Passing through the public library, as I do about once a week, I found a book by Jane Hamilton, The Excellent Lombards, on the new book shelf, so I checked it out and started reading it at night before I went to sleep, which is what it is good for, being a calm book in which nothing much happens.
I kept thinking something was going to happen—at the very least, I thought, the little girl narrator would grow up. She begins the novel by telling us about her family apple orchard:
“the majesty of the woods around the manor house and the size of the house itself, and the elegance of the apple barn, which originally had been meant for horses, and along the rise the dignity of the long straight rows of apple trees: All those beauties were a reminder of the grace and the good breeding of the Lombard clan itself.”
The little girl, “Mary Frances,” is called by several different nicknames. She is perpetually at war with everyone else in her family about who is going to be in charge of the apple orchard when her parents and her aunt and uncle, who run the place, along with a mysterious great-aunt, get too old to continue. As children, she and her brother play it as a game:
“we considered it a siege more than a war, the standoff with our relatives, with our cousins who in ordinary life were our friends.”
As she gets older, however, she continues to play the same childish games, fearing every new relative and visitor to the farm has come to take it over, fighting against those she considers to be interlopers and twisting everything into her own strange fabric of “us against them.” When her brother starts to grow up and refuses to be part of the “us” any longer, she throws a tantrum. She makes up a story about her great-aunt and sticks to it into her teens, without ever even speaking to the great-aunt, who periodically makes friendly overtures but refuses to get drawn in to the little girl’s daily histrionics.
Mary Frances’ point of view kept me reading, though, because every once in a while she would reveal something interesting about what motivated her. One night she wonders
“If a place might make you more than you were. Was that possible? The puzzle was like a dread story problem. And then, without that place, say you lost it, or couldn’t get back to it, or couldn’t stay there for long, it could turn out that you really weren’t much of anyone.”
When she is fourteen and her brother fifteen, they play a game of Euchre with their parents one summer night, “the ideal game for us, four persons, a game that requires some concentration and strategy but allows for sociability.” The situation reminds me of playing card games with my children as teenagers, and the ensuing conversation bears that out:
“When she put her card down two tricks later William said, ‘You know that’s trump, right?’
‘Oh!’ she giggled. ‘I forgot.’
I snorted and did the glance at William, See? To forget that the left bower is still trump after playing for decades really is mental retardation.
‘I always forget that,’ my father said.
‘You should not admit it,’ I instructed.
‘What is wrong with you people?’ William couldn’t help asking.
My mother glared at her cards. ‘We’re just old,’ my father explained. ‘That’s all.’
‘Well, snap out of it.’ Softening, William added, ‘Do you want me to review the rules again?’
‘I think we’ve got it.’
The children are so competitive, so serious about everything, and the parents, who have been playing card games all their lives, have lost some of that competitive spirit and are enjoying everyone being together, which makes them seem dull and even lack-witted to their children.
By the time her brother is applying to colleges, Mary Frances despises every other member of her family, calling her own mother Mrs. Lombard and unwilling to even consider going to college, like her brother and the cousins she used to compete with. She has no use for liberal arts colleges, saying
“Whereas Dolly’s aspiration for Amanda and Adam was a brag-worthy university that would provide them with a marketable skill, Mrs. Lombard wanted William and Francie to become fully rounded, truly educated, cultivated people. She seemed to think that without Oberlin or Bates or Carleton or Williams we’d not know who Hesiod was, we’d forget to vote, we’d vote Hitler into power, we’d confuse good and well, we’d not appreciate a symphony orchestra, we’d track mud into museums, and most frightening, we’d admire terribly written thrillers and bosom heavers.”
And with that little speech and the action that follows (hiding the car keys so her brother can’t go visit his chosen college), she loses my sympathy entirely.
The book ends with her still at this age, despising everything, knowing better than everyone. There is a conversation with her brother on the penultimate page that shows there is hope she will one day grow up, but 273 pages of her childishness was about 73 pages too many for me.
