Category Archives: books

Mercy and reflection

In one of my sister’s closets, I found two bundles of letters, postmarks dating back to the early 80’s. There were: Easter cards from Sharon, all manner of holiday cards from Dot, a couple of letters from my father in his distinctive engineer’s script, lots of postcards from my brother as he traveled Europe as a young man. Many, many letters from me.

It was the letters from my mother that undid me — forced me to box it all up and stow them for another day. Maybe another year. Maybe never.

What a hearty correspondent my mother had been! Did I, too, receive so many missives over the years? Probably. But I don’t really remember and unlike my sister, I didn’t hang onto them.

There were letters from Provence full of exclamation points (“perfect tomatoes! perfect green herbs! perfect bean cassoulet!”), letters from Florida full of encouragement, letters acknowledging weight loss (more encouragement), letters enclosing checks, letters of explanation post-misunderstanding, letters of apology.

“My dear sweet Valentine, Noreen… ”

The letters reminded me how distorted and corrosive my sister’s narrative about my mother has been, never elastic or truthful enough to include the good, the positive, the well-meaning.

One letter came on the heels of some disastrous trip to Washington. Why had they gone? Was it an art-related treat offered by my mother, some attempt to connect?

Oh god, the paragraphs about my sister’s explosive response to some fairly innocent remark read like a summation of my last nine years. “I’m sorry for what I said, but I didn’t think it was THAT heinous…”

And then, my mother scribed these stunning words: “You give me too much power and offer up too little mercy.”

Here’s Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” which has been one of my anthems of grief.

The letters reminded me that at one time, my sister seemed poised for normalcy. Just one more infusion of cash, one more sorting of twisted emotion, one more round of diet supports, a car, a business, and she’d be fine, right?

Retroactively applying new understandings, it’s been clear that disorder showed up at every stage. How harmed she was by ignorance about mental illness! And how effectively her chaos was camouflaged by the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A rebellious phase, nothing more, surely?

As I rejiggered history, I lost sight of the younger, better version of my sister. Sorting her things has brought it back. Her flashes of brilliance, her capacity for understanding literature, her iconoclastic spirituality, her intuitive and stunning art. I remember that there was a time when I felt eclipsed not just by her shadow but by her strengths, too.

Family legend has it that my sister spoke in full paragraphs by the age of two, while my speech was so garbled only my mother could understand me until after the age of three. There was my sister’s nearly perfect score on the verbal SAT. Her voracious reading and gigantic vocabulary.

My sister read the LOTR every spring for years. As much as I loved Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, too (another of her favorites), I could barely get through the trilogy once and anyway, who’d want to read “The Two Towers” a second time? She devoured sweeping historical novels — Leon Uris, for instance (she may have read “Exodus” three times) and Michener (have you seen how long “The Source” is?) She adored the romances of Mary Stewart and the mysteries of James Lee Burke. Bindings gave way, covers taped and worn. I brought “This Rough Magic” to the nursing home, but it stayed in the drawer. She was going.

A lot to unpack here, but for now, not the letters.

Have you saved any correspondence from over the years? If so, why and do you ever look at it? I have the letters that K and I exchanged early on, which are precious but clearly not for the boys’ eyes.

In closing, let me leave you with the idea of things undone. A friend reminded me that in the Tibetan tradition, survivors attempt to tie up loose ends for the deceased over a period of 48 days. What, has my sister left undone? And if the better question is, what didn’t she leave undone, is such a pursuit futile?

What will I leave undone? And you?

 

 

 

 

The Ninth Hour, McDermott — micro review

Last year I read a murder mystery called “The 9th Hour,” and was puzzled when I kept hearing praise for it. Well, the praise was intended for Alice McDermott’s book, “The Ninth Hour.” My mother-in-law recently lent me this novel, McDermott’s eighth, and it is indeed praiseworthy.

Maybe not the best book to read while helping a gravely ill sibling with her toileting, but not at all worthy of Finn’s unenthused response, above. It takes place in the Irish Catholic world of Brooklyn in the early part of the last century (which happens to be where and when both my parents’ lives began). It’s about love, survival, the judgment of religion, and caregiving.

The stellar contribution the nuns made to the community stood at odds with their notions of damnation, notions that I grew up with and found weird even as a child. Why, for instance, are people who commit suicide precluded from grace?

At the age of eight, even if I didn’t know why, I was suspicious of the story about a woman who was anointed a saint after being raped in a cornfield. Really? And didn’t Father Chamberlain have a lot of nerve hollering at a church full of second graders that we were all “on the road to hell”? Seriously, he was a prick. I wouldn’t have used that word then, but I most emphatically do now.

