Deal Me In! Amy Silverberg, Suburbia!

I signed up for Jay at bibliophilica’s #DealMeIn2019 challenge.  The goal is to read 52 short stories this year.  The stories are chosen by drawing a random playing card.

This week, I chose the 4 of Diamonds.

The story is “Suburbia!” by Amy Silverberg, found in Best American Short stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay.

“Suburbia!” is (for lack of a better word) an odd story.  It begins when the narrator is fifteen, and her father says “I bet you’ll leave here at eighteen and you’ll never come back. . . not once” (251).  The narrator agrees to the bet.  A week after her 18th birthday, her father takes the daughter to the train station and says goodbye to her forever.  (It did not seem that the daughter had been consulted about this trip.) The daughter does OK.  She gets a job as a waitress, makes some friends, and takes a few classes.  But eventually, she misses her family and wants to see them again, so she goes home unannounced.

She is surprised to find that the house she grew up in is tiny–smaller than a toaster.  She crouches down on her knees in order to talk to her parents.  They are embarrassed that she is seeing them like this, but otherwise they are doing fine.

The last line of the story is this:  “I thought this was a funny thing, the way the past and the future could both shrink down to a manageable size, like a pill to be swallowed, or the head of a match” (261).

I believe Silverberg is using the miniature house as a symbol.  When we are children, our families and our homes seem huge, all-encompassing.  After we grow up and look back on our homes, our families may seem in some way diminished.  One can understand why the narrator’s father would not want her to see them through the lens of her adult eyes.

I’m not sure what I think of this story.  I haven’t yet fully “digested” it.  In the back of the anthology, Silverberg included some notes on why she wrote the story.  I will quote part of what she wrote:

  “I’d just read the short story ‘The Paperhanger’ by William Gay and admire the mystery of it, how it seemed to go confidently into an unknown world, a world that felt a little surreal and a little absurd. . . .I was also in a workshop taught by Aimee Bender, and while I hadn’t set out to write anything with a magical realism element, I’m sure her stories. . . rubbed off on me–or if not the stories, then at least the courage or freedom to go confidently into that so called unknown world.”

I do like that idea of writers having the freedom to go confidently wherever they want to go.

*****
Have you read this story or anything else by Amy Silverberg?  Let me know what you think!

 

Six Degrees of Separation: “French Lieutenant’s Woman” to “Rebecca”

 

Kate of booksaremyfavouriteandbest hosts a monthly meme called “6 Degrees of Separation.”   She writes, “On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.”

This month, the starting book is The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles.  I haven’t read this book but I did see the movie adaptation, which starred Meryl Streep.

Meryl Streep also starred in The Hours, an adaptation of the novel by Michael Cunningham.  The Hours explores one day in the lives of three women.  One of these women is Virginia Woolf, who is writing the novel Mrs. Dalloway, the novel on which The Hours is based.

The main character of Mrs. Dalloway is a woman named Clarissa.  The novel also features a character named Septimus, a veteran of World War I who is suffering from shell shock. Septimus’s doctor plans to send him to an asylum for the mentally ill.

Veterans suffering from mental illnesses stemming from World War I are also featured in Regeneration by Pat Barker.  Rivers, the doctor, is portrayed as a complex and sympathetic character.

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel with a much more critical portrayal of a mental asylum.  The movie version of Cuckoo’s Nest starred Jack Nicolson.

Nicholson also starred in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.  That novel scared the bejesus out of me when I read it back in the 1970s.

Another book which scared me when I was younger is Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

I travelled from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to Rebecca.  They seem like good companion novels to me.  Both feature lonely young women, and both are set on the southern coast of England.


Now it’s your turn to try!  Post a link to your Six Degrees of Separation in the comments section.

 

His Bloody Project

I was looking forward to reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.  The crime novel is billed as a historical thriller and is set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-1800s.  Roderick Macrae is arrested for murdering three people. He admits he is guilty, and he is already in jail awaiting trial before the book begins.  We read his memoir of the events, along with other documents related to the crime, such as statements by people who knew him, medical reports, and so forth.

his-bloody-project

Bloody Project received rave reviews and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.  Critics called it “gripping,” “compelling,” a “psychological thriller.”  I enjoy psychological thrillers and was ready to be gripped and compelled.

