First, a few words of explanation.
My usual habit is to read wildly disparate books, to completely shift gears. Because I’m so dazzled and heartened by the diversity in this world. It’s one way of participating in the diversity…I also like and appreciate that this habit is mind- and heart-expanding.
I’ve been posting my thoughts on amazon and I flirted with Goodreads, but I think maybe it’s better to tuck my reviews here with all my other stuff. Enjoy, comment if you wish. Yes, of course, spoilers…can’t be avoided.
Being a reader has made me a writer, and also a better, and braver, writer. I would also like to add: for many years, first as a young bookworm and continuing into my college career as a lit major, I hesitated to have or share opinions about books. Part of that may have been my respect for the authors, but in looking back I also think it had to do with lacking confidence or not trusting myself. How should I presume? Well. Now I’m older, I’ve done some living, I’ve done some writing of my own, and I’ve never stopped reading–and my responses and opinions are more evident to me. I understand that they are mine. Your mileage may vary, etc. We all each of us have a voice, a mind, and a heart. Here I am, finding mine, better late than never.
Ursula K. LeGuin, the Last Interview and Other Conversations, edited and with an introduction by David Streitfeld
“True voyage is return.”
Well, of course I bought this book because I am a fan. A long, longtime fan. “True voyage is return,” she would and did say. I was a precocious 11 year old bookworm in Santa Barbara, California, spending my babysitting money on A Wizard of Earthsea. Fast forward to age 58, and I spy this book in an independent bookstore, my favorite kind, on a pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, Virginia (I was there to give a talk based on one of my own books *). I’m now hunkering down to read the book with more care and concentration on in a small house on an island in the North Atlantic, just off southwest Nova Scotia. My point is, all the travels, all the changes, she’s still with me.
Finding out what a beloved fiction writer thinks, is that an indulgent exercise? I mean, I have a sense of Le Guin’s beliefs and ideas from reading many (but not all) of her books…novels, short stories, novellas. Why go straight into her living room, take up a chair, and chat or interrogate (there are a variety of interviewers here)? Isn’t it invasive? Is it necessary?
She has such a broad range of books and ideas, I’ve always found her a bit intimidating. And as she got older, she got more blunt and sassy like some older folks do (my own fate, I figure!). I learned in this book’s introduction that she has never really traveled much and for most of her adult life considered herself “a mommy.” Referring to her writing, she said she was a “late bloomer.” Huh. So that rich, wild, scary-smart imagination…came mostly from…within…?
If you’re a fan, too, you can glean insights and information you might enjoy from dipping into this collection. My favorite tidbit was hearing that Havnor, the capital of Earthsea, was inspired by San Francisco.
But I remain so daunted by her. I remember when she made that incredible, brash, sensible speech at the National Book Awards back in 2014 (you can find it easily on YouTube): “we live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings.” People who’d never heard of LeGuin or never read anything by her were KNOCKED OUT; the clip went viral. I watched it and smirked, thinking of her towering, righteous mind, kvelling, that’s our girl! Thrilling me all over again, little fan that I am.
When I say that, I don’t mean to denigrate myself or any other fan, or visiting journalist for that matter. What I mean is, to be equal to LeGuin would be to have the ability and the courage to sail into our imaginations and hearts more boldly and flexibly than we ever have and to truly engage powerful ideas. She’d tell me, she’d tell us, that it can be done. Yet I think she was a remarkable, confident, broadly open and educated creature (she was a Fulbright scholar before the “mommy” phase), and nothing in this slim volume of interviews changes that. “As we talked,” one of these interviewers notes with bewilderment, “she smoked a briar pipe.” She had a cat named Pard (as opposed to, say, Fluffy or George). She said things like,”You can’t imitate Proust…Nabokov means nothing to me…Doris Lessing drives me up a wall.” Lao Tzu, however, is a major influence. “All ideals are positively dangerous,” she declares, “All idealists are dangerous,” and then she launches into examples while my head spins…see?
A couple other details stand out from my foray into these chats. Her mother! I knew that her parents were smart folks and correctly imagined that her childhood was intellectually fertile. Her father was a renowned anthropologist; her mother was a writer best known for her biography of Ishi, the last surviving Native American of his tribe. Her mother gave her 14-year-old daughter a copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own—heady stuff for someone that young. After this mom was widowed (Ursula was grown and married by then, with kids of her own), her mom married a man half her age. Ursula recalls, “She had a terrific time. He just spoiled her rotten. He did it with a certain class. She had a good time.” Now THERE’S an entertaining story…!
