I was skeptical about Ann Hood’s novel The Book That Matters Most because I don’t usually like books about people who love books; I find most of them overly precious and irritatingly contrived. And, like many people who love books, I get a little weary of proclaiming and defending my list of favorites, by any other name (most important, most influential, by genre, by century, even the book one would “be” in a Fahrenheit 451 world). But Hood disarms most of my objections, as one of her characters talks about “the idea of the book that matters most” and why it’s “impossible to pick such a book. When you read a book, and who you are when you read it, makes it matter or not. Like if you’re unhappy and you read, I don’t know, On the Road or The Three Musketeers and that book changes how you feel or how you think, then it matters the most. At that time.”
This novel is about how a fictional book matters most to its main character, Ava. We find out that Ava is alone because her children are grown, her husband left her for another woman, her sister died when she was young, after which her mother disappeared, and her father has dementia. Ava “missed the rituals of her young family” and has decided to join a book group because she is “desperate for company, desperate for conversation….Not just for company, but for something more, a deeper connection to people.” I think many of us who have taken to the internet to find like-minded readers can identify with that.
Hood indulges herself with the book group discussions, having each member choose a classic so she can give her own readers some background and talk about (hard to avoid using Jo Walton’s phrase here) “what makes this book so great.” She includes Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Slaughterhouse-Five. On her website, she talks about how she selected those titles, and gives a few of the others people mentioned when she asked them what book “matters most.”
My favorite line (everybody’s favorite line) from Catcher in the Rye is used as an epigraph to the chapter in which it is discussed: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Although she doesn’t explicitly offer her friendship to her own readers, in the age of twitter you can at least tweet at Ann Hood.
The novel is put together in an interesting way. It’s Ava’s story, but we get interested in the story of her daughter, and then her sister and her mother and her aunt. All of the stories come together in the end, and it’s not irritatingly contrived but feels pretty much inevitable.
What I most want to say to the author of The Book That Matters Most is thank you for the happy ending. Because as much as I love the grand gestures of tragedy, what makes this book matter to me is the reassurance that even though individual lives leave a mark, most people can eventually get over a loss, even the kind of loss that seems at the time like the end of the world…and for the reminder that often what helps people through is a book.
This winter marks the 25th I’ve spent in Ohio, and either I’m finally getting the hang of it or the winters are getting milder; perhaps a bit of both. One of the survival techniques I’ve learned to cope with winter here is that I now own more than one coat, and the other is that I’ve learned I need to travel–especially during the coldest months, November to April—to remind myself that there are places where the sun still shines.
I still don’t think of myself as “from” here, though. I’ve spent parts of my life in Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Florida, South Carolina, and Maryland. I’ve never willingly identified myself as an “Ohioan” (especially because of the association of the name with the obtuse and cheerful northerners in Walker Percy novels). And yet here I am.
Both my children were born and raised in Ohio. We’ve owned a house here for more than two decades, repairing and patching and improving parts of it at will since there are no codes, and paying to have our trash hauled away once a week while our cars, which never have to be safety inspected or emissions tested, sit in the garage. For fourteen years we volunteered to do our part shoring up various pieces of the local public school system. Now every Saturday I take a sign–addressed to my representative in congress–to the public square and join my neighbors in standing up to be counted in favor of issues like universal health coverage and continuing EPA regulations, while a guy with a bullhorn harasses us about his religion from across the street and the driver of one out of every fifteen cars makes a rude hand sign or shouts something out his car window. We’ve slowly gotten used to most of the local customs and watched others (like referring to green peppers on pizza as “mangoes”) disappear.
And I’ve finally started to understand the mix of exasperation and fondness in poems about Ohio, like this one by Allison Davis:
The Heart of It All + A Free Beer
There are too many things set
in Ohio. There is even a river. For a while
all we had were couches and tongue rings.
Now, it’s over. All married. Each time you turned around
to face the Torah I hoped you were looking
at my ass. You weren’t, and your brother wasn’t looking
at my sister. We’ve recovered. She married.
