After I make my slow, ankle-wrapped way around the library where I work, and especially if I’ve added in a minor errand or made my way downstairs to find a box and then some packing material to mail a game to Eleanor (who got a tattoo and then a staph infection and had to go to urgent care in what was, for me, the middle of the night last night), I have to go lie down on the bed and put my ankle up on a pillow so it’s above my heart. I’ve been reading a lot—murder mysteries from the library mixed in with my usual fare—but I’ve also been taking unplanned late-afternoon catnaps under the spare comforter with Pippin or Tristan, something they find quite acceptable and I find disconcerting. I’m not a napper. I don’t like to nap.
It’s certainly giving me more patience with February, though. That, and the fact that we haven’t had a lot of ice and snow that stick around and make everything slick, so even with my sprained ankle, it’s not as hard to walk around outside as it is some years.
The birds and squirrels continue to feast on the birdseed I’ve been decorating our Christmas tree with. It is still just outside the back door on the deck, looking festive and green, often covered with small birds like decorations. The cats sometimes run the squirrels off, but one squirrel at least will not quit trying to build a nest in our gutter. We have been cleaning out this nest about once a week since August, but he will not be discouraged. Ron has found a way to wire in a squirrel guard so that he can’t throw it out, as he did the first few times he found it in there, but he still manages to move it aside enough to get his mud plug built and start tossing leaves on top of it. Then Ron goes out, gets on the ladder, takes the guttering apart, and throws all the mud and leaves on the deck for him to begin again with the next week.
Here is Margaret Atwood’s poem about February:
Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.
I think her “lust for French fries” is a longing for summery food, which also strikes me this time of year.
I think it’s about time for a plate of devilled eggs.
A sight of the sun.
Something green besides the Christmas tree.
Smells that do not come from inside the house.
Birdsong at dawn.
Movements at the edge of vision (that don’t turn out to be a disappearing cat’s tail or a piece of paper fluttering in the forced-air furnace).
What do you think it’s about time for?
I got an advance copy of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country from HarperCollins because the description made it sound interesting, with supernatural elements. It is, but what I didn’t expect is the way the author includes Lovecraftian horror as just one of the many kinds of horrors lurking around every corner for African-Americans in 1954.
We start out with a story from the point of view of Atticus, an African-American man and former American soldier who is trying to drive from Florida to see his father in Chicago. He has a book entitled The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which I was not surprised to find had a real-life counterpart, The Negro Motorist Green Book. When Atticus has a flat tire in Indiana, he walks two miles to a service station where he is refused service, then two miles back, and then spends a long afternoon waiting for a mechanic to drive 50 miles from Indianapolis, where the nearest negro-owned garage is located. There’s a kind of horror for me in understanding that things like this still happened routinely when I was a child.
When Atticus gets to Chicago, his father has already left to find his deceased wife’s relatives in “Lovecraft Country” in (Arkham or) Ardham, Massachusetts, so he follows, along with his relatives George and Letitia. They run into trouble in Simmonsville, NY, where the Safe Negro Travel Guide has not been updated recently enough. A mysterious silver car with smoked windows shows up to help them, and because of it they are able to make their way to Ardham and the manor house of Samuel Braithwhite, who owns the silver car. Atticus discovers that the Braithwhite family owned one of his ancestors, a maid who ran away the night “there was some kind of calamity at the house.”
The calamity turns out to have been a Lovecraftian encounter with the supernatural, capped by an explosion. Then Atticus discovers that he is the last direct descendant of Titus Braithwhite and acts on it to escape another Lovecraftian encounter, one that leaves Samuel dead and his son Caleb in charge. When Atticus, George, and Letitia leave, they’re driving a car on which Caleb has conferred “a dash of immunity” so that “from now on, you should find you’re much less likely to run into trouble on the road. Law enforcement officials, in particular, will tend to treat you as though you’re invisible to them.”
The novel’s point of view begins to switch, at this point, first to the story of Letitia and how she bought a haunted house—Winthrop House–in a white neighborhood, with what turns out to be Caleb Braithwhite’s help. And then comes the story of the book of George’s ancestor Adah, who had totaled up how much her former owner owed her for the work she’d done and the “insults” she’d suffered: “Whippings. Beatings. Other.” When the book goes missing, George finds that Caleb wants to trade it for a book that has been in the keeping of a “former lodgemaster of Chicago,” the Book of Names. When they retrieve it for him, he not only returns Adah’s book, but pays off the debt of her former owners.