Interviewers always seem to want to talk to LeGuin about genre, science fiction and fantasy. You can imagine her tart opinions, and find them in these pages if you want—how it was to be a woman in that field, why she believes it is important and expansive, not restrictive, etc. I was not surprised to learn that she disliked Star Wars, “it’s really abominable, it’s all violence, and there are only three women in the known universe.” Of Neil Gaiman, she allows “he’s truly generous, I just wish I liked his writing more.” Ouch. Warm praise is reserved for Tolkein, though: “I adore him. He always tells you what the weather is. Always!”
- I realized belatedly that Le Guin came to me in Charlottesville because she was on my mind that weekend; the book I was presenting at a convention included a quote from one of her short stories (why I used a quote by her in a botany book, how I got permission, and the fan letter I got from her later—a possession so prized I can scarcely look at it without trembling—is a story for another day).
Amy Tan, The Kitchen God’s Wife
“Without hope, I no longer despaired.”
Amy Tan is a wonderfully descriptive and confiding writer and, I had the sense from The Joy Luck Club, provides a front-row seat to the lives of certain Chinese women who endured trials in the old country before immigrating to the United States and starting anew. So when I began the book, I felt on familiar territory and was trustful of my guide.
But the book became grueling. Narrated by an older Chinese woman, Jiang Weili Winnie Louie, as though talking (for a very long time, or over a period of time) to her American daughter Pearl, it relates what her life was like back in China. During World War II. The war is a backdrop–we get bits about how the Chinese public responded and was affected (rich and poor, city and country). We get mundane details of daily life, such as food and clothing and housing, which paint a vivid picture. Our narrator was married young to a war-pilot-in-training, Wen Fu. To say Wen Fu abuses his wife is an understatement. He torments her emotionally at every turn, cuts her off from family and friends, rapes and humiliates her repeatedly and brutally, steals from her, lies, cheats on her, controls her, neglects her, abuses their children (one unto death as a toddler). She wonders for the longest time why nobody can see and nobody helps her or believes her, even people living under the same roof with them. She is beaten down in every way.
Reading this, I shuddered, I gaped, I flinched, I wept. Wen Fu is the classic abuser. She doesn’t tell how she got free from him until the penultimate pages. There was a point about 3/4 of the way through, when I just set the book down because I couldn’t bear her suffering (of course, it must be admitted that my mind went to the emotional abuse I suffered in my own first marriage, nowhere near as bad as this, but the story certainly resonated). Perhaps the author understood that readers would find this a slog–as it was, in fact, a slog for Weili.
As this mother passes her painful story on to her listening daughter, it humanizes and explains her, and brings them closer. The lessons are less clear. “I am not asking you to admire me. This was not harmony with nature, no such thing. I am saying this only so you will know how it is to become like a chicken in a cage, mindless, never dreaming of freedom, but never worrying when your neck might be chopped off.” She did get away, her life did get better. She’s now safely in America; her second (kind, loving) husband died years ago. She has a house and, more importantly, this daughter, and a son, and grandchildren, plus a community of friends and “relatives.” But her long and excruciating journey weighs heavily.
Per Petterson (translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born), Out Stealing Horses
What do you do, if you find yourself alone?
This was one of those inexpensive and worn books that grabbed me in a used bookshop, for no particular reason. I brought it home and left it alone for a while, but one late-winter evening, it demanded and got my attention. Then I galloped though it and now sit here feeling broken-hearted.
Narrated by a man who finds himself alone in his late 60s, after two marriages (one that ends, we learn in passing, in a fatal car accident–he survived, the second wife did not) and a few children, he wants to see himself as steady and purposeful. So did I. I was on board with him retreating after a full life in Oslo to a small lakeside house in the far east of Norway. The house needs a bit of work, but he has tools and know-how. He has a dog, books, basic supplies, and sufficient money. Retirement. Time and space to process. Peace?
However, it turns out he is circling back, whether he is conscious of this or not. When he was a teenager, his father brought him to a small cabin on a river in the woods (not these woods; elsewhere, near the Swedish border) and they spent summers fishing, boating, hiking around, working on the cabin, and doing a logging project on their land. Those were happy, companionable times, with adventure and comfort in equal measure for his younger self. This retirement place also has a nearby village, helpful not-overly-near neighbors, and beautiful scenery. Now he is a self-reliant adult, yet he is more vulnerable than he wants to admit. His body and mind are not as strong as they once were and winter is looming.
