On my last trip to the library, I checked out a more-than-usually-enormous stack of books hoping to find some good escapism. I tried Fannie Flagg’s new novel The Whole Town’s Talking, thinking maybe it might have a little of the flavor of Fried Green Tomatoes or an interesting view on Missouri, where I grew up. It had neither.
In the first hundred pages, I got interested in the story of Lordor Nordstrom, a Swedish farmer, and his Swedish mail-order bride, Katrina, who came to Missouri from Chicago. But when they die, the novel begins a strange story line about them talking to each other in the graveyard, where they alternately “sleep,” talk to each other, and learn about what’s happening in the town from relatives who come to visit their graves.
After that I was amused by the preposterous story of Elner Knott, who was so kind that Bonnie and Clyde didn’t rob her town’s bank and President and Mrs. Roosevelt spoke to her when they came through town. Elner’s story becomes the one that links all the others, and obviously she is the author’s favorite character: “Elner believed that sometimes, something living to take care of was the best medicine for a broken heart.”
The novel bogs down in attempts to sum up each decade of the twentieth century. The chapter entitled “The Thirties” begins:
“By 1930, the Great Depression had hit the country hard. Elmwood Springs, still being somewhat of a rural town, survived it better than most….As usual, in Elmwood Springs, there were more weddings and more babies born; thankfully, in that order.”
Some of the characters start to be types, rather than people:
“Norvaleen Whittle had always been a little chubby….Then one day, while she was shopping at Walmart, she suddenly noticed that when she walked, she was swaying from side to side like a great big ocean liner. It was the first time Norvaleen realized that she was a big, fat person.”
By the 1950’s, Elner’s sister Ida begins to write a column in the local newspaper entitled “The Whole Town’s Talking,” which tells, rather than shows, the events of the day.
And when Ida’s niece, Hanna Marie, comes along, the characters become even more one dimensional, with the rich child Hanna becoming a saint and her husband–born at the same time to a poor family in Chicago–growing into a dastardly villain.
By the last third, the novel reflects the fact that the author is thinking about getting old and facing the prospect of death. One of her characters says
“The funny thing was I didn’t feel old inside. I remember how I used to feel about old people. I could never imagine them as young…but it’s a different story when you’re on the other end.”
The last straw is the epilogue, when all the town’s inhabitants, who have been happily chattering away at each other in the graveyard (minus one or two who mysteriously disappeared) get reincarnated and have this conversation:
“’I just wonder where we will go after we have been every living thing on earth.’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it too much,’ said the four-leaf clover (who used to be a science teacher in Akron, Ohio). ‘That process will take trillions of years, and…there are over eight million species of fish alone, not to mention all the insects.’
‘I was a flea once,’ offered a small grub passing by.’”
This novel does offer escapism of a sort, but it’s the kind that elderly authors can enjoy, not their readers.
Margaret Atwood’s novel Hag-Seed, her version of The Tempest, is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which so far includes Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew).
I loved this one as much as Vinegar Girl, and it’s a re-telling of a play I already like, so even more fun. Atwood’s novel is about a production of The Tempest directed by Felix, the novel’s Prospero. He is a father who lost his daughter tragically, at the age of three, and also artistic director at a Canadian theatre festival that sounds a lot like the one at Stratford. He plans a production that will be “like the Taj Mahal, an ornate mausoleum raised in honor of a beloved shade, or a priceless jeweled casket containing ashes.”
But Felix gets dismissed from his job due to the machinations of a more politically savvy rival before he can stage his big production. He disappears from his former life, even using a fake name (Mr. Duke), and waits a dozen years for the right situation in which to get his revenge on the rival. In the process, he becomes a little less of a jerk. He takes a job as a reading and literacy teacher in a prison and begins directing them in filmed productions of Shakespeare plays. When the other teachers and officials who work in the prison voice their objections to his enterprise, “he keeps his mouth shut while being bombarded with sanctimonious twaddle” like this:
“Is it really that helpful, Mr. Duke, to expose these damaged men…is it helpful to expose these vulnerable men to traumatic situations that can trigger anxiety and panic and flashbacks, or worse, dangerous aggressive behavior? Situations such as political assassinations, civil wars, witchcraft, severed heads, and little boys being smothered by their evil uncle in a dungeon? Much of this is far too close to the lives they have already been leading. Really, Mr. Duke, do you want to run those risks and take those responsibilities upon you?”
