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The Suicide Shop, Jean Teule

September 21, 2020

I read about The Suicide Shop, by Jean Tuele, at Madame Bibliophile. She says, “there’s plenty of people who adored this story and I’m not entirely sure why I’m not one of them.” I, however, am entirely sure; it’s the last three words.

If you’re amused by The Addams Family, you’ll be amused by this book. The proprietors of the shop sell suicide supplies: poisoned sweets for children, poisoned apples for those who want to die as they claim Alan Turing did, by eating a poisoned apple after painting a picture of it, or devices like a cement block with a ring attached “it comes with a chain, which you padlock to your ankle. You stand beside the river. You throw it in front of you and—splash! You’re dragged down to the bottom and it’s all over.”

The husband and wife proprietors have three children, a son named Vincent, a daughter named Marilyn, and a younger son named Alan. Alan is the one who most people would consider normal. His mother scolds him, saying “Alan! How many more times do I have to tell you? We do not say ‘see you soon’ to customers when they leave our shop. We say ‘goodbye,’ because they won’t be coming back, ever.”

The time period is some undetermined future point rife with “regional wars, ecological disasters, famine” but when Alan watches the news he reports that “we saw those pictures again of the Dutch dykes that exploded during the last tidal wave, and the beach that now extends as far as Prague. They showed the emaciated inhabitants of the German provinces crying out and rolling naked in the dunes. If you narrowed your eyes, the shining grains of sand mixed with the sweat on their skin looked like little stars.”
If you’ve ever seen the musical The Fantasticks, you’re probably familiar with this concept. If you see something you don’t like, just narrow your eyes and put a mask on so you can whirl “Round and Round” until you forget you’ve seen someone suffering. The Fantasticks was especially popular in the 1970s and this novella has that early seventies feel although it was published in 2007.

Alan’s sunny outlook eventually wins over his family and the shop turns into a kind of joke shop with refreshments. This is played for both laughs and sentiment, as we see Alan talking an ugly woman out of killing herself by holding up a mirror and giving her a pep talk: “Look at her, this person in front of you. Look at her. Don’t be ashamed of her. If you met her in the street, would you want to kill her? What has she done to be hated so much? What is she guilty of? Why isn’t she loved? If you start to feel friendly towards this woman yourself, maybe others will follow suit!”

Instead of the motto “Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success!” their new motto is “Kill yourself with old age!” They install a table “where the customers meet to think up solutions for the future of the world” and we see that Alan is “sitting at the end of the table in an Aladdin costume” saying “there’s always a solution to everything. We must never despair.”

All of this would add up to something, would be more than an extended shaggy dog story, if it weren’t for what Alan does once he sees that everyone is happy and has faith in the future. “His mission is accomplished,” we are told. And then he does something that completely negates everything he stands for and will destroy everything he has built. It’s a real downer of an ending, and if you’re like me, the last three words will make you feel foolish for having read anything that came before.

Have you ever read a book that made you feel foolish for finishing?

By the Wild-Haired Corn, Mary Oliver

September 18, 2020

I’ve been feeling deep in stasis since March, my usual habit of propelling myself from one destination to another hung up by circumstance. My old answer to coming home was to plan the next trip. Now there’s no next highway, no next cornfield. There’s just the garden I’ve planted and the volunteers that come up each year, a white flowering the latest feature. We don’t plant tulips or lilies or sunflowers, as the deer eat them all.

One of the effects of not mixing with people is a sense of stasis. For years I was a commuter, driving an hour to work down two-lane roads through misty cornfields and then I was driving my kids to college, one eleven hours away, in the middle of the country through fields of corn, soybeans, ragweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and the other two hours away through fields of sunflowers, goldenrod, reddening vines at the bottom of the fences. Now, even though I could go out for a drive, I don’t. I stay still; the field of wildflowers I pass to get to a local hardware store is the only one to show me its changing colors.

But then one day I had an errand that took me on a road I rarely travel, one through cornfields and past sunflowers. It was a late summer day, the nights already so cool we have to close the windows on our back porch, the kind of day when the sun feels good, banishing the chill, promising endless delight like in the Keats poem: “to set budding more/ And still more, later flowers for the bees/ Until they think warm days will never cease.”

I see that my stillness is no answer to the question of where are we going but more like the inertia that moves an object through space, its trajectory the only choice it gets about a destination. Like the transformation in Mary Oliver’s poem “By the Wild-Haired Corn”:

I don’t know
if the sunflowers
are angels always,
but surely sometimes.

Who, even in heaven,
wouldn’t want to wear,
for awhile,
such a seed-face

and brave spine,
a coat of leaves
with so many pockets—
and who wouldn’t want

to stand, for a summer day,
in the hot fields,
in the lonely country
of the wild-haired corn?

This much I know,
when I see the bright
stars of their faces,
when I’m strolling nearby,

I grow soft in my speech,
and soft in my thoughts,
and I remember how everything will be everything else,
by and by.

A good reminder, that even when a person is standing still change is still happening.

What is changing for you?

Summerwater, Sarah Moss

September 16, 2020

One of the effects of my continued “remote” working, which, if you ask me, is both a metaphor and a label for online, is that I’m more than usually affected by good book blog reviews. If someone I regularly read likes a book, on my list it goes, and sooner rather than later. So it is that I read about Summerwater by Sarah Moss at Café Society and decided to read it at the end of summer in Ohio, usually the driest part of our generally very wet year.

