Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Unorthodox and Exodus: A Feldman, Pesach, Double-Feature Book Review

I was a little late on wishing everyone a Happy Passover this year. I had a lot going on and for various reasons, did not celebrate much of anything. Next year, though.

In any case, I did get a lot of reading done, and even though I didn't celebrate Passover, I at least read a Jewish book. Two Jewish books in fact.

A while back a friend of mine recommended Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots   by Deborah Feldman. It's a frankly written memoir by a young woman who was raised in the ultra-orthodox Satmar community in Brooklyn and who, after an arranged marriage and a child, decided once and for all to leave a world where she never truly fit in.

Now, here's a little background for the uninitiated. The Satmars are pretty much nuts, at least that's what I was raised to believe. When I was a kid in Rockland County, New York (where Feldman actually moves after her marriage) my grandfather sold produce to the orthodox community of New Square in Spring Valley, so I regularly saw these people because in the summers my grandfather and mother made me ride around in the back of a pickup truck while they peddled fruit and vegetables to Chasids, but that's another story. Back then, we also spent a lot of time in the city and around my father's family's modern orthodox community so I knew my Jews, so to speak. I remember being in Brooklyn and having my dad explain to me all about the different sects of Chasidism and it was pretty standard knowledge that the Satmars were insane. They were the dudes in the big, flat, round, furry hats who hated Israel, I learned.

That is, in fact, pretty true. The Satmar sect is anti-Zionist, though I never understood why until reading Feldman's book. They are so anti-Zionist that they go so far as to side with fanatical, Holocaust denying, Iranian Muslims who want Israel wiped off the map.

When I was little, I sort of equated the Chasidic Jews with the Amish, who I'd also grown up around when we lived in rural Delaware. They both dressed strangely, weren't too friendly, were deeply religious and rule bound and they had a ridiculous mess of kids running around. Plus the beards and hats. Same shit, different Bible, basically.

I've always had a fascination with insular religious groups - what they do and why and what makes these people tick. While I grew up seeing the Chasidic people in my community, I honestly didn't know all that much about them, and I'd always been curious.

Thanks to Feldman's memoir, I now know and because she answered every question I'd ever had, plus a few more, I absolutely devoured her memoir. Unorthodox is brutally honest and spares no detail, which is why it works so well. On a deeper level, this isn't just a sensationalist, tell-all type of book meant to expose and shame a group of people. Far from it, actually. This is Feldman's story, period. Yes, she details the seemingly bizarre and elaborate rituals that make up Satmar life and she explains why they believe what they do, but ultimately this is the story about why these rituals and that way of life failed to nurture her unique spirit. 

Unorthodox is about being an outsider, about going against the grain of an oppressive society. It's about having the courage to not compromise one's own ideals, not suppressing one's talents and individuality for the imagined greater good of the community as a whole. And that, my readers, combined with Feldman's beautiful, insightful writing, makes for a fantastic book.

That said, a Google search of Feldman or her books, will reveal a slew of bad reviews and articles that trash her character. She has been accused of James Frey-like levels of fabricating her story and she's been called a flat out liar. Because of all this, I almost didn't read the book, but I did and once I read her story, I understood a lot more about what was going on. First of all, she is accused of leaving out information about her mother and a younger sister, but honestly this wasn't particularly relevant to the story.

Memoirists don't tell ALL of every story. Life simply doesn't always allow for that and when we write memoir (I'm speaking from experience) we must choose only the most important and meaningful parts to include. At the same time, memoirists must be mindful of protecting the privacy of loved ones who may not wish to be included in a public detailing of their life. I don't know Feldman's particular reasons for not including her sister in her book and I don't care. It isn't our business and I'm sure her sister wasn't relevant to the story she was telling. The end. Who cares? Same goes for her mom. She mentions her, but not a lot. So what? I got the impression they barely knew one another.

As for discrepancies, well, I'm going to chalk that up to Feldman most likely not being told a lot about her mother growing up. It's also possible that her family lied to her considerably. The Satmars, as one can deduce from the memoir, aren't above telling numerous untruths in order to protect their image and their sect. They are a paranoid people, scarred brutally by the Holocaust and trying to make sense of a world which has persecuted Jews for thousands of years and they believe in taking whatever drastic steps they think are necessary for their own safety no matter the real ethical cost. Feldman's family and community were absolutely incensed by her memoir. I get this. An elaborate smear campaign to save face is an expected reaction and that's all I think the allegations are. So ignore the haters and read the book anyway.
Feldman's follow up to Unorthodox,  Exodus: A Memoir just came out a couple weeks ago, so I had to immediately get my hands on it. Again, bad reviews, but don't listen. Haters still hatin' and these people are not going to leave this woman alone. Ignore them.