In Youngstown when you marry there’s a cookie table.
Back home, having a long last name
is like having a big dick, is like having a nice
cookie table. My five aunts made hundreds
of Greek cookies for my sister’s wedding.
My mother would make them for school, at Christmas,
and I’d bring them in with her motherly note:
“Take out the clove! xo” After my sister’s wedding,
my mother packed up a box of cookies
and said “Don’t share them with anyone
who won’t appreciate them.” My mother’s nightmare
is someone eating Greek food without having
an experience. Baklava is something she has left
of one experience. My cousin
cries about a guy, and I say, “Good, no one likes him
anyway.” No, I don’t. I say, “Find someone
who’ll treat it like an experience.” And if you do
and if he doesn’t, forget about the clove.
He’ll ask, “Was I supposed to swallow that?”
Answer, “That’s what she said.” My cousin
rolls her eyes, says I don’t
understand. The time spent convincing the heartbroken
you’ve been heartbroken. The last time I saw him
was in a Columbus library. We’d both left town,
yet there we were; the back of his neck
in Literature, D-F. “I could not speak, and my eyes failed,
I was neither living nor dead” are Waste Land lines
Pound wasn’t allowed to cut. A hallucination?
I emailed: it was him, he asked why I didn’t say
Hello. Because it’s possible to stay too long
At the fair. Because aisles over in L
was the Lorca
I once watched a guy from Madrid
angrily re-translate in red ink. Even now, it’s there—
written and written
over. Even now, a Great Lake
and a river. Things are set in Ohio
because you’re allowed to stay too long
and call it love. Because there are no
regulations. My mother waits up
for my father who works at a motel
that never closes, that gives customers
the heart of whatever they’ve come for
plus a free beer with every room.
It’s mostly true that “there are no/regulations” around here, and I appreciate the whimsical ending of the poem, the sometimes-tawdry joy of getting a little more than you bargained for and recognizing that this is a place where little things count. Where else can you get so used to funny hybrid names that you eventually forget to laugh at the name of a restaurant in a Columbus strip mall called “Buckeye Pho,” referring to it completely without humor as simply a possible place to meet?
Although my children are Ohioans, the irony is that from here on out they will live elsewhere, and I will probably still be here, thinking of Homer Price every time we drive past the public library in Centerville and cursing our luck whenever it snows and we miss our flight out.
Like many readers, I’ve pieced together what I know about Norse mythology from reading Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Farmer’s The Sea of Trolls, meeting the bed-ridden Odin in Adams’ The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, tracing the branches of Yggdrasil in Chabon’s Summerland, and delighting in the feats of Thor and glimpses of Loki in movies, TV shows, and books as disparate as The Avengers, Supernatural, and Neil Gaiman’s own American Gods. Most of us know at least one of these stories.
Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology brings some of the most famous stories together in a narrative that begins with the creation of Asgard and ends with predictions of Ragnarok. It’s quite readable, if somewhat bare—the stories are told simply, without the thousand crazy points of overlap and echo that are so much fun in other tellings. It’s like we’re being told a familiar story pitched to the understanding of a younger sibling.
The story-teller is a master, though. With extreme economy, he gets across complicated ideas, especially about Loki, that always-slippery character:
“So now you know: that is how the gods got their greatest treasures. It was Loki’s fault. Even Thor’s hammer was Loki’s fault. That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”
Some of the parts that could be presented as scandalous are told in a way that eliminates the suggestive possibilities, as when Loki lures away a stallion in order to save himself from the wrath of the other gods. We are told that he
“stayed away for the best part of a year, and when he showed up again, he was accompanied by a gray foal.
It was a beautiful foal, although it had eight legs instead of the usual four, and it followed Loki wherever he went, and nuzzled him, and treated Loki as if he were its mother. Which, of course, was the case.”