However, I was disappointed.  Although I was impressed at Burnet’s evocation of the godawfulness of the life of crofters in 19th century Scotland, I did not find the book riveting.  Roderick Macrae admits from the beginning that he killed the three people and is ready to face the consequences.  His memoir explains what led to the killing.   Maybe I missed something, but I failed to see anything of a psychological thriller in his account.  His voice was devoid of emotion or any real depth.  He wrote in what a psychologist might call “flat affect.”  The life he and his family led was devoid of any warmth, affection, joy or anything to make life worthwhile.  The way Lachlan Broad treated them was brutal.  Given the circumstances of his life, I completely understand why Roderick murdered the three victims and why he did not much care whether he lived or died.  I guess that is a testament to the strength of Burnet’s writing.  However, because Macrae’s life was so grim, and there was nothing compelling about his personality, I did not feel affected one way or the other about the outcome of his trial.

To state it bluntly, I felt no thrill or mystery or much of anything except pity for the entire class of people who had to live this way.

Note to writers

From a craft perspective, though, I did find Burnet’s use of various documents to tell the story interesting. It is a different way to convey multiple perspectives on a character or event.   Tim O’Brien used this technique brilliantly in his novel In the Lake of the Woods, and I think it added layers of complexity to the story.

I also thought the inclusion of J. Bruce Thomson, the expert in the field of criminal anthropology, was interesting.  This character illustrates the real trend at that period of “experts” who were able to tell if a person was inherently prone to criminality by examining his physical features.  Criminality was believed by some to be something hereditary and innate rather than a response to circumstances.  Bringing in this character was a good way to help readers understand the intellectual currents at work in this period.

Question for my readers:  I know this was a critically acclaimed book.  What am I missing? 

Trademark Louise Erdrich: Humor

In the past few weeks, I have been binging on Louise Erdrich’s novels.

(Erdrich is the acclaimed Ojibwe author of so many books I can’t keep track–maybe 16 novels?   If you are unfamiliar with her work, here is a review of her latest novel by the New York Times. It serves as a good introduction to her work.)

These are the novels I have recently read (or re-read):

  • Love Medicine (1984)
  • Tracks (1988)
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
  • The Plague of Doves (2008)
  • The Round House (2012)

Several years ago, I also read her Crown of Columbus, and I am now starting to read her Bingo Palace (1994).

It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan of her work. The woman is a literary goddess.  Each of her novels creates a world unto itself.  However, most of them are connected to each other as well.  She focuses on a small (fictional) area of North Dakota and many of the same families are featured in each work.   In terms of her style, each work is unique.  Nonetheless, certain themes and stylistic traits recur throughout her work.  Taken together, the combination of these traits add up to a distinct Erdrich voice or “trademark.”

In this short series, I want to focus on a few elements of her voice, the things that mark her as distinct. Today I am focusing on her sense of humor.  In general, I would not classify Erdrich as a comic writer.  Taken as a whole, her fiction veers more towards the lyrical, the tragic, or even magical.   However, her vision is consistently punctuated with episodes of broad comedy.  Often the comedy is physical, even slapstick.  The humor provides some relief from the sadness of much of her writing, but it also expresses her view of the world—one in which the tragic and the comic cannot be neatly separated.

One example of trademark Erdrich humor can be seen in her first novel, Love Medicine.  In this work, Lipsha Morrissey accidentally walks in on his grandfather having an adulterous tryst in the laundry room at the senior center with his old flame, Lulu Lamartine.  In the context of the entire work, Grandfather Nector Kashpaw’s yearning for Lulu is portrayed as poignant, sad, touching.  In this particular scene, though, the perspective is one of broad comedy:

“There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather.  Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcase, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart.  The washers and dryers was all on, chock full of quarters, shaking and moaning.” (196)

This was an awkward scene for Lipsha to witness, to say the least.  But the awkwardness turns to hilarity when a wig is added to the equation:

