There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential. (p. 10)
I don’t give out many five-star ratings, but this book certainly earned one. The first few pages aren’t exactly a suck-you-right-in opening, but as soon as the meat of the story began, I couldn’t put this book down.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this novel does exactly what good science fiction should do: It uses science (in this case, a problem from quantum physics) to explore the deepest questions of human existence. And don’t be scared off by the phrase quantum physics. The novel gives an excellent visual explanation of the situation at its heart on page 113.
Jason Dessen has a good life. He teaches physics at a small liberal arts college. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Daniela, and their almost–15-year-old son, Charlie. There was a time when both Jason and Daniela, a budding artist, imagined a different life for themselves: he a research scientist, she an accomplished artist. But when Daniela got pregnant, they opted for marriage and a life conducive to family. Jason got a steady job teaching undergraduates, and Daniela settled in as a stay-at-home mother with a little artwork on the side. Gradually youth gave way to encroaching middle age.
Then one night, after buying ice cream, Jason is accosted on the street by a masked man. The last thing Jason hears before the man knocks him out is “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?” (p. 28). Jason awakes in strange surroundings, with people he doesn’t recognize but who seem to know him.
And so Jason begins the search of his life, the search for his life. As he gradually figures out what happened to place him where he is, he also does a lot of soul-searching about where he wants to end up. The tension builds as he tries time after time to find his way back home.
It’s often said that science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. In the case of Dark Matter, the distinctions between past, present, and future dissolve as Jason pursues the answer to those timeless questions of human existence: Who am I? And who do I want to be?
Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow Random House, 1980 ISBN 0–679–76720–7
I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t later on done something I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir—if that’s the right name for it—is a roundabout, futile way of making amends. (p. 6)
Sometimes our greatest regret isn’t something we did, but something we didn’t do.
In this short—only 135 pages—gem of a novel, Maxwell’s first-person narrator ponders “the moment that has troubled me all these years” (p. 55). In considering “What strange and unlikely things are washed up on the shore of time” (p. 16), he meditates on the nature of time and memory:
What we or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)
The moment that haunts him is failing to acknowledge Cletus Smith, son of the murderer, when the two of them crossed paths a year and a half after the murder and its ensuing scandal. By then both the narrator’s family and Cletus and his mother had moved from the country into Chicago, where the boys’ attended the same high school. When the two boys passed each other in a school hallway, each recognized yet failed to acknowledge the other.
For the narrator, “the elderly man I am now” (p. 51) can seek atonement only in imagination:
Why didn’t I speak to him? I guess because I was so surprised. And because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was polite in the circumstances. I couldn’t say I’m sorry about the murder and all that, could I? … I think now—I think if I had turned and walked along beside him and not said anything, it might have been the right thing to do. But that’s what I think now. It has taken me all these years even to imagine doing that, and I had a math class on the second floor, clear at the other end of the building, and there was just barely time to get there before the bell rang. (p. 51)
We can forgive his rationalization, since “There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self” (p. 134). Yet the hindsight of old age produces at least a bit of guilt over the question of whether Cletus Smith was ever able to “lead his own life, undestroyed by what was not his doing” (p. 135).
Moriarty, Liane. Big Little Lies Berkley, 2014 ISBN 978–0–399–58720–7
I hadn’t read any of Liane Moriarty’s books, although I kept seeing them recommended. I picked up this one when I heard that HBO was making it into a series.
Set in a suburban seaside town in Australia, the novel delves into the lives and interactions of the community’s residents. The focal point of the story is the school and its annual fundraiser, trivia night, held near the end of the school year. The opening pages make clear that the present time of the story is the trivia night and that the police are investigating a murder that has occurred at the event. Moriarty sprinkles throughout the novel quotations from police interviews with the attendees as periodic reminders of the situation. These quotations also build suspense by dropping hints of personal animosities while withholding both the victim’s and the suspect’s names.
