Dreams die hard

What I read

Elizabeth McCracken’s novel Bowlaway is just about everything I want in a novel. The story is quirky, the characters unconventional, and the writing–oh, the writing! Think John Irving meets early Anne Tyler, then sprinkle it all with a dusting of magical realism.

It’s Massachusetts. Early twentieth century. And Bertha Truitt is found stretched out in a cemetery one frosty morning with nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold in her possession. But wait! Bertha blinks, much to the surprise of her rescuers. One of the men who found her, Dr. Leviticus Sprague takes her pulse (she’s not dead!), and a policeman bustles her off to the hospital to recover.

And recover she does.

Bertha marries that Dr. Sprague. She builds a bowling alley–she, the inventor of bowling. (Or so she says.) Bertha makes her other rescuer, Joe Wear, her Man Friday. A force to be reckoned with, Bertha allows women to bowl in her establishment without a curtain protecting “men from the spectacles of feminine sport”. Bertha also rides a bicycle around town and is a suffragette. And her husband, Dr. Sprague? He’s a black man, a transplant from the maritime provinces of Canada. To say Bertha was ahead of her time is putting it mildly.

And so the story unravels over more than fifty years. There is an octagonal house, a birth in its cupola, drowning in molasses, and death by spontaneous combustion. A swamp creature. Of course there is heartache, betrayal. All the shortcomings–and perfection!–of what it means to be human.

But the characters. My goodness. Jeptha, a hydrocephalic pinsetter. Minna, a drummer and jazz singer. LuEtta, bowler extraordinaire. Margaret, the maid who becomes lady-of-the-manor. Nahum, the long-lost son returned. (Or is he?) Archie, the gambling ne’er-do-well.

It is the life blood of the Bowlaway, though, that keeps the story pulsing. The establishment nourishes the hopes–or cuts off the dreams–of every character. There is no escaping its influence.

One of the blurbs on the back cover called Bowlaway “an oddball masterpiece.” And, indeed, it is.

What I lived

How very unexpected find myself inside the story of a family business–and how it both feeds the soul and sucks it dry–when one that was dear to my own heart–a yoga studio–was closing its doors.

From the first time I stepped foot in the studio a dozen years ago, my heart opened at the smell of nag champa, the flap of yoga mats slapping the floor, the flicker of candlelight in the evening. It was a place to connect and stretch my Self … and when we had the chance to make it our own, I hitched my wagon to its star and dreamed away.

But as in many family endeavors, we humans tend to get in the way. There is conflict and disagreement and misplaced alliances of all sorts. (Even, God forbid, estrangement.)

I wish I could have closed the door with something other than regret. I wish I had said some sort of proper goodbye–but it happened oh-so-quickly, and we left ‘proper’ behind many years ago.

It will have to be enough to sit with the understanding that the star fell, and my wagon with it.

I guess I’ll search for stardust elsewhere.

Tale and Testament

What I read

Before I read Margaret Atwood’s recently published sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought maybe a second reading of the first was in order–especially since it had been thirty-some years since I’d read it. (I haven’t watched the television series because, well, you know … books.) I remembered how I felt after reading Handmaid’s Tale more than I remembered the plot. Of course, the visual of Offred’s dress and the handmaid’s role in Gilead stuck, as did main character’s near escape early in the novel. But I knew the intervening decades had softened my reaction to the novel and that a dive back into Offred’s dystopian world was in order before reading The Testaments.

The book has held up well, my friend, which is a pretty devastating thing to write. Our current political and social climate seem to put women at-risk for a Gilead-like scenario even more than thirty-five years ago.

The Testaments, is more back story than sequel. (We don’t explicitly find out what happened to Offred as one might expect in a sequel–but the savvy reader is sure to get enough hints to satisfy.) Even more accurately, perhaps, it’s a story that spins off Offred’s. The novel is told through the recovered testimonies of 369A and Aunt Lydia. Through 369A’s record, we learn about the daily lives of girls and women in Gilead–their marriages, education, and relationships with each other. And we also get the perspective of the Aunts and their role and unique position of power, especially the much-hated Aunt Lydia from Handmaid’s Tale. Both accounts also allow the reader to get a glimpse of how the underground Mayday organization operated.

