An afternoon of pleasures with Elizabeth Berg

I didn’t give it a second thought when friend Denice emailed the first week in September to ask if I would take time off work to hear writer Elizabeth Berg speak at the Kent District Library in November. I’m sure you can guess my answer. What better way for an English teacher to spend a personal day, no?!

Ms. Berg is every bit as down-to-earth as her characters: she is funny and warm and took the time to autograph every attendee’s book. There’s nothing like getting a peek into the life of a writer I’ve read and loved. Berg begins her day writing and said it’s a “great job when you can work in your pajamas”, drink “90 cups of coffee”, and then take the dog for a walk. (Sounds pretty good to me, too!) She was also open about the more creative aspects of the writing life, saying she doesn’t know a book’s ending when she begins writing. Writing is a “process of discovery and surprise” and Berg believes in the “wisdom and creativity in [the] subconscious”.

We listened as Berg read passages from Arthur Truluv and  she confessed that the book is now her favorite. (It might be mine, too.) She graciously took the time to answer audience questions and when asked if there was a story she hadn’t written yet, Berg said she always has an idea for another book … adding “may it ever be so”.

I’m pretty sure her readers feel the same.

 

True Love: The Story of Arthur Truluv (review)

The Story of Arthur Truluv
Elizabeth Berg
Random House

Elizabeth Berg’s new novel The Story of Arthur Truluv is, as the title suggests, a story about True Love–not necessarily the love you’ll find in sappy Valentine cards, but the kind of love that is even greater. Like the love that reaches across generations, old to young and back again. And the love that lives across the street in a neighborly sort of way. The love that awakens between a mother and her child at the first little flutter. Or even the love that comes in a home-baked orange blossom butter cookie, shared.

Arthur Moses visits his Nola every day in the cemetery, riding the bus to eat his lunch and have a little chat with her. Since her death nearly six months before, Arthur’s life has become flat. Gray. It’s just Arthur and their cat Gordon making do with hots dogs and beans, toast and soup. There are no more garden bouquets on the kitchen table. Gone is the hum of her sewing machine. And the steady rhythm Nola brought to Arthur’s life? Missing.

Until he meets seventeen-year-old Maddy Harris.

Now Maddy has always been sad. Her mother died when she was only two weeks old, and her father’s parenting was distant, at best. He never talked about her mother, never shared his remembrances.  Maddy loves cemeteries and that’s where she meets Arthur. Distraught after being dumped by her older boyfriend, Maddy finds a warmth in Arthur that she’s never experienced. And they become fast friends.

Arthur’s neighbor Lucille thought love had passed her by sixty years ago until a high school sweetheart returns and they make plans for the future. But Lucille’s plans are foiled and she, too, finds a friend, first in Arthur–and then Maddy.

When Maddy suddenly finds herself in a difficult spot, she runs away–and ends up running towards a love that is big enough to save her. And Arthur. And Lucille.

Now that I’m closer in years to my end than to my beginning, one of my greatest worries is that I’ll feel like Lucille did for a time: useless. What happens when the career is over? Passion has been snuffed out? The children (and someday even the grandchildren!) are preoccupied with their own lives? Our world worships youth and values productivity–what will be my place? Arthur found his calling: “I am the audience. I am the witness. I am the great appreciator … I don’t feel useless. I feel lucky.”

The Story of Arthur Truluv is a deceptively simple story, and it might be tempting to read it as a sweet tale about an old man and a young girl. Nothing more. But as in the best of storytelling, it is Truth. Arthur continued to reach out and offer love even when he seemed to have nothing worthwhile to give. And in doing so, he changed lives.

May this be my own love story, too.

Wonder-ful: Wonder (review)

Wonder
R. J. Palacio
Knopf

I might very well be the last reader in the U.S. to have read Wonder, writer R. J. Palacio’s best-selling first novel. I’m kind of out of the middle-reader loop at this stage in my life, and I found the title by clicking on a trailer that popped up on my Facebook feed. Thank goodness (at least in this case!) for click bait because this book was a gem.

Auggie Pullman was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a craniofacial condition that left him facing surgery after surgery (twenty-seven, to be precise) from his first few months of life. Because he was so often hospitalized or recovering from surgery at home, Auggie’s mom home-schooled him. His dog Daisy and sixteen-year-old sister Via are his best friends because Auggie doesn’t get out much. When he was younger, Auggie wore an astronaut’s helmet in public just to minimize the stares from adults and children alike. (Strange creatures we humans are that a boy wearing a helmet is less odd than dealing with a facial difference.)