Next is the story of how “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” when she visits an observatory listed in a book she has discovered in Winthrop House. She finds a doorway that opens onto a different planet and discovers the last surviving member of Mr. Winthrops’ household staff, left there after preliminary questioning after a black maid had run off with Mr. Winthrop’s white son. Hippolyta and the survivor, Ida, figure out that Mr. Winthrop must have been killed in a confrontation with Mr. Braithwhite soon after leaving them on the planet.
A longer story, “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” is told from the point of view of Letitia’s sister Ruby, who meets Caleb Braithwhite and learns how to turn into a white woman, righting wrongs and enjoying white privilege. At the first party she attends as a white woman, she
“relaxed, realizing that these folk too were inclined to take her at face value. Nor did they seem especially alien to her, the main difference between them and other rich, self-important white people she had encountered being their willingness to converse with her. About necromancy. But even the talk of magic wasn’t that peculiar, for most of them spoke of it as they would of money, or politics, or any other means of bending the world to their will.”
Ruby finally concludes that Caleb is “the devil,” but he replies that he is simply “a man who knows what he wants—and how to get it.”
“The Narrow House” is a story about Atticus’ father Montrose, who helped get the Book of Names and who Caleb then asks to help him track down the books that Winthrop’s son Henry took with him when he ran away with Pearl. Montrose finds out that Henry and Pearl and their young son were burned in their house in Illinois by the mayor and the chief of police, who didn’t want black people living in their neighborhood. When Montrose takes a trip to the house, he has a talk with the ghost of Henry.
Montrose tells Henry Winthrop the story of a riot and lynch mob in 1921, where “the negroes were outnumbered something like twenty to one” and his father came back to the house with “blood all down his sleeve” to tell Montrose’s mother to pack the car, just in case. Montrose was seven years old and took off after his father when his mother wasn’t looking. When his father finds him, he starts running home with Montrose in his arms, but then
“a car came up behind us, moving fast….A white man leaned out of the back with a pistol and fired two shots….
I thought the shots had missed us. I knew I wasn’t hit, and my father didn’t break stride. He ran on for another block or so and then he just stopped. He put me down, careful, put a hand on my shoulder like to steady himself. Then he fell over.
We were on the grass in front of someone’s house. The people inside heard me yelling and the porch lights came on. I saw my father had been shot in the side and there was blood coming out of his mouth. He had this look on his face. Horror. Horror at the universe. I was too young to understand it. I thought he was afraid because he was dying, but that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t until I had a son of my own—a son who wouldn’t listen—that I understood what he felt.
He wasn’t afraid for himself. He was afraid for me. He wanted to protect me. He had: He saved my life, getting me away from that gunfight. But the night wasn’t over and he knew he wasn’t going to be there to see me through it. That’s the horror, the most awful thing: to have a child the world wants to destroy and know that you’re helpless to help him.”
Winthrop tells Montrose his own awful story of his life with Pearl and his son as “Henry Narrow,” and then gives him the books Caleb Braithwhite is seeking. Montrose tells Atticus that “we found nothing. The Narrows are dead, their house is burnt, and we didn’t find a damn thing. That’s what we’re going to tell Braithwhite. And that’s what we’re going to believe, so if he looks inside our heads he doesn’t see different.”
The next story, “Horace and the Devil Doll,” is told from the point of view of a child, Montrose’s nephew and Hippolyta’s son, who is being used by Caleb Braithwhite’s Chicago lodgemaster, Lancaster, to find out how to defeat him. Caleb uses Horace as bait but later takes Lancaster’s magic mark off of him so he will no longer be terrified by animate objects.
In the final story, “The Mark of Cain,” Horace’s entire family—everyone who has been in the stories so far—realize that Caleb means to use them to help him get rid of Lancaster. They tell each other the stories of how they know Caleb, and they make a plan to get free of him and his magic. As Ruby says, “I’ve seen enough of him to know he’s good at getting what he wants. But I’ve also seen enough to know that what he wants, can’t be good.”
Together, Atticus and George and Letitia and Hippolyta and Horace and Ruby and Montrose and all their relatives defeat both Lancaster and Caleb Braithwhite. Atticus works the spell that gives Braithwhite a new mark of Cain, “but a different one, the new a pun upon the old.” He no longer has any powers, and he has given Atticus’ family enough money to buy Letitia’s house, educate all the children, and keep them safe–or as safe as any black family in 1950’s America could be.
I received a copy of Rebecca Foust’s 2015 volume Paradise Drive from Poetic Book Tours after agreeing to participate in the tour. This volume is a sonnet series dramatizing the spiritual journey of a “Pilgrim” whose paradise and slough of despair both appear to be located in Marin County, California.