The exciting parts are still exciting, but told in a way that makes me think of William Goldman having his grandfather/storyteller interrupt the narrative to tell his young listener that the princess bride “does not get eaten by eels at this time.” When Gaiman tells the story of how Thor performs what turns out to be a marvelous feat of strength, we are shown only that he has been asked to wrestle a giant’s old nurse, or foster mother:
“He did not want to hurt her.
They stood together, facing each other. The first to get the other down onto the ground would win. Thor pushed the old woman and he pulled her, he tried to move her, to trip her, to force her down, but she might as well have been made of rock for all the good it did.”
Only afterwards are we told that the old woman
“was Elli, old age, No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only onto one knee.”
The simplicity of the story-telling has its charms, particularly when it comes to the intricacies of the gods’ magic:
“When the gods felt age beginning to touch them, to frost their hair or ache their joints, then they would go to Idunn. She would open her box and allow the god or goddess to eat a single apple. As they ate it, their youth and power would return to them. Without Idunn’s apples, the gods would scarcely be gods…”
The characterization of the different gods is consistent throughout the volume. Thor, for example, is always completely guileless:
“Tyr said to Thor, ‘I hope you know what you are doing.’
‘Of course I do,’ said Thor. But he didn’t. He was just doing whatever he felt like doing. That was what Thor did best.”
The simplicity of the story-telling extends even to a description of necromancy. When Odin is disturbed about the fate of his beloved son Balder:
“He stood by the grave at the end of the world, and in that place he invoked the darkest of runes and called on old powers, long forgotten. He burned things, and he said things, and he charmed and he demanded. The storm wind whipped at his face, and then the wind died and a woman stood before him on the other side of the fire, her face in the shadows.
‘It was a hard journey, coming back from the land of the dead,’ she told him.”
All of the best stories of Norse mythology are told here, but in a way I would find suitable for reading to drowsy children right before bedtime.
The knee news has been rather discouraging, and I’ve allowed myself a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself. I still haven’t really been able to walk since the surgery to remove the broken pieces of meniscus in my right knee. I can limp, the kind of limp that a person has to sit on the edge of the bed for a few minutes before attempting. I need to be conscious for the pain of putting any weight on the knee and in case of the occasional moment of such intense pain that it feels like the knee might give way.
On my recent trip to Oahu, a trip that an Ohio resident can’t conceivably complain about, I used a cane. I even took the cane (an inexpensive folding one) onto the sand, as part of my various attempts to try getting into the waves. Couldn’t do it, though. I was extremely frustrated; I took an inflatable raft to the edge, because sometimes that helps me balance if I can get into the water far enough, but every place I tried, I sank down into the sand enough to make my already uneven gait too uneven to continue, and I could see that it wasn’t going to be possible for me to take the big step down where the waves hit the shore. After a couple of days of carrying it around, I gave my raft to some kids and then I sat on the shore–on the chair I’d rented because I can’t just spread a towel on the sand anymore and be able to get back up– and watched them play with it.
I’d booked a ride to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve to go snorkeling before I knew I would have so much trouble getting in the water, and so I went, with considerable trepidation that it would all be for nothing. I had rented mask, snorkel, and swim fins, and everyone was sitting in the shallow water putting on their fins, so I made my determined way to where I sat/fell down and then turned on my stomach and pushed off, which worked. I had a fabulous time swimming around and looking at fish—I saw many of the kinds of fish pictured on the “fish ID card,” the most spectacular of which was the male awela (“Christmas wrasse”) because it’s so colorful, even in a place where everything is already gorgeously and extravagantly colorful.
Eventually, though, I had to stop swimming because I knew I had to allow extra time to figure out a way to get out of the water and walk back to where my ride was parked. I swam up to the shallow water, took my fins off, and sat there looking around, enjoying the water and the sun (there was some that day!) and watching the people. I tried getting up a couple of times, and I could make it partway, but it was clear I was going to need a hand to get back on my feet. Being a reasonably cautious swimmer when alone, I had gone in and come back out right in front of the lifeguard stand–so I knew I could wave and get help, as a last resort. Some people who had been standing in the water near me for a while, getting ready to go in, had been talking to me a little bit, and after about ten minutes, a friend of theirs came down to say something to them—he was a reasonably big guy and seemed friendly, so I asked if he could do me a favor and give me a hand up. He did, and was very nice about it, so that’s how I got out of the water. Like Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers.
