October is darkening Ohio. The leaves are turning colors and wind and rain spread them across the lawns and street. It’s the time of year some people like to read darker books, and if you’re one of them, have I got a book for you.
Eleanor brought home Alexi Zentner’s Touch from a “Writers after Grinnell” event and gave it to me to read, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was hooked by the first chapter, which is the story of what happens to narrator Stephen Boucher’s father and sister, told as he returns to the town of Sawgamet to see his dying mother. Sawgamet was founded by Stephen’s grandfather Jeannot, and as the novel continues, it unfolds the stories of the lives of Stephens’ family and the inhabitants of this isolated small town deep in the frozen wastes of what seems to be British Columbia but is also the manifestation of its early settlers’ dreams and fears. Mythical Realism, Zentner calls this style, and it draws on some of the same myths and legends as Supernatural did in its early seasons—wendigo, shape-shifter, werewolf.
Often the spooky part frames the stories:
“In later years, when he told the story to Pearl and other men, and they told it to each other and passed it around the way that men do, some men argued that Jeannot had simply been young and scared, or that he had been dreaming. That in the moonlight and his tiredness he had mistaken a bear or another animal for some perversion. Other men, particularly men who had spent more time in the woods or who had dealings with Indians, men who understood that there were things that they had yet to see, believed him. It was a wehtiko—a man turned into a monster as punishment for cannibalism—come to eat the flesh from my grandfather’s bones. No, it was a shape-shifter, it was the loup-garou, the mahaha, it was an adlet, come to drink his blood.
When my grandfather told me the story, however, he insisted it was none of those things. The creature, he said, was a qallupilluit, a sea witch, who felt the greed for gold running through Jeannot’s body and had come to claim him.”
The stories about Jeannot, Stephen’s grandfather, and his wife Martine tie the other stories together, starting with the one about how Jeannot discovered gold in Sawgamet at the age of 18 and then spent the long winter in a house he built himself with only his dog for company. The story of the winter they got snowed in together with only Jeannot’s dog and another starving traveler for company, with Martine pregnant, includes the story of the tunnel they built from the mill where they were sheltering to the firewood stacked beside the burned-down cabin where they used to live:
“Though he was afraid it might collapse, he carved the tunnel out big enough so that he could stand in it….One of the days, Martine took some of the extra water, wet down a rag, and glazed down the walls of the tunnel between the cabin and the mill. It was pitch-black because of the snow above, but she pulled Jeannot in with her, carrying a lantern, just so that he could see the gleaming in the ice. The reflection made it seem like they were walking through the stars.”
While telling this story, Stephen, whose mother is still in the act of dying, says “I think that the tunnel that my grandmother washed down with water, ice smooth enough to make it seem like they were among the stars themselves, is close to heaven.”
Jeannot shows his son and another child how to defeat a mahaha, saying “they pan out on the dumb side. They’re a kind of snow demon. They tickle you until all your breath is gone. Leave you dead, but with a smile.” He comes back to Sawgamet “to raise the dead,” he says. Stephen comments that he does not “have the faith, or the strength, to raise the dead—but I have come to believe what my mother began to believe soon after my father and Marie went through the ice on the river: memories are another way to raise the dead.”
These stories can raise the fictional dead, the monsters of Canadian myths, the hopes of a reader who wants to see someone in Stephen’s family win through the dangers of the northern wilderness, and possibly the hairs on the back of your neck.
…because I’m featured on “Meet the Writer” today at Grab the Lapels!
Lust, a volume of poetry by Diana Raab, was sent to me by TLC book tours. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it seems to me that the depth and breadth and height of the volume reach nearly to the “ends of Being” as I have experienced them.
I expected to feel a little embarrassed, trying to talk about poems on lust, but I didn’t expect to feel so exposed in terms of the details. Reading some of the poems, I thought “oh, that’s how that works” and reading others I wondered, at first, what was going on. Some of them are about having different lovers and what it’s like to have sex with someone you don’t know well. Others are about what it’s like to make love with your partner in parenting, someone you’ve made love with for decades, a situation familiar to me after 32 years of marriage.