On my first reading, I was a bit put off by what seemed an overused approach to criticism of the wealthy-and-therefore-facile by the protagonist who thinks she is special because she’s a reader:
“Cowed by all those straight white teeth,
Pilgrim ran for the bathroom, not for coke
as others supposed, but for something
more covert and rare: a book”
But as I re-read the poems and thought more about them as a series, Pilgrim’s sense of humor and occasional willingness to hoist herself on her own petard began to win me over. At one party, she comes out of the bathroom:
re-reading a page before flipping him off,
then returns to the party. It’s still there.
She wants someone to talk to. Enough
of the holier-than-thou crap, now where
was that Beat Poet they said was a guest?”
At another party (why does she accept all these invitations, we wonder), Pilgrim meets “someone you like, very much.” Someone who can “talk books,/politics, not just little Cromwell’s score/on the PSAT.” And then in the twelfth line of the sonnet, before a final rhyming couplet, Pilgrim realizes she’s looking into a mirror.
If that’s not enough to restore the reader’s good humor, the titles of the poems go a long way towards establishing perspective, with the fourth one about being in the bathroom during a party entitled “You-Know-Where Again.” Even in the allusively-titled “Nuns Fret Not,” Pilgrim has to note that “her cot has, after all, got this very nice mattress/ and custom duvet.”
After skewering the party guests by associating them with the seven deadly sins, Pilgrim admits that “her private, pet bête-noire” is “the fear of falling/in love with it all.” Thus paradise becomes despair.
Pilgrim doesn’t leave it at that; her two most explicit answers are in the poems “How Then Shall We Live?” and “How to Live, Reprise.” Her use of allusion, however, becomes a kind of answer in itself. In “I’ll Burn My Books,” Pilgrim’s repentance is ironic, as the phrases she needs rise unbidden to her brain: “bitter began to hurt her again,/scorn burned her tongue.”
The quest, Pilgrim admits:
“was a metaphor, of course
–it could mean abroad in a world
where May keeps blooming
right through one’s own fall—but also:
just asking the questions.”
The questions she raises along the way become the best parts of this volume. My favorite sonnets in the series are the “Real Housewives.” First comes “Stepford Wives Theme Party” which begins “in a parody of a parody inside a parody,/we played charades” and ends with:
“Funny at first,
the film featured full skirts topped in chiffon
sheer over bras built by an engineer
who also built rockets nearly as easy to wear.
Watching the wind lash the house on the screen,
we each thought the same thought: I’m not that girl.
But when the door blew open, we all felt the chill.”
Then comes “Hard to Entertain,” which ends with this matchless couplet:
“The pride masquerading as mean.
The hunger, always though-the-fuse green.”
Allusion, in Paradise Drive, is given power by its unexpectedness, its off-the-cuff-ness, and, most of all, its inevitability. Pilgrim’s life is permeated with books, and her contribution to the world, however much she would have liked it to be political, was always going to be the way she can give back what she has read, her own mix of bird-dog with rag-and-bone shop, of “shade-undrawn dawn” in a world “gray with children.”
Over the weekend, I slowly fell apart. At least that’s what it felt like. My Maryland bridge, which I’ve had since we lived in Maryland in the 1980’s, was re-glued in early December, but it’s gotten so twisted that it got loose again last week. I’d called the dentist on Wednesday, because I live in fear of it coming out, but she was busy and it came out on Friday night. So I spent the weekend gap-toothed and trying not to open my mouth where anyone could see.
On Saturday morning, I was sliding around between my dresser and the closet in my socks on the hardwood floor, when I felt like I’d twisted my foot, and then it started to hurt. Sometimes I twist my foot at water aerobics and it hurts for a minute and then stops, so I didn’t think too much of it. I drove to Columbus, where we had lunch and then walked around between a few stores. My foot hurt when I got up from lunch, but I walked it off a bit. By night, though, it hurt too much to bear my weight and it had swelled up too much to go into a shoe. So I spent Sunday afternoon at the ER getting it x-rayed and wrapped.
I had been reading Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher, on the advice of a friend who alerted me to necromancy in this particular novel of “the Dresden Files,” the adventures of a tough-as-nails paranormal investigator named Harry Dresden. No matter how badly Harry is beaten up or tortured by the bad guys—who are in this case necromancers—he always finds a way to go on fighting. I guess I’m going to have to try to emulate him if I want to get out of the house in the next week.
It seems that Harry himself has been brought back from the dead—near the start of this adventure, he goes to his own grave and describes it:
“My headstone is simple white marble, a vertical stone, but it’s engraved in bold letters inlaid with gold: HARRY DRESDEN. Then a gold-inlaid pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle—the symbol of the forces of magic contained within mortal will. Underneath it are more letters: HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING.”