Of course, none of this stopped me from wanting to be a nun back then (though to be honest, I think that had more to do with my pretty, gilt-edged missal and crystal rosary beads than anything else). All of this has fallen away but I still say my Hail Mary’s leaving and landing on the tarmac in a jet.

The daughter of our main character is practically raised by the nuns when her widowed mother goes to work as a laundress in a nearby convent. So it comes as no surprise when she thinks that she should follow the religious path. However, things are not so straightforward.

Much of the story explores her coming of age between two bookends — the surprising adaptations her mother made to widowhood and the ordered life of the sisters.

The nuns’ brisk and efficient approach to shit-stained linens and invalids is to be admired. Burdened by the dirty sheets of my sister that week, I actually read a few of these scenes wistfully. If only…

One take away from the novel is that while many social agencies have stepped into the void left by the withdrawal of the nuns’ services, no one has really taken their place.

This is disjointed and for that, I apologize. But here is a very good review in The Guardian: McDermott’s The Ninth Hour: the heartlessness and consolation of Catholicism.

Recent reading: An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Jones revealed in an interview that the idea for the characters in her fourth novel, “An American Marriage,” came to her from a conversation she overhead in a mall. She already had her theme, informed in part by a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute (Cambridge, Mass.), studying the prison pipeline and racial injustice, but not her characters.

And then she overheard a woman saying, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years!”

Roy replies, “What’re you talking about? This wouldn’t’ve happened to you in the first place.”

“When I see two people arguing and they both seem to have a legitimate point, then I know I have a novel because for me a novel cannot have a clear person who’s right or wrong.” 

“An American Marriage” tells the story of a newlywed couple with everything to look forward to — him as a businessman, her as an art doll-maker — until the unthinkable occurs. The husband, Roy, is wrongly accused of rape. Incarcerated. What happens during the period of his imprisonment and the time immediately after his release comprise the story. The author puts before us the damning, personal consequences of racial injustice. A virulent and widespread social problem up close. She shows two people wrestling with fidelity to the IDEA of marriage, if not to marriage itself, as they try to weather an untimely and grossly unfair separation.

“To black Americans, mass incarceration is an ongoing threat, like hurricanes on the coast and earthquakes or fires in California. Prison can swoop in and snatch up the men in our families at any time.”

from interview with Oprah

This book makes a statement in its very title. It’s not, “An African American Marriage,” but “An American Marriage.” As it should be! It’s refreshing to read a narrative so wholly focused on black characters. No white saviors. No black characters served up as ancillary to the aims of white people. It’s notable that the sole white character here is a life-wrecking accuser.

To celebrate the exclusivity of black characters might seem a bit remedial. But when you consider that “Green Book” just won an Oscar or that during the Cohen hearings last week, Rep. Meadows used a black woman as a prop (and then teared up in outrage when another representative called him on it), it seems not so small a point.

A fast and compelling read. I see why Oprah chose it for her Book Club.

NY Times review

Just to continue a moment on another issue the book puts before us: the use someone else’s pain as the basis for artwork. The doll making character’s career doesn’t really take off until she starts using her imprisoned husband as inspiration. It was interesting to consider the problem of appropriation stripped of the complication of race. Artist-character and her subject are both black, and still we ask: Is it okay to parlay another’s pain into artwork, especially if the subject objects? And if such a use makes one successful, how should we evaluate that success?

(for the question about black pain and white creators, see, critique of Dana Schutz painting ‘Open Casket’ of Emmet Till at the Whitney Biennial in 2017 and The White Card, a play by Claudia Rankine (blogged after seeing the play here). Also, check out “Still Processing: ‘Confederate,’ ‘Detroit’ and Who Owns Stories about Blackness” podcast, featuring Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham).

 

 

 

 

Third week is book week

Don’t mind me. I’m trying to figure out how to organize content. A little. I’ve read some really great books since Christmas and want to force my hand here, so I’m dedicating this week (mostly) to books.

First up: Educated by Tara Westover. This award-winning memoir is a page turner. An inspiration. Like “Hillbilly Elegy,” it’s a tale about the elevating and redemptive powers of education. While JD Vance overcame neglect, poverty, and a community riddled by addiction, Westover overcame the damaging isolation of a survivalist childhood, physical and emotional abuse, and her father’s severe mental illness. I agree with the NY Times review that stated, “‘Educated’ makes Vance’s tale seem tame by comparison.”