His new chapter becomes a journey through the past. A coincidental reunion with someone who knew him and his father back then is (awkwardly, I thought, though perhaps cleverly?) dealt with:
…if this had been something in a novel [running into this fellow here and now] would have just been irritating. I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I have read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again…
The fullness of his pain slowly reveals like a growing stain. The fullness of his father’s pain, the other guy’s pain, a visiting daughter’s pain, even his late mother’s pain, is not developed. That which was once disturbed is not restored, not healed, in fact not comprehended–more like real life than a novel? My mind flits to an album by Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s widow. Her band was called Hole and the album was called “live through this.”
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time
“too good to be true?”
Published back in 2006 and—the cover emphasizes—a New York Times bestseller, this book does radiate. It takes place mostly in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan and even with my limited knowledge of those places, I had to wince at occasional references to war and the Taliban in the past tense, like the upheaval, damage, and dying was mostly over as of this writing.
And yet this is a compelling “boots on the ground” account of mountaineer-turned-humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s efforts to bring schools to rural villages in remote, rugged, impoverished areas. The premise is that terrorism can be neutralized by education, which is not unreasonable. However the focus is usually mentioned as schools for girls and it is the boys who are pulled into the Taliban’s orbit, so, I dunno.
The double-author thing is a bit baffling. Relin is the author, clearly—and a hardworking, evocative journalist is he, taking down and relating this incredible tale both stylishly and with great care. The book is cast as based on interviews with the great Mortenson. And here is where (I feel churlish) I run into trouble. I don’t have a problem with most of Relin’s writing, which is vivid and detailed and moves along briskly. But occasional editorializing (utter lack of objectivity, to be blunt) makes it clear Relin not only believes every detail he relates, but rather worships his subject.
Mortenson tried to climb K2, failed, and got lost coming back down, stumbling into a poor village where the residents generously nursed him. Touched and grateful, he promised to return and build them a school–an extravagant promise, to be sure, but based on a great need. Predictably Mortenson experiences a learning curve in realizing this, but eventually the school really did happen, as did many others. Along the way, he got rich philanthropic-minded Americans to help fund these endeavors (eventually setting up a foundation dubbed CAI, Central Asia Institute, with board members and a staff). He gained the loyalty of local people, where he was “like a son” to one elder, and another man attaches himself to Mortenson as a bodyguard, willing to lay down his life for the American.
He also survives a frightening kidnapping by the Taliban, learns and respectfully participates in Muslim prayers (and is not merely tolerated but accepted), escapes a gunfight between rival opium dealers by hiding under freshly skinned, smelly goat hides in a rickety truck, navigates Kabul in dangerous times, sits vigil with Mother Teresa’s body because he happened to be in Calcutta the day she passed and the nuns let him in, and saves the life of a mountain-village woman who gave birth but appeared to be dying (after gaining permission from the men, he goes to her hut, reaches up inside her, and pulls out the placenta in pieces and then all is well for her and her baby after that). He learns local languages and dialects with ease. Back in the States, he gives a poorly attended fundraising talk on his efforts and, cleaning up, finds that one of the handful of attendees left a $20,000 donation check in an envelope on a chair in the back of the empty room. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, he is consistently welcomed by villagers and warlords alike, because he is the man who gets schools built. He leaps tall buildings with a single bound?
Oh, Relin works to humanize this remarkable humanitarian. Mortenson falls in love, gets married, and fathers two children. He gains weight (well, one can’t be a lean mountaineer indefinitely). He sleeps on floors and goes spells without bathing or food, in America and in Asia. Though broke most of the time, he manages to travel again and again between here and there, often more than once a year. He is notoriously not punctual, and his office in the basement of his Bozeman, Montana home is a mess. Yet not only does he not die of exposure or avalanche or disease or food poisoning or starvation, he is never beaten, robbed, shot by snipers, or in a car accident (according to him, the greatest danger in that region), and on he goes. The book ends with our hero contemplating a whole new area of projects. He’ll find the money. His wife and children will understand. The local people will pitch in. Inshallah.
Mortenson’s struggles and triumphs and bulldog determination are relentlessly admirable. The landscapes and the people come alive in Relin’s writing. I appreciated all that. I just…well, it just all beggared belief at times.