At the center of the story are three mothers:
Madeline: flamboyant and outspoken, she’s turning 40. She is married to Ed, and they have a daughter, Chloe, entering kindergarten. Other important members of this cluster are Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan, and his new wife, Bonnie, whose daughter, Skye, is entering kindergarten.
Celeste: former attorney and drop-dead gorgeous wife of the dashing and mega-rich Perry. They are the town’s Beautiful Couple. Their identical twin boys, Josh and Max, are entering kindergarten.
Jane: newly arrived single mother with a mysterious past. Her son, Ziggy, is entering kindergarten.
As the book opens on kindergarten orientation day, Jane meets Madeline, who then introduces her best friend, Celeste. When they go back to school to pick up their children, a little girl says one of the boys tried to choke her. With the marks clearly visible on her neck, she is pressed to name the culprit, and she points at Ziggy. Ziggy protests that he didn’t do it, and the tone for the school year is set, with various parents choosing sides and pointing fingers despite Ziggy’s continued and fervent denials.
This book is about the women and their growing friendship. Jane believes in Ziggy’s innocence, while Madeline and Celeste trust her judgment and continue to support her. But most of the other kindergarten parents are quick to believe the worst, and Jane’s hope for an idyllic new life quickly fades.
But the novel is also about the men, particularly about their role as fathers. Ed left a high-power journalism job to help with parenting duties so that Madeline could work part time. Nathan, who abandoned Madeline and their daughter 13 years ago, has now, in his second marriage, become a model husband and father. Perry spends most of his time traveling for business and bringing back expensive gifts for his family and even for Celeste’s friends. And Ziggy’s dad is a big unknown whom the boy keeps begging his mother to identify.
And finally, the book is about community, and about people’s eagerness to condemn and ostracize outsiders. This is where the title pertains, as seemingly little lies can have big effects:
the lie told about Ziggy at school
the lie festering beneath the perfect-couple image of Celeste and Perry’s marriage
the lie Jane tells everyone, including herself, about the significance of Ziggy’s paternity
At the end the reader learns who was murdered, by whom, and why. But even though the resolution fits the facts, those revelations pale in comparison to the melodrama that leads up to them. Nonetheless, the characters are well developed and the portrayal of community life, especially when centered around parents and their children, is detailed and credible.
Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why Penguin Random House, 2007 978–1–59514–188–0
Originally published in 2007, this book recently received renewed interest when streaming service Netflix made it into a series. In fact, that’s why I bought and read it.
The story comprises 13 cassette recordings left by teenager Hannah Baker for the people who contributed to her suicide. The novel is narrated by Clay Jensen, Hannah’s would-be boyfriend, as he progresses through the 13 tales.
I’m going to let you read the book or watch the series for the details of how teenage bullying and bad behavior led to Hannah’s suicide. In place of a book review, here is my reaction to it.
I finished the book with alarmingly mixed feelings about it. My edition, a tie-in with the Netflix series, contains an ending section titled “Between the Lines: Thirteen Questions for Jay Asher,” and I had to read that section to convince myself that Asher meant for this book to have a positive message.
Yes, the novel ends with Clay feeling hope when he insists on talking to Skye so that Skye will not feel driven toward suicide, as Hannah was. But before that he felt nearly overwhelming guilt:
You were not very clear with me … I didn’t know what you were going through, Hannah … I would have helped her if she’d only let me. I would have helped her because I want her to be alive (p. 280)
When Clay had tried to talk with Hannah, she pushed him away. These kids are 15 years old, at an age when they’re learning how to interact socially. And now, with so much concern over drugs, date rape, and slut shaming, we’re emphasizing that no means no. Is it fair, then, to expect an obviously caring character like Clay to force Hannah to do something, even just talk, against her will? Despite the book’s hopeful ending, which shows that Clay has learned from Hannah’s tape, I’m bothered that Clay has been made to shoulder so much self-blame for Hannah’s death:
How many times after the party did I stand right here, when Hannah was still alive, thinking my chances with her were over? Thinking I said or did something wrong. Too afraid to talk to her again. Too afraid to try. (p. 285)
I wish Asher had found some other way to demonstrate that we should all recognize and insist on trying to help people in crisis, even when they try to push us away.