At the grave, Harry learns that something big is going to happen on Halloween night, and to him this means that “aside from ruining my birthday, it meant that black magic was going to be brought into play sometime soon, and at this time of year that could only mean one thing. Necromancy.”
He soon learns that the would-be-necromancers are looking for a copy of a book that would give them, as his helper skull Bob puts it, “a new round of necro-at-home lessons to expand their talents.” When one of Harry’s friends says it doesn’t sound that bad to bring the dead back to life, he tells him “you’re assuming that what the necromancer brings them back to is better than death.” He explains in more technical terms, later, that “magic is closely interwoven with a wizard’s confidence….magic is essentially a force of creation, of life. Grevane’s necromancy made a mockery of life, even as he used it to destroy.”
After all this denunciation of necromancy, Harry sees one of the opposing wizards use her magic to heal, and this makes fighting her more difficult for him:
“if she’d been acting altruistically, it would mean that the dark energy the necromancers seemed to favor might not be something wholly, inherently evil. It had been used to preserve life, just as the magic I knew could be used either to protect or destroy. I’d always considered the line between black magic and white to be sharp and clear. But if that dark power could be employed in whatever fashion its wielder chose, that made it no different from my own.”
Later in the adventure, though, Harry faces the healer wizard again and this time he is more sure of what he must do:
“I don’t know about something as big as trying to murder death. But I know that you can tell a tree from what kind of fruit falls off it. And the necromancy tree doesn’t drop anything that isn’t rotten.”
High jinks ensue, with Harry riding around on a reanimated dinosaur and a bad guy who can zap into one of the good guys zapping over without anyone noticing, at least at first. Good prevails, however, and ultimately necromancy is defeated. If these characters can heal up from their various and almost-fatal wounds—as they do– then surely I can be patient enough to have a tooth glued back in and sit around with my foot up on ice for a few days.
On the morning my youngest was to leave for Russia, I got up to a darkness strange for that hour of morning; it was snowing and it was going to snow, and that had not been in the prediction the night before; the storm was supposed to blow north of us. We left an hour earlier than we’d planned for the airport and although we saw three wrecks, weren’t in one. We had breakfast at the airport, in a restaurant from which we could see the security line, which was never very long.
After Walker went through security, I stayed at the airport for another hour or so, until it looked like his flight would take off on time. Then I drove a few miles to a shopping center in Columbus and parked at the Barnes and Noble, where I drank hot chai made with soy milk and read Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton. I read it straight through and teared up a little at the end, sitting there in the café, “the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark.”
It was this passage that really got me:
“When Chrissie left for college, then Becka the next year, I thought—and it’s not an expression, I’m saying the truth—I did think I would die. Nothing had prepared me for such a thing. And I have found this to be true: Certain women feel like this, that their hearts have been ripped from their chests, and other women find it very freeing to have their children gone.”
I am still in the café, and the snow is still falling, in a desultory sort of way that will probably continue until it’s too dark to see anymore. I will drive home and watch the new episode of Supernatural that’s on tonight and drive to work in the dark of the morning tomorrow, although I won’t have to worry about how dark, because it’s not that far.
In my twenties I loved Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, and now in my fifties I’ve found that I can love her new novel Lila in much the same way. This is a bit of a surprise, because I didn’t care for Home or Gilead, the middle novels, at all.
In Lila, Robinson has regained her stride, and even though she walks over much of the same kind of territory, it seems to me that she does it with an enlarged view of the world. Where Housekeeping’s characters drifted around the fictional Idaho town that resembled the novelist’s own hometown, Lila’s characters have traveled around the country before ending up in rural Iowa, where the novelist herself has been living and teaching for the last few years.
The novel is set in the 1930’s and the title character, Lila, has been raised by a drifter she knows only as “Doll.” Together with a small group Lila calls “Doane’s people,” they move around the country looking for work “as long as the times were decent. That would have been about eight years, counting backward from the Crash, not counting the year Doll made her go to school.” During that year, Lila remembers, they lived in a boardinghouse in Tammany, Iowa. “Doll did the cleaning and laundry and looked after the poultry and the gardens, and Lila helped with all of it.” Lila’s memories are interspersed with the story of how she has ended up in Iowa again, without Doll and falling in love with an old man who is a preacher.
Both Lila and the old man are interested in existential questions, but they have to dance around each other in conversation because she doesn’t have the philosophical vocabulary to fully articulate what she’d like to ask and he has a limited Christian vocabulary for trying to answer:
“I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.”