I had a vague notion that Mortenson has received bad press in the years after this book was published, but I waited to finish the book before investigating. Oh, dear. The redoubtable Jon Krakauer wrote something called Three Cups of Deceit, marketed as “the tragic tale of good intentions gone wrong.” A little more googling reveals Mortensen, ah, misspent CAI money, bought many copies of his own books in order to boost its numbers and his royalties (ha! That thought never crossed my own mind, who could afford such a tactic?!), alienated CAI board members, was investigated and fined, was compelled to step down, is “a sociopath,” made up or exaggerated parts of his story, etc. etc. He was “unmasked” on an episode of 60 Minutes as “a self-aggrandizing sociopath who used his charity as a personal ATM.” I also uncover some detailed back-and-forth between Mortenson and his fans and Krakauer’s relentless refutations, complete with diagrams and photos proving that Mortenson “is a liar.”
That’s enough; I don’t want to read more or go through Krakauer’s tit-for-tat and indignation. The book is as I feared—too good to be true. I hope SOME of it was true, though, and at the very least, that some valuable and lasting help came to the areas and people in which Mortenson and his helpers labored. No matter how false and flawed the book may be, it did bring a unique up-close portrait for readers in far-off places, readers who previously knew little about that part of the world. Like me. Sigh.
Ann Hood, The Obituary Writer
“what it was like”
This was a nice, easy read, elevated, really, on the final page to something finer. Alternating chapters follow two women characters as they navigate their daily lives. The two time periods are brought to life, with plenty of authentic, vivid detail. Vivien lives in Northern California and we pick up her story around 1919. Claire lives in suburban Washington D.C. in 1960. It only occasionally occurred to me to wonder if their stories would ever interweave or meet, but as I read, I began to decide I didn’t really care…their tales were sufficiently individually interesting.
Vivien, the obituary writer of the title, is a single woman living in a small-town apartment in California’s wine country after fleeing the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906. She came there because her best friend Lotte, married to a farmer and with three children, is nearby. “Aunt Viv” fell into writing obituaries for the local newspaper, and her thoughts on grief and those grieving as they visit her, receive her comfort and empathy, and ask for her services are touching. She harbors a sorrow of her own; her lover went missing in the catastrophe and even after all these years, she feels he must still be alive, “I would feel it if he were gone; I would know.”
Claire is a young housewife with one child and, as the story proceeds, another on the way. She had been a flight attendant and had some adventures, and eventually met and married a handsome, successful man who expects her to be “a good wife.” She’s soon bored senseless, as are her neighborhood girlfriends, who occasionally discuss and redo their decor, crochet decorative toilet-roll covers, and host parties with plentiful cocktails and hors d’oeuvres such as <cringe, gak> Ritz crackers with sprayable cheese in clever patterns, little sausages with toothpicks, Jell-O salad. They’re all enchanted with the Jackie Kennedy’s outfits and the inauguration. To be clear, these suburban wives are not utterly shallow; the message and hope of that moment also captivates them. In fact, before the election, Claire volunteers at a Democratic “get out the vote” phone bank, which is where she meets her lover.
Vivien ends up having to deal with and eventually write the obituary of someone she adores, and Claire, with the nudge of an affair (the man “listens to her like he’s interested, even asks questions, wants to know her thoughts”) chafes at her unhappiness. Spoiler: the two women do meet, and their last-chapter conversation filled my heart like a sail.
That scene made me think of a woman I once spent a lot of time with, my former mother-in-law. That relationship never achieved that concord, and I shed a little tear of self-pity or regret as I closed the book.
Louise Penny, Dead Cold (also published as A Fatal Grace)
“More than the mystery”
Fans of Canadian author Louise Penny don’t need to be persuaded to read this book, or any other title in her (now, what…?) 14-book Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Sûreté du Québec series. These are always a good read. I haven’t read them all and, perhaps regrettably (ensuing confusion about subtle subplots), I haven’t read them in order. This is the second one, after Still Life, which I also relished.
The pleasure of a mystery novel is trying to solve who did it before you reach the end of the book. Because, like any good mystery writer, Penny leaves bits of evidence and hints. I haven’t always, but I did figure out this one. Taking Gamache’s own primary advice, I listened with ears and heart.
For me, what makes books in this series such a different and rewarding experience is that, unlike, say, a Sue Grafton or a Tony Hillerman (two others I enjoy in this genre), I don’t feel like staying up all night rushing to the end or even peeking ahead. In fact, even with building tension, I don’t want the book to end.