“The Lamartine wore a big curly light-brown wig.  Looked like one of them squeaky little white-people dogs.  Poodles they call them.  Anyway, that wig is what saved us from the worse. . . . Turned out, though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head.  And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone, you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges.  Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own.  Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something.  He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled-looking.  They just stared at each other, huffing and puffing, with quizzical expressions.”  (197)

This sort of broad comedy intermingles with scenes of great sadness and even tragedy throughout her works.  We can see another example of her slapstick humor in her 2012 novel The Round House.  This novel focuses on the rape and attempted murder of the narrator’s mother (Geraldine).  The perpetrator is known, but cannot be punished by the legal system because of complex and blatantly unjust issues of jurisdiction on Native reservations.  Not surprisingly, the overall tone of this novel is serious, even grim.  Still, Erdrich manages to interject scenes of pure slapstick, such as this one, in which a teenage boy  named Cappy confesses to a Catholic priest that he has been having sex with his girlfriend—in the church basement.  The confession does not go as well as expected though.  Father Travis, an ex-Marine, was in excellent physical condition and had a temper.  Rather than forgiving Cappy, he explodes in anger and starts chasing him:

“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion.  Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hadn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew.  Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pew toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking series of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.”  (232)

The ensuing chase scene lasts for three full pages of slapstick adventure reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.

“Cappy had those good shoes, but so, I noticed, did Father Travis.  He wasn’t running in sober clerical blacks but had perhaps been playing basketball or jogging before he dropped in to hear confessions.  The two sprinted hotly down the dusty gravel road that led from the church into town.  Cappy boldly crossed the highway and Father Travis followed.  Cappy cut through yards he knew well and disappeared.  But even in his cassock, which he’d hoisted and tucked into his belt, Father Travis was right behind him heading toward the Dead Custer Bar and Whitey’s gas station.  We marveled at Father’s pale thick-muscled calves blurring in the sun.” (233)

I am not a Catholic, but I am pretty sure that’s not how confession is supposed to work.

Certainly, Erdrich is not the only writer who combines humor and tragedy.  Many southern writers, for example, are famed for their tragic-comic vision.   William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.  I think Erdrich’s humor is particularly broad, even cartoonish.  The combination of this slapstick humor with serious, even tragic, themes is one of the more striking elements of Erdrich’s voice.

I will discuss other elements of her voice in future posts.  Stay tuned!

erdrich-novels

Confessions of a Bad Book Blogger

Book List from 2016

Ummm….so it appears that 2016 has come and (almost) gone.  It seems that I forgot that I had a book blog for most of the year.  I did not stop reading, but I stopped writing.  Oops.

My resolution for 2017 is to be better about logging what I read so I don’t end up in the situation I’m in now, wondering what I did all year long.

In a half-hearted attempt to make up for my deficiencies, I am presenting a list here of some of the books I recall reading and liking this year.  I only include the ones I read for the first time this year.  (I also re-read a lot of books for teaching purposes.)  I am not including ones I started but did not finish.  I am also not including some of the mystery/thrillers that I sometimes binge on but then forget about.  (Love em and leave em is my motto.)

Here’s to another year of reading!

  • Herodotus, The Histories.  This one was a doozy that took forever to read, and I read it more than once.
  • Amy Tan, Valley of Amazement.  Multi-generational family saga set partly in China, partly in the U.S.
  • Kevin Powers, Yellow Birds.  Beautifully written novel about Iraq war.  Move over, Hemingway.
  • Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts.  Fascinating nonfiction book about an American ambassador in Berlin during the 1930s, with the rise of Hitler.  This was my introduction to the creature known as a Nazi slut.
  • Lauren Slater, Welcome to My Country.   Nonfictional essays about mental illness. Slater is both a psychologist and a person with mental illness herself.  Beautifully written.
  • Karen Russell, Swamplandia.  Novel about a family reeling from the loss of their wife/mother.  Wonderful style– bordering on fantasy, but not quite.
  • Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer.   Novel about a Vietnamese man who works as a double agent during the Vietnam War.  Really smart, insightful look at the U.S.
  • Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Novel about a Dominican-American young man.
  • Colm Toibin, Brooklyn.  Novel about a young Irish immigrant to the Brookyn in the 1950s
  • Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You.  Did blog post on this book earlier this year.
  • Louise Erdrich, Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.   blogged about this.
  • Francine Prose, Lovers at the Chameleon Club.  Wonderful novel about a French woman who ends up working for the Nazis.
  • Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members.   Hilarious satire of life in a university English Department.
  • Dave Eggers, The Circle.  Novel about a dystopian future (present?).  Technology run amok.
  • Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King.  Death of a Salesman in Saudi Arabia.
  • Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale.  novel about two sisters in Nazi-occupied France.
  • Ann Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread.   novel about disappointments of family life.
  • George Packer, Assassin’s Gate.  nonfiction account of disastrous American occupation of Iraq.
  • Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time.  Blogged about this novel earlier this year.