The pleasure of this book–to the extent there is any–is in reliving some of those moments with know-it-all children in the years before college and being glad that those days are past.
Although it’s been nice and hot outside, just the way I like it, I’ve spent much of the week in an air conditioned office, planning for fall.
I’ve been helping a 13-year-old boy learn to like writing better, and it’s given me a lot of ideas for helping college students learn how to relax a little and let themselves make a few mistakes in the service of learning how to better express the complexity of their thoughts on paper.
And I’ve been mulling over a conversation I had at the beach with my college friends, about discovering that one of them has sleep apnea and is getting better sleep with the help of a machine. The other night, when I woke up after a dream in which I was drowning and couldn’t get my breath, it dawned on me (heh) that I have all the symptoms of sleep apnea myself. I’m relieved, because I thought it was just how it is when you get older. It’s been irritating me that for the last year, I have been close to or have actually fallen asleep during things I want to do, like reading a book, watching a movie in a theater, or even driving a car down a multi-lane highway.
Last night Walker and Ron and I went to see the new Ghostbusters movie. We all enjoyed it thoroughly (yes, it kept me awake), and when we got home, Walker said he wasn’t quite ready for “family time” to end. We talked about things we could do, like play bananagrams, but what he eventually said he wanted was have a poetry reading. Ron and I agreed, as long as all of the poems were in English (Walker likes Russian poetry and sometimes reads it to us in the original language, for the sound). So we each picked a couple of poems, but then one of Walker’s reminded Ron of another, and one of Ron’s reminded me of another, and then Walker read us the greatest Robert Service parody I’ve ever heard.
Among Ron’s early selections was a very old poem that he has always known and been fond of, but I never remember hearing before, “Farewell, Rewards and Fairies,” in which a 16th-century person longs for the good old days.
Among Walker’s early selections was a very sad and lovely Mayakovsky poem, “Instead of a Letter,” that I suspect he has read more than once in the months since breaking up with someone (long distance, while they were both overseas) after more than four years of being together. We all feel sad about this, and so liked sharing some of the sadness, for a few moments.
By Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Sometimes my children—especially Walker—talk to me about ambition, their own and what they think my ambitions should be. I like it that they think I should still have ambitions, that in addition to trying to “sell them the world” I’ve also tried to be a caretaker, and they’re going to keep holding me responsible for my end.
How was your week? Seen any good movies? Read any good poems?
In The Girl With All the Gifts, based on a short story and soon to become a movie, M.R. Carey does everything well—character development, world-building, and invention of a scientific theory for fictional events. All this in a new-style zombie story where some of the zombies are sympathetic.
In fact, at the beginning, there’s a real Dickensian feel to the tale of the terrible orphanage where the main character, young Melanie, is imprisoned and starved. She has a crush on one of her teachers—Miss Justineau, who reads the children the story of Oliver Twist–but Miss Justineau gets in trouble when she answers some of Melanie’s questions or even touches her face, briefly. Bit by bit, the reader learns along with Melanie herself more about why she is imprisoned and who she is.
There are a lot of things I don’t want to tell you about this novel, because part of the pleasure of reading it is gradually uncovering its secrets and seeing how they come together. Melanie’s classical education, for instance, seems to be something outdated that she is clinging to, and yet in the end, her knowledge of the Pandora story is the key to the survival of life on earth.
There are two major struggles in the novel, and one is the struggle of Miss Justineau against Caroline Caldwell, the scientist. Miss Justineau says to her that her own job is to supply “psychological evaluations to supplement the raw physical data you get from your own research.” The “raw physical data” to which she refers is sliced sections of childrens’ brains. And yet Caldwell is not the Big Bad. She figures out the science of the zombie infection in the end, and explains it to an audience of one.