In lesser hands, the evocative details of the settings and the passing days would be a distraction or, to an anxious reader, too many “red herrings.” Penny’s style makes me slow down and savor. Particularly the food and drink. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to sit by the fireplace in Gabri and Olivier’s country bistro and sip a brandy? Or better yet, enjoy “a rack of lamb, sending out an aroma of garlic and rosemary…tiny potatoes and steamed green beans rounding out the plate, [along with] a basket of steaming rolls and a small dish of butter balls.” I’d swirl my fine red wine in my glass and sigh happily, too. Don’t even get me started on the breakfast offerings (of course, fresh hot croissants) or the scene with the rich homemade chocolate cake and dark-roast coffee. I’m so there!
And the weather. As the title suggests, this one takes place in amid snow and ice. “Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard even to distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.” This is exactly so. Does it advance the plot? No. It just…puts the reader there.
Penny’s also generous with her characters, sharing bits of their backstories, vulnerable emotions, and hidden thoughts. All are so human, even the bad guy(s). “I often think,” Gamache confides to a subordinate, “we should have tattooed to the back of whatever hand we use to shoot or write, ‘I might be wrong.'”
Words to live by, really. At the heart of this and her other tales is an abiding belief that bad or criminal humans aren’t evil, they’re hurting. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s naive. There is a deep strength in her Gamache that allows him to explore and solve homicides, to go into the darkness, then return to the light, the good world, “grateful” and savoring people and places he cares about, not to mention those occasional bistro visits. What is that deep strength? I have known a few people who work with the bad in this world (jail guards, cops, politicians, social workers, even teachers), and they get so depleted, discouraged, bitter, and in the worst times, poisoned. What is that deep strength? For me, that’s the main mystery of this and her other titles.
Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
“All the feels!!”
Oh, I do so look forward to a new Anne Lamott book, which is usually a gift from another fan, one of my dear sisters or one of my dear friends. I want to settle down with it in a cozy, quiet room and read it with attention, and savor it. Like a special box of See’s Candy chocolate! But also like excellent chocolate, an Anne Lamott book brings me some mixed feelings, including but not limited to hope, woe, misgivings, inadequacy, ambition, and grace. Not to mention annoyance that she has the know-it-all niche in the book marketplace and a teensy tiny bit of jealousy that I seem to have no niche in the book marketplace. Also she makes me laugh out loud sometimes, and cry other times. All the f-ing feels.
First of all, no matter how ideal the reading conditions are, there is just no way I can read a book by this wise woman quickly. I pause when she tosses a piquant thought–“Besides, I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger” or “As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves”–and have to digest, while my mind sparks off like a pinball, yes, just as noisy and chaotic as a pinball. How true is it? What moment or whom does it remind me of? So many memories, old and new pains and pangs and loves and fears and hopes. Okay, on one level, this is great, successful writing because it is engendering rich responses in the reader. On the other hand, it’s damned distracting.
I appreciate her, though, really. Her messages (for all her books are variations on a theme) of humor and forgiveness and awe and helping are utterly reasonable and bear repeating. Because life is hard and messy, absolutely, and as long as we live and breathe we damn sure should live and breathe.
Paul Gallico, The Snow Goose
This is a very slender, short book, a story. It was given to me long ago by my maternal grandmother; I see that she dated it 1971, so, my 10th birthday. What a book to give a child! Did I read it then? I can’t remember. I read it now, many decades and miles away.
It’s set in the marshes on the Essex coast, England, in the 1930s and ’40s. Marshes where fresh water meets the sea, with their beaches and channels and muck and grasses and migrating birds, would have meant nothing to me as a child growing up in suburban southern California, but Gallico paints a vivid picture. He gives us the “grey and blues and soft greens,” “under sombre skies,” conjuring up painterly images. He includes the constancy of the tides and seasons, the commotion of the birds, the brackish smells. There is also a ruin of a lighthouse and remains of what was once fencing poking out of where the sea has washed in past a breach in an old sea wall. How that spot came to be that way is the story.
This lonely site was once inhabited by a man named Philip Rhayader, who was a hunchback and also had a deformed hand. He retreated from the world that shunned him and had no place for him. The lighthouse had been abandoned, but there he was able to make a home. Great flocks came through and wintered over; he ended up making fenced enclosures and, if not befriending the wild creatures, at least providing them sanctuary/protection from the hunters who did not trespass on his domain, and offering them some shelter and food. Despite his handicaps, he had a good and busy life, using a small boat adeptly to run errands, explore, and observe the bird life, creating the pens, and painting his surroundings and the birds.
