Friday, September 12, 2008

The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrotta

A fascinating cautionary tales of the dilemmas presented by extremism, Perrotta's book brings together the unlikeliest pairing of "heroes" in Tim Mason and Ruth Ramsey. Ramsey, a sexuality educator who insists on bucking the "abstinence-only" policy implemented by a predominantly Christian-right school board, finds herself head-to-head with her daughter's soccer coach, Tim Mason, a recovering-addict-turned-Christian, after Mason spontaneously breaks into prayer at the end of a game.

The story weaves through each character's history and the experiences that brought them to this particular battle, which, ironically, turns out not to be much of a battle at all.

As he did in Little Children, Perrotta creates characters who are so human, so understandably and thoroughly flawed that the line between 'good guy' and 'bad guy' blur. Being a fairly liberal-minded person myself, I fully expected to scoff at Mason's character and was ready to see him vilified as the judgmental, hypocritical image of Christianity that often gets portrayed in a story that pits the religious right against just about anyone else. I was prepared to embrace Ramsey as my heroine, my voice of reason and champion of my social and political views (what can I say? I am a bit fired up these days...).

But it was not nearly that simple. While my fundamental beliefs about the issues weren't changed by the book (and I don't think it was Perrotta's intention at all to do so), my idea about the people behind the issues were. I found myself, over and over again, sympathizing with Mason and also being a little annoyed with Ramsey. Even more surprisingly, I found the characters sympathizing with each other and ironically, even finding a sense of kinship between them as they each in their own way end up alienating those who are closest to them.

Just as Perrotta challenged us to look more closely behind the facade of suburbia in Little Children, he illustrates in The Abstinence Teacher that rarely is anything as black and white as our society tends to want to make it. It's not a comfortable realization; we like to believe we are right in our beliefs and sometimes it's easy to close ourselves off to the other side's point of view in an attempt to feel more secure in our own ideas. It's even easier to forget the human face of the other side; Perrotta's book serves to remind us that that human face is there, whether we like it or not.

Friday, September 5, 2008

See Jane...

The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler

This is one of those books I am liking more now that I'm done with it and can think about the characters' experiences with a little distance between us. I didn't fall in love with any of them, didn't really feel compelled by them as I was reading. On one occasion, I found myself checking to see how many more pages I had to get through and was happy to find a huge chunk of pages at the end that were additional materials and not stuff I *had* to read.

But now that I've finished reading it, I am finding that it did plant little seeds of "oh, I did like that" all over my brain and I have to say it is a good read.

The best thing about the book, though, and the thing I appreciated and liked from the get-go, is the way Fowler pays homage to Austen through the structure of her own novel. Each chapter takes a particular Austen book, and uses the theme of that book as the backdrop for the tale of the character hosting the reading group that month. Obviously, if you've read Austen at all, that makes the story lines created by Fowler fairly predictable in nature, but it's still an interesting read.

I have to admit I've yet to get on board with the whole Jane Austen revival that's gone on as of late; there are about eleventy billion books being published today that go back to contemplate Austen's stories from the point of view of another character, or creating new stories branching off where Austen left off. I hesitate to pick any of those up because I have a hard time believing they can even come close to duplicating Austen's style or perfection. They all look like they'd be hokey romantic drivel to me and Austen's novels go so far beyond that, I think it might be insulting to try to pick up where she left off. But I don't think Fowler's book does that at all. She brings some of Austen's themes (and truly she does focus on the romance of Austen's stories in her own recreations, but in a unsentimental way, I think) into a modern circle of people and simply shows the timelessness of Austen's thematic content.

Not going to go down as my favorite book ever, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.