The Big Bad in the novel is the zombie horde, called “hungries.” Sergeant Parks, a veteran of the urban zombie wars, is initially unlikable, aligned with Caldwell and ever-vigilant against the children. As the novel progresses, however, he and Melanie form an uneasy alliance in order to survive and protect the three others in their group–a member of the military so young he doesn’t remember life before the zombie wars, Miss Justineau, and Dr. Caldwell.
At the end of their journey, Miss Justineau and Melanie are still together, able to teach and learn. As Miss Justineau sees it, Melanie now “gives her love without hesitation or limit, whether it’s earned or not—and at the same time pronounces sentence on her.” It’s a well-plotted ending.
The Girl With All the Gifts is generally well-plotted, well-paced, and exciting; a great read for a summer’s day.
I was reading Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day, slowly, and then I got a copy of Laurie R. King’s Dreaming Spies for my birthday and read it in a couple of sittings. Putting the two books one on top of the other on my pile of books I’ve just finished resulted in some confusion from people who came by and looked at the pile (which also included Touch by Claire North, Well Wished by Franny Billingsley and The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig).
Mary Russell the character is married to Sherlock Holmes, and Mary D. Russell the author is not, although they both have traveled extensively in the middle east. In Dreamers of the Day, Mary Russell’s character Agnes Shanklin travels from Ohio to Cairo and through the middle east before the outbreak of WWII with Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill. She learns to shed her small-town Ohio preconceptions and accepts almost everything she sees as good within its own culture, including things like 12-year-old girls married off to middle-aged men. She has an affair with a German spy and reflects that
“If we are timid or rebellious or both, then travel—by itself and by ourselves—forces us to leave our old lives behind. Travel can overcome habitual resistance and set the soul in motion along magnetic lines of attraction. On foreign soil, desires—denied, policed, constrained at home—can be unbound. What hides beneath the skin-thin surface of the domesticated self is sensual, sexual, adult.”
There’s a strange postlude to Agnes’ story that takes place after her death. She has joined others who swallowed the waters of the Nile, and they are talking about war, how
“each war ends with the black seeds of the next war sown….Always, someone steps forward, ready to water and weed and harvest those black seeds, dreaming of the day when they will bring forth their bounty of vindictive vindication. Into that dreamer’s ear, a bloodred god whispers, ‘Offer flattery in one hand, fear in the other. Rule or be ruled! Dominate or disappear!’
The rationales warp and twist and shift. The closer war comes, the simpler and stupider the choices. Are you a warrior or a coward? Are you with us or against us?
‘All men dream,’ Colonel Lawrence wrote, ‘but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.’”
Mary Russell the character, on the other hand, travels through Japan in Dreaming Spies, her latest adventure, and eventually meets the Emperor, to whom Holmes explains that “allowing the world to think I am a character in some stories is the only way to obtain a degree of freedom. Fame is a sword with two edges: it permits a man to cut through the inconveniences of bureaucracy, but it also threatens to open one’s life to the world.”
I enjoyed learning about Japanese customs with Mary the character, and seeing her not only adapt to them but find ways to use them to her advantage. Laurie R. King the author solves the mystery and leaves all the ends tidied up satisfactorily.
Mary D. Russell the author has bigger ambitions for Agnes’ travelogue, I think, but in the end she herself reduces her message to three pieces of advice. It’s good advice, but seems to me out of place at the end of an entire novel, especially about a place as tumultuous and shifting as the middle east:
“Read to children.
And never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”
In the case of these two Mary Russells, the fictional and less ambitious dreamer is way more fun.
Usually I don’t let much get between a book and me. I’m quick to take a recommendation, rather than looking around to see what others think, and I’m not interested in the thoughts of critics before I’ve had time to form my own opinions. Between short spurts of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, however, I looked to see what the critics have said and then waited until after our book club meeting to write about my view of the book.
