100 in ’11: Gilmore, Ancowitz and Franzen

Something Red – Jennifer Gilmore

Summary: The poignant tale of one extremely socially and politically aware family set on the cusp of a new decade as the Cold War rages and punk finds its feet.

Something Red functions as an exquisite portrayal of one Jewish-American family’s experience. Gilmore seems equally at home tackling adolescent angst as middle-aged discontent; she tenderly and non-judgementally introduces us to to a pair of former radicals, their larger-than-life parents, their sex-obsessed jock son and bulimic daughter. Each is deeply unhappy and troubled in their own way; Dennis is trapped in a career he’s losing faith in, Sharon joins a cult-like group in search of fulfilment, Ben feels no higher calling in life and Vanessa despises her own body. The author jumps from character to character, timeframe to timeframe, meandering along threads of memories and following them to the end.

Ultimately, however, I felt that apart from their children – who were just beginning to really grow – the  none of the older Goldsteins were going anywhere – and that’s frustrating in a novel. The end in particular baffled me. Some twists are good. Others come out of left field and seem to serve no purpose, like this one.

Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Summary: The up and downs and  life and times of one midwestern family set against a Bush-era backdrop.

While I would shave a sliver of a star off this for the freaky and frankly disturbing phone sex passage, Freedom is a modern masterpiece. For those fascinated by human psychology, this novel is full of lushly imagined, fully-formed and deeply flawed characters to get your teeth into.

There’s selfless environmentalist Walter, who ends up taking a job with links to coal and oil; superjock turned (un)happy housewife Patty; Walter’s best friend and musician Richard who apparently looks like Gaddafi (which to my mind isn’t a plus) but has some kind of hypnotic pull on Patty, complicating his already volatile relationship with Richard; ruthless son Joey who just may turn out to have a heart and consience; and daughter Jessica, who actually doesn’t get any page time of her own. Perhaps most interesting of all, though, was Connie, Joey’s childhood love and eventual wife, who’s deeply intriguing for all her instability and coolness (but like Jessica, is relegated to the sidelines).

It seems to me that Franzen intuitively understands, but doesn’t necessarily like, human nature. Which turns out to be a good thing. Freedom’s timeline is fluid, moving back forth as it does between characters’ viewpoints and moments in time, but in this case it works – I’d go as far as to say it was unputdownable. This is realism, pure and simple: ugly and frustrating but thankfully ultimately redemptive.

Self Promotion for Introverts – Nancy Ancowitz

Summary: A reminder that it’s perfectly okay to be introverted, with some generic tips on making the most of it.

I had big hopes for this book, but ultimately, there is no magic solution. I did enjoy her introvert vs extrovert lexicon (which I lifted a few lines from here), tips for public speaking (applicable to everyone) and suggested questions to ask in job interviews (the more unique ones being to do with mission, values, and how the company is doing against its objectives).

Ancowitz’s guide is interesting and fairly practical, peppered with anecdotes from both introverts and extroverts for colour (most entertaining are her vignettes about approaching famous people for quotes, particularly Bill Clinton) but there’s nothing mindblowing to be found. In fact, there was nothing especially new that I haven’t seen elsewhere in books or online. And while it was published fairly recently, the trouble is of course that things are moving so fast in the digital space that the social media chapter already feels awkwardly dated. Ultimately, whether you’re an introvert, extrovert or something in between, it comes down to playing to your strengths, being authentic, and persevering.

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