 

What have you read this year?  Let me know in the comments section!

 

“Tracks” by Louise Erdrich

This weekend here in Minnesota is snowy and bitterly cold, good weather to hunker down and continue to gorge on Louise Erdrich novels. I just finished reading Tracks (1988), a story of the decimation and dispossession of the Ojibwe (a.k.a Chippewa) Indians of Minnesota and North Dakota during the years 1912-1924.    This is how the novel begins:

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.  It was surprising there were so many of us left to die.  For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissioux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.
By then, we thought disaster must surely have spent its force, that disease must have claimed all of the Anishinabe that the earth could hold and bury.
But the earth is limitless and so is luck and so were our people once.” (1)

This sense of unfathomable loss permeates Tracks, and yet it is not entirely bleak.  This novel is recounted by two alternating narrators, Nanapush and Pauline.  Pauline is an odd young woman, half mad, full of longing and resentments.  She gravitates towards a masochistic kind of religiosity and eventually becomes a nun, albeit one who is twisted and sometimes sadistic.

louise-erdrich-2

Nanapush, a man of about fifty, is the only surviving member of his family.   He possesses a wealth of historical knowledge about the tribe that he is passing on orally to his granddaughter, Lulu.  We readers are positioned as eavesdroppers to his oral history.    He says to Lulu, “Although I had lived no more than fifty winters, I was considered an old man.  I’d seen enough to be one.  In the years I’d passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon a hundred before.  My girl, I saw the passing of times you will never know.”

In the beginning of the novel, Nanapush finds a young woman named Fleur Pillager barely alive in her cabin, surrounded by five dead family members.  Fleur, like Nanapush, is also the last survivor of her family.  Nanapush takes Fleur home with him and becomes like a father to her.  They are both overwhelmed with the spirits of the dead who surround them.  The names [of their dead family members] “grew within us, swelled to the brink of our lips, forced our eyes open in the middle of the night.  We were filled with the water of the drowned, cold and black, airless water that lapped against the seal of our tongues or leaked slowly from the corners of our eyes.  Within us, like ice shards, their names bobbed and shifted.  Then the slivers of ice began to collect and cover us” (6).

Nanapush and Fleur almost succumbed to their grief by moving on to the next world; many people did.  Nanapush notes that “there were many of our people who died in this manner, of the invisible sickness.”  They do not die, though.   It might be too much to claim that Fleur, Nanapush, and Pauline flourish, but they do lead vigorous lives of passion, love, violence, vengeance and even laughter.   Erdrich writes in a lyrical style in which the line between realism and myth often blurs. Her prose is beautiful and her characters are magnificent.

This is the second time I have read Tracks.  The first time was long ago in a different century.  I remembered very little about the book except for the haunting power of Fleur Pillager.  All three main characters—Nanapush, Pauline, and Fleur—are compelling creations.  Fleur, however, is mesmerizing.  She is strong.  She is beautiful.  She is frightening.  Nanapush calls her “a woman gone wild, striking down whatever got into her path” (45).  Pauline claims she almost destroyed the town of Argus.

What I find interesting (from a craft perspective) is that this untamed woman does not have a voice in the novel.   Fleur has a huge impact on the people around her.  We read about her from Nanapush’s and Pauline’s perspective, but we never hear her own voice, her own story.