Summerwater is set in a Scottish “chalet park,” which seems to be a collection of vacation cabins. They are small and old, with some of the original owners come back after years of summers spent in and around the cabins. My association with this kind of place is a memory of a week spent somewhere in the wilds of southern Missouri in one of a group of cabins available to state university faculty. One morning my brother and I went out fairly early and discovered a snake under a log on part of the main path. When we showed it to my father, he was alarmed, moved us far out of the way, and called together a group of four or five other professors who stood around what turned out to be a hole with several snakes in it and talked about what to do. Eventually the snakes, rattlesnakes, were killed or forced to move on. Even at my age, which I guess was 6 or 7, I remember the occasion because it was when I realized that my father and the other fathers like him weren’t real outdoorsy types.

That’s very much the feeling of this short novel, Summerwater. The people in the cabins are out of their element. Their usual habits of thinking and ways of seeing are being challenged, although most of them are not aware of that.

The structure of the novel is built to gradually enlarge the reader’s perception, beginning with a single person, adding a short chapter about the geology of the land across which she runs, then showing us an older person who has come to the area for many summers, and after that a short chapter to make us think about an aerial view of the loch where the cabins group around one end. After the aerial view, the short chapters start showing us the animals who live around the cabin–their habits and ways of seeing–in between chapters about the people and the way they look at the place and the other people staying there.

Although this novel was published in 2020 it was written before the worldwide pandemic. Even so, when a character in Scotland–a nearby destination for her but a faraway place I’d like to visit—thinks wistfully of travel, it sounds like my own thoughts, this summer:
“There won’t be a plane this summer, or next. Who could afford to travel, now? If she’d known she thinks, if she’d known that she wasn’t going to achieve financial comfort or even security as the years went by, if she’d recognized the good times when she had them, she’d have travelled more when she was young.”
I’d certainly have traveled more when it was harder to afford it if I’d known that at the age when I finally have more money and time I would be trapped in my own country, held hostage to the dysfunction of a federal government determined to erect a wall that is keeping us in.

Even from her husband’s point of view, which comes first, I identify with the fears of Mary, the wife of a retired doctor who has trouble walking. He thinks “she’s nervous…about the wet wood, though it’s not slippery, and about the three steps down to the gravel.” He thinks if she just walked more she wouldn’t be losing her capacity to walk. He has no idea about the fear, about how wet wood can feel slippery to someone with an uneven gait even when it doesn’t feel slippery to you.

Although you probably will identify with some of the characters, the point is not so much to identify with them as to watch them, to see what they see and then to see how others see them. Like the 16-year-old boy who embodies a current meme when he thinks about why he is there with his younger sister and both parents in a small cabin—because his mother said “If you wanted to do something else you should have made a proper plan weeks ago” and he thinks “weeks ago, he was revising for his exams, and by ‘proper plan’ it turned out Mum meant ‘return to the 1990s when there was work for unqualified sixteen-year-olds.’”

We see a little girl wearing black patent leather shoes, and we follow what happens to her, or what we think must have happened from the sightings we’re given by different characters. Our interest in her fate is part of what builds up to the ending of the novel. The other part is our interest in who might be going to talk to the people in the cabin who have turned their music up so loud the people in the other cabins can’t sleep through it. As it turns out, the little girl irritates another child not just because she’s shy. The loud music irritates everyone not just because it’s rude. The last straw is that the strangers in the loud-music-playing-cabin look like they’re foreign or seem to have a foreign-sounding last name.

Although everyone dismisses the woman who is afraid of falling (including her husband, who thinks she is getting senile), she is the one who remembers the poem Semmerwater, which must be important for its similarity to the novel’s title. The minor key of the ballad and the warning of the poem, with its inhospitable king and queen, are building up to the ending of the novel.

Despite the build up to the ending, this is not an ominous story. It is quite the opposite, full of small, everyday details about what people are thinking and the ordinary things they are trying to do—eat, sleep, make love, get a phone connection. I especially like one of Josh’s thoughts about the woman who has agreed to marry him and live a simple life on an island:
“a new beginning, clean air, learning to bake their own bread and see the stars and hear the birds, but he’s not sure she’s really understood that mostly the people who’ve always lived there aren’t that interested in air pollution and sourdough and she’s always liked thinking about birds and stars more than actually looking at them.”
People who live in rural areas, like me, are used to hearing about the wonders of “the simple life” from urbanites and it’s always satisfying to see their preconceptions shattered by reality. Josh doesn’t want this to happen to the woman he loves, but readers might have a tiny bit of longing for it.

What do we long for? After a couple of nights being kept awake by someone else’s music, we all long for the music to stop. But when we get our wish, will it be what we really wanted? Is it just deserts we’re after? Is my own perspective large enough, even at the end of this novel, to allow me to be the one to make the wish that will give everyone what they deserve?

What I love about this novel, what you will love, is the chance to walk for a while in someone else’s shoes and see how easily those shoes could take you where they take the novel’s characters. Are you tired of rain, tired of someone else’s demands, feeling a little bit selfish, maybe even a touch xenophobic? Maybe not. But are you sure that you couldn’t be led that way, by sleeplessness, circumstances, and the actions of those you love? What happens may seem remote, but as the car’s side mirror in the movie Jurassic Park warns “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

Middle Distance, Stanley Plumly

September 10, 2020

It’s not often that one of the icons of your youth gets to say goodbye, but that’s what it felt like, reading Stanley Plumly’s last volume of poetry, Middle Distance.

