Virtual Advent Tour

My dad’s family, every year, does an ornament swap.

You might know this game by different names: white elephant, holiday swap, yankee swap. My grandmother always called it a Pollyanna. Everyone who comes to the Christmas Eve party brings an ornament and wraps it up so you can’t see what it looks like. Then everyone, from the toddlers to the great grandparents, picks a number. Then the unwrapping starts. Just don’t get too comfortable with your ornament, because someone might come along and steal it.

There are a lot of strategies when it comes to ornament swap. You can always pretend that you don’t love your ornament, hoping that the competition will take your indifference to mean that maybe the ornament isn’t so great after all. You can try and get people to take your ornament, especially if you unwrapped the ugliest one of all. I kind of like the ugly ones.

There are two rules in Pollyanna: don’t hide your ornament and no tears. Even the littlest kids need to be okay with getting their ornaments stolen and no one in my family is above stealing an ornament from a six year old. Eventually they’ll figure out that the goal is to make friends with someone who has a higher number than you. Cuddle up. Let them know how much you really want that baseball ornament. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll work something out. After all, alliances aren’t even mentioned in the rules.

The ornaments can be beautiful, they can be sentimental, or, often, they can be hideous. Or just plain weird. For a long time there were two ornaments that always came back: the shiny pickle and the Joy shingle. Everyone groans when the pickle comes out of its wrapping, but I think we’re all sort of happy its there. I mean, really. It’s a shiny pickle ornament. What isn’t to love?

The Joy shingle was a, well, shingle. It was pretty, in a rustic decoration sort of way. It had the word joy written across the front, but the back told the real story. Since the mid-90s, we’d been writing the name of whoever “won” the shingle that year. The shingle showed all of us: people who had come and gone, people who would be around forever. My name was on there from maybe 1999?

The shingle didn’t come back last year and no one is quite sure where it got off to. I kind of believe that it will make its way back to us eventually and there will be a gap in the years and we’ll all say, “Remember those years when the Joy shingle was missing?” Or, if it doesn’t come back, maybe we’ll just start writing our names on the shiny pickle.

This post is a part of The Virtual Advent Tour, hosted by Kelly and Marg. Check out all the participants here.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I had little intention of reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, because I don’t think I’m interested in the life histories of despicable people.  (Except, I am.)  I have The Corrections, and know all the scandals that surround Franzen, but just was not interesting.  One thing changed that: NPR.  Right when Freedom came out, I was doing a lot of traveling and listening to NPR on the road.  The interview with Franzen was fascinating and I loved the excerpt he read.  I knew that as soon as I could get my hands on a copy I had to read it.

Now that I have read it, it absolutely lived up to my expectations.  I know that a lot of my appreciation has to do with the writing style; the particularly detailed, almost omniscient narrator is my favorite.  I found Franzen’s voice refreshing and his vision of the US life, though somewhat bleak, was so realistic that the characters could have been my neighbors.

Freedom is a family history of the fictional  Berglunds, from Patty and Walter’s childhoods to their lukewarm courtship and their mutual betrayals over time.  Patty, a college athlete turned housewife, throws herself into renovating their house, but once the project is finished finds herself depressed.  Walter, a strong believer in population control and environmental protection, rides his bike to work every day but eventually changes jobs to a career that will alter his life forever.

Did I like Walter and Patty, or their mutual musician friend Richard?  Absolutely not.  Did I agree with the decisions their children made?  Not once.  Did I enjoy reading about their lives?  I couldn’t get enough of it.

Though I do not think this is the perfect novel, or the perfect US novel, I do think that this story perfectly captures a moment in our history with characters who, yes, are somewhat like caricatures of their real-life counterparts.  But never does Freedom venture into the unbelievable, rather only the extreme.  There is a little bit of all of us, our worst sides, in these characters.

Walter, though for much of his life he thinks he knows what he wants and how to get it, finds himself unsure of everything as he gets older and his children and wife disappoint him.  This is how that feeling is described for Walter:

“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live.  Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.  There was no controlling narrative: he seemed to himself a purely reactive pinball in a game whose only object was to stay alive for staying alive’s sake.” (318)

I also loved that Freedom existed wholly in its time period, from the late 70s to the late 2000s, with the appearances of appropriate music details and technologies, including Twitter, Priuses and Obama:

“Linda was very offended by this conversation.  Walter wasn’t really even a neighbor, he didn’t belong to the homeowners association, and the fact that he drove a Japanese hybrid, to which he’d recently applied an OBAMA bumper sticker, pointed, in her mind, toward godlessness and a callousness regarding the plight of hardworking families, like hers, who were struggling to make ends meet and raise their children to be good, loving citizens in a dangerous world.” (544)

“Anxieties hung like a cloud of no-see-ums on Canterbridge Court; they invaded every house via cable news and talk radio and the internet.  There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (546)

Freedom is going to be one of my favorite novels of the year.  It reminded me of all the things I love about Wally Lamb, with none of the problems I have with his fiction.  Will novels like Freedom and The Hour I First Believed, which are so entrenched in a time period and actually occupy the same time period, eventually sound dated?  I hope not.  I hope that they simply serve as a glimpse into our society’s idiosyncrasies and complexities.  I am eager to read The Corrections, a pre-9/11 novel, to compare it to Freedom.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Also reviewed by: Caribousmom, Lous_pages, Steph & Tony Investigate, 1000 Books with Quotes, Tales from the Reading Room,  Feminist Texican [Reads], The New Dork Review of Books.