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.

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

What I read

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine working on a novel for five years and then *voila*–publicity tour cancelled–death threats–hateful reviews. (I guess if anything else, the blowback has spoken to the power of the written word … but I’m sure that’s little consolation and hardly how you thought this would turn out.)

Let me start out by saying that I raced through the first half of the book. You had me from the first page. I was riveted as Lydia and Luca raced to escape Los Jardineros. Held my breath as they hid in the missionary van and jumped onto La Bestia. The action was movie-like in its suspense; the characters just like me. Very John Grisham-ish, I thought.

And that was my first hint that something was not-quite-right. You see, Lydia seemed so … white. I get the whole we-are-all-the-same-on-the-inside thing, but Lydia’s story–a migrant’s story–was one about which I knew nothing. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, not my own. I wanted insight into the immigrant experience, but what I got was fiction that recycled features from the evening news. And this was probably my biggest disappointment: you wrote in tropes, cliche. Exciting ones, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted more.

I should probably mention I read nothing about the American Dirt controversy until after I finished the novel. My bookish friend Denice lent me her copy with an urgent, “I need to know what you think about this” and I didn’t want others to sway my opinion. Even the two of us spoke only briefly about the controversy.

And after reading several articles, I feel as though some of the criticism was well-founded. But even though the reviews might have some merit, I don’t think the entire burden should be laid at your feet. Flat Iron Books did you wrong–they were looking to make publishing waves and a whole lotta money and you got caught in the cultural cross-fire. Flat Iron heralded your book as literary fiction when in reality it was an exciting thriller, and you took most of the flack.

But, Jeanine, some of those reviewers were just. plain. nasty. I’m so sorry. Sadly, in our Trumpian universe people–even those who are woke–even those who have been on the receiving end of invective themselves–feel justified in name calling and taking broad swipes at those with whom they differ. Even *gasp* liberals and progressives. Whatever happened to respectful discourse?

Would I recommend American Dirt? Yes. With maybe a side note to read one of the articles below to put the novel into perspective. Was I sorry I took the time to read it? Not at all. As I said, it was an exciting thriller. It might even make a good movie.

But most importantly? It made me think. And that’s what compelling stories are all about.

What I lived

Following the American Dirt threads through the interwebs and reading link after link was fascinating. My takeaway? Listen. Just listen when you know little about a culture or experience that is not your own. Don’t stand on your liberal (or conservative!) soapbox and preach. Just. shut. up.

Here are some threads for you to follow, Dear Reader . Listen carefully.

Washington Post: Publisher cancels ‘American Dirt’ book tour: ‘Serious mistakes’ and ‘concerns about safety’ This article has a video excerpt of Cummins speaking at Politics and Prose Bookstore which is worth watching; just listening to the strain in her voice, it’s easy to recognize the toll this has taken on the author.

AP: Author tour for controversial ‘American Dirt’ is canceled Oprah chose the novel for her book club read and has faced some backlash from the Latinx community; concise read.

Slate: Will the American Dirt Fiasco Change American Publishing? Great discussion of how publishers might avoid a debacle like this in the future.

Texas Monthly: The Real Problem With ‘American Dirt’ Regional perspective with tons of links for additional reading, including this link to titles about the migrant experience written by Latinx.

1A (NPR): What The Controversy Over ‘American Dirt’ Tells Us About Publishing And Authorship A panel discussion focusing on “who has the right to tell what stories?” One quibble–one of the panelists scoffed at the fact that Cummins had Lydia ride La Bestia when a middle class woman in Mexico would have gone to the airport and taken the first flight to Canada. Except that Lydia did think of that and didn’t want her name showing up on the flight manifest. That made me wonder just how closely some of the critics read the novel.

To read–or not to read

What I read

Imagine you dance three waltzes with a man twice your age at your step-sister’s wedding–and the next morning he asks for your hand in marriage. Imagine you marry him twenty-four hours later. Imagine spending two nights as his wife before he leaves to lead his regiment in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Imagine not seeing that husband again for two years.

You’ve just met Placidia Hockaday. (And because she is the second Mrs. H, Placidia is now step-mother to one-year-old baby Charles.) A whirlwind of a romance, to be sure, but it’s war time, after all. Major Gryff Hockaday lost his first wife to typhoid and felt he must “gamble his heart on winning something worth coming home to.” It’s my guess the scenario happened more times than we might think.

But what we also know from the beginning of The Second Mrs. Hockaday is that Placidia is in jail, charged with the murder of an infant son born while Major Hockaday was away, and the novel turns on the circumstances of that pregnancy and the baby’s death–a Sophie’s choice if there ever was one. Author Susan Rivers unravels Mrs. Hockaday’s story in a series of letters to her cousin Millie, inquest testimony, and diary entries discovered by Mrs. Hockaday’s son Achilles after the death of his parents.

I’ll be careful here because to say much more would be a certain spoiler. Let’s just say that Achilles Hockaday and his aunt Mildred face their own devastating choice. It was Major Hockaday’s wish that the diaries be destroyed so that no one would know the couple’s secret. Will Achilles honor that wish? Or will he read his mother’s diary and–perhaps–have his world destroyed by what he learns? When is it best to leave well enough alone?

It’s a powerful tale, Reader.