But now ten-years-old, Auggie is starting school for the first time. A small group of children–Jack Will, Julian, and Charlotte–have been recruited to show him around the building before the school year begins, and it’s a rocky start. Charlotte is overly niceJulian pretty much ignores Auggie and then bluntly asks “What’s the deal with your face?” But Jack Will. Auggie smiled at him, and Jack smiled back.

The first days of school, Auggie keeps his head down and his mouth shut. Except that the tween world is a stratified place and his difference isn’t easy to hid. Fifth grade can be rough. There are whispers. The lunchroom is hell. A cruel game called the Plague circulates around Auggie. Even his English teacher Mr. Browne’s monthly precepts (September’s is “Choose kind”) can’t keep the wolves at bay. But Auggie’s humor and wit win over a few good souls and he finds a tribe.

Of course that’s not the whole story. There’s a betrayal, a violent episode on a class camping trip, a heart-wrenching loss, and some pretty despicable adults. Palacio also gives us the story from the voices of Summer and Jack, true friends both of them. Auggie’s sister Via’s chapters reveal how a condition like TCS affects the whole family. My heart ached for her.

When I saw the movie trailer, I wondered how the movie industry ever put out a call for actors to play Auggie and how the boy with TCS who played Auggie would be recieved. But this is Hollywood, after all, and it was prosthetics and make-up that turned child actor Jacob Tremblay into August Pullman. Shouldn’t have been a surprise.

If you’d like a thought-provoking response from a young woman who lives with a craniofacial condition, read Ariel Henley’s review in Teen Vogue. Invoking the attitude “nothing about us without us”, Henley is clearly disappointed that the movie makers chose Tremblay: “… it was devastating to realize that the directors involved with Wonder would rather cast a healthy, “normal” looking child and put him in makeup and prosthetics, rather than cast someone who looked like me.” If you are a Wonder fan already, please read her article “What ‘Wonder’ Gets Wrong About Disfigurment and Craniofactial Disorders” for another perspective.

In the end, though, August Pullman’s story is fiction. And the most important Truths can be found in story. For me, it’s Auggie’s indomitable spirit that makes me want to be a better person.

Men behaving badly: The Best Kind of People (review)

The Best Kind of People
Zoe Whittal
Ballantine Books

The story is an all-too-familiar one: a beloved teacher is charged with improper behavior towards female students. Headlines scream. Families crumple. Lives disintegrate. I’d venture a guess it’s happened in just about every high school at one time or another. And if a parent or administrator is quick to deny such a thing would ever happen at their All-American High–just ask the kids. They know.

George Woodbury fits the profile: beloved teacher, active community member, loving family man. George was it at Avalon Hills Prep School. (In fact, George is so wonderful he single-handedly took down a school shooter at his daughter’s elementary school a decade earlier.) But one late-summer night, the police show up at the door. Arrest George. Strip the home he shares with wife Joan and seventeen-year-old daughter Sadie of photo albums, computers, files, even family portraits on the wall. Gone.

The charge? Sexual misconduct with three female students and attempted rape. George promises he’ll be out in a day or so–there must be some mistake. Joan pledges to make bail and stand by his side. Sadie is devastated. How could anyone accuse her father of such a ridiculous charge. He’s the one who gave her the rape whistle she wears. He’s the one who preached ‘girls can be anything’. “He even read the Gloria Steinem biography,” Sadie remembers. But is seems there have been rumors–whispers and warnings that George never spoke of to Joan–and some around Avalon Hills aren’t surprised at all.

There’s a fair amount added to the plot that I didn’t need. Sadie has a lot of sex with her boyfriend. There’s a party scene (or the aftermath) that’s raunchy. A based-on-real-events novel gets written about the case. The Woodbury’s live in a wealthy lakeside community on inherited money. Son Andrew can’t open up emotionally to his partner.

It’s Joan I can’t get out of my mind, though.

The woman did everything by the book. She married her sweetheart, she put him through grad school, she kept a beautiful home and grew vegetables and baked cookies and volunteered from here to kingdom come. As if that wasn’t enough, Joan was a respected emergency room nurse at the local hospital. She raised two incredibly bright and successful children. (Sadie’s older brother Andrew is a lawyer living in New York.) She was the Harriet to her Ozzie, the June to her Ward. She did things the. right. way.

How could she not know. She had to, right? That’s what the community thought. That’s what I think when I hear about these cases in the news. Or could it be that George wasn’t even guilty? Maybe he was just set up by some disgruntled, troubled young girls. That’s what the community thought. That’s what think when I hear about these cases in the news.

But we women love our men–even those behaving badly, right? Through thick and thin, ’til death do us part and all that.

