The torrential rain woke me repeatedly last night and each time in my half-awake state I thought, The world is ending, isn’t it?
I can’t take the gummies as a sleep-aid anymore because of what they do to my stomach. Maybe this second purchase is contaminated because the first order didn’t bother me at all. I don’t know. Last night I was awake past two. The same two nights before, except maybe it was three o’clock. And one night recently I didn’t sleep at all.
My phone always has a book on it. Library-kindle is a boon. It means I can stay in bed and read.
Yesterday I finished Oh, William!: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout and started a Maggie O’Farrell. Some of you have read O’Farrell’s extraordinary Hamnet, I know. This one, I Am, I Am, I Am, is a memoir told through a series of near-death experiences.
The Strout book was told by Lucy Barton. She is looking back on her first marriage and spending time with her ex in NYC where they both live. They make a road trip to Maine. Her second husband has recently died and her ex’s third wife leaves him early in the narrative, so it isn’t that odd that they might seek each other out. The novel has this distinctive voice, with frequent insertions of phrases like, is what I mean to say or I’m not going to write another word about that. And even though not much happens really, it was hard to put down.
I read acknowledgments now. Lo and behold! One of the agents Strout gushed over at the back of the novel supplied my most recent rejection. That soured me on the book a little. Aren’t I mature?
Finished Ann Patchett’s gem of an essay collection this week too and it left a slightly bitter side note as well. She describes winning this and that prize like I talk about running to Home Goods to pick up a cake platter.
I’ll get over myself. Honest. The essays are very much worth reading.
In other news, the lake afforded a cool reprieve yesterday. I made a delicious potato salad and so-so brownies (old chocolate?). We finished watching The Outlaws.
We’ve been taking Finn around the “figure eight” after dinner lately. I’ve hit over 10,000 steps quite a few times recently because of it.
Been tired this week after lunch. In the morning, I’ll make a couple calls, walk the dog. Then do a little gardening and write for a couple of hours. Then all I want to do is sleep.
A friend said, “It’s the smoke.” The Bootleg Fire. Canadian fires. You can’t really see anything here, but others nearby have noticed.
Almost done with the Durrow novel. Protagonist, Rachel, is the daughter of a Danish woman and a Black GI. Father takes off and entire rest of family (except Rachel) dies after a fall off a nine story building. We read to find out whether it was murder or suicide. We read to see how this biracial girl grows up with her Black grandmother, trying to understand herself and her world (first Chicago, then Oregon — Portland, I think). We read to see how Rachel will make peace with her past.
I’m reading it on my kindle reader in the phone so I can tell you I have roughly 23 minutes left. I guess I’ll go finish the story.
Update: it turns out I only had about five minutes left of reading, which is too bad because it means that the BIG moment we’d been waiting for came and went too quickly.
Food memoir. Fascinating and well written. Partly of interest to me because she came of age roughly when I did and some of her stomping grounds overlap with mine (she went to Hampshire College for a year; I went to UMass Amherst). She is an unusual chef/restaurant owner for coming up through catering rather than working the line up to executive chef in someone else’s restaurant first. Hard working bad ass with crucial food experiences in Italy.
I also could relate personally, having been a lesser kind of bad ass who helped support herself from age 16 to 22 by working in restaurants. I’ve been a dishwasher, a salad girl, and a waitress in low and high end restaurants. Most memorable: kneeling to serve misonabe in huge clay pots in a tatami room for several summers. This was in a Japanese restaurant housed in a Victorian mansion at the intersection of Routes 20 and 22 in New Lebanon, New York. The kitchen was on the first floor and the tatami rooms were on the second floor. It was not for nothing that a customer once rudely referred to another waitress as a “stevedore.” (She was my height with rope-hard calves). But seriously, the teriyaki was served in iron skillets, the misonabes and yosenabes in eight inch diameter clay pots (with lids!) Put four of those on a tray, balance it on your shoulder, walk up a long, split stair case, lower the tray to a stand and then kneel to serve each and every one of those heavy, heavy dishes. Don’t forget to kick off your shoes!
You’d have strong calves, too!
This book was a debut novel or I’d rate it lower. If I was a book reviewer, I’d try to discern why I found the writing a little disappointing — after all the author got me to turn more than 300 pages in less than a week — but I’ll offer only one thing. The unlikeable main character.
The main character doesn’t realize her husband has early onset Alzheimer’s for an excessively long time because of the ignorance of the times. Okay. But she tolerates his bad behavior for so long and surely she had to see he suffered from SOME KIND of mental illness? She also delays getting help for a ridiculously long time. So between that and her insufferable need to social climb out of her humble beginnings in Brooklyn, I disliked her quite a lot. Really good writing can make up for an unlikeable character, but here?
I also read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this week. There were interesting overlaps with Thomas’s book in terms of place and time and I see why it goes on many people’s top ten lists but it wouldn’t go on mine. For one thing, the trope about the poor girl in rags reading a book a week just made me roll my eyes. (The alcoholic Irish dad, also a trope I suppose, didn’t bother me at all. He was rendered with some affection and depth). For another thing, it’s a little repetitive. And predictable.
It’s a depiction of a very poor family at the turn of the century in Brooklyn. Mother who cleans houses. Father who sings for a penny when he can and drinks. A son and daughter who have to drop out of school to earn their two dollars a week to help support the family. The details about what a family in these dire financial straights might eat in a week with no money was particularly compelling and called to mind things I’d heard from my father’s childhood. He was born about ten years after this novel ends. Raised on Brooklyn/Queens line. Also Catholic.
The book runs right into 1918 and although there was a lot of mention of entering the war in 1917, there was only passing reference to the influenza epidemic. For obvious reasons, I hoped otherwise.
Last night I finished Where the Crawdads Sing. Read it almost in a sitting. I definitely see what all the fuss is about.
When writing a novel, sometimes you avoid certain books because you don’t want to be undermined by them or discouraged by them or maybe for less clear reasons. I still haven’t read Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd or The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, though both are on the shelf upstairs. I’d avoided Owens’s book, too, even though it’s set in North and not South Carolina, just because.
Well. It’s a compelling and beautifully crafted book.
Landscape descriptions of the low lands are stunning and evocative
Depictions of trauma imposed by physical abuse and abandonment are believable and consistent and drive the story in interesting ways
There is redemption and a surprise twist
It proves the power of an author depositing a dead body in an early chapter
Time flashing back and forth well done
Author made two of the central character’s saviors Black without turning them into completely secondary and non-dimensional figures
Nature is a character in the best possible way
Let me just note, too, the synchronicity between the NC novel and Hamilton’s food memoir. Both the female character in Crawdads and the real live author/chef of Blood, Bones, and Butter were the last of five children and abandoned by their mothers. We’re not talking about mere psychological abandonment — their mothers walked right out of their lives. Some of Hamilton’s teenage years have a feral quality to them — stealing cars, passing herself off as three years older to get work in a kitchen and then moving to NYC as a young teenager and getting into drugs.
ALL of the years of Owens’s female character have a feral quality to them. It is the defining quality of her life, in fact. Nature is her companion, her parent, her teacher, and her source of survival.
And now three quotes from conversation between Brene Brown and Tim Ferris in recent podcast:
Ninety percent of pathology is armor.
The replacement for armor is curiosity.
Lasting change has to be driven by self-acceptance.
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.