In this sense, Fleur reminds me a little bit of Caddy Compson from William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury.  Caddy has three brothers who are all obsessed with her, but in different ways. Each brother narrates his own section of the novel in which Caddy plays a central role. We never hear Caddy’s story.

Writers, take note.  One might expect that not giving a character her own voice would dilute her power.  I am not sure if that is the case, though.  For me, at least, Fleur and Caddy both remain indelibly ingrained in my mind long after I was done reading.  Might they have had even more impact if they could have spoken for themselves?  It is hard to say, but my guess would be no.  Maybe observing other characters trying to hard (yet failing) to understand and “capture” these female characters is what makes them so compelling.

What do you think?  If you have read Tracks or Sound and the Fury, do you think Fleur and Caddy should have been allowed to speak for themselves?  Why or why not?  Can you think of other really compelling characters who were not given a voice?  Have you written any?

 

 

 

 

 

The Piano Man

Writing about erotic love is hard.  One has to navigate so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics.  Writing about ghost lovers is even harder.   Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character?   Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).

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The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse.  He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust.  One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here.  Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.)  Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life.  Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.

The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands.  Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book.  It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author.  (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)

As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia.  She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God.  God has some competition, though.  Her true love is music:

“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise.  At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.”  (14)

Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin.  It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14).    Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover.  His flats caressed her.  His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles.  His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue.   His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).

Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it.  After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17).  Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.

To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic.  She is not pathetic.  She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself.  In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier.   When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:

“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere.  The silk of his heavy, brown hair.  A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat.  His voice, she heard it, avid and light.  It was as though the composer himself had entered the room.  Who knows?  Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s.  Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave.  At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).

chopin
Frederic Chopin

Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction.  Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).

I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer for many reasons.  One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.”   I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well.  Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure.  Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world.  She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical.  She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see drabness.   If you have not read her books before, I recommend that you do.

 

 

Watching the Moss Grow: “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert

I do not know how to write about Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things without gushing.  I really love this book!  It’s been awhile since I curled up with such a big, fat, 19th-century-ish novel and found myself swept away so pleasurably in the story.

I call this a 19th-century-ish novel for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is set in the 19th century.  The main character, Alma Whittaker, was born in 1800, so as her story progresses, so does the century.  The Signature, like many 19th-century novels, is grand in scope, covering not only the entire life of its protagonist, but also grapples with some of the century’s major ideas, most notably the theory of evolution.

Alma is an amateur biologist.  (She is an amateur not because she lacks the training or rigor of university scientists, but because she is a woman and lacks the proper credentials.)  She loves studying nature, and eventually specializes in mosses.  That may sound like a rather dry premise for a novel, but Gilbert manages to make it fascinating.  The novel is not just about moss, however.  It is also about love, sexual desire, ambition, regret, and even contains a jaunt to Tahiti.

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I enjoyed many things about The Signature of All Things, but I think the best part is the protagonist Alma Whittaker.  Alma is an unlikely heroine, especially for the 19th century.  Alma is not a physically beautiful woman, and men are not attracted to her.  She is, however, ferociously intelligent, and her parents encourage her to develop her mind to its fullest potential.

Because of her mind and her keen interest in studying the world around, Alma is able to find contentment and even happiness in her life.  As she notes here:

“I think I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived.  My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true.  I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me.  I have outlived nearly everyone I have ever loved. . . I have not had an illustrious career.  I had one original idea in my life—and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me a chance to be known—but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity.  I have no husband.  I have no heirs.  I once had a fortune, but I gave it away. . . I do not think I will live to see another spring. . . Surely you are asking yourself now—why does this miserably unlucky woman call herself fortunate?”

“I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world.  As such, I have never felt insignificant.  This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so—for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities. . . All I ever wanted was to know this word.  I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived.  Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history—added to the great library, as it were.  That is no small feat, sir.  Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.”  (497)

It seems to me that mainstream American culture gives women the message that the path to a satisfying life is narrow.  First of all women have to be beautiful.  Or, if not beautiful, at least reasonably attractive.  Second, women need to have husbands.  Third, women must have children.  Women are allowed to have a career, if they must, but it is optional and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  The purpose of a career, of course, is to make as much money as possible. Other considerations are considered frivolous.