What I lived

I was as captivated by the story of Achilles’ Hockaday’s dilemma as I was his mother’s. To read or not to read, that is the question. What makes that dilemma even more intriguing is that fact that after I die my children (and grandchildren, for I’ve gifted my personal writing to one of them when they come of age) will read–or not–my journals and stories.

We parents spend years sifting through our children’s lives. We listen to their dreams and fears when they are young. Stand by them when they stumble. Pray that they turn to us when life gets difficult, hoping we can offer even a bit of direction. But what do those children know of their parents? Probably something of our childhood and family, our pastimes and jobs. But I’m guessing very little about our inner demons or what of life has made us heartsick. We parents are masters of the stiff upper lip, believing, perhaps, it is not the natural order of things to reveal the dark night of our soul to our children.

But my family will have the same opportunity as Achilles. They’ll become privy to what was sublime in my life. And what was hellish. If they read my writing, I hope they come to understand me in a deeper way.

And maybe–as did Achilles–allow the writing to soften their hearts.

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.

Escape: one book at a time

What I read

Lately I’ve been going through books like a pregnant woman munching pickles, driven by some insatiable hunger to read, read, read. I’ve been mad for books that carry me off, but don’t require too much thinking–stories that are sheer escape.

I wrote about my fling with Stephen King last week and with Kate Morton a couple weeks before that. Here’s what I’ve added since:

Pardonable Lies: A Maisy Dobbs novel (Jacqueline Winspear)
Maisy Dobbs, girl detective. I love her. A gumshoe who meditates and relies on intuition to solve crime– in 1930 waaay before all this New Age stuff. I warmed slowly to Maisy Dobbs, but I’m hooked now. It’s the woman and her life that have me captivated, not the crimes. In this book, Maisie refuses to believe that a young girl has savagely murdered the step-father who prostituted her. In exchange for top-notch legal representation for the girl, Maisie agrees to take on the case of Sir Cecil Lawton. Sir Cecil needs Maisie to confirm his son’s death in the Great War (his body was never found) to honor a deathbed pledge made to his wife. And, of course, there’s a mystery in that soldier’s disappearance just waiting for Maisie to solve.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Kate Morton)
In true Morton fashion, we’ve got multiple narrators–strong women all–telling this story. Elodie, an archivist, becomes enchanted by the contents of a satchel as she catalogs a collection: a photo of a mysterious woman and an artist’s journal capture her imagination. And lead her to question her own impending marriage and her talented mother’s tragic death–both wrapped up somehow with an old gabled country house on the Thames. A charming ghost tells the story of that house, how the death of a fiance and a lover on the same tragic night drove one man to despair. It’s Kate Morton. What else need I say?

The Cruelest Month (Louise Penny)
This was my second Inspector Gamache novel, but I read the series out of order. I started with A Fatal Grace ( #2), went on to The Cruelest Month (#3), and just bought the first Gamache novel on a Kindle deal. Not the deepest or darkest of crime novels, it wasn’t difficult to fill in the gaps. The setting, Three Pines, a little village in Canada, is really the main attraction, as are its residents: Ruth Zardo, cantankerous poet; Clara Morrow, the self-doubting artist; Gabri and Olivier, hoteliers extraordinaire; Myrna, bookstore owner and sage. And, of course, Chief Inspector Gamache and his crew who come down from Montreal, always at the ready to solve a murder–and battle internal conflict within the Surete. There’s nothing like settling in with old friends.

The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain)
The Red Notebook is chick lit at its sweetest. Laure is mugged while returning home late one night and can’t get into her apartment without her keys. She is dazed from a blow to the head, so she secures a room at the hotel across the street until the doorman can let her in the next morning. She collapses on the bed … and slips into a coma. Laurent, book store owner, finds her purse the next day and is intrigued by its contents: a red Moleskine notebook, a gilt cartouche, a lovely bottle of perfume, a hair clip, red plastic dice, and a dry cleaning ticket. He spends hours pouring over the items, trying to analyze the woman, but her identity is a mystery. And one that Laurent sets out to solve. Both Laure and Laurent’s personal lives were at loose ends before the accident–could the purse be the thing that brings them together? (But, really, what woman wouldn’t fall for a hero who runs a bookstore?!)

So. much. goodness.

The reading binge isn’t much of a mystery because old habits die hard. After nearly three decades of cramming my reading into summer vacations, August still brings about the same tendency: I used to read fast and furiously during the waning weeks of summer, trying to keep lesson plans, essay grading, and staff meetings at bay until the very last minute. And I guess that rhythm is still part of my nature.

But there’s something else. All the books center on women who doubted themselves, but overcame those doubts when life insisted. Face-to-face with the worst imaginable, they rose and slayed their dragons.

And I like that.

What I lived

Hospital waiting rooms suck

A family member’s recent hospitalization brought with it all the normal worries and uncertainties that come with an illness. But quite unexpectedly, it also triggered memories from some years back of a time in my life characterized by terror, confusion, and uncertainty. A situation I tried to vanquish at the time, not yet realizing the chaos wasn’t mine to quell.

But we forget–women, especially, I think–that our power isn’t found in improving circumstances, but in transforming our inner landscape. That’s where real peace can be found. Where doubts are overcome. And demons conquered.

So today I’ll raise a glass and give a nod to the women who carried me away the past few weeks–Maisie. Clara. Elodie. Birdie. Laure–reminding me that the only way out is through.