If I’d read Between the World and Me on my own, without anyone to discuss it with, I would have been both edified and irritated. The book isn’t written for me. It does not invite me in. It keeps using a phrase I had to look up, “those Americans who believe that they are white.” Although I’ve read James Baldwin (including his letter to his nephew, The Fire Next Time, which is Coates’ literary model for this book addressed to his son), I hadn’t read his essay “On Being ‘White’…And Other Lies,” which explains Coates’ use of the phrase more completely than any of Baldwin’s other writings. And I hadn’t read Richard Wright’s poem “Between the World and Me.”
Meeting on the night after Alton Sterling’s murder and only a few hours before Philando Castile would be shot to death by the police, my book group talked about fear. Mothers all, we talked about our fears for our children, especially the two that appear “black.” We talked about the fear that Coates describes as driving the beatings many desperate African-American parents give their children, to keep them from repeating a behavior that could get them killed. We talked about the fears of the police, and whether the “Dreamers,” as Coates calls anyone who still believes in the American Dream, fear that if we prosecute too many police for shooting black people, we could start to run out of the kind of people willing to enforce the law in our cities and have to begin gating more communities, hiring more security, and living with more lawlessness.
So many fears, especially of the unknown. We talked about Coates’ story of an adult stranger pushing his four-year-old son out of the way, and agreed that all of us and any of our children are in that situation anytime we travel outside of our small town, but most of us don’t have to worry that, instead of the adult apologizing, other adults will gather and threaten us.
We talked about the poetic way Coates’ book is written, making the points where a reader wants most to despair and put the book down almost bearable, for the universality of the image. For example: “Our parents resorted to the lash the way flagellants in the plague years resorted to the scourge.” Or “perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.”
As I think more about the experience of reading this book, I find that even though it isn’t addressed to me, it does address the oversimplifications that most thoughtful people object to: “black blood wasn’t black; black skin wasn’t even black.” If we could make forms less black and white (and perhaps less gendered too, while we’re at it) perhaps people would think less of the category “white” as “normal” and more about where their ancestors might have come from.
The book group repeatedly came back to the idea that readers can’t argue with Coates, because he has not set up any arguments. He has observed. He has provided some of his most intimate thoughts—from a father to a child—for us to overhear. And what he says to his own little boy is that “the killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers, but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them. There is a great deception in this. To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.”
If you have a little boy, or if you’re fond of any child and concerned about the world that we’re creating for our next generation, there are things in this book that you might want to overhear, so you can feel what it’s like. So you can know more and fear less.
The Taming of the Shrew has always been my least favorite Shakespeare play. I didn’t much care for Kiss Me, Kate or any other modernization of it, until Anne Tyler managed to reimagine it in a way that takes the bad taste out of my mouth. Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is her contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, novelists taking Shakespeare plays and turning them into novels.
Of course, because it’s Anne Tyler, the story is set in Baltimore. Kate Battista, the 29-year-old-daughter of a brilliant scientist father, is still living at home, gardening, doing the cooking, the laundry, and helping to take care of her younger sister, Bunny when she isn’t working at a preschool as a teacher’s aide. Of all these activities, gardening interests her the most. As someone at the college she dropped out of once observed, “She has. No. Plan.”
Kate has long hair because she has no patience with making idle conversation at hair salons, so stopped getting it cut. When Pyotr, her father’s lab assistant, first sees her, “he was gazing at Kate admiringly. Men often wore that look when they first saw her, It was due to a bunch of dead cells: her hair, which was blue-black and billowy and extended below her waist.”
Pyotr has come to America on an O-1 visa, which “means that he possesses some extraordinary skill or knowledge that no one here in this country has.” But he is on the third year of his three-year visa, and he and Kate’s father are not finished with their research project. Kate’s father asks her to marry him so he can stay in the country, but not as a real marriage—he envisions that things will stay as they are, with Kate running his household and Pyotr moving into a spare room.
The first time her father mentions marrying Pyotr, Kate tells him “very funny” and goes on with what she has been doing. The second time she is at first disbelieving, saying “You’re saying you want me to marry someone I don’t even know so that you can hang onto your research assistant.” Then she is hurt, discovering that “you could really feel physically wounded if someone hurt your feelings badly enough.” Pyotr comes to apologize, saying it “was inconsiderate of us to ask you to deceive your government….I think Americans feel guilt about such things.”