Into this spot came a girl from the village, Frith or Fritha (why the uncertainty, Mr. Gallico? to keep her at an emotional distance?), bearing a bird wounded by the local hunters. She was afraid of Rhayader because of the way he looked but determined to help the bird. It was a snow goose–a Canadian bird, very far indeed from its native lands. He was able to patch it up, and he shared with her his theory of how a big storm must have cast it far off its natural course. They began a sort of a friendship. The snow goose ended up leaving each spring with the native wildfowl, heading far north to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Spitzbergen. When it returned with the rest in the fall, he would joyously leave word with the postmistress in the village and Frith would come out to visit. It was a distinctive and beautiful bird, like no other. It returned most years.
Then, Dunkirk. Here again, reading this book as a child, I would have had no clue at all about WWII or the Dunkirk evacuation, but the grandmother who gave me this book surely did. Rhayader took his boat, bid a dismayed Frith goodbye after explaining how the help of all small boats was needed, and headed out. The snow goose elected to accompany him and that’s the last she ever saw of them together. The story goes that he saved many of the trapped soldiers in those desperate days, and some veterans later told tales of seeing the strange white bird and considering it an omen that they were going to live. Frith waited in vain for his return, now realizing that she loved him. The bird did return briefly to offer a farewell. She then went into his living space and found a painting she’d never seen of herself as a child, standing in his doorway with the wounded goose in her arms. She took it and left. Not long after “a German pilot on a dawn raid mistook the old abandoned light for an active military target, dived on it like a screaming steel hawk, and blew it and all it contained into oblivion.”
I sat stunned at story’s end, tears rolling down my face. I thought briefly of another war story I read last year, All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and how so many, many people and places were damaged and destroyed…throughout Europe. What made this “war sucks” story hurt more was that it was so small and so delicate. Nor are we to believe that nature really recovers from the doings of men.
Why did my grandmother give this story to a 10-year-old kid? She perhaps wanted to show me a truth of the world and of her lifetime. Though I’m an adult now, the vulnerability of the world seems sharper than ever to me.
I’ve always really kind of hated stories where something good and noble is obliterated and love is denied until it is too late. In addition to “war is hell,” my tears came for these reasons. So I imagined a conversation with Granny, and now I’m 10 again, stamping my feet and sobbing, “why???” or even “it’s not fair!” But the answers are already in the story, aren’t they? The bird survived an ordeal and lived, and adapted to new landscapes, and found a new home. It came back almost every year. Rhayader actually had a good and satisfying life. He made beautiful paintings that outlived him, especially one. He and Frith shared a friendship and yes, a love, before it was too late. He died “being a man” and contributing to something important. He died so others could live. “Almost” is often the way of the world, and something is better than nothing at all and maybe even a lot. Perhaps that is also the wisdom of this sad little story, something my grandmother thought I should know.
David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice
“Is this guy funny?”
I heard this guy was funny. “A master of humor.” “Sardonic wit.” This book perennially appears in holiday displays in bookstores. I read his candid account of being a Macy’s Elf (“SantaLand Diaries”) in some other context and was both horrified and amused as he skewered the store’s training and policies, the management, his colleague elves and Santas, and especially the vain, ridiculous, greedy, hapless visitors. This year <sigh> somebody gave me a copy, touting it as “hilarious!!!” Reluctantly, I sat down to reread that essay and dive into the others that follow it in this slim volume.
My impression of the Macy’s SantaLand essay hasn’t changed because, well, people haven’t changed. The camcorders and film cameras he alludes to have been replaced by cell phones and posting to Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc., but other than that, it holds up. Elves aren’t always merry, some Santas are nutty or horndogs, and children are still bullied into “holiday cheer” by helicopter parents. Did I really need to be reminded of how small we all are, at the most wonderful time of the year? But seriously, this famous essay is no fun.