Atwood’s handling of the sequel is masterful. In learning those back stories, we understand, rather than condemn. Even more chilling, readers might see themselves in the characters’ motives, choices, and reactions.

And while you might choose to deny it, Atwood seems to imply that the Aunts might be us.

What I lived

My then-husband bought me The Handmaid’s Tale –I don’t think he had any idea what it was about–for some celebratory day or another. Christmas. Or maybe my birthday. In 1985 had just started reading Ms. magazine on the sly. I was a stay-at-home mom without a college education who didn’t have a credit card to her name or any independent income. We were Evangelical Christians and, for me, life was starting to chaff.

A couple years later the shit hit the fan and life was never the same.

I’d like to think that I’d have enough inner resources now to resist any Gilead wool pulled over my eyes. I’m resilient. Educated. Independent. But the past several years make me doubt myself. The Old White Men in charge are pernicious in their policies for and attitudes about women. If you can say, ‘Grab them by the pussy’ and ‘Brett Kavanaugh’ in the same breath, how can you think otherwise?

And there are my own personal shortcomings. That longing to partner with The One. The dream of a fairy tale ending and happily-ever-after. A nasty little word called codependency. My self-zipped lips.

But then I remember–there is always hope. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

You brave and glorious thing

What I read

It’s hard to believe I first read Anne Tyler thirty years ago. I was a different woman then.

Tyler’s characters are finely drawn and I feel as if I know them–maybe not in this world, but in some other reality, perhaps. Her families are made up of people as different from each other as those in my own. There are movers and shakers, dreamers, ne’er-do-wells, and milquetoasts. They argue. They compete.

And they love.

Although there can be no rival to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or Accidental Tourist, Tyler continues to peel back the layers of family life in her novel Clock Dance. But her main character–unlike young Pearl in Dinner or Muriel in Accidental–Willa Drake has aged right along with me.

And it’s a breath of fresh air to read a novel about a woman of a certain age who is not done yet.

Willa’s life hadn’t been always smooth–an unpredictable, often abusive mother; an overbearing husband; widowed too early. And (not too surprising) a second overbearing husband, albeit a slightly nicer one. But rather than evolve, Willa adapted. She appeased rather than asserted; she bent instead of standing firm. Willa realized she was “cheery and polite and genteel and superficial”. And what did it get her? Not a thing. Her relationship with her adult sons was distant. Her husband’s likes and dislikes superseded her own needs. Even her job as an ESL teacher in Tucson was only tangentially related to her passion for linguistics.

And then, in typical Tyler plot-twist fashion, Willa flies off to help her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise (a woman she’s never met) recover from a gunshot wound. While Denise is in the hospital, Willa becomes a surrogate grandmother to Denise’s ten-year-old daughter Cheryl–and eventually finds herself an essential cog in the wheel that is their Baltimore neighborhood. The characters are also typical in their Tyler-esque quirkiness. There is Ben, the faded doctor with a washed-up practice. And Sir Joe (Sergio) the biker-cum-HVAC technician who fosters his fifteen-year-old half-brother Erland. Richard and Barry the gay couple down the street who lend a hand whenever needed. And Hal, the sad sack across the street, jilted by his wife Elissa for Willa’s son Sean.

They need each other like Willa needs them.

It’s a long time coming, but Willa finally–finally–realizes she has a choice: “she might try something new that she hasn’t even imagined yet. There is no limit to the possibilities.”

She will no longer come at life slantwise, as Denise once accused her of doing. No more pussyfooting around for this “brave and glorious” woman.

What I lived

I can’t even.

Willa might as well be me between the covers of a book.

And it was exhilarating–and something of a relief–to read I am not alone in becoming a “brave and glorious thing” … at any age.


The title for this post comes from a poem I’ve come to love about aging titled “Beneath the sweater and the skin” (Jeannette Encinias)–you’ll find it a nice companion to the novel.