A Mormon with eyes on the Rapture, Westover’s father did construction and ran a scrap yard in the hills of Idaho. Probably bi-polar, his mania was fueled by panic about being ready for the end of the world. His frenetic pace created a wanton disregard for the basic safety of his off-spring. Limbs nearly severed. Rebar thrown like lethal spears. Avoidable explosions. The hair-raising mishaps in the scrap yard were truly horrifying.

Tara was not even home schooled. Like her siblings, she worked in the yard or in the kitchen. Thank god Westover aced the ACTs in her late teens or one wonders how she would have fared.

To begin her exit from the family, Westover had to start at the very beginning: obtaining a birth certificate. Her mother didn’t even know the exact month of her birth. A day or two on either side, okay — but forgetting the month? It’s staggering.

One brother escaped and reappears periodically. Encourages his sister. Another brother torments her with both emotional taunting and physical abuse. The classic cycles: battering followed by contrition; shaming followed by gifts. Another reader I know speculated that there was sexual abuse as well. As soon as she said so, it seemed correct. But Westover doesn’t mention it and in a way, it doesn’t matter.

The mother says nothing. Complicit.

Eventually (no surprise), the father is badly wounded. Meanwhile, the midwife mother has generated enough support for her herbal products to be running a small empire by book’s end.

Westover’s education takes up much of the latter part of the book.

Recommend. Starts out with a literary voice and loses that early on, but still a worthy read. Edifying.

Good pairing: JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Frightening current parallels: Mike Pompeo and John Bolton (secretary of state and national security advisor, respectively) are both End Times guys, leading two shrewd political commentators* to suggest that this administration is turning even the future into a commodity, one that most of us don’t deserve and can’t afford. A planet with huge reductions in population would leave more resources for the elite, now wouldn’t it? Denials of climate change, mere ruses. Nuclear war, a means to an end.

Sound like fundamentalism? Sorry to say that while speculation underpins this view, there is also compelling and chilling evidence for it.

 PS I make no attempt to provide a thorough review of books and since I’m not being paid to do this, I feel entitled to my idiosyncratic approach. Plenty of official reviews are easily available online.

 

 

 

 

History quote and Marie Kondo

“… the Fugitive Slave Act handed enslavers octopus powers, allowing their tentacles to extend to the North. The Act criminalized abettors of fugitives, provided northerners incentives to capture them, and denied Blacks a jury trial, opening the door to mass kidnappings. To William Lloyd Garrison, the act was ‘so coldblooded, so inhuman and so atrocious, that Satan himself would blush to claim paternity to it.'”

I received this book for Christmas last year. I suppose I ought to get going on it? I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by the length. The date of the Act’s passage, by the way, was 1850.

We are waiting for snow.

And watching Marie Kondo on Netflix.

I bought her book, “the life-changing magic of tidying up,” several years ago and followed many of her strategies to good effect. But here’s the thing. It was a solo venture. This time K is on board and it’s got a different feel to it, and there are different possibilities (think: tools, basement, and garage). Here are two sets of before and after pix.

At 3:00 am

When I rise in the early hours, I love to look out the window on my way downstairs. It’s quiet out there. Dark. Unlike a sunshine shadow, a streetlight shadow carries an air of mystery and force, as if it might unhitch itself from its creator (in this case a bent maple branch) and walk off — probably to work mischief somewhere.

Last night sleeplessness might’ve been caused by an unshakeable sense of unease about not going up to Salem this weekend (a feeling my sister graciously dispelled this morning). Or, it might’ve been the bombshell NYTimes reporting late yesterday about our president being under surveillance as a national security risk (which sounds like the same old same old but certainly isn’t).

But mostly, it’s this body I inhabit, this time of life. Sleep just doesn’t come sometimes.

After reading twitter and watching Maddow, I finished reading this debut novel in the wee hours. Tommy Orange graduated from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

One of the characters tells us early on that Gertrude Stein grew up in Oakland, the novel’s setting, and upon her return after being away for many years, said (in her inimitable style): “There is no there there.”

When those words are quoted by a white gentrifier in passing to one of the Native characters (who is both Indian and native to Oakland), it takes on the weight of history. “There is no there there” could be the catch phrase for genocide. The Oakland Native character is well read enough to know, too, that Stein used the phrase to describe change and not really to say something about the place itself and so the remark is both insulting and ignorant. That gives you a feel for the book’s themes and occupations.