I’ve been staring off into the middle distance since reading it, thinking about the poet, about how Stanley Plumly loomed larger than life over a student in a workshop who had dared to object while his own poem was being praised, booming “shut up and take credit!” Thinking about the teacher whose letter of recommendation I found in an old pile of papers this spring, and how re-reading it brought back so much of his generosity and humor. I still tell my students stories about him, like the time he told me to read all the poetry of Edward Field and when I’d had enough I came back and said so and he said good, now I understood how the tendency to a quick quip could wear thin on a reader after a while. I think of him often because I live in Ohio and he loved so much about Ohio.

What would he have thought of this covidtide, this great pause? He described the delights of pausing, but not as it is now, more as a wish:
the autumn, the best time, the big sycamore-
size leaves drift down everywhere—onto
the slate slabs and cobblestones of the square,
onto the glass tables with their plates
of breads and cheeses and cheap white wine,
onto the heads and bodies of the bishops
and the lions—then the wind kicks up.
I’d have walked the late afternoon through
the well-ordered, well-kept green
gardens, have found a table near the front
of where the fountain was, and watched
the evening turn blue and dark and darker.
No one died, nor was ever going to die.”

Plumly, as always, writes about parental love in a way that brings it home:
“When I was angry and spoke in anger as a child and told my mother how much I hated her, she’d help me pack and fix a lunch to carry on my bike as far as daylight would take me. Not far.”

The virtuoso performances of this volume are the two poems about poetry, “As You Leave the Room” and “Crepuscular.” Being so particularly fond of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, I took Plumly’s poem about him as a special parting gift. I especially like the bit where he describes the physical being of the poet and how little of the relationship between poet and reader it reveals:
“even I have doubts
that this fat man in a suit is really
real or that when I also leave the room
he will care or even know I was here.”

“Crepuscular” is the perfect literary farewell from a being made of words:

That late poem by Housman, Roman numeral
XVI, where the sun is rising “beautiful to sight”
and falling “into the west away,” where “like a bird
set free,” it soars “from the eastern sea,” only
to end up stained with blood “ensanguining the skies”
before it becomes “hopeless under ground”—

that poem whose middle stanza, between the rising
and the falling, takes the pledge that the poet,
on this day, “shall be strong,” and “no more…yield
to wrong,” indeed “shall squander life no more”
and keep this “vow/I never kept before”—
that poem of “days lost, I know not how,”

that seems so perfect, personal, and vulnerable,
so English in its resignation and elegant in execution
like that poem that finds a home at last in Larkin,
an aubade of the end, where he’s awake in
“soundless dark,” standing at “the curtain-edges”
waiting for industrial dawn to break open in a room

of “total emptiness for ever”; or like Hardy’s
“Neutral Tones,” where the “God-curst sun” is
winter “white”; or Dickinson’s “Twilight long begun…
Sequestered Afternoon,” where “The Dusk drew”
early on—after “The Morning foreign shone”;
or that final “still dark” stairway poem by Bishop,

in her last, Geography III, where she’s exhausted
“Five Flights Up” from climbing one more step,
just one more step from the “Enormous morning”
and its “ponderous, meticulous” / “gray light streaking
each bare branch, / each single twig, along one side, /
making another tree, of glassy veins”; or like “Epilogue,”

by Lowell, who underneath the “plot and rhyme”
of drugs, is always asking “why not say what happened”
since we’re “poor passing facts,” facts, he says, that give
“the grace of accuracy,” even if they’re “threadbare”
in the eye, facts like the kind “Vermeer gave to the sun’s
illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/

to his girl solid with yearning”—the sun itself ending
the day with longing, “not further to be found,”
as Houseman puts it, except again and again, “past touch
and sight and sound” only to emerge in the new day
dawning “heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact”
as “something imagined, not recalled” (Lowell).

It’s rare to get to know one of your idols as this poet allowed his students to know him.

The tall man with a beard has left the room. Now when I reach the age he died “I have permission” to follow but for now am left with this volume, this place where we can gather in his words regardless of whether “he will care or even know I was here.”

Death in Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh

September 7, 2020

If I’d known that reading Death in Her Hands, by Otessa Moshfegh, was like reading The Dinner by Herman Koch, with a repugnant narrator turning over the nasty contents of her little mind, I would have saved the book for a time when I was feeling particularly misanthropic. Reading it at the beginning of September 2020–in what already seems an endless isolation during a global pandemic, during a week of revelations about what our “commander in chief” really thinks of the people who have fought, suffered, and died for their country, and after the last three years of listening to the president and his cronies spewing nastiness almost every time they open their mouths–was just further demoralizing. Who is in need of further demoralizing right now? My friend who likes the book said she was “terrified,” but I didn’t care about any of the characters enough to be terrified for anyone except maybe the poor dog, who was doomed from the start.

It’s a trope that if a character kicks a puppy, you know that character is bad. So you know from the very beginning of Death in Her Hands that Vesta, the main character, is a very bad woman indeed because she tells the story of how she mistreats a puppy. She names him Charlie and it’s clear that he is terrified: “I’d wrapped him in that blanket and held him like a newborn baby in my arms that first night….He’d cried and cried….And a few months later—how fast he’d grown!—I took him out for a walk and he pulled and tugged and broke loose.” Even though Vesta expresses the conventional things to say about a pet, like “what would I have done without Charlie….I had run after him, of course,” she doesn’t actually run after him, saying that she “couldn’t bring myself to step over the sharp metal guardrail that he had leapt over so effortlessly. Even at that early hour, with just a car or two passing slowly on the ice, it seemed too dangerous to step foot on the freeway blacktop.” The dog does come back to her later, carrying a “dead bird—a meadowlark—softly between his fangs.” She has created a monster.