I like the way the poet shows bodies and minds working together at the end of the poem “Speak,” as she commands him to
into me and I shall clamp your essence shut.
Tell me you’ve given up so much
for me and I will tell you the same.
Twist your body around mine
like a snake enveloping its prey.
I am yours
there is no
other way to grasp this.”
This theme is continued in two other poems–in “Create,” with “our little secret of the person/we will become together” and in “The Wave” with “the bliss of your healing.” These three are my favorites in the volume.
In other poems, sexual need is spurred by a loving action, as in the double entendre of the title “Pick Up,” the move from a house full of “chaos” to a hotel room in “Going Nuts” or a lift of the skirt “as I stood over gas stoves/stirring simmering soups/rocking baby carriages in one hand/and spoon in another, hands tied.”
There are poems about being left, about how it feels to realize that “I was no longer the fantasy/of all your unmet dreams” and ways to cope “when your loved one clicks their heels/and decides to walk out the door/for some old fashioned sex/with a stranger yet to be met.”
There are a few explicit poems, like “Leashed” and “Protection,” but one of the best things about this volume, at least for me, is its generality, the way it includes the sexual in the everyday, something stomach-tighteningly wonderful to think about “while on the outside/you stand counting the minutes/for the hard-boiled eggs.”
I was going to wait to read Gone Girl until after I saw the movie, but when I read some movie reviews that said I’d like the movie better if I read the book first, I happily succumbed to temptation and ended up being one of three people in two exit rows of a Southwest Airlines flight from Columbus to St. Louis who were reading it on the Friday night the movie opened.
The book is certainly an eye-opener. I saw ahead to very little of what was coming. The movie included enough of the hints and foreshadowing to make the plot comprehensible to someone who hadn’t read the book (Ron, who hadn’t, missed only a little bit of how much of a prisoner Amy was in Desi’s house).
Another reason for reading the book first is so I could enjoy the shots of my home town, Cape Girardeau, when I got to see the movie. And yes, there was the downtown, the floodwall, the new Mississippi river bridge, and the court house. There were the wide, concrete streets. The book describes buildings with “hand-drawn lines from where the river hit during the Flood of ’61, ’75, ’84,’93,’07,’08,’11” whereas in Cape those are mostly on the floodwall, and I missed the shot if they showed it (Imight have to see this movie again).
The most jarring notes in the movie were the accents—most of the Missourians sounded like they were from Arkansas, and no one told the actors that only a few people from north of St. Louis pronounce the name of the state “Missour-ah.” The rest of the population of the state pronounce it correctly, “Missour-ee.”
I particularly admired the way Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Desi, seems so clueless and lost while enforcing his will–bringing Amy the right clothes, the right hair color, and just enough food to get her back to the right weight.
But I am skipping ahead, assuming, as Florinda says, that you are not one of “the six people who haven’t read the novel.” I loved the way it built, starting with Nick’s observation on p. 7 that “there’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.”
Perhaps one of the reasons I saw little of what was coming is because I was so utterly charmed by Nick quoting The Sure Thing about his name (“Nick’s the kind of guy you can drink a beer with, the kind of guy who doesn’t mind if you puke in his car”) that I missed the import of the fact that Amy says she understood only “three-fourths of his movie references. Two-thirds, maybe” but that she intends to study up.
Later, however, I was put off by Amy’s snotty Manhattan rich-girl attitude, especially when she describes the kind of thing she thinks Missourians cook: “a casserole made from canned soup, butter, and a snack chip.” I felt a despairing kind of pity for her when I read that she “never really felt like a person, because [she] was always a product” and her disdain for the role of “cool girl” rang a few bells, but her view of everything as a competition and other people existing only so you can get what you want struck me as despairing right from the start. The way she uses her neighbor Noelle would have been absolutely horrifying if it weren’t for how funny I found her description of the books in Noelle’s house: “The Irish in America. Mizzou Football: A History in Pictures. We Remember 9/11. Something Dumb With Kittens.” The two in the middle are regional—who outside of central Missouri could care about Mizzou football, and how could anyone outside of NYC understand the impact of 9/11? Amy understandably has no interest in genealogy or taking care of anyone except herself—she believes she is fond of her cat, but doesn’t give it a second thought when she leaves her front door open on the day of her disappearance.
