Saturday, January 21, 2012

Odd Pairings of Life and Art

Reading the book What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty while simultaneously spending a week in a household of young children, got me thinking about how an experience in your life can bleed into a book you happen to be reading at the time (and vice versa).

When my husband and I were newlyweds, we took a 20-hour road trip from Memphis (where we lived) to Connecticut (where I’d grown up). To while away some of those 20 hours, we listened to a book on tape, the lurid, teen cult classic, Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews. (Quick rundown: mother hides her four children in the attic of her ancestral home because her father is unaware of and would be upset about their existence. In order to win back his favor and inherit his millions, the mother must keep her children a secret. This deception goes on for several years and the children slowly wither away/are possibly poisoned by sugar donuts, while discovering forbidden romance—with… each other.) It’s a page-turner, to put it mildly. It also feels extremely claustrophobic to read (listen to) this book while riding in a car for 20 hours. To this day, long car trips and illicit sibling relationships are linked together in my mind.

I had a similar experience reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I was supposed to teach the book to my eleventh grade AP English class one fall so I took it with me on a beach vacation to Destin, Florida. While hubby read fun mysteries/thrillers, I sat sprawled on my beach chair, sweating profusely in the 95-degree heat, reading about the luckless Joad family’s trek through Dust Bowl America. I could feel their pain (the freaking HEAT! the never-ending perspiration!) and at the same time was crushed by overwhelming guilt. The Joad family was struggling for survival—brutalized by unfair labor practices, starving (eating DIRT) and losing faith in humanity; I was lounging on a beach chair, sipping cokes, and occasionally striding into the ocean to cool off. Sheesh, have I ever felt so keenly the unfairness of life?

When my daughter was born and my world shrunk to an endless loop of nursing sessions and diaper-changings and children’s television, I picked up the book The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, hoping to counteract my brain’s creeping descent into sleep-deprived mush. I remember sitting on the couch, infant daughter squirming in arms/latched onto my breast, while my three-year old son prattled nearby. Book propped against me daughter’s body, I was totally caught up in figuring out what the solution was to the 1950’s pampered/bored/Valium-popping housewife’s “problem that has no name.”

Turns out the solution is a job. Hmm. Who knew?

(The Joad family struggles.)

(I park myself in a beach chair and read about their struggles.)

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