Kate tells him she accepts his apology, following that with “So. See you around.” But he doesn’t leave. He tells her that it “Was a foolish notion anyhow….It is evident you could choose any husband you want. You are very independent girl.” They actually have a conversation, partly because Kate finds that “there was a certain liberation in talking to a man who didn’t have a full grasp of English.” Eventually, though, they talk about that, too, and get more insight into the way each of them communicates.
After this conversation, Kate softens towards the idea of the marriage-for-visa. She says to her father “If it’s just a formality…if it’s just some little legal thing that would allow you to change his visa status and after that we could reverse it…” So they go ahead with the idea.
To Pyotr, Kate says “not a step of this plan involves anybody being crazy about anybody” and he seems to agree. He also seems to appreciate her special qualities, though, and relish the thought of acquiring in-laws, as he has no family of his own.
During a dinner with her family, which Pyotr cooked, he announces that Kate will be moving in with him, and her father argues that he will be moving in with them. Mr. Battista says “But I thought we discussed this” and Pyotr says “we discussed this and I said no.” We see Kate liking the idea of moving to her own place, and Pyotr firing down any opposition.
There is some adventure on the day of the wedding, involving Kate’s younger sister Bunny and Pyotr and the father’s research, but they do get married and at the wedding dinner Kate gives a speech which is different from her usual concluding monologue:
“It’s hard being a man. Have you ever thought about that? Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. They think they should seem in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their true feelings. No matter if they’re hurting or desperate or stricken with grief, if they’re heartsick or they’re homesick or some huge dark guilt is hanging over them or they’re about to fail big-time at something—‘Oh, I’m okay,’ they say. ‘Everything’s just fine.’ They’re a lot less free than women are, when you think about it. Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”
The novel’s epilogue bears out efficacy of the “giving each other space” idea, as it is told by the son of Kate and Pyotr, named after his grandfather. He says Kate is getting a plant ecology award and that Pyotr and Mr. Battista had gotten a prize “last winter…in a whole other country.” He ends with an image of his parents “side by side and very close together, neither one in front or behind, and they were holding hands and smiling.”
I like the way Anne Tyler has taken the idea of what it means to “tame” something away from obeying and towards understanding, like in The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery. Much like Saint-Exupery’s boy with the rose, Tyler’s Pyotr realises that by taming someone, he is picking her out from the rest, a person who will become, for him, “unique in all the world.”
Have you ever enjoyed a performance or updating of The Taming of the Shrew? It’s hard to imagine anyone not able to enjoy this one.
We just came back from our bi-annual trip to the beach in South Carolina with a group of college friends, and it was as wonderful as ever, even though a couple of the friends’ kids couldn’t come this time, and our second generation (we can’t really call them kids anymore, or even teenagers) missed them–as we all did, really, because it’s fun to watch your friends’ children grow up.
This time, though, was a reunion with not only the friends, but with some of the adult children. Eleanor flew in from Tucson; she and Walker hadn’t seen each other since Christmas. We’ve been going to this same island every other year since before the kids were born, and I used to always put them on the lookout for the first palm (or palmetto) trees as we approached the shore, saying they are the signs of a “good place.” Eleanor said she had that same old reaction when she got to Tucson and saw palm trees everywhere, so seeing them on the approach to the barrier islands isn’t quite the thrill it used to be. But the smell of the salty air and the plough mud was the same.
From years of experience, I had a schedule for the week. I like to make my reservations (for a group of 15) ahead of time so that when I arrive, I can maximize my lolling around time. Some days had only a dinner restaurant reservation. On Monday, three of us went parasailing. On Tuesday, 10 of us went kayaking. On Thursday, 11 of us went to the market downtown in Charleston. Our only whole group events were meeting on the beach in the morning, and having a welcome party at our beach house (the Shriggsleys, as we are called there—an amalgam of last names) and a farewell dinner at our friends’ rental house (the Janclarkquists). They made an elaborate spread of appetizers, followed by two kinds of jambalaya and a spicy vegetarian dish, and then a berry trifle, banana pudding, and ice cream. It’s great to have friends who like to cook!