The most terrifying point of the story, for me, was seeing what Amy thought about the people she was interacting with:
I waved to neighbors, I ran errands for Mo’s friends, I once brought cola to the ever-soiled Stucks Buckley. I visited Nick’s dad so that all the nurses could testify to how nice I was, so I could whisper over and over into Bill Dunne’s spiderweb brain: I love you , come live with us. I love you, come live with us. Just to see if it would catch. Nick’s dad is what the people of Comfort Hill call a roamer—he is always wandering off. I love the idea of Bill Dunne, the living totem of everything Nick fears he could become, the object of Nick’s most profound despair, showing up over and over and over on our doorstep.”
Amy’s thoughts here so perfectly foreshadow the ending that you hardly need to hear her say that Nick “is learning to love me unconditionally, under all my conditions.” But it does add that extra little thrill of fear.
Everything Leads to You, by Nina Lacour, might take place in the same LA where Weetzie Bat and her friends cavort around with little or no parental interference. It’s realistically-written adolescent fantasy, with high-school-age teens who are performing well in fabulous careers while still attending high school classes and starting to enter mature relationships.
Emi, the first-person narrator of this novel, has already realized that she is exclusively attracted to people of her own gender. She is on the rebound from her first serious high school relationship with a girl named Morgan, who is so mature about the way they ended that she gets Emi her first big career break, as production designer on an independent film.
The most interesting part of the book, for me, is about Emi’s work as a designer. She describes it this way:
“The writers imagine the story, tell us where people are and what they do and say. The actors embody the characters, give them faces and voices. The directors and producers transform an idea into something real. But the art department, we do the rest. When you see their rooms and you discover that they love a certain band, or that they collect seashells or hang their clothes with equal space between each perfectly ironed shirt or have stacks of paper on their desks or a week’s worth of dirty dishes in the sink and bras strewn over brass doorknobs—all of that is me.”
Emi and her best friend Charlotte go over to the house where Emi’s parents live a couple of times, to eat take-out Chinese food and watch videos, but mostly they are living in Emi’s older brother’s apartment. They happen upon a mystery that has to do with the world of movie-making and set out to solve it, getting involved with a mysterious and attractive young woman their own age in the process. Luckily Charlotte is attracted to Emi’s older brother, leaving the mystery woman, Ava, free to fall in love with Emi. Which she does.
There’s a perfunctory “white privilege” conversation about how “we don’t all have internships and college all lined up and our parents’ credit cards,” but mostly the novel stays in teen fantasy land. The kids from the shelter are relatively undamaged by their dysfunctional family lives and remain trustworthy. The privileged kids know the difference between being infatuated with the idea of a person and being in love with the person herself.
The mystery is easily solved, so the charm of the novel stays in the cinematic parallels, at least for me. As Emi falls in love with Ava, she thinks:
“We love films because they make us feel something. They speak to our desires, which are never small. They allow us to escape and to dream and to gaze into eyes that are impossibly beautiful and huge. They fill us with longing.
They tell us to remember; they remind us of life. Remember, they say, how much it hurts to have your heart broken. Remember about death and suffering and the complexities of living. Remember what it is like to love someone. Remember how it is to be loved. Remember what you feel in this moment.”
Everything Leads to You is an easy read, a nice fantasy, and provides some variety in the YA romance section since it’s about two girls falling in love with each other.