I’m not objecting to reading about an emotionally sensitive issue like suicide. Rather, I’m concerned with part of the message that this book presents as a solution.
Nunn, Kem. Chance Scribner, 2014 ISBN 978–1–5011–6467–5
San Francisco hosts this novel, but not the charming city by the bay. This is the San Francisco of fog, mist, and nighttime crime, where thoughts and desires scuttle off down the darkest paths and then emerge from the depths to bite us.
This is where we meet Dr. Eldon Chance. As a forensic neuropsychiatrist, he doesn’t have patients whom he treats regularly. Instead, he works as a consultant, meeting each patient only once for evaluation. That’s how he met Jaclyn Blackstone, referred for evaluation of periods of poor concentration and intermittent memory loss.
And that’s where contact between Dr. Chance and Ms. Blackstone should have ended, unless you’re an antihero like Chance who loves to obsess about the lives of his once-met clients. When the doctor and Ms. Blackstone meet each other in a bookstore, an ill-advised and dangerous liaison develops between them. Chance just can’t resist the advances of Jaclyn Blackstone. Or is it another personality, Jackie Black, who attracts him?
Chance’s relationship with Ms. Blackstone attracts the attention of the husband she’s trying to separate from, Oakland homicide detective Raymond Blackstone. His stature as a police officer allows him to wage an effective war of threats and intimidation. As Chance’s relationship with Jaclyn develops, so does the antagonization from the dangerous detective.
The novel becomes progressively more sinister as the reader learns more about the backgrounds of both Eldon Chance and Jaclyn Blackstone. In the meantime, Chance comes under the spell of a young man who calls himself D. D. is a self-proclaimed warrior of the blade to whom Chance appeals for help when he realizes the threat Det. Blackstone poses. All of these people come together on a dark, foggy night in a way that leaves more questions than answers in a noir world where nothing is ever quite certain and mistakes have a way of repeating themselves.
I read this novel after watching the series on streaming service Hulu. The television version, starring Hugh Laurie as Eldon Chance and Gretchen Mol as Jaclyn Blackstone, accurately captured the novel’s atmosphere of threat and dread, and the actors well portrayed characters caught in a life in which chance and the darkness of the human heart determine inevitable outcomes.
What are the novels that you remember most fondly, even long after you’ve read them? Here are five that have stuck with me over the years.
1. Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos
Margaret Hughes, age 75, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. Margaret lives alone in a huge mansion in the most upscale section of Seattle, where her only companions are the rooms and rooms full of valuable figurines left to her by her father. When Margaret’s mother, dead some 60 years, begins visiting her, Margaret decides to take in a boarder. Wanda, in her 30s, answers Margaret’s ad. She recently sold all her belongings and left New York City for Seattle in pursuit of the lover who abandoned her. Warily, Margaret and Wanda begin to befriend each other. The mansion’s list of residents increases over the course of the novel as new people arrive to fulfill various needs—both their own and each others’.
I loved this novel for its treatment of life’s big themes: the meaning of family, friendship, responsibility, and love. Broken for You received several honors: The Today Show book club selection, 2004; Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, 2005; and Washington State Book Award, 2005.
2. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Empire Falls, Maine, is a town that has seen better days. With its logging industry and textile mills now defunct, its working-class inhabitants try to earn a living however they can. Miles Roby is a typical Empire Falls resident, still living in the town’s tangled web of historical, economic, and family relationships. He manages the Empire Grill, the last economic holdout of Mrs. Whiting, the widow who is the only remaining member of the family that once held all the wealth, industry, and property of the town.