In his head, Felix protests, “Of course it deals in traumatic situations! It conjures up demons in order to exorcise them!” He is, of course, as much in need of this as any of the prisoners. With himself as Prospero and the actress he meant for his original production as Miranda, he casts prisoners in the other roles, which is appropriate, as one of his assignments is to identify nine different prisons in the play. Felix has the prisoners work in teams to discover and convey their own ideas about each character. Ariel’s team, for example, is responsible for special effects.
Much of the pleasure of the novel is reading about the way Felix and the cast members come up with their ideas for getting their interpretation of the play across. Eventually, their ideas about the nature of Ariel and the spirits on Prospero’s island come together in a way that shows Felix how he can get his revenge. At their performance of the filmed play, they trick his formal rival–now one of the public officials invited to see this filmed version of the prison production–into confessing his villainy. The performance includes “magic” with disguised actors, hallucinations, and loud music in the rooms where the officials are watching. At one point the actor playing Ariel tells him he’s selected “Metallica. ‘Ride the Lightning.’ It’s really loud” and Felix replies “That’s my tricksy spirit!”
After the successful production, we get to sit in on the reports by each team of prisoner-actors, and each one is full of insight. Team Hag-Seed’s report is the highlight, especially because Felix had the most difficulty choosing a Caliban, as so many of the prisoners seemed right for the part. They give three different possible endings and give reasons for why the first two aren’t right, eventually presenting a third ending as their version of what they think happens to Caliban after the action of the play:
“By the end, Prospero’s learning that maybe not everything is somebody else’s fault. Plus, he sees that the bad in Caliban is pretty much the same as the bad in him, Prospero. They’re both angry, both name-callers, both full of revenge: they’re joined at the hip. Caliban is like his bad other self. Like father, like son. So he owns up: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ That’s what he says, and that’s what he means.
So after the play, Prospero tries to make up for what he did wrong. He takes Caliban onto the ship, runs him under the shower, scrubs off that fishy smell, orders him some fancy new clothes, makes him, like, a pageboy or something, so he can learn to eat from a plate. Says he’s sorry and they need to start fresh. Appeals to the artistic side of Caliban, what with the beautiful dreams and all. Once Caliban is cleaned up and well dressed and has manners, people don’t think he’s ugly any more. They think he’s, like, rugged.
So Prospero sets him up as a musician, back in Milan. Once he gets a break, the kid does really well. He can bring out, like the darkness emotions in people, but in a musical way. He has to keep away from the booze, though, it’s poison to him, turns him crazy. So he makes the effort, and he stays clean.
Next thing you know he’s a star. Prospero’s really proud of him. The kid is top billing at all the duke-type concerts. He’s got a stage name, he’s got a band: HAG-SEED AND THE THINGS OF DARKNESS. He’s, like, world-famous.”
There are three happy endings to this tale, one after another, and my delight was amplified by each one. It’s fun, and fabulous, and it will make you think—about human potential, different kinds of prisons, ambition, love, and even what we might call magic.
I was skeptical about Ann Hood’s novel The Book That Matters Most because I don’t usually like books about people who love books; I find most of them overly precious and irritatingly contrived. And, like many people who love books, I get a little weary of proclaiming and defending my list of favorites, by any other name (most important, most influential, by genre, by century, even the book one would “be” in a Fahrenheit 451 world). But Hood disarms most of my objections, as one of her characters talks about “the idea of the book that matters most” and why it’s “impossible to pick such a book. When you read a book, and who you are when you read it, makes it matter or not. Like if you’re unhappy and you read, I don’t know, On the Road or The Three Musketeers and that book changes how you feel or how you think, then it matters the most. At that time.”
This novel is about how a fictional book matters most to its main character, Ava. We find out that Ava is alone because her children are grown, her husband left her for another woman, her sister died when she was young, after which her mother disappeared, and her father has dementia. Ava “missed the rituals of her young family” and has decided to join a book group because she is “desperate for company, desperate for conversation….Not just for company, but for something more, a deeper connection to people.” I think many of us who have taken to the internet to find like-minded readers can identify with that.
Hood indulges herself with the book group discussions, having each member choose a classic so she can give her own readers some background and talk about (hard to avoid using Jo Walton’s phrase here) “what makes this book so great.” She includes Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Slaughterhouse-Five. On her website, she talks about how she selected those titles, and gives a few of the others people mentioned when she asked them what book “matters most.”
My favorite line (everybody’s favorite line) from Catcher in the Rye is used as an epigraph to the chapter in which it is discussed: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Although she doesn’t explicitly offer her friendship to her own readers, in the age of twitter you can at least tweet at Ann Hood.
The novel is put together in an interesting way. It’s Ava’s story, but we get interested in the story of her daughter, and then her sister and her mother and her aunt. All of the stories come together in the end, and it’s not irritatingly contrived but feels pretty much inevitable.