I’ve loved reading anything Ayelet Waldman writes, and her newest novel, Love and Treasure, is her best so far. It begins and ends in the present, but in the middle it’s about what happens to some of the people connected to a train full of household goods stolen by Nazis and then disbursed in both official and secret ways after the war, when it becomes clear that most of the original owners are dead and others are past caring what has happened to their relatives’ rugs, chairs, or stemware.
The main character, Jack, is introduced as a multi-lingual American soldier stationed in Salzburg and called to translate for the Hungarians on the train when it comes into the American zone. He falls in love with a young Jewish woman named Ilona who is a “displaced person” after having been liberated from a camp, and is faced with the impossibility of sharing their experiences:
“’You think you know. But you don’t really know how I lived for almost a year.’
‘Yeah, well, I spent a year getting shot at by Germans, and you know what? That was no goddamn picnic, either.’
Even as he said it, Jack knew that if this was the game they were doomed to play, he had already lost. In the hierarchy of horrors, as dreadful as his were, they were far down the list.”
The modern characters, Jack’s granddaughter Natalie and a dealer who specializes in finding art lost during the Holocaust, go looking for the owner of a peacock pendant and locket that ended up in Jack’s possession, it being his dying wish that Natalie find its owner. She and the art dealer, Amitai, envy what they think of as “the moral certitude of those who had never had to confront the pain of ambiguity,” believing that Jack’s generation had this kind of certitude. His story, however, told as the background to their search for the owner of the peacock pendant, reveals even more ambiguity about right and wrong. Their search is successful in uncovering truth, while unsuccessful in having the truth matter to the original owner of the pendant.
Natalie and Amitai go to a museum called Yad Vashem and contribute the facts they’ve unearthed to a biographical database of every person who was killed during the Holocaust, called The Pages of Testimony.
An American Jew, Natalie says that
“all my life, my experience of the Holocaust has been…a useful container for feelings. Here was this colossal, unprecedented tragedy that, by virtue of my religion, I was free to adopt as my own. Because of the Holocaust, I was permitted—no, I was entitled—to feel all the pain that my blessed and comfortable life had spared me. But it was never my tragedy. Collectively, as a Jew, yes. But personally? No.”
In contrast, Amitai, a Syrian Jew raised on a kibbutz in Israel, is
“feeling for the first time that the tragedy of European Jewry did belong to him. Before today, his lack of personal connection to the Holocaust had made it a distant history, no more relevant to him than any other. But Natalie, the locket, the painting, the Hall of Names, taking responsibility for Komlos in the Pages of Testimony, these had brought him to the realization that, merely by virtue of being a Jew, even a Jew from another place and time, it was his history, too. Not personally, but collectively. It belonged to him, as he belonged to all those Jews rising up into the infinite ceiling in the Hall of Names.”
After the story of Natalie and Amitai seems to have wrapped up the story of the pendant and of Jack and Ilona, the reader may well think the novel is over. As if illustrating how many stories have been lost, however, next the novel veers off onto a story about the original owner of the pendant, told from the point of view of a Freudian psychotherapist the age of her father who admires her, desires her and takes some of her secrets with him to the grave, including a growing feeling that she might have been a good doctor, had she been allowed to enter the Faculty of Medicine in post-1895 Budapest. A professional man of his time, his pronouncements often make a modern reader chafe:
“Women are naturally predisposed to care for the family, children, and the means of reproduction….However, I had concerns about exposing young ladies of class and discernment both to the rigors and to the harsh physical realities of modern medicine. Many of the common and necessary parts of a student physician’s training would be offensive and disturbing to such young ladies.”
The chafing, of course, makes the story feel more realistic, as if we’re getting another point of view on a part of this young woman’s life that no one else could have known about.
