Saturday, May 2, 2015

An Unbook Review, The Thula Mystery, Affirmation Fairy

I take an Epsom salt bath one or two times a week to maintain my sanity, and while I do, I always read what I call a “bathtub book”—cheap, easy-to-read fiction, usually pulp murder mysteries or chick lit. But I recently ran out of bathtub books, and the only book on my shelf I hadn’t read yet was “The Boys in the Boat”, which I got in a Christmas book exchange last December. It’s about the University of Washington men’s rowing crew trying to win gold at the 1936 Olympics.  I never cracked it open because I’m not interested in the subject matter and I dread reading “acclaimed” books. But I’d been assured by everyone who’s read it that it’s amazing, fascinating, transcendent, etc. so in the absence of anything else to read, I figured I’d give it a try.

I will concede that it’s well-written and the author, Daniel James Brown, does an excellent job weaving a very complex story, albeit one that 50 pages in, I still haven’t mustered much interest for. But the part of the story that did grab me has nothing to do with the rowing team. It’s about the pivotal subject Joe Rantz’s stepmother Thula, a beautiful, talented and cultured violinist who had dreams of performing in concert halls all over the world, and who apparently had the chops to make that dream a reality. For reasons that remain completely unclear to me, she married Joe’s father, moved with him to a run-down mining cabin in Boulder City, and promptly bore three children. Of course, she’s miserable, lonely, and furious. But my question is…why?? Why on earth would this woman who had talent, education, and brains, think it was a great idea to marry a miner and move to a hardscrabble town in the middle of nowhere, where she couldn’t practice the violin because her fingers were constantly chapped from the cold? What was the plan there, Thula? It remains a distracting puzzle to me. I understand it was a different time and there were different expectations, but I’m still disturbed by it. I don’t think the book is going to circle back and tell me whatever became of Thula, either. The story has just moved on, leaving me worried about her, even though she wasn’t a very nice person, and she kicked her own stepson out of the house when he was barely a teenager. (Bonus fun fact: She was apparently psychic and predicted the sinking of the Titantic.)

I’m also disturbed by the fact that compelling writing and historical relevance is not making me more interested in finishing the book. You can’t force yourself to be interested in something you’re not, but a part of me feels like bad, shallow person, because so many people loved this book and it’s so critically acclaimed. And that’s why I don’t like reading acclaimed books. I don’t usually love them as much as other people do, and then I end up with an inferiority complex. I should be interested. It’s an important story and rowing is a metaphor for life and the subjects of the book triumph over adversity through teamwork and so on into infinity and me probably never picking this book up again.

I submitted a short piece of fiction to a literary magazine recently. Since I’ve been focusing almost entirely on getting my novel done, I haven’t submitted any work for a long time, and I’ve forgotten about the small but addictive thrill of waiting for a response; living with the possibility of an acceptance at any moment now; that someone may like my work enough to publish it, meaning my worth as a human being is affirmed. This is a pretty inefficient system for maintaining self-esteem. I think there should be random affirmations of everyone’s worth. I’m not sure how this would work. Maybe a  sparkly-clad affirmation fairy could appear out of nowhere occasionally and hand out a card and a treat. “Hello! I’m the affirmation fairy and I’m here to tell you are a worthy human being! Enjoy your cookie!” Or, maybe we could work on loving ourselves and not looking to outside sources to make us feel whole. But that’s really hard work and there’s no cookie involved, so I think the fairy idea is better.

For those of you who do liking rowing, here’s a video. It looks like a total nightmare to me, but to each their own!

--Kristen McHenry


jc said...

Well Thula died suddenly in 1935. Maybe you dont care for the book because you prefer fiction. I couldn't finish a book about fictional stories if my life depended on it. There are too many interesting real stories so why bother.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your tangent..a very difficult historical context for this aspiring artist..very sad circumstances..listening to Joe 'one note' all day long singing jimmy crack corn did her his appetite,wow! no winners,,,she was an artist in her own right..a perspective only a sensitive feminist could feel. good thinking.geoffrey

Dave-55 said...

With just a few arrogant (ignorant) key strokes J Clayton ( dismisses the likes of Dickens, Hemingway, Goethe, Dostoesvsky, just to name a few, because he couldn't finish a book of fictional stories if his life depended on it. I too was curious about the circumstances of Joe's stepmother, wondering what would cause her to abandon the refinements and culture of her upbringing, while at the same time harboring such hostilities toward a ten year old boy. Thank you for raising the thoughtful discussion! (Kristen--I would also be interested to learn what books you do find interesting reads.)

Darcy said...

I hope you did finish the book! I found the early parts of the book a slog as well, but boy, did it pay off. I don't think you'd be much interested in Thula at the end (and it doesn't end well for Thula!). The "why?" for me was all about her cold rejection of her stepson. Joe's eventual wife had the same question!

Great book. Inspirational.

P.S. I am enthralled with rowing now. Rowing.

paintedjaguar said...

"rowing is a metaphor for life"

How true, how true! It's all stroke, stroke, stroke, but never really getting anywhere you want to go. On top of that you get sunburn and repetitive stress injuries for your trouble and if you complain, you're a bad team player. Also this one guy gets to tell everyone else what to do while he or she just goes along for the ride.

Oh wait, the metaphor was supposed to be inspirational? My bad.

lahuff said...

I finished the book. I can see the step mother abandonment of the 10 years old boy but my goodness, the man was a packaged deal when she married him. How could the father permit this to happen??? She may have been educated, sensitive and refined but actually she was cruel!

Anonymous said...

Thula made a choice. Many of us do not get to fulfill our talents, so that is not so unique to her. She was cruel, self-centered, and unreasonable. I want to call her husband a wimp, but he had a difficult wife to deal with as a married man. Still, he should have supported his son.

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