Exodus is less a linear narrative with a defined plot than Unorthodox, but memoir is often more about introspection and one's own character development than a series of events anyway. I have zero issues with reading a character-driven, more literary memoir, which Exodus is.

And interestingly, Exodus doesn't exactly pick up where Unorthodox left off. Instead, this is about Feldman trying to recover from the traumas of her childhood. It's a book about healing and self-discovery and trying to understand why her family acted and believed and manipulated and acted as desperately as they did. It's about Feldman trying to understand her roots while trying to establish new ones.

It's deep and thoughtful, heartbreaking, passionate and raw. Feldman's brutal honesty comes through again, magnificently. As I read her words I am continually awed and inspired by her bravery and strength. I wish I had a shred of this woman's courage, because I don't (I also wish I had her talent and her agent and her book deal too, dammit!). I see Feldman, who isn't even 30 yet, I don't think, as such a role model for all women. She's accomplished something rare and incredible and should be celebrated, not torn down. I hope to see a lot more from her in the future.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Spectacular Now: A Spectacular Read

Little known fact - I'm a huge YA fan. I love well written adolescent literature, like really love it, but the problem is, there's not a lot of YA lit that lives up to my high standards. That's why when I find something that is, I want to shout it to the heavens. I tend to prefer the YA classics to the stuff that's written now, like oh dear God, Twilight and the like. Yuck. I like the literary equivalent of a John Hughes movie; books that really show what real teen life and teen angst is like. Realistic depictions with kids who aren't Mormon chastity fantasies.

Most recently I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which took me back to my own high school years because it was set in the year I would have graduated had I actually graduated (Class of '91 woo).

But now I've topped that with The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp and wow, this was an incredible book for teens and quite possibly the most accurate portrayal of Millennial high schoolers I've read. Honestly, I was thankful my husband played with my daughter this weekend just so I could finish this book, which I did in a short weekend. I couldn't put it down and now I can't stop thinking about it.

The plot is simple, but this isn't a plot driven novel. It's a character book with an unforgettable narrator.

Sutter Keely is an uncanny cross between Holden Caulfield and Ferris Bueller. The resemblance is so close that I'm 98% certain this was exactly what Tharp had in mind when he created Sutter, an alcoholic party boy, whose exploits are fueled by whiskey and 7UP. Sutter is the uninhibited life of every party. Dramatic scenes ensue wherever he goes and it seems as if he is well loved by his peers. To a point. 

Sutter has no sense of boundaries and seemingly very little self-awareness and since the book is told in the first person it's important to remember that we have an unreliable narrator here. Because of that, when reading this book, you have to be a reliable reader. Luckily, this book, which was a National Book Award finalist by the way, is so well written that it's easy for the reader to read between the lines of Sutter's bravado and to understand through the words and actions of those surrounding him what is truly going on. This quality is what I think makes this an extraordinary read. I like doing a little extra work as a reader. I like uncovering a complicated character's mysteries.

Sutter is a child of a divorce he doesn't fully understand or know the details of. His older sister is married to a rich guy and has fake boobs. He can't stand his step-dad, he's failing algebra and may not graduate, his "fat girlfriend" Cassidy dumps him and he appears to just want to have a good time to forget everything around him. All the time. But Sutter has no understanding of the consequences of his actions.

A novel told from the point of view of an asshole party boy holds little appeal, but Sutter Keely is impossible not to love. Think Ferris Bueller. Remember the scene where Ferris persuades Cameron to get out of bed and steal his dad's car and Cameron can't say no because even though Ferris is a total pain in the ass he's also irresistibly lovable too? That is Sutter Keely and more, because behind the drunken stunts, behind the foolhardiness is a character filled with compassion. He possesses such a genius-level of understanding for others (though none for himself) that the reader can't help but to fall in love with him, because above all, Sutter Keely is kind and means well and wants to be loved, though he believes himself ultimately unlovable.

After one particularly reckless evening, Aimee Finecky, the nerdy girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, finds him passed out on the road. Sutter is intrigued by this unusual girl and takes her on as a pet project, intending to boost her confidence. What ensues is a love story, a prom, a mess, a road trip, several accidents and misunderstandings and then, finally, an ending.

Reading the reviews of The Spectacular Now, it's apparent that a lot of readers didn't get or didn't like the ending, but I didn't take issue with it. I won't spoil it, but the ending can seem abrupt and the ending is for sure not very Hollywood. What I will tell you is that this is a book written by an author who knows alcoholism well and that the ending, to me, was simply a realistic reflection of that. This is a book about an alcoholic and the ending is very much in line with the behavioral patterns of alcoholics, ambiguous as it might seem to some readers. People who are familiar with the effects of alcoholism on personality will instantly know what I'm talking about and if I seem vague, well, just read the book.

