Tag Archives: reading

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.

Pages turning

Ran to the store near the lions to get my new calendar. Does that make the new year official?

Yesterday, some of us stood on the corner near Rep Kennedy’s office. I dashed off to writing class, late, while others met with our rep. Does that make the new political season official?

Also yesterday: Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker of the House, ushering in a season of HOPE and accountability.

(Year-end review produced this gratitude-soaked realization: I’ve needed no major dental work for the last two years. Ahhhh!)

Time to get back at it. It’s easier to pick up the needle than the pen, but both are in hand again.

Reading for the new year will be facilitated by the generosity of others. I’ve devoured three from this glorious pile already.

Ward and Northup

I finished four books in the first week of 2018, a fact that’s a little less impressive given that I’d already read 2/3’s of one and 1/2 of another and that one of them was a slender volume of poems. And Shakespeare? The text is limited to the facing pages, so that went fast, too. Also: I tend to be terrific out of the gate, flag at the mid-range and die towards the end. The real test for this challenge (#theunreadshelfproject2018) will be mid-summer and fall.

Jesmyn Ward’s book, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” has everything (except sex): addiction, death, redemption, a road trip, one character’s coming of age, parenting (both deficient and exemplary), prison and release, the long shadow of slavery, and ghosts.

Set in contemporary Mississippi, the story features three generations and centers on themes of caregiving, racism, and secrets. There are acts of self-destruction and acts of mercy. The author also takes an interesting look at the porous line between death and life.

The elders, who are both African Americans, take care of their two bi-racial grandchildren. Their drug addicted daughter, Leoni, drives north to pick up her white husband, who’s about to be released from Parchman Prison. Leoni gathers up her 13 year old son, her toddler daughter, and a friend for the drive. That journey parallels two others that are happening simultaneously: the journey of her cancer-ridden mother toward death and that of her son, who approaches adulthood by grappling with the harsh truths around him, some of which have previously been secret.

I can tell you without spoiling too much that the novel features two ghosts. Early on, we learn that Leoni’s brother was “accidentally” killed by her husband’s cousin (we are meant to see it otherwise). She can see her brother’s ghost, but only when she’s high, a fact that made her addiction both more complicated and understandable. The other ghost appears to her son during the drive to Parchman. He is a former inmate and will be instrumental in releasing a long-held secret of Leoni’s father.

The 13 year old boy is a better caretaker of his sister than their mother, something that causes Leoni no end of defeated bitterness. The scenes of mother lashing out in frustration are rendered well and, for obvious reasons, hard to take. We see one of the costs of drug abuse up close and personal.

The author shifts point of view by chapter so that we get different perspectives throughout, but every chapter features haunting, gritty, and lyrical prose.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

To follow Jesmyn Ward’s book with a slave narrative made for powerful and damning echoes. [Trump’s “shithole countries” comment came two days ago, so there is no escaping the specter of white supremacy these days, said a person with white privilege].

One of the most startling parallels between Ward’s novel and Northup’s narrative can be found in the labor scenes. It was shocking but not shocking that the field work scenes depicted at Parchman Prison were barely distinguishable from those of a plantation (think: patrollers and dogs; unpaid labor. Think: Ava DuVernay’s “The Thirteenth”).

Both Ward’s novel and Solomon Northup’s story contain details of racially animated violence almost too awful to bear.

I won’t go more into the slim and eloquent “Twelve Years a Slave” because I imagine many of you have seen the film, except to say this : reading the narrative is very worthwhile even if you’ve seen Steve McQueen’s movie. To hear the words of this free black is powerful. To slow down and see the world through his eyes, also powerful.

Also read: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an issue of the literary journal, Rattle.

Soon the rain

SCARE: watching water drip from my study ceiling onto the router positioned on the floor. Drop. Drip. At first I thought the router was clicking. But, no.

The pipe that carries condensate from the attic furnace down to a well in the basement had frozen.GRATITUDE: K was NOT in Asia or Russia and knew just what to do. It appears to be fine now.

TRICK: to walk Finn and then write a chapter set in 1744 from the point of view of an enslaved mother. Meaning : to save reading the middle portion of the Fusion gPS transcript for later.

TO DO: find a company-worthy Miso Cod Chili recipe. Go for a glazed fish with bok choy on the side or a soup with soba or udon noodles, bok choy floating?

COMMENTS, please: what is your view on how and when posting to social media becomes a life force drain? Drop. Drip.

Can’t shake this interview in the literary journal, Rattle, with poet Maggie Nelson (that was the fourth book completed for #theunreadshelfproject last week).

Or put another way: how can you use social media in a manner that DOES (fairly consistently) engage the parts of your intellect (or creative process) that is most important to you?

I’m okay with it being a little hit or miss. And maybe I value your and my posts about French toast more than Nelson does.

So it’s about balance, then?

What ISN’T about balance?

Ciao.

Possible keys

Mary Oliver : “The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather it is the opinions, rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament.”

In class this week, we read Sunday’s NY Times Book Review interview with an author: Fran Lebowitz. These columns invariably make me feel stupid: the books on the author’s bedside are weighty; I’ve often never heard of their favorite writers, never mind read them; their pithy, intellectual observations about books I have read, don’t ring any bells. That’s part of why Fran Lebowitz’s responses were so refreshing. They were so NOT that. Also, she’s just hilarious. Read the interview for a wholly different take on the best use of literature.

Meanwhile, it snows. Time seems out of joint. REALITY seems out of joint. My sister is not well. In between tough personal conversations and the outrageous stories of intrigue coming from Pennsylvania Avenue, I sew, I clean, I walk the dog. And sometimes I edit. This was a good week. I may have put four chapters to bed.

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And, there’s always food! Tonight: roast chicken with cornbread stuffing and a delicious salad. The bird’s sizzle and aroma say: home, comfort. Plus, it’s Friday.

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Lastly, from a TED talk about belief and doubt that I listened on my way up to Salem yesterday, one person’s answer (I think it was Billy Graham) to the question: so what has surprised you the most in your many years? He said, “the swiftness with which life passes.”

“The swiftness with which life passes.”

That, too, is on my mind.

Prose and soup

“Read at the level at which you want to write.” Jennifer Egan (brainpickings.org)

I couldn’t read Roth until I was older and now he is one of my favorite writers. I hope he never dies! I may have read this Zuckerman novel before (or maybe it just seems familiar because it takes place in the Berkshires where I was born and lived a good many years?) No matter, it’s worth a re-read.

Here’s a sentence: “My guess was that it would take even the fiercest Hun the better part of a winter to cross the glacial waterfalls and wind-blasted woods of those mountain wilds before he was able to reach the open edge of Lonoff’s hayfields, rush the rear storm door of the house, crash through the study, and, with spiked bludgeon wheeling high in the air above the little Olivetti, cry out in a roaring voice to the writer tapping out his twenty-seventh draft, ‘You must change your life!'”

Swoon.


Beef with barley soup for lunch after another frigid walk with the dog. And since K won’t be here for dinner, I’m not even cooking: a bowl of fruit, yogurt and sunflower seeds topped with honey from Charleston.


*thank you Mo for link on FB to the article.


morning light and reading

sedum-deemallonThe air is cool today. Fresh. And mercifully, for now anyway, the clanging, metallic, thundering racket from behind the school is at a pause.
artemisia-deemallonI am going to finish “Go Down, Moses” today if it kills me. She Said. For the third day in a row.
daisies-deemallon
But now I really, really mean it, because Harper Lee’s new (old) book is available today and a good friend ordered me a copy.   I used to read six books at a time, but right now I want to finish one, put it down, and then pick up the next. A sign of sanity, perhaps?