This is a social novel in its look at the declining economic and class conditions of rural America. But it’s also a deeply personal novel in its look at how people interact with one another. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Max and his teenage daughter, Tick. This is another novel from which life’s big themes shine forth: love, friendship, honesty, and family.
3. Plainsong by Kent Haruf
In the fictional small town of Holt, on the high plains of Colorado, a high school teacher works at raising his two sons after their mother’s retreat from her life and responsibilities. In another part of town a mother locks her pregnant teenage daughter out of the house. In the country just outside of town, two elderly bachelor brothers work their family farm, the only life they’ve ever known. Life on the plains is unremitting, but the people in this small town manage to come together in a mutually supportive way that serves everyone’s needs.
I am drawn to novels that demonstrate how people, even though unrelated by blood, create surrogate families that fulfill their needs and desires for companionship, help, and love. Karuf creates a group of memorable characters who, despite the greatly different situations, do just that. This is a truly memorable novel, along with its sequels, Eventide and Benediction, that continue the story.
4. Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Lydia Rowe is a 42-year-old classical pianist married to Victor, a painter. The couple has four children. Lydia has remained friends with a group of college roommates who all studied philosophy together and engaged in endless debates about the fine points of particular theorists. They still hold frequent gatherings, and at one meeting George tells Lydia about field theory, a construct borrowed by psychology from physics, that posits a psychological field as the locus of a person’s experiences and needs. As George explains to Lydia, “the tendency is always to try for some sort of equilibrium in the field. To complete an unfinished transaction” (p. 4). A disturbance occurs in the field when a “particular need is not satisfied. You can’t move on. You get stuck” (p. 8).
Over the course of the novel, all the members of Lydia’s circle learn that abstract philosophical theory cannot begin to do justice to the dense reality of everyday life as intricate, complex experiences accrue. This rich novel has stayed with me for the nearly 10 years since I read it. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This novel follows the lives of four college roommates from a Massachusetts college (the name is not mentioned, but Harvard is implied) for decades after they all move to New York City to start their careers. There’s an actor, a painter, an architect, and a lawyer. At the center of the group is the lawyer, Jude, a man so broken both physically and emotionally that all the others instinctively surround and protect him.
This is a big book—an 814-page trade paperback—that takes the time necessary to look at all the world can throw at four people over their lifetimes. Yet in the end it’s another novel about how people manage to put together the surrogate family they need to care for themselves and each other. Like all of these novels, it will stay in my memory for a long time.
Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade Delacorte Press, 1969 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 69–11929
Rereading this book leaves me speechless every time—not because I have nothing to say about it, but because there’s so much to say that I don’t know where to start. Just as the bumblebee flies anyway, this “so short and jumbled and jangled” novel works despite its strange structure.
In (literary) theory, there are a couple of reasons why this novel shouldn’t work. The first is the mixed point of view. The book’s opening chapter is written as first-person narration, the story of how Vonnegut visited his Army buddy Bernard V. O’Hare in Ohio and how the book got its subtitle. The second chapter begins the story, narrated in third person: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (p. 20). Most of the book continues as a third-person narration of Billy’s war experiences and his intergalactic travels afterwards. But occasionally Vonnegut breaks back in with a first-person reference to himself as author—a technique known as authorial intrusion—to assure readers that the story he’s telling is the true story of his own experience. Nowadays this mixture of points of view is not unusual, but such overt association between author and narrator was much more uncommon back when this novel was first published.
A second literary quirk of this novel is its mixture of historical reality and science fiction. Billy moves—or rather his mind moves—fluidly between Germany during the war and the planet Tralfamadore, where he is caged and displayed like an animal in a zoo. Science fiction originated as a genre of writing separate from, and considered inferior to, mainstream literature, and its incorporation into a literary novel was unusual for the time.
Yet the continuing popularity of Slaughterhouse-Five exemplifies how theory and application often don’t correspond. This novel works because it stretches to find a way to express the seemingly inexpressible. When Vonnegut delivered the manuscript to his editor at Delacorte Press, he said that the novel is “so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again” (p. 17).