Just read the book anyway, even if you're an adult. If you know a teenager, make them read it too. If you teach high school or undergrad college, consider putting this book on your class's reading list. I promise your students won't complain about not being about to "relate."

This is a beautiful novel. John Hughes would've been proud. There is also a movie out now, which I haven't seen due to a New Year's resolution to stop watching movies made from books and getting pissed off, but it was widely acclaimed at Sundance so you might want to check it out anyway.

The book is a great deal on Amazon now. It's only around five bucks on Kindle and six dollars or so in paperback, which is a steal. Usually I don't really look at the price of books, but this one caught my eye so I thought I'd mention it.

Up next - I finished Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman and then waited for the sequel Exodus to come out, which I just started today because I wanted to review them together. Give me a week or so on that one.
Thursday, April 10, 2014

Me Too, Let's Hug: It's Embarrassing Stories Day at Wide Lawns!

You know how some magazines have a feature where readers send in their embarrassing stories and they print them all on one page in little blurbs? I love those. 

I love the sense of camaraderie I feel from reading about other people's humiliation. Kind of like we're all in this together. It's like, hey you crapped your pants at the mall? Me too. Let's hug. 

I woke up feeling kind of low this morning, saw a random picture of some french fries (don't ask) and was reminded of one of my embarrassing stories, which is fairly tame and thankfully does not involve pooping myself, so I thought maybe we could have an embarrassing story day here at Wide Lawns and Narrow Minds. I have a treasure trove of mortification from which to draw, let me tell you.

I'll start simple though...

Some time ago, when I lived in Atlanta, I went out to meet some friends at a very popular and crowded restaurant. While waiting for our table, I found a seat at the bar next to a woman who was enjoying a plate of crisp, heavenly, truffle fries. All I could smell was the delicious salty, fatty, truffled, parmesan goodness of these fries.They looked like the most delicious, golden, beautiful french fries that have ever existed. They intoxicated me. They called to me and I was starving and must have had low blood sugar, because without even thinking, I absent-mindedly grabbed one of those delicious fries off of her plate and popped it in my mouth. Then another and another and I swear, I didn't even really realize it was happening and at first, neither did the person that the fries actually belonged to. Finally, she turned around and saw me about to pinch another one so defending her dinner, the horrified woman actually smacked my hand! I was mortified and tried to apologize, even offering to pay, but the woman caused a scene and demanded a whole new dish, which I think was a bit of an overreaction, my God. I was so embarrassed that I sneaked out and went to a nearby Steak-N-Shake drive-thru to satisfy my fry craving. Not even joking. My friends teased me about it for years afterwards.

Ok, your turn. Cheer me up with your crazy, embarrassing stories. I don't even care how dirty or messed up they are and yes, if it's that bad go ahead and comment anonymously. You're always safe on my blog.
Monday, April 07, 2014

70s Mom Dines Out - Salad Bar Edition.

Bill and I went to dinner for our anniversary over the weekend. I had wanted to go to fondue but Bill said it was too french and next thing he'd be eating quiche or some nonsense such as that, so we went to the new steakhouse instead, which was fine. I wanted to show off my new hair-do. I had it winged.

Before we went out, I washed my hair in Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific. Kimberly persuaded me to try it and naturally I did because I wanted my hair to smell terrific, but honestly, I think I still prefer my Wella Balsam. 

Bill got me a bottle of L'Air du Temps as an anniversary gift. I was so excited but it's funny because I got him a bottle of Paco Rabanne even though he won't wear anything but Brut.

"Dream on, Toots," he said when he opened the package, "I love my Brut."

Well, at least he doesn't wear Hai Karate, you know? My husband is a little bananas when it comes to some things.

I was going to go all out and let the kids have Swanson's TV dinners, but naturally they were all fighting over the fried chicken one, because they think it has the best dessert and no one wanted the turkey dinner one because they said the gravy was slimy and before long it was absolute chaos and Bill ran downtown to get them all hamburgers from Gino's. 

Then the babysitter was late, so by the time she got there Bill and I really had to book if we were going to make our reservation. I thought this was the perfect chance to tell Bill I thought we ought to get a new car. His Fiat wasn't cutting it. I want an Oldsmobile - maybe a Cutlass or a Delta. I love the vinyl roof. So elegant. Bill didn't like the idea of getting a new car though because he said we just got new paneling in the family room and I just redid the kitchen (Harvest Gold!) plus I'm taking ceramics classes and doing macrame galore.

"Didn't you just get a new terrarium too?" Bill asked.