We didn’t decide on the day for the big sand castle until we got there, because we like to schedule its construction so that the tide can take it before we go in for lunch. That day turned out to be Friday, and the “castle” we had decided to make was Chichen Itza. Ron and our friend Ben are usually in charge of construction decisions for the main structure, and the rest of us fetch water, dig ditches, and construct elaborate walls and drainage moats to “protect” the main castle from the tide for a precious extra seven minutes.
Our other sand castle tradition, dating from when Eleanor was almost two years old, is to put a toy alligator named “Bridget” and a toy crab named “Mary” in the moat around the castle. We thought Bridget and Mary looked particularly fine this year, at the corner of the Mexican temple.
Our youngest child is now our tallest, so rather than protecting him when we went out in the waves, we followed him past the breakers until we were almost out of our own depths. From the shore, the heads of those out in the waves were small dots, and we were careful to follow our own old rule to either take a partner out or make sure you have a spotter on the shore.
It was very much like this second part of a longer poem by Elizabeth Spires, called “Mansion Beach” (you can read the rest of the poem by clicking the link):
“At noon, in the too bright light, watchful,
looking too hard, we saw the scene turn dark
and lost the children for a moment, waves
crashing around them. Shadow blended with shadow,
the sun inside a cloud, and then the children
were restored to us, our worst fears a hallucination.
All afternoon their castles, poor and proud,
rose and fell. Great civilizations were built,
came to an end, the children mighty lords, their castles
only as small as we are to the stars and starry structures.
The day was infinite for them, time stretching
to the farthest horizon, the sun their overlord.
But how to reconcile these summer days washing away
with our need to commemorate, to hold onto?
They knew. And so they sang a song tuneless and true,
admitting no fixed point, no absolute, words
overheard and blurred by great winds blowing us in,
a rhyme or round for a time such as we live in:
The world is made, knocked down, and made again!”
All the “kids” soon remembered what happens when they ask me what time it is while out at the beach (“it’s summertime,” I will reply with a smile. I have made this same reply their whole lives).
I sat on the shore, watching the waves roll in, and thought about what Pearl Tull (from Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant) thinks about how heaven could be a beach she’d once visited when “Beck was handsome and Pearl felt graceful and the children were still very small; they had round, excited, joyous faces and chubby little bodies….Wouldn’t it be nice, she said, if heaven were Wrightsville Beach? If, after dying, they’d open their eyes and find themselves back on that warm, sunny sand, everyone young and happy again, those long-ago waves rolling in to shore?” And then I thought about what her son Cody thinks about it: “Did she suppose that he wanted to spend eternity as a child?”
The “kids” and my friend Valerie and I went crabbing at low tide on our last afternoon. We go to a park with a fishing pier, and we lower two nets baited with chicken parts. This time we caught two blue crabs (plus a hermit crab who went back in) and we brought them back to the beach house, cooked and ate them.
On our way to Charlotte, where we left Eleanor at the airport, we stopped on John’s Island to see Angel Oak, one of the oldest trees in the U.S.A. Ron and I had seen it more than twenty years ago, but we’d never taken our children to see it until this year.
I brought home three hermit crabs (the land kind you can buy at beach stores) to add to the two I’ve had at home for a couple of years. They are rattling around inside the big summer cage I put them in to introduce them to each other and sit outside in the shade during the day. Will they become friends? Will they fight? Have I brought home a couple of crab thugs to make the lives of my crab pets unbearable? It’s so hard to tell. I’m near to deciding that it’s unethical to own hermit crabs, and yet I continue to bring them home because they fascinate me.
What do you bring home from a beach vacation, besides sand?