The novel is haunting, sad (really sad), and at times funny. Family is central. There are parents who vanish and parents who are doing the best they can but falling far short of the mark. There are the lingering scars of a devastating history. In one review, Orange said, “We are the memories we don’t remember.”* The book’s main and final event, a first-time powwow in Oakland, provides a canvas to explore a range of relationships to Indian culture — from celebratory to ambivalent to predatory.

There were a lot of characters to keep track of, so this novel would benefit from a second read. By the time of the denouement, I had trouble remembering who everyone was which makes me think this story would make a better movie than novel.

But it’s a good novel.

* NYTimes review by Colm Toibin.

Three good books

Finished a debut novel last week called, “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.” Not sure why Reese Witherspoon called it “incredibly funny” because it relates the experience of a thirty year old woman with severe PTSD who suffers a breakdown. The character sometimes makes wry observations or off-beat statements, but they don’t rise to the level of even cringe humor, never mind hilarity.

Eleanor Oliphant is an unlikable protagonist at the novel’s outset. Having built defenses reliant on rigid adherence to rules, she is smug, anti-social, and arrogant. Until a guy from work takes her on as a friend, she seems doomed to a lonely and essentially vapid life, and we don’t really care.

But then, a series of circumstances loosens something inside our heroine, causing her armor to slip and soon we are rooting for her while at the same time gaining more and more details about an unimaginably awful childhood (with a surprise twist at the end).

Too often in tales of recovery, the healing process is given short shrift. Not here. The author provides grit and descriptions of credible growth. Oliphant’s recovery stands as something more than a literary band aid in service of a happy-ish ending.

“Happy-ish.”  Like that?

A worthwhile, relatively quick, read.


Skip the following if you read my captions on Instagram.

The next book, “Song Yet Sung,” by James McBride, is another quick and worthwhile read. McBride creates tons of suspense for a historic novel. There are really great characters, like the Wooly Man (a huge African American living wild in the swamps), the Dreamer (enslaved clairvoyant making a run for it), Patty (a ruthless slave catcher, owner, and trader) and Gimp (another slave catcher with notorious skills who comes out of retirement to catch the Dreamer). There is flight, child theft, secrecy, hope and corruption alongside the punitive, degrading structures of slavery. The story is vividly set along the Chesapeake Bay. We are treated to visual details of the unique boggy, watery landscape and its oyster economy.

One of my favorite parts of the story is McBride’s description of the intricate, secretive, and effective ways that the enslaved communicated with one another.

James McBride wrote another piece of historic fiction more recently in 2013, “The Good Lord Bird,” which won the National Book Award. I think I liked “Song Yet Sung” better.

Another prize-winning novel featuring enslaved characters is Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” I won’t comment on the story so much, because there are so many reviews online, but, I heard the author speak a few months back in Brookline, Mass., and thought I’d share some of my notes.

First you should know, Whitehead was hilarious — I mean, seriously funny — which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me, but did. He started with some comments on how he got into writing, noting that he’d have ‘preferred to be a sickly child, but it didn’t work out that way.’ He was not into sports growing up, but loved comic books and Stephen King, making his first literary ambition, apparently, to write ‘the black Salem’s Lot.’He offered a lot of sober, self-deprecating biography about rejection, noting how early on in the life of a writer, “No one likes you. No one wants to read your crap.” After taking on the subject of slavery, he naturally picked up Toni Morrison. He said, “Thirty pages into ‘Beloved,'” I said to myself, ‘Fuck. I’m screwed.'” But then he noted that there will always be someone more talented and smarter than you that has already done it — not a reason to stop.

Before taking questions from the audience, he answered a couple that are frequently posed. The first was: “why another novel about slavery?” Whitehead offered a two part response. The first part was funny: “I guess I could’ve written about upper middle class whites who feel sad sometimes, but there are a lot of those books.”

More seriously, Whitehead then offered the second part of his answer. He pointed out that slavery lasted for a couple of centuries; World War II lasted for six years. No one asks, “Why another novel about World War II?” There were two movies about DUNKIRK alone last year. So, let that sink in.

To charges that slavery stories must be told in a historically factual manner, Whitehead said that he felt no responsibility to the reader to tell the story a certain way. “I’m not a trustworthy person,” he said, “but I trust my reader to tell it’s fiction.”

Apparently, this trust is not always warranted for he has been asked on more than one occasion if there really was an actual underground railroad (in the novel, there is).

He defended his approach by saying: “I won’t stick to facts, but I’ll stick to the truth.” The construct of a physical underground railroad, apparently, facilitated his conversation with history.

Three GREAT books!

What have you read lately that really impressed you — anything?
[no links at the moment, sorry! have some glitchy issues with the internet at the moment].