Rereading the novel recently for a book group discussion, I was struck by how accurately the book portrays PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which we are now beginning to recognize as a nearly inevitable result of war experience. Here’s Billy Pilgrim’s situation:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time… . Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next. (p. 20)
Later, Billy commits himself to a veterans’ hospital because he fears he’s going crazy. His roommate is Eliot Rosewater, a former infantry captain:
Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways. They had both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosewater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes.
So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.” (p. 87)
Yet another image suggestive of PTSD occurs near the end of the novel. At an optometrists’ convention Billy starts crying when a barbershop quartet sings, and he doesn’t know why:
he could find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely. He had supposed for years that he had no secrets from himself. Here was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside, and he could not imagine what it was. (p. 149)
A few pages later we learn why the singing had affected him so. Billy was part of a group of prisoners whose German guards took them inside a building when the planes bombed Dresden. When the guards first went outside after the fire-bombing and found the city completely leveled:
The guards drew together instinctively, rolled their eyes. They experimented with one expression and then another, said nothing, though their mouths were often open. They looked like a silent film for a barbershop quartet. (p. 153)
In the end, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The best we can hope for is a writer imaginative enough to reach for some way to express the horror of war—a writer like Kurt Vonnegut.
Rooney, Kathleen. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk St. Martin’s Press, 2017 ISBN 978–1–250–11332–0
I am old and all I have left is time. I don’t mean time to live; I mean free time. Time to fill. Time to kill until time kills me. I walk and walk and think and think. It gets me out, and it keeps me healthy, and no one on the street seems to mess with me, as they say on the street. All my friends in New York—back when I still had friends, before everyone moved away or died—had mugging stories, but I’ve never had trouble. (p. 61)
In this novel Kathleen Rooney rejuvenates the well-worn metaphor that life is a journey. As Lillian Boxfish walks around Manhattan, she reminisces about her life, from her career as the country’s highest-paid woman in advertising in the 1930s up to the present. In the process she not only recaps her life but also creates a love letter to New York City in all its historic grandeur.
On New Year’s Eve, 1984, 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish sets out for her annual dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant. But before she leaves she eats nearly an entire package of Oreo cookies (not failing to acknowledge the irony that this former star advertiser has been influenced by contemporary advertising) and isn’t hungry when she arrives. Nevertheless, she stays long enough to chat with the restaurant owner, her long-time friend. When she leaves, she decides that if she walks to Delmonico’s, the exercise will have aroused her hunger by the time she arrives there.
As she walks from midtown to lower Manhattan, Lillian thinks back on the life that brought her here, to the brink of 1985. She begins lightheartedly describing her early life as an aspiring writer who left her family in Washington, D.C., to strike out on her own in New York City. With self-deprecating humor she describes her ascendency in the advertising department at R. H. Macy’s department store and her success as a published poet. But the further she walks, the deeper she digs into her past, finally getting to its most significant events.
When Lillian gets to Delmonico’s she finds out that she can’t get in without a reservation on this, one of the busiest evenings of the year. A young family, overhearing her plead her case to the hostess, invites her to take the extra place at their table caused by a last-minute cancelation. She enjoys talking with the family while awaiting her delectable steak:
We chat about the things New Yorkers chat about … but I am surprised to find, and I think they are too, that our stories emphasize the serendipitous, even the magical. Our tone is that of conspirators, as though we are afraid to be overheard speaking fondly of a city that conventional wisdom declares beyond hope. My long walks, I discover, have provided a rich reserve of encounters with odd, enthusiastic, decent people; I hadn’t realized that I have these stories until someone asked to hear them. (p. 153)
Lillian may be surprised at her magical stories, but readers aren’t. We see some of those stories in the making as Lillian interacts with people she encounters along her walk: a pregnant woman waiting while her partner parks the car before entering St. Vincent’s Hospital, a young man working the late shift at his family’s bodega, the limo driver who tries hard to give her a ride, three teenagers intent on stealing her mink coat. These encounters demonstrate that Lillian’s true gift is to encourage people to tell their stories, to notice details and look beneath surface appearances, to find joy in understanding people in their individuality. Lillian goes out this New Year’s Eve in search of dinner, but she also allows New York City to feed her creative soul.