Vesta creates a big mystery about a note she claims to have found in the woods saying “here is her dead body,” although there is no body. It’s clear that the mystery is supposed to comment on both the dead end Vesta’s own life has turned out to be and the way a mystery novel is created. Neither of those things were particularly interesting, as Vesta herself does not seem to be interesting to any of the other characters in the novel. The general reaction to her, which she relates to the reader, is that “they didn’t like me.”

The insidiousness of Vesta’s point of view is apparent in what she says about books, since a reader might be expected to begin to agree and will then be pulled up short by Vesta’s viciousness, even when another person asks her to calm down:

“I liked books. Books were quiet. They wouldn’t scream in my face or get offended if I gave up on them. If I didn’t like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose, or in the bathroom. I never did any of that, of course—most of the books I read came from the library. When I didn’t like something, I just shut the book and put it on the table by the door, spine facing the wall so that I wouldn’t have to look at it again. There was great satisfaction in shoving a bad book through the return slot and hearing it splat against the other books in the bin on the other side of the librarian’s desk. ‘You can just hand that to me,’ the librarian said. Oh no, I liked to shove it through. It made me feel powerful.”

Vesta imagines nasty things about other people because she thinks everyone must be like she is. She claims to feel pity for the women she sees grocery shopping, “these dull heifers roaming the Save-Rite, these sad mothers with nothing to do but eat and fold laundry with tiny, stubby fingers ticking out of their huge bloated hands. Their lives must feel like such ineffectual blither blather. Did they even think things to themselves? Why did they look so idiotic, like domesticated animals, chewing their cud until the slaughter, half asleep? I had to feel sorry for those women, imagining each of them strangled and bludgeoned deep in my birch woods.”

God save us all from the pity of a woman like Vesta.

A widow, Vesta does seem to have been terrorized by a husband who wouldn’t let her show emotion, slept with his female students, and “once beat a rat to death with a hammer.” She describes the “nights he’d come home, and I’d have his dinner heated in the oven, and I’d have the lights in the den so lovely and comfortable, and I’d be reading on the couch, and he’d simply walk past, drop his coat on the back of the couch, nearly hitting me on the head. Not ‘good evening, Vesta,’ or ‘How are you?’ Nothing. Later, in bed, he’d groan and complain about a student or a colleague or some paper that was due, as though his work were so important and he was so put upon by the trivialities of life. He had no idea of the trivialities of life. Early on in our marriage, he had passed those all onto me. I don’t think he’d been to a grocery store for thirty years by the time he died.”

But knowing that she was married to a horrible man doesn’t make me sympathize with Vesta.

The whole point of this fiction is that if you get fooled into sympathizing with Vesta for even a moment you’re on the way to becoming as horrible as she is. The novel itself is trying to gaslight its own reader; if you keep thinking that maybe Vesta isn’t actually as horrible as she seems, if you keep trying to give her a pass for behavior that makes you uncomfortable, then before you know it, you are covered in her nastiness as much as her poor dog was covered in shit and if you stick with her, as he did, you’ll suffer the same fate.

Have you ever gotten sucked into a relationship with a terrible person because you gave them a pass for some little things at first, before you found out more about what they were really like?

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, Kathleen Rooney

September 5, 2020

IMG_4181I’ve been reading children’s books and books narrated by animals after Ann convinced me to read Katherine Applegate’s fabulous The One and Only Ivan and Rohan convinced me to read Kathleen Rooney’s novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. I read Catherine Fisher’s The Snow-Walker Trilogy (also recommended by Ann at Cafe Society). I read Noel Streatfeild’s The Bell Family (because I didn’t remember reading it when I checked out every book by Streatfeild in the public library of the town where I grew up). I read Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay, which is a pretty good sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.

Although Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is narrated by Cher Ami, a pigeon, in chapters alternating with Major Whittlesey, a human, it is not a children’s book. It’s about world war one, and what war does to animals and people. Based on the story of a real homing pigeon and a real army officer, the novel imagines what they were thinking at several points along the journey that made them famous.

Each chapter starts out the same way, whether it’s told by the pigeon (Cher Ami gets her turn first) or the man. The repetition grounds the reader, like at the beginning of Chapter 9, when Cher Ami says “After our inculcation into the army tradition of hurry-up-and-wait, the rapidity of the orders and the intensity of the bloodshed in late September and early October were bewildering. So many of my bird comrades had been killed by then…” and Whittlesey echoes that first sentence in Chapter 10, continuing with “we’d lost so many officers….”

Cher Ami and Whittlesey, celebrated war heroes, share a sense of humility about the heroism of any one pigeon or person. As Cher Ami puts it “there were so many of us, and so many of us could be called heroic.” As Whittlesey remarks, “in a contest against passion, truth always makes a poor showing.” With individual perspectives like these the novel offers contemporary applicability.

It also offers a nice moment for those of us working at liberal arts colleges when, as an undergraduate, Whittlesey writes that the purpose of a college education is “learning to judge correctly, to think clearly, to see and to know the truth, and to attain the faculty of pure delight in the beautiful.” Although in the next sentence Rooney has Whittlesey undercut that idealism with a reference to utility.

