Tag Archives: book review

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.