Lillian Boxfish is a delightful character. I’m glad I met her, and I’ll take to heart her lessons of how to find goodness and joy in the world.
Pinborough, Sarah. Behind Her Eyes Flatiron Books, 2017 ISBN 978–1–250–11117–3
Do you remember all the hype that surrounded the movie The Sixth Sense? Don’t give the surprise ending away, all the ads and reviews exhorted, and for the most part people didn’t. The same thing happened again with the release of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl and, again, most people complied.
And now it’s happening again with Sarah Pinborough’s novel Behind Her Eyes. The wording is a bit different, but the message is the same. From the front flap of the dust jacket:
And if you think you know where this story is going, thing again, because Behind Her Eyes is like no other book you’ve read before.
And from the back flap:
Sarah Pinborough has written a novel that takes the modern-day love triangle and not only turns it on its head but completely reinvents it in a way that will leave readers reeling.
I’m willing to go along with the common agreement that book reviews should not contain revelations that will spoil the reading experience for others, even though that dictum restricts what a reviewer can say. I read a lot of mystery and suspense novels, and it’s usually easy to write a review without giving away too much.
But in the case of Behind Her Eyes, that restriction leaves little else to say about the book other than that it deals with a love triangle. I can tell you that I read the book slowly and carefully, and I did figure out the ending a little bit before it happened. But the important question is not so much “What happens?” as “What do I, as a reader, want to do with what happens?” I will tell you that if I had known about the ending beforehand, I wouldn’t have read the novel—not because of the spoiled surprise, but because of what that surprise means to me in a literary sense.
That’s a cryptic statement, I know. Feel free to get in touch with me for a real explanation if you like, but only AFTER you’ve finished the book.
Fuller, Claire. Swimming Lessons Tin House Books, 2017 ISBN 978–1941040515
I never meant for this to be my life. (p. 328)
Gil Coleman’s wife, Ingrid, has been missing for exactly 11 years and 10 months when he sees her out of the bookshop window. At least he thinks he sees her. The old man sets off in pursuit but suffers a nasty fall that requires a lengthy convalescence.
Ingrid, who disappeared one day after a swim in the ocean, has been presumed dead, even though her body was never found. Since Ingrid’s disappearance Gil, well known author of the racy novel A Man of Pleasure, has been searching through his vast literary collection in search of the letters his wife wrote and hid in his books during the month before she vanished.
In her letters Ingrid recounts the story of her life with Gil: her initial encounters with the charming college writing instructor in 1976, the summer romance and ensuing pregnancy and marriage that forced her to leave university shortly before graduating, her fears and disillusionment about motherhood, her thwarted dreams, and the deterioration of their marriage.
The novel’s present time is 2004, when Gil and Ingrid’s two daughters arrive to care for him during his convalescence. Nan, 15 when her mother disappeared, took over mothering Flora, who was not quite 10. Now Nan assumes the main responsibility of caring for Gil while Flora, an art student who never accepted her mother’s death, immerses herself in memories, trying to imagine why her mother left and where she has gone.
The novel unfolds in chapters that alternate between the present and Ingrid’s letters, written in 1992. She starts writing to put down
all the things I haven’t been able to say in person—the truth about our marriage from the beginning. I’m sure I’ll write things you’ll claim I imagined, dreamed, made up; but this is how I see it. This, here, is my truth. (p. 17)
A minor but important character in the novel is Gil’s friend, Jonathan. His function is to attest to the reader about the veracity of Ingrid’s narrative. Without Jonathan to confirm it, Ingrid’s story would seem less credible.