Rooney doesn’t have to contort her characters or her subject very much to make the conceit that Cher Ami is speaking work in the novel. At only one point did I notice awkwardness, and that was a long paragraph about how the pigeon was able to speak to a horse:

“The reader may be forgiven for wondering how animals of different species—indeed of different genera, families, orders, and classes—are able to communicate, whereas humans’ speech is often entirely unintelligible to others of their kind who reside only a sea’s or a mountain range’s breadth away. The answer is that I don’t know. I might also respectfully add that we animals find it very odd that humans have such trouble understanding one another, and add further that we suspect this might be due to their rather impoverished notions of what qualifies as language.”

There are captivating little stories within the larger narrative, even momentary ones, like when an American Army Division lands near Liverpool and one of the men is greeted by “an old Scouser woman” who asks him “Did ye come over to die?” When he replies “not if I can help it, lady” we learn that her “eyes went wide, abashed. ‘No, no!’ she said. ‘What I mean is, did ye just arrive?’”

I also liked the story of how Cher Ami met a pigeon named President Wilson:

“’President Wilson’s the name,’ he said, puffing his oil-black breast like a head of state.‘You’re American?’ I asked. I had never met an American—man or bird—and was intrigued to meet a representative of what was to be our side.

‘No, French,’ he said. ‘It’s just a patriotic moniker. And you?’

‘Cher Ami,’ I said. ‘And this is my brother, Thomas Hardy. We’re English.

‘An English bird with a French name here to fly for the Americans,’ said President Wilson. ‘And your name is masculine, but you’re a hen, unless I miss my guess. Mon Dieu, life in wartime!’”

The pigeon doesn’t belabor the point–one that’s been made with plays and films like War Horse–but does mention that “while I preferred to think of us as the humans’ partners and collaborators…we were also their property and their tools.”

The man doesn’t belabor the point–one that’s been made in every war movie, especially about WWI and WWII–that war is hell, but it does phrase it in a way that makes it new: “Human language inevitably organizes as it communicates, and thus the hell of the Pocket sounds tidy when I describe it. It wasn’t. Events that my account sets down straight-edged were jagged as they happened.”

The dual narrative technique ignores the idea that animals might have their own ways of seeing the world. As Rohan points out, the novel assumes “that the best way to earn our respect for animals is to depict them as essentially human-like.” But as she also points out, the novel works to make the horrors of trench warfare freshly horrific again, and that is no easy feat.

Have you read any children’s books lately? Did you ever wish for a sequel to A Little Princess?


September 1, 2020


Summer is my favorite season. I love the warmth, the colors, the fireflies and cicadas, smell of cut grass, flowers, feel of dirt, sand, the exuberance of blue skies. And Summer is my favorite of Ali Smith’s seasonal novels. I loved Autumn, Winter, and Spring, but I love Summer the best of all. If you read only one novel this year, let it be this one.

This series of seasonal novels has been a challenge for Smith, to write one novel each year and get it published in the appropriate season, making art more closely relevant to current events than is usually possible. As Sara Collins says in The Guardian: “How fitting that this novel should narrate for you how you feel about reading it at the very moment when you feel it, text pressing so closely against life it’s as if we are being challenged to spot the difference.”

In Summer, Smith weaves in the stories of new characters with a few of the characters from previous novels, letting us see what her characters cannot — a pattern, the links between different people feeling alone and powerless, living through troubled times. Reading each of her seasonal novels made these last few seasons easier to bear, and reading this one was the biggest relief of all. Finally, someone is saying it. Finally someone has made some sense out of what’s happening.

The novel opens with an airing of frustrations:
“when so many people voted people into power who looked them straight in the eye and lied to them: so?
When a continent burned and another melted: so?
When people in power across the world started picking off groups of people by religion, ethnicity, sexuality, intellectual or political dissent: so?”

And from its very beginning, this novel commits to exploring everything summer can mean to people, starting with the feeling in a teenage girl’s chest when her mother says she’s proud of her: “Sacha’s chest filled with the kind of warmth that once when she was really small she’d asked her mother about because it felt so nice and her mother’d said that’s your inner summer.”

There’s a bedtime story, “the one about the summer day that argued with the gods about never wanting to be over.” (This is a necromancy trope, by the way, when mortals do it.) The gods laugh, “as if a summer’s day wasn’t long enough.” And by the end, the mortals know “that the flowers only last a summer, that a summer is soon over.”

The characters even think about the play The Winter’s Tale in terms of summer, saying that “a blight comes down” on Leontes, “on his mind and on his country from nowhere. It’s irrational. It has no source. It just happens. Like things do, they just suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye.” Even the play itself, this character insists, exists because Shakespeare anticipates summer: “he infects things with winter precisely so that he can have a summer, make a merry tale come out of a sad one.” She asserts that “The Winter’s Tale’s all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important.”

Summer is a metaphor:
“Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without the darkness.
And summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something. We’re always looking for it, looking to it, heading towards it all year, the way a horizon holds the promise of a sunset. We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon we’ll be treated well by the world. Like there really is a kinder finale and it’s not just possible but assured, there’s a natural harmony that’ll be spread at your feet, unrolled like a sunlit landscape just for you. As if what it was always all about, your time on earth, was the full happy stretch of all the muscles of the body on a warmed patch of grass, one long sweet stem of that grass in the mouth.
Care free.
What a thought.
…The briefest and slipperiest of the seasons, the one that won’t be held to account—because summer won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called or imagined perfect summers, summers that next existed.
…So we mourn it while we’re in it.”

We even get perspectives on the word “summer” when it’s used to mean a beam that “holds up a floor, a ceiling, both” or for “horses that carry a great weight.”