And that’s it.  That’s the path for happiness.  Given the extraordinary diversity of women, with all of our different interests, strengths, and weaknesses, I’ve always found the narrowness of this prescription ridiculous.  For that reason, I enjoy finding out about women (real or fictional) who defy the path and yet lead satisfying lives.  Alma Whittaker is a great example of such a woman and I think young women need to have more examples like her to emulate.

In the end, though, what makes The Signature of All Things such a great read is simply that Elizabeth Gilbert is a wonderful storyteller.  Her success with Eat, Pray Love was no fluke.  This lady knows how to write!

What is the “Right” Amount of Grief?

Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace, a novel by William Kent Krueger, 2013 .  Atria/Simon & Schuster

 “He who learns must suffer.  And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, fails drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”  -Aeschylus (quoted in Ordinary Grace)

Semi-Spoiler Alert:  In this post, I will not reveal “whodunit,” but I will reveal one of the characters who is found dead in the middle of the novel.

In the early 1960s in New Bremen, a small town in Minnesota, nothing much ever happened—at least most of the time.   During one hot summer, however, several people died unexpectedly, some of them from foul play.   We learn about this town and these deaths in the novel Ordinary Grace, told from the perspective of 13-year old Frank Drum.  Frank is the son of Nathan, a preacher whose faith in God is unshakeable, and Ruth, a restless woman who wants more than her small-town life can give her.  Frank has a younger brother, Jake, and an older sister, Ariel. As the novel unfolds we learn more about the dynamics of this family and their interactions with other members of the small community.

Minnesota author William Kent Krueger is perhaps best-known for his mystery novels featuring detective Cork O’Connor, most of which are set in northern Minnesota.   Writing about murder, then, is nothing new to him.  However, Ordinary Grace is not a crime or mystery novel.   Figuring out who is responsible for the various deaths that occur this summer is only part of what this novel is about.  It is, more importantly, about how survivors respond to loss and how grief affects us all differently.

William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson
William Kent Krueger by Tony Nelson

This question of loss comes to the fore midway through the novel when we find out that one of the people found dead is Ariel, the beloved daughter of Nathan and Ariel.   It is one thing for a pastor to minister to other people who are suffering.  It is quite another thing when this pastor has to grapple with his own devastating loss.   As Nathan and his wife attempt to come to terms with the murder of their daughter, readers see how differently the husband and wife respond to their loss.  Their reactions are so different, in fact, that their marriage nearly founders upon the rocks of their grief.

Despite the horror of losing his young daughter, Nathan never for a moment falters in his Christian faith.  This is not to say that he does not grieve for Ariel; of course he does.  His soul, however, is not tormented to anywhere near the extent his wife’s is.  Far from being comforted by her husband’s faith, she is, in fact, enraged by it.

In one scene, for example, Ruth expresses her despair to Frank by saying, “There is no God to care about us.  We’ve got only ourselves and each other. . . . But your father, Frankie, he cares more about God than he does about us.  And to me that’s like saying he cares more about the air and I hate him for that.”  (224)

This scene, I think, beautifully encapsulates one of the core conflicts of this book.  Not only does Ruth not share her husband’s faith in God, she actively resents it.  She cannot understand why Nathan is not as shattered and full of rage as she is.  It appears to her that he simply does not love her or their child as much as he should.  She mistakes spiritual peace for indifference.

I found Krueger’s portrayal of a family’s grief and their struggles with faith profound and moving.  Overall, I found the novel compulsively readable as well as emotionally satisfying and I would highly recommend it to others.  One element of the novel, though struck me as false:  the quickness with which Ruth recovers her equanimity.  One day she is raging with fury and even leaves her husband because he says the word “God” too much.  Then, already a day after her beloved daughter’s funeral, her emotional fragility is gone and she says, “It hurts terribly, Emil.  Maybe it always will.  But I’ve survived and I believe I’ll be all right.”