Ingrid’s truth comprises all the big issues of a woman’s life: love, trust, marriage, motherhood, friendship, betrayal, independence, hopes, ambitions, responsibilities. I finished this book wondering how all these issues will play out in the lives of Ingrid’s two daughters. In the letters to Gil Ingrid stresses that when he finishes reading them, he must destroy them so that the girls will never see them. Her intention is to prevent them from learning the painful truth about their father, but they might have benefitted more from the opportunity to learn the truth about their mother.
Burns, Olive Ann. Cold Sassy Tree Dell, 1984; rpt. 1994 ISBN: 0–385–31258-X
On July 5, 1906, Grandpa Blakeslee instructs his grandson, 14-year-old Will Tweedy, to summon relatives to a family meeting. Grandpa then informs the family that he intends to marry Miss Love Simpson. The announcement causes a scandal in the town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, since Grandma Blakeslee has been dead only three weeks and Miss Simpson is half Grandpa’s age, and a Yankee. In Cold Sassy Tree Will narrates how the scandal played out in this small town. Along the way he paints a vivid picture of what life was like in rural Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century, with highlights such as the arrival of automobiles and the social tension between the “lintheads” who work in the cotton mills and the merchants and professionals who live on their own side of the tracks.
Will lets us know on the opening page that he’s telling the story eight years after the fact. Given Will’s age at the time of the events (14) and his first-person narration, I expected Cold Sassy Tree would be a typical coming-of-age story. The point of this type of story is to let readers know what the narrator has learned from the experience. The novel does eventually turn in that direction, although it starts out with maddening slowness. I almost gave up on the book early because all the goofy humor quickly wore thin.
In coming-of-age stories there are two set topics young characters must learn about: death and sex. Will learns about death early, not only because of his grandmother’s death but also because of the precariousness of life in a time before antibiotics. He slowly comes face-to-face with the fact of sexuality in the undercurrents of all the scandalous talk of the town’s residents. (It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Grandpa Blakeslee is only 59 when his first wife dies.) Will also begins to realize his own sexuality in the attraction he feels but cannot initially explain to one of the young mill workers at school.
By the end of the novel Will has matured enough to know that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Cold Sassy managing the family’s general store, despite Grandpa’s entreaties: “Well, in the matter of my future, I meant to have mine” (p. 390). On the novel’s last page he lets us know that, even though he went off to college, he still keeps a treasure box holding his journal and several tokens representing his early life in Cold Sassy.
January was my month for reading memoirs, according to my reading plan for 2017. I only read two, but both, which had been on my TBR shelf for quite a while, were very good.
Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk Grove Press, 2014 ISBN: 978–0–8021–2341–1
When Helen Macdonald’s father died unexpectedly, she was nearly overcome with grief. She cancelled an upcoming teaching assignment and struggled to find a way to reconnect with the world. An experienced falconer, she decided to fill her days by training a goshawk, the wildest, fiercest, most difficult to train bird of prey.
Macdonald had trained other hawks, but never a goshawk. She knew well the literature of falconry and followed The Goshawk, by T.H. White (well known author of The Once and Future King, a tome of Arthurian legend), as she progressed through her own training program. White’s book is a narrative about his experiences trying—and failing—to train a goshawk during the mid 1930s (although the book was not published until 1951). The comparison between her progress and White’s lack of progress in the difficult task of training a goshawk provides the underlying structure of Macdonald’s book.
Macdonald obtained a female goshawk, whom she soon named Mabel. As Macdonald became acquainted with Mabel, she realized “without knowing why, I’d chosen to be the hawk” (p. 58). Her identification with Mabel became stronger as the training progressed:
I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”(p. 85)
The hawk became a symbol “of things that must be mastered and tamed” (p. 113).