Onward to “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!,” lampooning a suburban family holiday newsletter that predictably reveals the writer and her family to be utterly dysfunctional. The punch line comes when a Vietnamese girl who moved into their home (the dad’s Vietnam-war love child) evidently misunderstands “watch the baby” (born to their drug-addicted daughter and her tattooed boyfriend and now being raised by the grandmother who is narrating) as “wash the baby.” A vigorous run through the laundry machine kills the infant. Nice. Ha. Ha. Ha. Perhaps we are meant to conclude that our narrator is vapid and racist and their lives richly deserve this nasty satirization and tragedy (I am trying not to type “tragedy”). Struck me as frat-boy humor. Meh. Same with a subsequent piece reviewing elementary-school holiday plays in the pretentious tones of a churlish theater critic. It didn’t work for me. Sure these shows are amateurish, but nobody (not the kids, not the adoring and enduring parents, not the schools) emerged unscathed from Sedaris’s lavish ridicule. Umm, why? Does this fellow have no sense of humor? Can’t he lighten up?
Happy to report he can. “Jesus Shaves,” an account of the students in a beginning French class trying to explain Easter–from Jesus’s resurrection to the Easter Bunny–to one of their classmates (a baffled Muslim woman from Morocco) is indeed hilarious. No humans were sneered at in the making of this particular essay. Well, not overmuch.
But most of the book is truly dreary and unfunny, even if he does have a way with words. At the root of these essays and stories is his general contempt for people. Snark for its own sake just doesn’t do it for me, sorry. Should I lighten up?
Jane Austen, Emma
“Jane Austen’s Control-Freak Heroine”
So, I was persuaded to the couch for the purpose of checking out an episode of “Downton Abbey.” I’m a middle-class American, why do I want to view the trials and tribulations of some fabulously wealthy turn-of-the-century Brits in their swanky home? I’d glimpsed a trailer wherein a lovely young woman was fretting because her Lady’s Maid was unavailable: how on earth was she going to dress herself for the ball? Sulkily, I sat and watched. And despite myself, I became captivated—not by the ‘who will dress me?’ dilemma but by the dignity of the head chef and the struggles of the closeted gay butler. And Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was, it must be admitted, irresistible, even when she didn’t speak but arched an eyebrow or departed a room in a huff.
But I checked out of the series after a while. It wasn’t just the rape of one of the downstairs girls, it was the fussy woes and relentless disasters. You wish people could just live and work, but I guess that’s not a television script.
But boring rich English people can certainly be found in other entertainments. The PBS series of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice showed the young women posed on divans in dim sitting rooms, holding open books in front of their faces and trying not to keel over from the tedium. While some may tell us that Jane Austen profiled the aristocracy of Edwardian England with documentary accuracy, the whiff of feminism is present: some of these young women were smart and curious and chafing against a confining social system. Never mind spending hours pretending to read. Though it looked like they were marking time until they scored a suitable suitor (preferably a rich neighbor), they longed for meaningful dialogue or a life that mattered.
Remembering those women, I decided one snowy winter weekend to try another Austen tale, Emma. This time, I read the book, Austen’s own words. Well, my goodness! Once again, our heroine is rich and has a fine house and endures moments of boredom with her equally fancy friends. In one scene they are so bored that bossy Emma is able to talk everyone into a clumsy game of charades. <Yawn.>
I plowed on, remembering the gay butler and the wry Dowager of Downton Abbey, muttering to myself, “these are meant to be humans.” I did not expect more than to be diverted while stuck indoors in inclement weather. Lucky for me, my drawing room is comfy and I wasn’t awaiting any callers.
Imagine my surprise when an element of Emma’s story began to resonate. If you don’t know the plot, it is essentially the story of a young lady who meddles in the lives of her friends, playing matchmaker, making “suggestions” subtle and overt, planning and fulminating over dramas of her own contrivance. In short, Emma is not merely bossy, she is a control freak.
Again and again, Emma is shown to be dead wrong. She misreads a situation, she underestimates somebody, she sets events in motion that turn out differently than she meant them to, she blunderingly thwarts the natural order of things.
I sat up on the couch to keep reading. This had my attention. Because the narrative still followed the heroine’s thoughts, rather than stepping outside and judging. Jane Austen was basically addressing “what if what I think turns out to be quite wrong?” Haven’t we all been there?
Emma’s responses were more nuanced than I would have expected.
Emma was riding high until she wasn’t. She was ignoring the red flags and hurtling onward till her moment of humbling. And when it comes—a ruh-roh moment—our heroine does not cling ferociously to her illusions. Which, having been a control freak myself upon occasion <cough>, I found intriguing. She stops. She laments, and grieves. She thinks back, ruefully reviewing the signs she missed. Also, she now notices and ponders the gaps—the things she did not know and could not know.