Mary

For someone who reads as much as I do, I struggle with contemporary poetry. What should be a pleasure–me! lover of word-craft and all that is story–is more often a frustration. I find most of it arcane. Baffling. And, dare I say, way too self-absorbed. I want my poetry rich with images that I can connect with, that touch my heart-center. I don’t want a poem heavy-handed, but rather one that brushes against my soul like a well-loved comforter–one that says “You’re home”. So the list of contemporary poets who have won my heart is short. Billy Collins. Ted Kooser. And Mary Oliver.

So much has been said about Ms. Oliver in the past week since her death–certainly don’t need to say more. I listened to any number of remembrances on NPR and sought out The New York Times to read her obituary. I recalled reading “Wild Geese” for the first time and the thrill of “only let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I changed my letterboard to feature that most famous of lines “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And I thanked the Google gods that, with only a finger tap or two, I found many archived articles that allowed me to tuck away a few more Mary memories. Here are my favorites:
What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand” (The New Yorker; Nov. 27, 2017)
“Mary Oliver’s Poems Taught Me How To Live” (The New York Times; Jan. 18, 2019)
Listening to the World” (On Being–a rare interview recorded with Krista Tippet in 2015 and rebroadcast last week)

But for me, Mary Oliver became so dear because of the woman she was. Private to the point of eccentricity. Haunted by abuse. Reluctant to talk about herself. Yet always–always–sure of belonging in the woods and fields around her Provincetown, Massachusetts home because of what it had to teach her about her place in the world.

I look at her face in those last photographs–lined and weathered, the slight lift of her smile, a brightness in her eyes. Where age was Mona Lisa beautiful. And I want to grow into that woman. The one with the “wild and precious life”.

Flavia đź’–: Golden Tresses of the Dead (review)

We are expecting a big storm here in the Great Lakes starting midnight Sunday. Forget about the local TV weather forecasters who yell “SNOWMAGEDDON!” at the first flake–even the U.S. National Weather Service in our area says that between tonight and Wednesday we are due for 11″ of snow and the wind chill will be “dangerous if not life threatening”. Holy CO2, Batman!

So knowing I’ll be stuck indoors for at least a couple days, and knowing there’s only so much cookie baking a Weight Watcher can do, and knowing I’m not much of a movie buff … well, I just wish I had seen this weather coming, so I could have saved Alan Bradley’s new Flavia mystery, The Golden Tresses of the Dead for a day tucked onto the couch.

Because nothing says comfort like Flavia. She’s predictable. Good, clean fun. And oh-so-familiar. This is Book #10 in the series and I haven’t missed one. I wrote about #9 here and #8 here and even threw in a little Flavia trivia here. At the end of The Grave’s a Fine & Private Place, Flavia inherits Buckshaw and settles on it as the home of Arthur W. Dogger & Associates–Discreet Investigations. And if Golden Tresses is any indication, there’s a new Flavia on the horizon.

Which makes some sense. Flavia is inching ever closer to her teens, and she’s starting to set aside her impetuous nature in favor of one more focused on attuning her sleuthing skills under the direction of Dogger. (That is Dogger of the Arthur W. Dogger and Flavia of the & Associates.) So while her mind is still sharp–Flavia is first to suspect Miss Truelove, head of St. Tancrid’s Altar Guild, has a hand in the matter and sniffs around her cottage for clues–she is quick to watch Dogger question witnesses and dissemble to the police. We even find Dogger lending a hand in Flavia’s chemical laboratory and the two share a desk.

But don’t be dismayed. Outlandish turn of events still govern Flavia’s world: we have a dismembered finger in a wedding cake, a client found poisoned by African beans in her cottage, a dead rat in the bottom of a travel bag, a ‘senile’ huckster dissembling in a nursing home. And writer Alan Bradley clearly has Flavia’s young cousin Undine stepping in to fill the juvenile shoes Flavia is outgrowing–Undine is loud, intelligent, loves a good joke, and fond of fingerprints. (Sound like another little girl we know knew?)

I suppose I could quibble with some blind alleys in the plot and characters that seem unnecessary. But I treat my series like my friends and I can overlook a number of flaws because there’s that undying devotion. I’m curious to know where the series is going. When he wrote Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie in 2009, Bradley planned ten Flavia mysteries. And Mr. Bradley is now eighty-one-years-old. So conceivably, this could be the last Flavia book.

But I sure hope it’s not.