Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Book Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

O'Farrell, Maggie. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
New York: Harcourt, 2006
ISBN 978-0-15-101411-8


This novel is about family stories--in this case, the truths that don't get told and the lies that spring up to fill the void--and how those stories reverberate through generations.

Iris Lockhart is a 30-something woman busy managing her vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh, juggling a tense relationship with her stepbrother Alex, and trying to sidestep the increasing demands of her latest married lover. Besides Alex, Iris's only family is her paternal grandmother, Kitty, who is in the clutches of advancing Alzheimer's disease.

Then one day Iris receives a shocking phone call: A nearby mental institution is closing, and Iris must make arrangements for her great aunt Esme, Kitty's sister, whom Iris has never heard of. Kitty always claimed to be an only child. However, the institution's paperwork proves that Esme is Kitty's sister, and Iris can see a hint of her dead father's face in Esme's.

Iris agrees to take Esme to a residence home arranged by the institution but finds the home too appalling to leave Esme there. Iris therefore has no choice but to take Esme home for the weekend with her, to an apartment carved out of the family home in which Esme had lived before being sent to the institution more than 60 years ago, at age 16. As Esme caresses the doorknobs and looks into the well-remembered rooms, Iris tries to question her about the past.

Although the novel is short, it is not an easy read, either emotionally or stylistically. The narrative structure skips among three kinds of narration:
  1. the straightforward third-person narration of Iris's life
  2. the convoluted, often naive meanderings of Esme's schizophrenic memories and thoughts
  3. the even more disjointed and bitter memories of Kitty's dementia
Understanding this novel requires an attentive reader able to put together the pieces of the puzzle in a process that amply demonstrates that there's always more than one side to every story.

In a sudden flash of insight Iris puts all the pieces together in the book's abrupt, dramatic climax. I would have liked to see a bit of dénouement about how Iris's new knowledge will affect her life. Nonetheless, the novel richly repays the reader's investment of time and effort.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox deals with many important issues: truth, the subjugation of women, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, social propriety, the meaning of love and of family, parenting, and the treatment of mental illness.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Photo of the Day: Spring is on the way

molting goldfinch

Even more than the blooming crocus, the regoldening goldfinches always mean spring to me.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Photo of the Day: Flooding in Missouri

Missouri FloodThis was the scene yesterday (Friday, March 21, 2008) near Valley Park in St. Louis County, Missouri, where MO Hwy 141 intersects with Interstate 44. The photo was taken looking south down 141. The vehicles on the overpass are on I 44, which was reduced to one lane heading west. The Missouri Dept. of Transportation (MoDOT) placed concrete barriers and sandbags (which would be just off this photo to the right) along the northern edge of I 44 west to try to keep the rising water from the Meramec River off the road.

The water you see here is not the river itself; that's about a half mile north of the vantage point of this photo. There's a levee protecting the downtown area of Valley Park along the northern edge of the Meramec. This water is from farther west, where there is no levee.

When this photo was taken, the river was at about 34 feet. Flood stage in Valley Park is 16 feet. The Meramec is expected to crest at about 39 feet in Valley Park this afternoon. The previous high-water mark in Valley Park is 39.7 feet, which occurred in December 1982. The new levee was built to help prevent massive flooding such as occurred here in 1982.

Yesterday the temperature here was 72 degrees. Since the public schools were on spring break, there were a lot of kids in the crowd that came to flood watch. Many of the younger kids were more excited about getting to walk in the middle of the road than they were about viewing the power of Mother Nature.

You can see a lot more photos of the flooding here.

Update: Monday morning, March 24, 2008

As quickly as the flood waters rose, they have receded. This morning Hwy 141 was open in both directions. Overnight MoDOT crews used their snow plows to push the mud off the road. Over the next few nights they will remove the concrete barriers and sandbags from along I 44.

The Meramec River crested a little lower than expected. The water never did reach I 44. And Valley Park's new $49 million levee held. The towns further west, though--Eureka and Pacific--experienced bad flooding.

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Happiness can be inherited, research finds | Health | Reuters

Happiness can be inherited, research finds | Health | Reuters:
Here are some interesting results from a study discussed in the journal Psychological Science:
A study of nearly 1,000 pairs of identical and non-identical twins found genes control half the personality traits that make people happy while factors such as relationships, health and careers are responsible for the rest of our well-being.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Another Fake Memoir

Gang Memoir, Turning Page, Is Pure Fiction - New York Times

Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones was published last week. In this memoir Margaret B. Jones claims to be a half-white, half-Native American who grew up as a foster child in the gangland of South-Central Los Angeles and ran drugs for the Bloods. In reality, "Margaret B. Jones" is Margaret Seltzer, who grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.

Faking a memoir seems to be a growing trend:
The revelations of Ms. Seltzer’s mendacity came in the wake of the news last week that a Holocaust memoir, “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years” by Misha Defonseca, was a fake, and perhaps more notoriously, two years ago James Frey, the author of a best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” admitted that he had made up or exaggerated details in his account of his drug addiction and recovery.
Seltzer's identity was revealed when her sister saw an article with accompanying photo in a New York Times article last week and notified the book's publisher, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, that the story was untrue. Seltzer had worked on the book for three years with Riverhead editor Sarah McGrath. Seltzer's sister wonders how a publisher could have worked so long on a project without doing any fact-checking.

The book also fooled several reviewers, including The New York Times's own Michiko Kakutani, who praised the “humane and deeply affecting memoir,” while noting that some of the scenes “can feel self-consciously novelistic at times.”

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

(More) Perspectives on Gender

Mining the Gender Gap for Answers - New York Times:

This short piece asks some important questions about the head-to-head match-up between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination: "How much of Mrs. Clinton’s political vulnerability is linked to being a woman, and how much to her own, very specific political identity and past? Why do so many Democratic men and women, at this particular moment, see the race so differently?"

One expert on women in politics comments that "gender stereotypes were among the “most ingrained,” and argued that much of the news coverage — including whether Mrs. Clinton was too tough and whether she was crying on cue — played off of those stereotypes."

At this point polls indicate that Obama leads among men, while he and Clinton are splitting the female vote about equally.

Even after the race is over, it will be difficult to determine whether gender stereotypes or Hillary Clinton's personal political baggage most influenced the political process. Are Americans just not yet ready to elect a woman President, or are they just not willing to elect THIS woman President?