So to say Emma is repeatedly humbled is not quite right. I think she is a good thinker. Her strong self esteem becomes an asset. Learning to admit when you are wrong is a universal struggle few of us escape. Learning how to move past admitting you were in error—to fresh thinking, to humility, to making amends, to shutting the hell up, to learning to “live and let live,” to gaining a new understanding of what friendship really can be—well, those are concepts worth exploring.
Richard Wright, Native Son
“Remarkable and disturbing”
This is a remarkable and disturbing novel, all the more so when I am reading it in 2018 and it was published back in 1940. There are still Bigger Thomases, and ignorant and cruel white racists, what has changed? This is *not* a hyperbolic or rhetorical question: look around you, follow the news, listen.
Some may criticize the book for its theoretical/archetypal nature and themes (did Bigger truly think and feel such things? is Max for real?) but I perceive those things as strengths. It is always hard to dig down and relay truth. It’s hard to even know what truth is when one is sorely oppressed; you get divorced from reality and have no bearings, are not in touch with/have no words for your feelings. Wright’s impressive achievement is that he went there, and came back and told the tale.
As the book proceeded, I feared it was going to be a bit like Lolita, in that the author was taking us inside a depraved mind and making it hard for us to stand outside and have perspective on the heinous crimes he committed. Let’s just say this character and this author are much more complicated.
The character of Besse broke my heart and almost made me stop reading altogether, her situation was so painful and hopeless (who cares about a black woman in this story?). We know he is not tried for her death; it was more horrific that her dead and battered body was used as evidence/an exhibit (would it have been still worse if nobody had ever found her and her life and her death were forgotten?). Ugh. Tears.
Wright pulled off an ambitious, brave, heart-rending, and righteous story. Respect!
Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse
“Delicious little fantasy”
Now, to sit down and read this book, and finish it, especially in this day and age, definitely requires a suspension of disbelief. On one level is the classic plot of a plain girl (an orphan!) who not only finds out that she is in fact a princess but also discovers her own courage and powers. Along the way–Little Princess style–she finds beautiful clothing, a cozy fire, and sugar cookies laid out in her pretty little new bedroom, a fantasy friend who turns out to be real, and a mother figure who instantly loves and embraces her.
Also the birds, pets, and flowers of garden and field are abundantly beautiful and precious. A bit over the top even. Perhaps not unlike facing a tea prepared by Marmaduke: “Plum cake. Saffron cake. Cherry cake. Iced fairy cakes. Eclairs. Gingerbread. Meringues. Syllabub. Almond fingers. Rock cakes. Chocolate drops…”
And then there are the names! A perfect happy little British village called Silverydew. Marmaduke Scarlet. Jane Heliotrope. Loveday Minette. Prudence Honeybun. Peterkin Pepper. Goudge has out-cuted Beatrix Potter.
Also: scrolling through the reviews here I also notice a reader remarking, “Some of the plot hinges on aspects of Britain’s de facto caste system that I don’t respect…” Right.
Never mind all that, dearies. Let’s go for a ride.
Lodged in all this fantastic and endearing-to-treacly sweetness and adventure, you will also find piquant moments that elevate the book. Having read other books by Goudge, I was watching for such moments and I was not disappointed. I loved when our heroine, confronting her stout, rich uncle to tell him the news that he would have to stop profiting from some grazing sheep: ‘My income will be considerably depleted,’ said Sir Benjamin in rather dry tones. ‘You could eat less,’ suggested Maria helpfully. LOL!
Or how about the explanation for how Robin was able to visit far-off London? “We are really all of us two people, a body person and a spirit person, and when the body person is asleep the spirit person, who lives inside it like a letter inside an envelope, can come out and go on journeys.” The stuff dreams are made of. I stopped reading the book for a while and sat with that and found it to be insightful and, so very Elizabeth Goudge.
And last but not least, this thought on wickedness and evil: “Wicked men do suffer from fatigue a great deal, for wickedness is a very fatiguing thing.” Maybe Dick Cheney and Donald Trump are exhausted and will die in their fitful sleep? I dared to interject for a moment…
Like other readers, a reason I picked up this book was because it was endorsed by J.K. Rowling (“I absolutely adored”). Why did she adore it? Maybe for some of the same reasons I ended up enjoying it. It’s charming and occasionally, like a glimpse of light from another world or a parallel universe, wise.