2. Something better? The midterm elections! Sure, it wasn’t the crushing blue wave that some idealists were hoping for, but for jaded realists like myself it was positive. I love that things just got more difficult for the GOP and that a lot of women and people of color were elected. And the turn out! Polls were crowded. I definitely see the good.

3. I'm listening to Busy Phillips new memoir, This Will Only Hurt a Little and it was a tiny bit mediocre at the start, but it has definitely picked up and I'm officially into it. I remember her most from Dawson's Creek, but I know she's huge on Instagram.

4. I am reading the graphic novel The Best We Could Do, a memoir by Thi Bui, and it's really beautiful. The story, about a Vietnamese family who cam to the US in the early eighties (or maybe late seventies) is fascinating. I'm also rereading Athol Fugard's play, "Master Harold"... and the boys, since it's what I teach next. My students are blown away that we're spending the rest of the period on a book that's less than sixty pages, but they'll see how much is packed into that sucker. 

5. I finally finished the gallery wall for the cross stitching projects I have completed and kept three months after painting it (it's in the guest bedroom that hasn't been used in awhile, in my defense). I want to start an ambitious project of making little Stitch People of the book characters of the books I teach... eventually (in my dreams I could do a whole line of these and sell them on Etsy. "Sell them on Etsy..." WHO AM I? I can barely pick up my dry cleaning and there's been a prescription sitting at the vet for almost a week). 

6. This weekend I hope to redeem my ability to be fun (after last weekend, that is). My friends and I are going to drive up to see the Notorious RBG exhibit at the Skirball Center in LA and then scoot on over to UCLA to watch a women's volleyball game. We'll probably get dinner in Westwood at a place full of college kids, where we'll either pretend to be young or just feel really old. And then I will force them fifteen minutes down the road to The Milk Bar, since I'm driving and they will have no choice. My new rule in life is that if I am within fifteen miles of the mothership I will stop for no less than $25 of deliciousness. 

7. I saw A Star is Born last week and I loved it so much. I have been obsessed with the soundtrack since it came out and it was even better than I thought it would be.

8. I make a huge year-in-review book every December of the past twelve months and like to do it in snippets so that it's not a huge rush to take advantage of the half-off coupon that Mixbook always gives out. So far I have done absolutely nothing on it and we've had quite the busy year- I have got to get on it (I think last year it was almost 200 pages?).

October Reviews

October is such a long month for the teachers who I know- we have zero days off, there are fall parent-teacher conferences, the grading has really started stacking up, and, given that we went back at the beginning of August, we are TIRED (teacher-tired coupled with mom-tired is no joke, trust me). But, the one benefit is that it seems like I usually get quite a bit read- I need to escape, I guess. 

This month I was able to get through six books, and of a wide-variety. Three were nonfiction, one was a graphic novel, two were about immigration, and two were from well-respected female writers (some of these are overlapping, don't worry, I can do a little math). I have found myself craving contemporary literature lately, yet I find myself reading more nonfiction than ever, in my attempts to educate myself and feel like I'm doing my part to be informed.

I started off the month with Bob Woodward's Fear, which was fascinating, yet at times a bit repetitive in terms of the content I had already read in Fire and Fury. Nothing surprises me anymore, I guess, so the pages and pages of the ridiculousness that happens in the White House is pretty much what I expect to happen these days. This was the first book I've ever read by Woodward and I found him much more accessible than I thought he might be. 

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I read Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas and Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli, both of which cover the lives of undocumented people in America. Vargas focuses on his own story as a Filipino who had believed he was documented up until his late teen years, and then had to deal with navigating the education system and the journalism profession with this obstacle to deal with. Luiselli focuses on her perspective as an interpreter for children who are trying to seek asylum or citizenship in the country. Both were incredibly sobering and are books I'd urge people who have a narrow view of immigration to read.

When I had heard that Nick Drnaso's Sabrina was nominated for a Man Booker Prize, I pre-ordered it immediately, as it was the first graphic novel to obtain that honor. It is a quirky, yet sobering work, that comments on the role of the media, mental health, and what it means to be alone. Truth be told, I think I'd rather read the novel version of it (which does not exist), since the minimalist nature left me with many questions. 

If you're fans of Orange is the New Black and good literature in general, Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room is right up your alley. Romy, the main character, is serving a life sentence, while leaving her young son in the care of her mom in the Bay Area. The story jumps between the past and present as we learn about her life as an exotic dancer prior to her arrest, and how she manages to survive in prison. While not exactly a light and uplifting story, I couldn't put it down. Kushner's a fabulous writer and her pacing left me frantic for more information, especially as she divulges more and more. 

Lastly, I just finished Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel, Unsheltered, a few days ago and I had mixed feelings about it. The story is set around a family in the present, who is struggling with a crumbling house, mountains of debt, an unexpected grandson, and an ailing father-in-law. The past inhabitants of the house also split the story time, when a determined young science teacher faces a great amount of push-back from wanting to teach about Darwin in school. My biggest problem was that I was much more drawn to the present story than the past, making those sections often difficult to get through. The book was nearly 500 pages, and while there were several parts I really enjoyed, I was thankful when it was over. I don't regret reading it, since as a whole I think some of the parallels were intriguing and the connection made by this problematic home was thoughtful. 

1,705 pages

Bookish (and not so Bookish) Thoughts

Hope no one had great expectations for a post around these parts- Halloween? Middle of the week? Owner of a small child? Ha. Maybe if I did crazy things like regularly schedule posts I'd have this sort of shit on lockdown, but that I do not.

We had fun- Snoop Dog went trick-or-treating, we did the carving pumpkin thing, and everyone has full bellies of candy. Tis the season, right? 

I'm excited for October to be done, as it was not my favorite and some less than amazing things went down in my life (yup, vague blogging, but once they start paying me for this I will tell ALL). November is the month of my birth, home of the my favorite holiday (and we are hosting again this year, which makes me wanna-be-Martha-Stewart heart happy), and, most importantly, possessor of our first break of the school year (ah-effing-men). 

See you soon! Back to the Twix.