One of the characters, Robert, who is 13 years old, goes around repeating things he’s heard, trying to be provocative, and some of the things he says are things people are thinking but most of us are not saying. For example, this conversation with his father’s girlfriend, who says:
“In times of injustice you always have to be ready to speak up, to speak out loudly against it.
Robert Greenlaw: If you do, you’ll be one of the first they’ll kill.
His father’s girlfriend: It won’t come to that. Not if enough people speak out.
Robert Greenlaw: Yeah but what if it does?
His father’s girlfriend: If it does, than I’m not worried, they can kill me if they like, because I trust and I know there’ll be so many more who’ll come after me to speak out just as loud.
Robert Greenlaw: They’ll all get killed too.
His father’s girlfriend: Justice will always win.
Robert Greenlaw: Yeah but that totally depends on what the people who make the laws decide to define justice as.”

Offering an opposing view to Robert’s is Daniel, who is 104 years old. His memories of life in an internment camp during the second world war are parallel to the lives we hear about in camps for would-be immigrants. His perspective is wider than Robert’s and more forgiving. He is being taken care of by a neighbor’s daughter, who asks him “what’s in the paper today, then?” His reply is:
“Thugs and showmen in power….Nothing new. A clever virus. That’s news. The stocks and shares will shake. There’ll be people who do very well out of that. One more time we’ll find out what’s worth more, people or money.
He thinks of his mother’s face….She died old, in her fifties.
I for one don’t want to die young, he says.
His neighbor’s daughter laughs.
What my mother’d say if she were here is, it’s a bit late for that, Mr. a Hundred and Four, she says.
Whatever age you are, he says, you still die young.
His neighbour’s daughter beams a smile at him.
His neighbour’s daughter loves him.
My father lived through the Spanish flu, he says. I only once heard him talk about it. He said you had to remember not to take it personally. Then you stopped being scared.”

Although there is hope in this novel, it doesn’t end on a hopeful note. We’re reminded that we’re still suffering because of “a too-late response from a useless and distracted government who never thought for a minute they’d end up governing anything. Whose only thought about state was how to dismantle it as fast as possible. Who thought it was all going to be such a blast, being in power, making lots of money for themselves and their pals.”

We’re reminded that “the pandemic is making walls and borders and passports as meaningless as nature knows they are.”

And we’re reminded that even if we have a moment of genius, like the 13-year-old or the 104-year-old man, when we are able to capture our age in words so apt that they make a lump in readers’ throats, like Ali Smith, that such an achievement is fleeting.

It’s a book as lovely and ephemeral as its title.



The Coroner’s Lunch

August 29, 2020

IMG_4162 (2)Looking for some light reading during a period of heavy lifting (metaphorical) at work, I picked up the first of a series of detective novels by Colin Cotterill, The Coroner’s Lunch, and found it more diverting than I expected.

The Coroner’s Lunch is set in Laos in 1976 and the detective, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is a septuagenarian who has been drafted into service as a coroner. He gets help in this new job from a nurse, Dtui, and the morgue assistant, Geung, and also from the fact that he can see and talk to dead people. Eventually Dr. Siri finds out, in the course of this adventure, that he harbors the spirit of a shaman from a thousand and fifty years before. Despite the supernatural trappings, however, this mystery has a very realistic feel.

Dr. Siri has a charming way of looking at people and things. I especially love it when he looks at Dtui and thinks “there had been eras when large torsos were in high fashion, a symbol of wealth and plenty. Physiology went through cycles. But in the twentieth century, malnutrition was a la mode. Dtui with her laundry-bin build was off the scale. There were no suitors queuing at her door. They wouldn’t have to dig deep to find her kindness and humor, but they didn’t even bring a spade.

I also love his explanation of why Geung is good at his job. As Geung recites it, when prompted, it’s because he has “a condition….called Down Syndrome….In some aspects I am slower than other people, but in others I am superior.” As Dr. Siri reminds him, “one of the aspects you’re superior in is remembering things, things you learned a long time ago. In remembering things, you are even superior to me.” This turns out to be important in the course of Dr. Siri’s investigations, of course.

Some of the most charming parts are when Dr. Siri has his lunch (the coroner’s lunch) on a log by the river with his friend Civilai and they talk about what’s happening in the world of nominally loyal communists in 1976 Laos:
“Then there’s the ongoing puppet scandal.”
“Tell me.”
“The Party ordered the puppets at Xiang Thong temple in Luang Prabang to stop using royal language, and said they had to start calling each other ‘comrade.’”
“Quite right, too. We have to show those puppets who’s pulling the strings.” Civilai hit him with a lettuce leaf. “What happened?”
“Puppets refused.”
“Subversive bastards.”
“The local party members locked them up in their box, and they aren’t allowed out till they succumb.”
“That’ll teach ‘em.”
Civilai is also an important part of the action as Dr. Siri pulls together all the separate threads of the mystery.

Even Civilai’s skepticism about what his friend tells him is helpful to Dr. Siri, who would prefer to put his trust in science rather than the supernatural:
“As always, Civilai fell about laughing at the very mention of Siri’s spirits. The doctor’s ongoing burden was just a long running joke to Ai. He was too much of a pragmatist to take any of it seriously.”