An epilogue reveals Jack’s reason for keeping the pendant, the action which makes the rest of the events of the novel possible. To him, “it had long since become clear that the property would never end up in the hands of the heirs of its former owners” but “he believed that eventually the United States would…hand over the property to the Jewish Agency to be sold, with the proceeds used to care for the DPs and to facilitate their resettlement….” But when Jack goes to an auction in New York, advertised as a sale of “war victim assets,” he finds that the entire lot of “enameled jewelry” where the pendant belongs is being sold at $1.50 for each piece. He pockets the pendant and goes out, thinking that “the real wealth of the Hungarian Jewish community had not been packed in crates and boxes and loaded onto that train” and that the story of the pendant might never be known except as he knows it, as a “complicated legacy of memory and forgetting.”
The epilogue has the effect of reminding readers that this 334-page novel is the imagined story of one single piece of jewelry from “lot 29” found on a train that actually existed, and that there must be many more stories we will never hear.
Driving to, around, and back from Iowa this weekend, I was listening to the first chapters of the audiobooks of Little, Big and Frog Music, which I had checked out of the library for the occasion. Some of my fondest memories of long car trips with Ron and the kids are of the audiobooks we were listening to along the way—the trip to Texas where we listened to all of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the trip to Missouri when we heard The Enchanted Castle. Now, though, Ron doesn’t care for the kinds of books I can find at the library and the kids read so fast that they are impatient with listening.
Because I had just read “Listening to Virgina” by Jeffrey Harrison, a poem about Virginia Leishman reading To the Lighthouse, I was thinking about it as we drove from Grinnell to find the Field of Dreams movie site.
Getting there was like coming up on Stonehenge from the M4—you’ve been driving along through the countryside for hours, and then suddenly you’re in a place where your imagination has lived. It took us about two and a half hours to drive up to Dyersville from Grinnell. Cornfields. Soybeans. Grain silos. Goldenrod. A stop at a Casey’s General Store for gas and restroom. More cornfields. And then we looked to the left and…there it was–the house and the baseball field! The lights! The bleachers! The porch swing! We had been in an unfamiliar place, and then suddenly we turned left and we were in a place we knew well.
People were out on the field, some throwing real baseballs they’d brought, others catching rubber baseballs from the gift shop, and many just miming throwing and catching. Other people were sitting on the bleachers, watching.
It was sunny and warm, and it was hard not to think of my favorite line from the movie the whole time: “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”
After we’d walked around and seen everything, we supported the maintenance of the field by visiting the gift shop, and then we played some three-way catch to make sure we got some real field of dreams dirt on our two rubber baseballs, one for Walker and one for my brother.
Now, after a Sunday drive back to Ohio from Iowa, I am back to work and driving around town doing errands, but my mind, as always, is in the fictional world, like the speaker of “Listening to Virginia” as he drives around his town:
Driving around town doing errands,
I almost have to pull to the side of the road
because I can’t go on another minute without
seeing the words of some gorgeous passage
in the paperback I keep on the passenger seat…
but I resist that impulse and keep listening,
until it is almost Woolf herself sitting beside me
like some dear great aunt who happens to be a genius
telling me stories in a voice like sparkling waves
and following eddies of thought into the minds
of other people sitting around a dinner table
or strolling under the trees, pulling me along
in the current of her words like a twig riding a stream
around boulders and down foaming cascades,
getting drawn into a whirlpool of consciousness
and sucked under swirling into the thoughts of
someone else, swimming for a time among the reeds
and glinting minnows before breaking free
and popping back up to the surface only to discover
that in my engrossment I’ve overshot
the grocery store and have to turn around,
and even after I’m settled in the parking lot
I can’t stop but sit there with the car idling
because now she is going over it all again
though differently this time, with new details
or from inside the mind of someone else,
as if each person were a hive with its own
murmurs and stirrings, that we visit like bees,
haunting its dark compartments, but reaching
only so far, never to the very heart, the queen’s
chamber where the deepest secrets are stored
(and only there to truly know another person),
though the vibrations and the dance of the worker bees
tell us something, give us something we can take
with us as we fly back out into honeyed daylight.
I miss the feeling of sharing a story, of being part of a group of people who are arriving at a fictional destination along with a real one. I always want something I can take with me as I leave. How about you?