What I most want to say to the author of The Book That Matters Most is thank you for the happy ending. Because as much as I love the grand gestures of tragedy, what makes this book matter to me is the reassurance that even though individual lives leave a mark, most people can eventually get over a loss, even the kind of loss that seems at the time like the end of the world…and for the reminder that often what helps people through is a book.
This winter marks the 25th I’ve spent in Ohio, and either I’m finally getting the hang of it or the winters are getting milder; perhaps a bit of both. One of the survival techniques I’ve learned to cope with winter here is that I now own more than one coat, and the other is that I’ve learned I need to travel–especially during the coldest months, November to April—to remind myself that there are places where the sun still shines.
I still don’t think of myself as “from” here, though. I’ve spent parts of my life in Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Florida, South Carolina, and Maryland. I’ve never willingly identified myself as an “Ohioan” (especially because of the association of the name with the obtuse and cheerful northerners in Walker Percy novels). And yet here I am.
Both my children were born and raised in Ohio. We’ve owned a house here for more than two decades, repairing and patching and improving parts of it at will since there are no codes, and paying to have our trash hauled away once a week while our cars, which never have to be safety inspected or emissions tested, sit in the garage. For fourteen years we volunteered to do our part shoring up various pieces of the local public school system. Now every Saturday I take a sign–addressed to my representative in congress–to the public square and join my neighbors in standing up to be counted in favor of issues like universal health coverage and continuing EPA regulations, while a guy with a bullhorn harasses us about his religion from across the street and the driver of one out of every fifteen cars makes a rude hand sign or shouts something out his car window. We’ve slowly gotten used to most of the local customs and watched others (like referring to green peppers on pizza as “mangoes”) disappear.
And I’ve finally started to understand the mix of exasperation and fondness in poems about Ohio, like this one by Allison Davis:
The Heart of It All + A Free Beer
There are too many things set
in Ohio. There is even a river. For a while
all we had were couches and tongue rings.
Now, it’s over. All married. Each time you turned around
to face the Torah I hoped you were looking
at my ass. You weren’t, and your brother wasn’t looking
at my sister. We’ve recovered. She married.
In Youngstown when you marry there’s a cookie table.
Back home, having a long last name
is like having a big dick, is like having a nice
cookie table. My five aunts made hundreds
of Greek cookies for my sister’s wedding.
My mother would make them for school, at Christmas,
and I’d bring them in with her motherly note:
“Take out the clove! xo” After my sister’s wedding,
my mother packed up a box of cookies
and said “Don’t share them with anyone
who won’t appreciate them.” My mother’s nightmare
is someone eating Greek food without having
an experience. Baklava is something she has left
of one experience. My cousin
cries about a guy, and I say, “Good, no one likes him
anyway.” No, I don’t. I say, “Find someone
who’ll treat it like an experience.” And if you do
and if he doesn’t, forget about the clove.
He’ll ask, “Was I supposed to swallow that?”
Answer, “That’s what she said.” My cousin
rolls her eyes, says I don’t
understand. The time spent convincing the heartbroken
you’ve been heartbroken. The last time I saw him
was in a Columbus library. We’d both left town,
yet there we were; the back of his neck
in Literature, D-F. “I could not speak, and my eyes failed,
I was neither living nor dead” are Waste Land lines
Pound wasn’t allowed to cut. A hallucination?
I emailed: it was him, he asked why I didn’t say
Hello. Because it’s possible to stay too long
At the fair. Because aisles over in L
was the Lorca
I once watched a guy from Madrid
angrily re-translate in red ink. Even now, it’s there—
written and written
over. Even now, a Great Lake
and a river. Things are set in Ohio
because you’re allowed to stay too long
and call it love. Because there are no
regulations. My mother waits up
for my father who works at a motel
that never closes, that gives customers
the heart of whatever they’ve come for
plus a free beer with every room.
It’s mostly true that “there are no/regulations” around here, and I appreciate the whimsical ending of the poem, the sometimes-tawdry joy of getting a little more than you bargained for and recognizing that this is a place where little things count. Where else can you get so used to funny hybrid names that you eventually forget to laugh at the name of a restaurant in a Columbus strip mall called “Buckeye Pho,” referring to it completely without humor as simply a possible place to meet?
Although my children are Ohioans, the irony is that from here on out they will live elsewhere, and I will probably still be here, thinking of Homer Price every time we drive past the public library in Centerville and cursing our luck whenever it snows and we miss our flight out.