I got back to the parking lot slowly, in stages, and sat down on a rock wall to rest my knee and admire the bay below one last time. I was quiet and still, and after a few minutes, I saw a mongoose run right in front of me, diving for some tall grass on the other side of the wall.
There are certainly good things that come out of pain and disappointment, but you have to diminish your expectations somewhat before you’re able to appreciate them much. I’m trying to reach that point, the one Heather McHugh writes about in this poem:
In Praise of Pain
A brilliance takes up residence in flaws—
a brilliance all the unchipped faces of design
refuse. The wine collects its starlets
at a lip’s fault, sunlight where the nicked
glass angles, and affection where the eye
is least correctable, where arrows of
unquivered light are lodged, where someone
else’s eyes have come to be concerned.
For beauty’s sake, assault and drive and burn
the devil from the simply perfect sun.
Demand a birthmark on the skin of love,
a tremble in the touch, in come a cry,
and let the silverware of nights be flecked,
the moon pocked to distribute more or less
indwelling alloys of its dim and shine
by nip and tuck, by chance’s dance of laws.
The brightness drawn and quartered on a sheet,
the moment cracked upon a bed, will last
as if you soldered them with moon and flux.
And break the bottle of the eye to see
what lights are spun of accident and glass.
When I was younger, I kept thinking that each knee surgery was going to fix the problem. Now I know that the rest of my life is going to be some variation on waiting for another surgery, recovering from surgery, and doing the series of exercises for the muscles that support the knee. It’s not anything a person does “for beauty’s sake,” but I guess a person might run mad (ha, only metaphorically) if she can’t learn to look for moments of “dim and shine” in the process.
When have you had such moments, of “dim and shine”?
Today I offer all grown-up readers some Valentine’s Day advice, which is heavily derived from my reading of a book entitled The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love many years ago.
This is the advice: If you enjoy flowers, go out and get yourself some. I don’t care if they cost more today than they will tomorrow—if that bothers you or you don’t have enough money for the big bouquet you’d really like, find yourself one small sweetheart rose, or a little primrose in a pot. If you’re at the point in the long, gray winter when you really want some chocolate, go out and get the kind you like best. There’s an amazing variety of it available right now.
Don’t tell me you can’t afford it; didn’t you buy your child or your pet a little something just the other day? You deserve something nice today. Don’t sit around waiting for anybody else to get it for you. Go out and get it yourself. If you want to share with someone else, fine. But it’s not anyone else’s job to guess what you want and bring it home at the end of the day.
In Jill Conner Browne’s book The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, she explains why she and her friends decided
“to declare ourselves Queens of whatever we chose. No pageants for us. No way would we ever consider groveling and posturing for a bunch of strangers…in the pitiful hope that, for reasons of their own, they would decide to give us their paltry crown.”
The Sweet Potato Queens, she explains, are “real live grown-up women—self-sufficient and self-actualized. But we were crownless, one and all.” So what did they do? They went out and got themselves crowns and wore them in the local St. Patrick’s Day parade, after which she wrote four books about it.
I say don’t wait until St. Patrick’s Day to provide yourself with some of what you crave. It’s February, for God’s sake. Everyone needs something to help them get through the month.
As Jill says in one of her later books, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner, “No matter how bad your childhood was, it’s over. If you didn’t get real majorette boots then, get some now.”
Whatever it is you want, no matter how silly you think it is, find a way to get some of it today.
And if you’d like to read The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, look for it in your local library–if they don’t have it, then let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
The photo above was taken by a tour guide at Tantalus lookout point, on top of the mountain at Puu Ualakaa State Park, on Oahu, February 6, 2017. I was on my way to the north shore of the island, where I hoped to see big waves. I’d read about the 30-foot waves and the surfing contests, but since it was a rainy, gray day the waves were “only” 12 feet high. Out in the water, though, so far out the guide had to tell me where to look, I saw several whales blow and then breach.
