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 Her husband’s likes and dislikes superseded her own needs.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 ūüíĖ: 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.

Three Things About Elsie: review

Three Things About Elsie
Joanna Cannon
Scribner (2018)

“Everyone’s life has a secret, somethings they never talk about. Everyone has words they keep to themselves. It’s what you do with your secret that really matters. Do you drag it behind you forever, like a difficult suitcase, or do you find someone to tell?”

three things about elsieJoanna Cannon’s first novel The Trouble With Sheeps and Goats was a delight–Cannon’s insight into the hearts and minds of little girls and her portrayal of the rough waters of family life was spot-on.¬† Her second novel, Three Things About Elsie,¬†gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of Florence, resident of Cherry Tree assisted living, and in this book it’s the rough waters of aging that she explores.

The story opens with Florence Claybourne who has fallen in her room, and, as she waits for help, replays her life both at Cherry Tree (which, by the way, has no cherry trees, much to Florence’s annoyance) and her childhood. Each chapter marks the intervals with a time stamp. Florence isn’t easy to deal with for the staff¬†or residents: she avoids social events, is loud and often belligerent, and (everyone assumes) delusional. The home’s manager Miss Ambrose is her nemesis, probably for continually threatening to send Florence to Greenbank, the next step in care, and dreaded by all the seniors–probably because it’s the Last Stop. When Florence suspects a new resident at Cherry Tree is a shadow from her past out to destroy her, her hunch is summarily dismissed.

So who is this Elsie-in-the-title? And what are the three things we need to know about her? The first is that she is Florence’s best friend. Has been since they were young girls growing up in a small English town. The second thing is that “she always knows what to say … to make [Florence] feel better.” And it’s quite clear from the story’s beginning, that Elsie and Flo were inseparable as children and that even now Florence turns to Elsie, ever at her side, for reassurance and advice. But only a few chapters in, it’s clear that Elsie isn’t visible to anyone else in the story, and the only person who converses with her is Florence. And that’s where I’ll leave Elsie. Because the third thing … oh, the third thing …

Florence, she of the outbursts and crazy rants, gets the attention of Jack, another Cherry Tree resident, and their friendship gives Florence hope simply (simply?!) because he believes her.¬†The end of the novel is tender and poignant, and Florence–for all of her difficult behavior and troublesome accusations–is vindicated at last.

As to that third thing about Elsie? You’ll just need to read the book.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? How love paper-aeroplanes where it pleases. I have found that it settles in the most unlikely of places, and once it has, you are left with the burden of where it has landed for the rest of your life.”

Anything Is Possible: review

Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

anything is possibleYears ago I was a bit put off by writer Elizabeth Strout’s novel¬†Olive Kitteridge:¬†great writing, stunning insight–but Olive was so … unlikable. (And I know, I know, the novel won the Pulitzer, so who am I to talk?!) But I tried her again¬†with Burgess Boys (there was that Pulitzer, after all) and wasn’t disappointed. After¬†My Name is Lucy Barton¬†I was convinced like so many others that a Strout novel was a great read–but her latest novel Anything is¬†Possible is a masterpiece.

Strout exposes the dark side of human nature in an achingly beautiful way. So, yes, we do¬†find Linda Peterson-Cornell’s voyeurism distasteful and her tacit approval of her husband, a sexual predator, despicable. ¬†But then Linda’s sister Patty–painfully obese, a virgin throughout her marriage, faithfully caring for an elderly mother with dementia–pulls aside the curtain of their childhood, and somehow we understand. Maybe even absolve. We meet Lucy Barton again (now a famous author), as she visits with her brother Pete and sister Vicky. They tiptoe around family secrets at first, then begin to survey the damage their parents had wracked on them. And Charley Macauley who pays for sex and then discovers that maybe he has paid for love; Mary, who left a philandering husband after her heart attack to take up with a lover nearly twenty years her junior in Italy.

Strout takes the stories of broken people and makes them¬†our stories too. Because we all, in some way or another, carry our wounds into the relationships we enter into. And whether we like it or not, because we are flawed, we often end up hurting the very people we love the most. Hopefully not to the extent of Strout’s characters, and hopefully we find the same redemption many of them do. But anything is possible.