As she trained Mabel, Macdonald read about White’s fits and starts with his goshawk. In her book she examines White’s approach to training for clues about the mind of this brilliant yet troubled man, whose unhappy childhood underlay life-long insecurity and difficulty fitting into the world. Implicit in Macdonald’s process of understanding White through his book is the realization that readers will understand Macdonald, just as she comes to understand herself, through hers.
H Is for Hawk contains that necessary ingredient of a good memoir, an epiphany—something missing from many memoirs, such as the much over-hyped Wild. Macdonald’s epiphany begins with this realization: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all” (p. 195). She knew that she had wanted to slip onto the wild world of the forest with the hawk:
part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home (p. 220)
In the end she realized that she couldn’t overcome her grief by abandoning the human world to become a wild, feral hawk. Rather, she had to bring the lessons of the wild world back into the human sphere:
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are (p. 171)
The key to a memoir-worthy experience is not simply to endure, but to learn, to change, to grow.
Part of that growth is the ability to see new meaning in other aspects of the world. The broadly educated Macdonald fills her book with
details of the natural world: fields, flowers, bushes, trees, animals, rocks. Nature takes on new meaning because of the experience rendered in this moving and enriching memoir.
Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness Free Press, 2012 ISBN 978–1–4516–2137–2
One day in 2009 Susannah Cahalan woke up in a hospital room, strapped to her bed, unable to speak, move, or remember how she got there. As she stared at an orange band around her wrist, the words FLIGHT RISK came into focus.
Cahalan’s journey to that hospital room had begun weeks earlier. Out of nowhere she began having paranoid thoughts; for example, with no evidence she suddenly believed that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and the voice in her head nearly overpowered her: Read his e-mails. The paranoia was rapidly followed by other symptoms: slurred speech, over-reaction to colors and sounds, nausea, insomnia, wild mood swings, uncontrollable crying, lack of focus, inability to write, facial tics, drooling, involuntary muscle movements, and seizures.
Physical examinations and extensive medical tests revealed no discernible cause for her symptoms. Various doctors prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medications and used phrases ranging from all in her head to psychotic break as Calahan’s family and friends watched her condition continue to worsen. Finally, a new neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined the medical team and did one more medical test that saved her life. Dr. Najjar tested Cahalan for a newly discovered, rare autoimmune disease that causes the body to react against the brain. The disease causes inflammation that Dr. Nijjar explained this way: “Her brain is on fire.”
This book differs from most memoirs in that Cahalan has almost no memories of what happened to her during the period she writes about. Her father, who spent most days in her hospital room, kept a personal diary of the ordeal (hers and his own). In addition, her father and mother left a notebook in her room in which both documented what had gone on during their visits; the purpose of this notebook was to keep both parents informed about their daughter’s condition. Cahalan used these two documents, her medical records, and interviews with family, friends, work colleagues, and medical personnel as the basis for the book. Her journalism background enabled her to do the extensive research necessary to supplement those sources.
Despite the absence of her own memories, Cahalan maintains the focus on personal experience that’s necessary in memoir. When she can’t focus on her own experiences, she frames the story with the experiences of the people close to her: her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, and her colleagues at the New York Post.
Cahalan excels at describing complex, arcane medical material for a general reader. Here, for example, is her description of how memory works:
My short-term memory had been obliterated, a problem usually rooted in the hippocampus, which is like a way station for new memories. The hippocampus briefly “stores” the patterns of neurons that make up a memory before passing them along to the parts of the brain responsible for preserving them long term. Memories are maintained by the areas of the brain responsible for the initial perception: a visual memory is saved by the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, an auditory memory by the auditory cortex of the temporal love, and so forth. (p. 101)
After Cahalan was successfully treated for her brain inflammation, there remained questions about how much of her former self, particularly her mental faculties, would return. This book, with its extensive research and clear writing, demonstrates that her brain is now back to functioning quite well.
Brain on Fire has been made into a movie that will come out on February 22, 2017. You can find information about the film, including a link to the official trailer, here.