That was the first time I’d seen whales in the wild. The second time was at Hanauma Bay, where I had been snorkeling. I was standing at the top of the cliff, at the edge of the parking lot, and that day’s tour guide pointed out some whales in the water, way out there, well beyond the bay, just about where the sea met the sky.
The third time, I got to see some whales closer up—about 100 feet away, which is as close as you can legally come to them. I was on a boat, on a whale-watching tour, and we got the full show. There were definitely two humpback whales—possibly three—blowing, breaching, and then showing us their tails (flukes). I kept thinking of the Christopher Moore book Fluke and watching to see if there was anything written on the tail. Here is my photo of a whale—I was watching them live rather than trying to photograph them, because, you know, of Walker Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature” and my own inclinations. After about 15 minutes, though, even I got out my phone to see if I could get a photo. (It’s unimpressive until you enlarge it, and then you might be able to see the back of the whale and the dorsal fin.)
Here’s an old poem entitled “The Whale” by Terence Heywood:
The spirit of a man should never fail,
But, like the whale
Who at the shark’s assault swallows her young,
Should rescue its convictions; she’ll then sail
Statelily in tempestuous waters, all among
Her foes, until where peace is
Her paunch-protected children she releases.
Nor does the whale despair when from a distance
She sees a feeble flopping on the beach
And knows it is her child. She brings assistance,
Spouting unstinted volumes when at reach,
And down the child will slide
(A stranded hulk refloated by the tide),
To find again a shelter by the mother’s side.
And when at last,
Worried by shoals, herself has run aground,
The savage mob dischunk her all around,
Leaving the ruined fabric of that vast
Vault to the eager builders.
But, they say,
In houses of whalebone
No dreams have they
Save of perpetual drowning to a low moan.
Seeing whales—happy and healthy and swimming around–was one of the three main things I wanted to do during my February trip to Hawaii. The second thing was to see the big waves on the north shore, which are usually as large as they get in late January and early February. I got to stop at a beach near Haleiwa for my first look at the big waves, and then we stopped at Ehukai beach park, where I got to see the kind of waves called “pipeline” because they roll over and when you look at them from the end, which I was positioned to do, they look just like a long pipe. The beach was all set up for the “Banzai Pipeline” surfing contest, but a sign said that it was postponed until the next day, when they hoped the waves would be bigger. The prettiest north shore beach was the famous Waimea, where the waves were also very big, although not as big as they, evidently, can get.
The third thing, the thing I always want to do in Hawaii, is to sit on the beach watching the waves and looking at Diamond Head, which my father always said made you realize you were in a wonderful and exotic place. That always, in turn, makes me think of the ending of the movie Body Heat, where Kathleen Turner has gotten away with it all and is sitting on the beach with some exotic-looking mountains in the background. (I once looked up where those mountains are, but for me, it’s always Diamond Head I want to see in the background.)
It rained all day on Feb. 6, which I was told is unusual on Oahu, and on the evening I arrived, Feb. 3, there was “vog” (volcanic fog) from the eruption on the big island. One night it got down to 65 degrees F, which the Hawaiians think is “cold,” and it was partly cloudy on most of the days I was there. It was warm, though, and the clouds lit up pink and blue like an old Kodak commercial every evening at sunset.
I met two friends while on Oahu. One was a former Kenyon student who used to live there and was back for a visit with her husband and three-year-old daughter. We had dinner at Kyoto Ramen and then they drove me to Leonard’s, where we each got a hot malasada (Portuguese doughnut). The other friend was “imaginary” (someone I knew only through the internets) until this trip. She picked me up at the strip mall on the windward side where a taxi driver had left me and took me to a diner at Windward Mall, which is where we were supposed to meet. We had lunch there—chili over rice for her and kimchee fried rice for me (it was wonderful, almost as good as the pork adobo fried rice she made and brought to me and which I ate for lunch the next day).