Like many readers, I’ve pieced together what I know about Norse mythology from reading Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Farmer’s The Sea of Trolls, meeting the bed-ridden Odin in Adams’ The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, tracing the branches of Yggdrasil in Chabon’s Summerland, and delighting in the feats of Thor and glimpses of Loki in movies, TV shows, and books as disparate as The Avengers, Supernatural, and Neil Gaiman’s own American Gods. Most of us know at least one of these stories.
Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology brings some of the most famous stories together in a narrative that begins with the creation of Asgard and ends with predictions of Ragnarok. It’s quite readable, if somewhat bare—the stories are told simply, without the thousand crazy points of overlap and echo that are so much fun in other tellings. It’s like we’re being told a familiar story pitched to the understanding of a younger sibling.
The story-teller is a master, though. With extreme economy, he gets across complicated ideas, especially about Loki, that always-slippery character:
“So now you know: that is how the gods got their greatest treasures. It was Loki’s fault. Even Thor’s hammer was Loki’s fault. That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”
Some of the parts that could be presented as scandalous are told in a way that eliminates the suggestive possibilities, as when Loki lures away a stallion in order to save himself from the wrath of the other gods. We are told that he
“stayed away for the best part of a year, and when he showed up again, he was accompanied by a gray foal.
It was a beautiful foal, although it had eight legs instead of the usual four, and it followed Loki wherever he went, and nuzzled him, and treated Loki as if he were its mother. Which, of course, was the case.”
The exciting parts are still exciting, but told in a way that makes me think of William Goldman having his grandfather/storyteller interrupt the narrative to tell his young listener that the princess bride “does not get eaten by eels at this time.” When Gaiman tells the story of how Thor performs what turns out to be a marvelous feat of strength, we are shown only that he has been asked to wrestle a giant’s old nurse, or foster mother:
“He did not want to hurt her.
They stood together, facing each other. The first to get the other down onto the ground would win. Thor pushed the old woman and he pulled her, he tried to move her, to trip her, to force her down, but she might as well have been made of rock for all the good it did.”
Only afterwards are we told that the old woman
“was Elli, old age, No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only onto one knee.”
The simplicity of the story-telling has its charms, particularly when it comes to the intricacies of the gods’ magic:
“When the gods felt age beginning to touch them, to frost their hair or ache their joints, then they would go to Idunn. She would open her box and allow the god or goddess to eat a single apple. As they ate it, their youth and power would return to them. Without Idunn’s apples, the gods would scarcely be gods…”
The characterization of the different gods is consistent throughout the volume. Thor, for example, is always completely guileless:
“Tyr said to Thor, ‘I hope you know what you are doing.’
‘Of course I do,’ said Thor. But he didn’t. He was just doing whatever he felt like doing. That was what Thor did best.”
The simplicity of the story-telling extends even to a description of necromancy. When Odin is disturbed about the fate of his beloved son Balder:
“He stood by the grave at the end of the world, and in that place he invoked the darkest of runes and called on old powers, long forgotten. He burned things, and he said things, and he charmed and he demanded. The storm wind whipped at his face, and then the wind died and a woman stood before him on the other side of the fire, her face in the shadows.
‘It was a hard journey, coming back from the land of the dead,’ she told him.”
All of the best stories of Norse mythology are told here, but in a way I would find suitable for reading to drowsy children right before bedtime.
The knee news has been rather discouraging, and I’ve allowed myself a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself. I still haven’t really been able to walk since the surgery to remove the broken pieces of meniscus in my right knee. I can limp, the kind of limp that a person has to sit on the edge of the bed for a few minutes before attempting. I need to be conscious for the pain of putting any weight on the knee and in case of the occasional moment of such intense pain that it feels like the knee might give way.
On my recent trip to Oahu, a trip that an Ohio resident can’t conceivably complain about, I used a cane. I even took the cane (an inexpensive folding one) onto the sand, as part of my various attempts to try getting into the waves. Couldn’t do it, though. I was extremely frustrated; I took an inflatable raft to the edge, because sometimes that helps me balance if I can get into the water far enough, but every place I tried, I sank down into the sand enough to make my already uneven gait too uneven to continue, and I could see that it wasn’t going to be possible for me to take the big step down where the waves hit the shore. After a couple of days of carrying it around, I gave my raft to some kids and then I sat on the shore–on the chair I’d rented because I can’t just spread a towel on the sand anymore and be able to get back up– and watched them play with it.
I’d booked a ride to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve to go snorkeling before I knew I would have so much trouble getting in the water, and so I went, with considerable trepidation that it would all be for nothing. I had rented mask, snorkel, and swim fins, and everyone was sitting in the shallow water putting on their fins, so I made my determined way to where I sat/fell down and then turned on my stomach and pushed off, which worked. I had a fabulous time swimming around and looking at fish—I saw many of the kinds of fish pictured on the “fish ID card,” the most spectacular of which was the male awela (“Christmas wrasse”) because it’s so colorful, even in a place where everything is already gorgeously and extravagantly colorful.