When we find out that Dr. Siri harbors the spirit of an ancient shaman he is as surprised as we are. He is talking to a group of Hmong and believes he does not know their language, but as the conversation goes on it’s clear that he does know the language and more:
“I really am Siri Paiboun from Vientiane. I’m the coroner [he used the expression ‘ghost doctor’ to help them understand] at Mahosot Hospital. I’m sure I look like someone you know, but I’m afraid I’m not him.”
They didn’t reply, just stared at him, smiling. He wondered whether they understood.
“Just who do you think I am?”
“You are Yeh Ming,” the headman said without hesitation. The villagers all around them gasped.
“I wish I were,” Siri laughed. “He must be quite a warrior. What does he do, old Yeh Ming?” The expression quite a warrior was a Hmong phrase he didn’t remember knowing.
Auntie Suab spoke quietly and seriously, as if this were some type of test. “Yeh Ming is the greatest shaman.”
“Yeh Ming has supernatural powers,” Tshaj added. “One thousand and fifty years ago, you…he…drove back twenty thousand Annamese with just one ox horn.”
“A thousand and fifty years ago?” Siri laughed again, and all the Hmong laughed with him. They were a good audience. “It’s true I am beginning to show my age, but a thousand and fifty years? Don’t be cruel to an old man.”

Later, Siri says of this experience “I’m a man of science and I have not one sensible explanation for what I went through. And yet it happened.”

Siri solves the mystery using logic, science, charm, and with a little help from his friends and the supernatural. I’m very pleased that this book, which drew me in and absorbed my attention more than I expected it to, is the first of a fifteen-book series.


Sing, Unburied, Sing

August 25, 2020

IMG_4156For a couple of days and nights last week I felt deeply sad, not for any particular reason but maybe just because the time for feeling all the sadness over the state of the world caught up with me. I floundered around finding the right book to read because that’s how I deal with sadness; I find some fiction to immerse myself in and escape. Finally I settled on Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which worked pretty well as it suited my mood while distracting me from wallowing to excess in my own particular slough of despair.

The way the chapters alternate narrators is effective, especially since the novel begins with Jojo’s point of view, a boy on his thirteenth birthday, living with his maternal grandparents and taking care of his little sister Kayla. We see how loving Jojo’s grandfather is towards the boy and how indifferent his mother Leonie is to both him and his sister. We find out that Jojo’s father Michael is a white man, and he is in Parchman, a Mississippi prison. And we see that Jojo’s grandmother is dying of cancer.

When we get Leonie’s point of view, we understand that one of her problems is that she hasn’t gotten over the death of her brother Given who died when he was a senior in high school. He was a boy who thought that his football “teammates, White and Black, were like brothers to him” and found out they didn’t feel the same way when he bested a white boy he’d made a bet with. His murder was covered up as a “hunting accident.”

The main action of the novel is a car trip when Leonie insists on taking both children to pick up their father when he gets out of Parchman. It’s an all-day trip, and Leonie’s friend Misty goes with them, a woman Leonie describes as her “best friend” at the same time she knows that “when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her.” Two adult women, one black, one white, and two mixed-race children, one thirteen and one three, are in the car. The women mostly ignore the children, seeming to forget that they need to eat and drink, and readers see that Leonie’s picture of a family is more real to her than the needs of her children.

Because Jojo got his turn to speak first, the reader is on his side and has little sympathy for Leonie, who he used to call mama “before she was more gone than here. Before she started snorting little crushed pills. Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee.” Every once in a while, though, when Leonie is thinking about something from the past, I had a fleeting bit of sympathy for her point of view, like when she looks at her mother and thought about “the Medusa I’d seen in an old movie when I was younger, monstrous and green-scaled, and I thought: “That’s not it at all. She was beautiful as Mama. That’s how she froze those men, with the shock of seeing something so perfect and fierce in the world.”

On the way home from Parchman there are five people in the car and one ghost, who edges in to the alternating chapters and gets one from his own point of view; his name is Richie and he knew Jojo’s grandfather years ago.

Richie’s story is finally told, and the story of Jojo’s grandmother’s life comes to an end. When Jojo asks her if she will be a ghost, she tells him “can’t say for sure. But I don’t think so. I think that only happens when the dying’s bad. Violent. The old folks always told me that when someone dies in a bad way, sometimes it’s so awful even God can’t bear to watch, and then half your spirit stays behind and wanders, wanting peace the way a thirsty man weeks water….That ain’t my way.”

The unwinding of the threads that tangle the live characters together reveals their beginnings, which is with the ghosts. Jojo and Kayla can see the ghosts, and knowing more about their stories helps the two children understand their place in the world.

It’s a sad novel, but sometimes you have to stop and feel the sadness in order to be able to go on with your life.

Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman

August 22, 2020

IMG_4154First published in 1926, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman is the story of an unmarried woman who is expected to subsume her wants and desires to those of others.

Lolly’s name is Laura. When she is a child, her older brothers, when told to play with her, would give her “some passive female part” and later, if “it was discovered that the captive princess or the faithful squaw had slipped away unnoticed to the company of Brewer in the coachhouse or Oliver Cromwell the toad, who lived under the low russet roof of violet leaves near the disused melon pit, it did not much affect the course of the drama.”

After her father dies, Laura conforms to expectations and is moved to London, along with some of the pieces of furniture from the country house. She lives with her older brother Henry, his wife Caroline, and their two children, and is expected to share Caroline’s busy schedule of household chores. Her family falls into calling her Lolly because that’s how they refer to her for the benefit of her nieces and nephews.