We watch Joan grow a pair. She attends a support group for women whose partners are in prison. She finds out the trust money is (surprise!) nearly gone. She asserts herself, cuts off contact with George because of new evidence and starts to think about building a life without him.

Of course you want to know Joan’s decision. George’s guilt or innocence. There’s no spoiler alert here, reader. But the last page was so charged I could have thrown my Kindle across the room.

It’s a doozy.

Family drama: two end-of-summer reviews

Are You Sleeping? (NetGalley)
Kathleen Barber
Simon & Schuster

are you sleepingKathleen Barber’s new novel Are You Sleeping is a little bit mystery, a little bit thriller, and a lotta bit pop culture–the story is great vacation reading. Or, since the fall and winter are fast approaching, it would also make a good blizzard read! (Does anyone else remember books by winter storms?!)

Twins Josie and Lanie aren’t speaking. After their father’s murder when they were young teens both Lanie and their mother fell to pieces. Lanie lived life in the fast lane–sex, drugs, and outrageous behavior. Their mother Erin turned in on herself, curled up in bed, and lived in a medicated haze … until, that is, she joined a cult, the Life Force Collective. The girls’ Aunt Amelia steps in for her sister and provides a warm and loving home for the girls, but the trauma plays out in a series of betrayals that separates them. Josie goes so far as to legally change her name, move to New York, and re-invent her backstory to include being an orpahned only child

Lanie was the only witness to the murder and her testimony sent their teenage neighbor Warren Cave to prison for the crime he committed. Or did he?

Enter Poppy Parnell and her podcast Reconsidered. Cast in the same mold as Serial and Sh*t Town, Poppy opens the thirteen-year-old case and interviews the accused, his mother, police officers, the DA–exactly the voices we’d expect to hear from on a podcast like this. The only players who aren’t interviewed are the girls and Erin, but Poppy shadows them, even going so far as to show up at the funeral home when their mother dies.

As the podcast plays out (Twitter comments and all!) Josie begins to doubt everything she had believed about her family, their life together, and the horror of the murder. A great exposé into what drives us to remember–and why forgetting might be most difficult thing of all.

Goodbye, Vitamin (NetGalley)
Rachel Khong
Henry Holt

This is a hard one.

It’s Christmas, and Ruth Young, newly single, is home for the holidays. Fa-la-lalala and all that is merry and bright. Except when it isn’t. Ruth’s goodbye, vitamindad, Howard, is sliding into dementia. He’s been let go by the university where he taught for decades, and her mother, Annie, can’t cope by herself any longer. Just stay for awhile “to keep an extra eye on things” meaning “Just the year … think about it.”

And because Ruth is at loose ends and because she’s in an unsatisfying job, she stays. Trades San Francisco for Los Angeles. Things aren’t going well. Howard stays in his home office for hours (days?) at a time. He isn’t eating. Occasionally, he will surface and show Ruth the notebook he’s kept since her birth. He recorded simple things, their conversations, her questions–“Today you pronounced “worse” to rhyme with “horse”‘; Today you put sand in the microwave. You said you were making glass; Today you called your grandmother “small mom”–and the entries provide a tender backdrop to what we learn about Ruth’s father. That he has been a philanderer his entire marriage. That he is a heavy drinker. Ruth tends to overlook his flaws. Annie and Ruth’s brother Linus can’t.

But although dementia and dysfunction hardly sound like they’d add up to a touching story, Goodbye, Vitamin is a poignant tale of redemption. A small group of Howard’s former students volunteer to play-act a study group for him (Ruth is in on the deception, too), and we see Howard come alive again when he’s teaching. They hold class in empty rooms across campus, at a coffee shop, at home with birthday cake on Howard’s birthday, at Disneyland (for a lecture on the entertainment industry), on horseback (the lecture was about the Pony Express).

Harold gets worse and we see the can-be-amusing slips–“he called a mechanical pencil a needle” and when they passed “some evergreens called the needles pens“–and the not-so-amusing when he is found by the police sitting on a neighbor’s porch steps a few streets over, dressed only in boxers. Linus moves back home to help Ruth.

And, somehow, despite all the hurt, even with Howard’s cheating and drinking, the family comes together. Changed, yes. But they laugh together, cook dinner together, arrange nightlights all over the house so Howard doesn’t become disoriented. look at old family photographs. Now the tables are turned and it’s Ruth’s turn to hold onto the moments before they’re gone. “Today we ate grapes from a mug and met a white dog; Today we went for a run together … you lapped me handily, pumping your fist as you did; Today we went to the pumpkin patch; Today I saw you and Mom in the living room, reading, sitting very close.” 

Because there’s more than one way to be a family.