This scene strikes me as unrealistic, happening just a few days (possibly a week?) after the child in whom she had invested all her hopes for the future is taken away by a murderer.   Krueger’s portrayal of her earlier fragility and rage seem believable, but this “recovery” strikes me as coming much too soon.  Yes, the narrator tells us he does find her crying occasionally in the next few months, but still that does not seem like enough to me for a parent who has lost their child far ahead of their time.

But maybe I am wrong.  Maybe people CAN recover more quickly than I expect them to.  This discussion reminds me last season of “Downton Abbey,” in which Lady Mary was grieving from the sudden loss of her husband.  The family “allowed” her six months to grieve.  After that, she was expected to “get on with living.”  Yes, I know, “Downton Abbey” is not real life.  But I do see this reaction in the broader society as well.  It seems that we get the message that if we are to grieve, we should get it done as quickly as possible and we shouldn’t make too much of a spectacle of ourselves.   This strikes me as being more about the needs of the non-grievers than about the needs of the grievers.   It seems that others simply do not want to be bothered too much with other people’s pain.  But perhaps I am off-base here.

What do you think?  Do you think we are “supposed” to grieve for a set amount of time?  If so, how much is the “right” amount?

Theo Decker Needs Cheryl Strayed

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

 I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Although the novel was published in 1992, I didn’t read it until a year or two ago.  I found it riveting, and I mentally kicked myself for not having read it earlier.  So, I was excited to read Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, who is 13 years old at the beginning of the novel.  He and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, admiring the Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch,” when bombs (planted by terrorists) exploded in the museum. Theo’s mother was killed, but Theo survived.  In the ensuing chaos, Theo grabbed “The Goldfinch” and took it home with him.  He remained obsessed with his stolen possession for the rest of the novel.  To Theo, the painting was more than a priceless masterpiece.  It represented not only his lost mother, but also the very idea of beauty, of transcendence—of beauty that transcends the grim reality of everyday existence.

The idea of this story sounds compelling, and many parts of the novel ARE compelling However, I have to admit that I found large chunks of the novel rather underwhelming.  I found the first section of the novel, when Theo lost his mother and then was taken into a wealthy friend’s home appropriately disorienting.  I felt lost, numb and emotionally adrift along with Theo as he tried to adjust to a world without his mother, a world without meaning.  Theo then moved to Las Vegas to be with his father and his father’s girlfriend.  This Las Vegas section may have been my favorite section.  I thought Tartt’s portrayal of the 21st century American West as the American nightmare was brilliant, as was her creation of the Russian character Boris, the waif–thug with a deep streak of alcohol-enhanced sentimentality.

After Theo moves back to New York, however (about half way through the 771 pages), the story loses steam for me. Theo grows up to be an adult, but is still stuck in the same numb haze he was in at age 13.  He sleepwalks through life in a haze of drugs, white-collar crime, and unrequited love.  I understand that Tartt is portraying someone who is traumatized, that his sleepwalking through life is part of her point.  But still, how many hundreds of pages can a reader want to spend with someone who is this numb?

The Goldfinch could have benefited from some serious editing.  Tartt could have cut out 300 or more pages without losing anything of importance.

Better yet, I think Theo Decker should have met up with Cheryl Strayed and gone for a hike with  her. (See my previous post on Cheryl Strayed here.)  Both Theo and Cheryl were traumatized by the untimely loss of their mother.  They were both on a downward spiral and needed something to save them.  Strayed went on a 1000 mile hike in California.  Theo took a lot of drugs and stole money from people (in a complicated, high-end kind of way).  Strayed’s plan seemed to work better.

If Tartt had come to me for advice (which for some reason she never did), I would have told her to cut out the return-to-New-York section.  Instead of leaving Las Vegas to go east, Theo should sell “The Goldfinch” and use the proceeds to buy some hiking boots and backpacking gear. He should travel slightly west to the Pacific Crest Trail, where he could meet up with Strayed.  They could hike together briefly, at least long enough to have some hot sex on a rock. After the sex is over, a goldfinch would appear on the rock.  It would land there just long enough to look at them meaningfully and sing a plaintive, yet healing song.

The Goldrinch by Fabritius
The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Thus would endeth The Goldfinch.