We get Laura’s point of view on how Caroline has been bad for Henry’s character because “she fed his vanity, and ministered to his imperiousness.” Laura also thinks that
“the law had done a great deal to spoil Henry. It had changed his natural sturdy stupidity into a browbeating indifference to other people’s point of view. He seemed to consider himself briefed by his Creator to turn into ridicule the opinions of those who disagreed with him, and to attribute dishonesty, idiocy, or a base motive to everyone who supported a better case than he. This did not often appear in his private life, Henry was kindly disposed to those who did not thwart him by word or deed. His household had been well schooled by Caroline in yielding gracefully, and she was careful not to invite guests who were not of her husband’s way of thinking.”
You can probably feel how stifling it might be to live as a dependent in the house of such a man.

Henry and Caroline undertake to invite young men over to the house, to give Laura a chance at making a marriage of her own, but she finds them uninteresting. When they produce one man she is willing to talk to, a Mr. Arbuthnot, she doesn’t hold back but manages to
“talk naturally of what came uppermost in her thoughts. Laura’s thoughts ranged over a wide field, even now. Sometimes she said rather amusing things, and displayed unexpected stores (General Stores) of knowledge. But her remarks were as a rule so disconnected from the conversation that no one paid much attention to them. Mr. Arbuthnot certainly was not prepared for her response to his statement that February was a dangerous month. ‘It is,’ answered Laura with almost violent agreement. ‘If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.’”
At this point in the novel, unless you have paid very close attention to the subtitle, you are likely to dismiss Laura’s remarks as fanciful.

Laura’s one extravagance as she goes about her London errands is buying bouquets of cut flowers for her room, and one autumn day when she sees some particularly fine chrysanthemums, she decides to move to the part of the country where they were grown, a little town called Great Mop. The sight of the flowers and her subsequent purchase of a guide book and maps makes her feel “as though she had awoken, unchanged, from a twenty-years slumber” and she realizes that “even Henry and Caroline, whom she saw every day, were half hidden under their accumulations—accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact.”

So Laura asks Henry for the money left to her by their father. He is put into the position of having to admit that he has not managed it for her benefit, but he doesn’t do that; instead he tries to forbid her to leave. Laura has made up her mind, however. She takes a room in a house in Great Mop and begins to enjoy her life, doing exactly as she pleases.

After a few months, however, when a nephew she is fond of comes to Great Mop, Laura feels that “when she was with him she came to heel and resumed her old employment of being Aunt Lolly.” This is the point when the novel seems to take a turn, although its direction has been clear from the start. Rather than fancy, Laura’s perception that she has sold her soul to be able to live as an independent woman is revealed, little by little, to be fact. When she cries out in the middle of an empty field and stands waiting for an answer, it seems fanciful when she relates that “the silence that followed it had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge. If any listening power inhabited this place; if any grimly favorable power had been evoked by her cry; then surely a compact had been made, and the pledge irrevocably given.”

It seems fanciful when, discovering a kitten in her room, she decides that “she, Laura Willowes, in England, in the year 1922, had entered into a compact with the Devil….And now, as a sign of the bond between them, he had sent his emissary. It had arrived before her, a rank breath, a harsh black body in her locked room. The kitten was her familiar spirit.”

It might still seem fanciful when Laura decides that “she was a witch by vocation….What else had set her upon her long solitary walks, her quests for powerful and forgotten herbs, her brews and distillations… How she had come to Great Mop she could not say; whether it was of her own will, or whether, exchanging threatenings and mockeries for sweet persuasions, Satan had at last taken pity upon her bewilderment, leading her by the hand into the flower-shop….Near at hand but out of sight the loving huntsman couched in the woods, following her with his eyes.”

However, at the point when Laura’s landlady Mrs. Leak invites her on a walk at 10:30 pm, Laura thinks that “there was no need for further explanation. They were going to a Witches’ Sabbath.” And this is clearly not just her fancy. Even if readers might still be inclined to dismiss it as an overactive imagination, when they get to the field where almost everyone in the village has turned out for what is undoubtedly a Witches’ Sabbath, readers can doubt no more. Laura doesn’t just fancy herself a witch; she is one, and this ostensibly realistic novel is going to describe her adventures–as indeed it has been doing, all along.

At the climax of the novel, Laura has a pleasant conversation with Satan, who has appeared to her as a game-keeper and then a grave-keeper until she calls him out, saying “O Satan!….Do you always hide?” At that point, “with the gesture of a man who can never hold out against women, he yielded and sat down beside her on the grass.”

Here is one of the things Laura says to Satan during this conversation, during which she is free to hold forth on various topics at her leisure:
“Is it true that you can poke the fire with a stick of dynamite in perfect safety? I used to take my nieces to scientific lectures, and I believe I heard it then. Anyhow, even if it isn’t true of dynamite, it’s true of women. But they know they are dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them. Some may get religion, then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them real. Even if other people still find them quite safe and usual, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are. Even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there—ready! Respectable countrywomen keep their grave-clothes in a corner of the chest of drawers, hidden-away, and when they want a little comfort they go and look at them, and think that once more, at any rate, they will be worth dressing with care. But the witch keeps her cloak of darkness, her dress embroidered with signs and planets; that’s better worth looking at. And think, Satan, what a compliment you pay her, pursuing her soul, lying in wait for it, following it through all its windings, crafty and patient and secret like a gentleman out killing tigers. Her soul—when no one else would give a look at her body even! And they are all so accustomed, so sure of her! They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show or scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”

The way Townsend reveals Laura’s seemingly fanciful ideas to be quite literally true is a joke on unwary readers who might assume that because a woman doesn’t seem extraordinary to them, she isn’t. You can be sure of old Aunt Lolly, but if you never take the trouble to pay any attention to her, you may find that you do not know her at all.

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