The friend who invited me to come along and share her hotel room spent much of the week at her conference, but she got to go out in the evenings, so we stayed up until all hours (11 pm on Oahu is 4 am in Ohio) having fabulous dinners and tropical drinks. One night there was a luau at the conference hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village. I had only ever been to luaus with children before—at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu and in Lahaina on Maui. The show at this one was a bit more suggestive, but it had the same main elements—women doing Tahitian dancing, men doing war dances, and then a final dance with flames.
It was an incredible, memorable week. I returned with a backpack full of macadamia nuts and tropical flowers (two leis and an arrangement I bought at the airport), and enough memories of seeing the sun to get me through the rest of the gray Ohio winter.
I got an advance copy of The Possessions, by Sara Flannery Murphy, from Harper Collins because it sounded like a book that might have to do with necromancy. The synopsis says that the main character “and her fellow workers, known as ‘bodies,’ wear the discarded belongings of the dead and swallow pills called lotuses to summon their spirits.” That right there is one of the definitions of necromancy—the attempt to talk to the dead and find out what lies beyond death.
The novel didn’t end up being about an attempt to find out what lies beyond death, however. The people who go to the “Elysian Society,” where the main character, Edie, works as a “body,” ask about unresolved issues from their dead loved ones’ lives, not about what has happened after their deaths.
Edie isn’t the character’s real name; it’s short for Eurydice, which is the name she’s given at work at the Elysian Society. The novel sets up a big mystery about Edie’s previous life before she went to work for the Elysian Society, and it increases the reader’s suspense during the build-up of the conflict—between Edie’s control over her body and memories and the increasing influence of a client/husband and his dead wife over her actions. Prior to the events of the novel, Edie heard stories about “the bodies who opened themselves up to loved ones and then never came back” and she wondered about it: “Did it happen all at once? Would I close my eyes as the lotus slipped down my throat and then never open them again?” Her wondering turns out to be related to her mysterious previous life.
The husband, Patrick, asks Edie how long people usually come to the Elysian Society until they are “I don’t know. Cured? Fixed.” Edie responds to this by telling him that “everyone has a different timeline” and then finally admits that it’s “years….usually.”
Patrick’s wife, Sylvia, died in mysterious circumstances, and Edie’s increasing interest in what happens to her forms the other half of the way the novel builds suspense. As she sees more of Sylvia’s possessions (before and after being possessed by her), Edie realizes that
“each smile in those photographs must mean something specific to Sylvia, a trail of beloved memories. Her friends, cousins, college roommates—they’re scattered across the city, across the globe, mourning her….Sylvia is coming back into a world without these other lives. Her life, this time around, is narrower. Only big enough for the two of them. Him and her.”
The possession that inspires the cover photo of the novel and that Patrick first brings to Edie is a dark purple lipstick, one that (as it turns out) his wife wore for another man. Patrick says “I remembered seeing her in it, once. When she was getting ready to go out of town. She was looking at herself in the mirror, and she was different. Beautiful, but different. It was a moment of realizing how little I knew about her. How separate she was from me.”
I found one part of the ending to be a disappointment, and that was the revelation of Edie’s big secret. It didn’t turn out to be as big a deal as I thought it was set up to be. A part of the big revelation (spoilers ahead) turns out to be that in her former life, Edie was suicidal. When she and Sylvia are sharing a body at the end of the novel, Sylvia thinks that
“I’m in love with the tastes and smells and sensations that cut through the ordinariness of occupying a body, bright shocks. I want to soak everything in. Whenever I feel that darkness edging against her, dulling her brain, muffling her vision, and I know that she wants to escape, I share this wonder with her.”
The happy ending is realized because when they are together, the damaged pieces of Edie and Sylvia can work like one whole person.
So the novel isn’t about what happens after death. It’s mostly a mystery but also part character study, about Edie and Sylvia finding a way to live together in this fictional future.