Eventually, though, I had to stop swimming because I knew I had to allow extra time to figure out a way to get out of the water and walk back to where my ride was parked. I swam up to the shallow water, took my fins off, and sat there looking around, enjoying the water and the sun (there was some that day!) and watching the people. I tried getting up a couple of times, and I could make it partway, but it was clear I was going to need a hand to get back on my feet. Being a reasonably cautious swimmer when alone, I had gone in and come back out right in front of the lifeguard stand–so I knew I could wave and get help, as a last resort. Some people who had been standing in the water near me for a while, getting ready to go in, had been talking to me a little bit, and after about ten minutes, a friend of theirs came down to say something to them—he was a reasonably big guy and seemed friendly, so I asked if he could do me a favor and give me a hand up. He did, and was very nice about it, so that’s how I got out of the water. Like Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers.
I got back to the parking lot slowly, in stages, and sat down on a rock wall to rest my knee and admire the bay below one last time. I was quiet and still, and after a few minutes, I saw a mongoose run right in front of me, diving for some tall grass on the other side of the wall.
There are certainly good things that come out of pain and disappointment, but you have to diminish your expectations somewhat before you’re able to appreciate them much. I’m trying to reach that point, the one Heather McHugh writes about in this poem:
In Praise of Pain
A brilliance takes up residence in flaws—
a brilliance all the unchipped faces of design
refuse. The wine collects its starlets
at a lip’s fault, sunlight where the nicked
glass angles, and affection where the eye
is least correctable, where arrows of
unquivered light are lodged, where someone
else’s eyes have come to be concerned.
For beauty’s sake, assault and drive and burn
the devil from the simply perfect sun.
Demand a birthmark on the skin of love,
a tremble in the touch, in come a cry,
and let the silverware of nights be flecked,
the moon pocked to distribute more or less
indwelling alloys of its dim and shine
by nip and tuck, by chance’s dance of laws.
The brightness drawn and quartered on a sheet,
the moment cracked upon a bed, will last
as if you soldered them with moon and flux.
And break the bottle of the eye to see
what lights are spun of accident and glass.
When I was younger, I kept thinking that each knee surgery was going to fix the problem. Now I know that the rest of my life is going to be some variation on waiting for another surgery, recovering from surgery, and doing the series of exercises for the muscles that support the knee. It’s not anything a person does “for beauty’s sake,” but I guess a person might run mad (ha, only metaphorically) if she can’t learn to look for moments of “dim and shine” in the process.
When have you had such moments, of “dim and shine”?
Today I offer all grown-up readers some Valentine’s Day advice, which is heavily derived from my reading of a book entitled The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love many years ago.
This is the advice: If you enjoy flowers, go out and get yourself some. I don’t care if they cost more today than they will tomorrow—if that bothers you or you don’t have enough money for the big bouquet you’d really like, find yourself one small sweetheart rose, or a little primrose in a pot. If you’re at the point in the long, gray winter when you really want some chocolate, go out and get the kind you like best. There’s an amazing variety of it available right now.
Don’t tell me you can’t afford it; didn’t you buy your child or your pet a little something just the other day? You deserve something nice today. Don’t sit around waiting for anybody else to get it for you. Go out and get it yourself. If you want to share with someone else, fine. But it’s not anyone else’s job to guess what you want and bring it home at the end of the day.
In Jill Conner Browne’s book The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, she explains why she and her friends decided
“to declare ourselves Queens of whatever we chose. No pageants for us. No way would we ever consider groveling and posturing for a bunch of strangers…in the pitiful hope that, for reasons of their own, they would decide to give us their paltry crown.”
The Sweet Potato Queens, she explains, are “real live grown-up women—self-sufficient and self-actualized. But we were crownless, one and all.” So what did they do? They went out and got themselves crowns and wore them in the local St. Patrick’s Day parade, after which she wrote four books about it.
I say don’t wait until St. Patrick’s Day to provide yourself with some of what you crave. It’s February, for God’s sake. Everyone needs something to help them get through the month.
As Jill says in one of her later books, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner, “No matter how bad your childhood was, it’s over. If you didn’t get real majorette boots then, get some now.”
Whatever it is you want, no matter how silly you think it is, find a way to get some of it today.
And if you’d like to read The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, look for it in your local library–if they don’t have it, then let me know and I’ll see what I can do.