“Oh!” he said. “Then I’m glad you have some time to spare. I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.”
Although Doane’s people mostly steered away from churches, Lila has had one or two uneasy experiences with preachers. Once, when they left her at a church, before Doll came and found her, Lila remembers:
“An orphan is what she was, and she knew it then, and she thought that preacher must somehow know it too, and be ready with the frightening word that would take her life away from her if only he chose to say it. And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilty. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them, too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.”
Lila and the old preacher marry, but neither is sure of the other’s love, even when Lila gets pregnant. When Lila gives her winter coat to a homeless boy, the preacher is worried that the boy has stolen it from her, while the boy himself “laughed just the way she might have laughed all those years ago, for pleasure that seemed like a piece of luck, a trick played on misery and trouble.” Where the old man sees narrative, Lila and the boy see only a moment.
As Lila teaches herself to read and write, however, she sees more of her life as narrative, and even begins to imagine one with the baby in it. She starts with what her husband tells her are “the very hardest parts—for somebody starting out. For anybody. That’s fine. They’re Scripture, too.” She starts with Job, which she originally thinks is job—as in work–but then she carries on with it and finds that she identifies with Job’s son: “She’d felt that way, too, plenty of times.”
The way Lila and the preacher learn to communicate is by seeing glimpses of their life together as neither narrative nor moment but a fragile combination of both that could end at any time, even though they mean to go on loving each other and their son. As a mother, I particularly appreciate Lila’s realization that “There isn’t always someone who wants you singing to him or nibbling his ear or brushing his cheek with a dandelion blossom. Somebody who knows when you’re being silly, and laughs and laughs.”
This novel brings the character of Lila to life and doesn’t call too much attention to the way it conveys her thoughts and dreams, which, for me, makes it the best kind of literary novel.
Somewhere–I wish I could remember where–I read about The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins, and put it on my wish list, where my friends Ben and Carol found it and bought it for me. I had to ask them almost immediately if they knew it took only twelve pages in this book before someone was brought back from the dead. Twelve. And then it keeps happening.
But the book is not what I thought. It is not what you think, whatever you think when you start it. It is bigger and weirder than that. By the time you feel like you’re starting to grasp the importance of the characters and the size of the universe, the story is over and you’re just getting to know the meaning of the title.
We’re introduced to Father and the Library by Carolyn, who is studying languages there. Her “catalog” is languages, just as her colleague Jennifer’s catalog is healing, including bringing the dead back to life. Among the others we meet are David, who studies war, and Michael, who studies animals. As Jennifer demonstrates by bringing another colleague, Margaret, back to life on page twelve, these are no ordinary “librarians.“
As the story unfolds, we find that Father is missing and the librarians have been exiled from the Library. They are living among “the Americans,” some of whom have been reanimated to take care of the suburban housing development in the neighborhood of the library. Jennifer tells Carolyn the story of one of them, a woman who cooks for them named Mrs. McGillicutty. She explains that her son left home when his father couldn’t accept his homosexuality and that is why she makes brownies every few days:
“She thinks that if her son were to come home now it would be like waking from a dream. She would feel again. But the boy will not come home, and though she will not allow herself to know this, she knows it anyway. And so she makes brownies for the memory of her baby.”
We meet Steve and then Erwin, who seem to be thugs at first, and who Carolyn hires to help her do something that seems shady and undefined.
We find out why Carolyn and her colleagues have studied so hard: “The last time she missed a question, Father gave her ten lashes.” We also find out more about what they have been studying: “For a year or so Father had been murdering Margaret two or three times a week….When she was dead she’d usually spend a day or two in the forgotten lands practicing whatever lesson was next in her catalog. Then Father would resurrect her.” The librarians are expressly forbidden from reading or trying to learn anything outside their own assigned catalogs.
The story begins to come together at last on p. 245, with a chapter in which Carolyn herself wakes up from the dead and we find out that she has been reading outside her catalog. She has a confrontation with David in which he guesses that she killed Father right before she defeats David himself. Steve and Erwin turn out to play a bigger role in Carolyn’s takeover of the library than anyone might have expected, and the surprises just keep coming until Carolyn brings Father back from the dead. They have an amiable conversation, one infinitely powerful being to another, and then Carolyn sets about repairing some of what she has done to the world and recovering a few of her childhood memories, including why the library is on “Mount Char.”
Reading this book is a wild ride from start to finish; I didn’t even mention the battle with lions and dogs, David’s peculiar clothing, or the recurring suburban barbecue grill theme.
Read it, and make sure that someone else you know has read it so you can talk about it afterwards. Above all, come back here and talk about it with me!