Well, yes, and it's gorgeous, but a terrarium full of moss and ferns and little orange ceramic mushrooms and owls is a far cry from an automobile. Men!

I also got a new shag toilet seat cover for the guest bath, but I'm hiding that under the bed. My chenille bedspread covers it up well and when Bill forgets that I spent too much this month, I'll get it out and pretend like we've had it all along. That usually works on him.

We made it to the restaurant in time but our table wasn't ready so we had some refreshments at the bar in the lounge area. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed my pina colada. It came in a big coconut with an orchid, some oranges and maraschino cherries on a tiny sword, PLUS a miniature umbrella AND a drink monkey. That monkey was just precious so I asked the bartender if he could give me three more to take home to the kids. They're going to flip when they see these things.

The hostess was built like a brick house and Bill wouldn't stop looking over at her, which really got on my nerves at first.

I said, "Look, Bill. I'm no chump, keep your eyes on the prize, Mister Man."

Luckily, Bill relaxed a bit after his first Old Fashioned. He straughtened up and began to compliment me instead of the hostess. I was so glad he noticed my new slim figure. All that Tab is paying off. I'll let you in on my secret though. I've been keeping trim with Dexadrine. My doctor gave it to me so of course it's safe and my house has never been cleaner! I crocheted an entire afghan in an afternoon plus ran the electrolux three times in one day. I love the energy boost! Between that and my Ayds diet candy, I'm simply unstoppable and slimmer than I've been in ages, so I look fantastic in my jumpsuit. It's true that for the past three days I've only slept 45 minutes a night, but I lost ten pounds in a week, so I'm loving it.

They really did the new steakhouse right. Very classy establishment. I love the decor: lots of dark wood, red leather booths, dim Tiffany lamps over the tables and several brass accents. As soon as we sat down they brought us a little crock of cheese spread and some packages of melba toast in a basket. What a nice touch, and they said we could head on up to the salad bar at our leisure. I was nearly beside myself. The iceberg lettuce was so crisp. My friend Judy says they put potato whitener on it and some people have deadly allergic reactions, but I think she's alarmist. They even had chick peas and pickled beet slices, plus Thousand Island and French dressings, even though I went with Green Goddess. So exotic! I could have lingered at that salad bar all night.

We both ordered sirloins and they were cooked to perfection and came with those delicious spiced apple rings and sprigs of curly parsely. Baked potatoes came on the side and the meal was delicious.

When we were finished I wondered if I should go to the payphone in the lobby and call the babysitter to see how the kids were doing and Bill said not to, because if there was a problem she'd call the restaurant and they'd come get us to use their phone so why waste the fifteen cents? I had to agree.

"Let's splurge tonight, darling," Bill said, "Bananas Foster or Cherries Jubilee?"

Ahh, I am simply nuts over anything flambeed! We had a hard time deciding but finally chose the cherries which were exquisite. They brought out a little cart and made our dessert right at the table!

After dessert, we paid the check and Bill took me for a spin on the new parquet dance floor. That man can really boogie, I tell you. We had so much fun and we were practically like Saturday Night Fever out there.

"Honey, we need to do this more often," Bill said.

I agreed. 

"I hope we're still dancing like this in the year 2000," I said.

"They'll probably have flying cars by then! We can fly to the restaurant," Bill laughed.

What a fabulous evening! 
Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Cat in the Night: SOLVED!

Remember last week when I had a visitation by a ghost cat while my husband was out of town?

I think we have solved the mystery of what was actually in bed with me if it wasn't my cat, who was actually across the house meowing her ass off in the middle of the night for no good reason. 

You're not going to like this. Trust me, I didn't.

The other night my husband I and were awakened at 2am by a terrible, truly awful noise that involved a gross amount of licking combined with a grisly crunching. After much going back and forth about what it was and hoping it might stop, I finally got up and put the light on to see what was going on.

I found my kitty cat, the same one featured in my book by the way, on the floor at the foot of the bed enjoying a late-night snack of fresh lizard.

This was no ordinary lizard. This was a giant, fat, squishy lizard of the species that we Floridians call "curly tails." They are horrid things and they like coming in my house and apparently my cat thinks they taste good, except for their heads, because she left that part behind for me.

The lizard was big enough that if it had jumped on my bed, in my sleepy haze I could have easily mistaken it for a cat landing on the bed. If the lizard walked on the bed, I could have easily believed it to be cat paws because my cat treads very lightly. Plus I was asleep.

So yeah, I was in bed with a lizard. The lizard was probably hanging out in my room for a few days, unable to get back outside and met his demise when my cat caught him and ate him during his midnight explorations.

Thanks, kitty. I mean that sincerely, in spite of your poor table manners.

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