Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Long Good-bye, by Meghan O'Rourke

Over the past few years, I have read several memoirs of grieving, but The Long Good-Bye resonates in a way the others haven't. Perhaps that is because O'Rourke is writing about her mother's death, and I have a mother (still very much alive, thank goodness), whereas the other works are all about husbands, and I haven't had one of those for years. Or perhaps it's because O'Rourke is about the same age as I was when I experienced a devastating loss (I do suspect that grieving changes with the age of the mourner). For whatever reason, I found The Long Good-Bye moving in a way that encouraged reflection.

O'Rourke's mother, Barbara Kelly O'Rourke, was in her early fifties when she was diagnosed with cancer. O'Rourke is unflinching in describing her responses to her mother's illness, the realization that she is probably going to die, and her actual death. (O'Rourke decides to get married while her mother is in treatment--and then to get divorced just months later, adding to the unbelievable layers of stress she was feeling.) When Barbara dies, O'Rourke is devastated by how much she misses her mother, how "unmoored" she feels.

As she struggles with her grief, she reads prodigiously about mourning, and she shares insights and excerpts from her reading. This choice is not only instructive--we learn as she learns--it also helps to ground her pain in the experiences and wisdom of others.

O'Rourke writes about this difficult subject with great grace. I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to understand more about how people deal with loss and grief.

Favorite passages:
Other people--friends, colleagues--got used to my mother dying of cancer. But I did not. Each day, sunlight came like a knife to a wound that was not healed.

The desert was dry and majestic and it calmed me; I was empty and it was, too. The open sky over the land, the juxtaposition of the minute and the majestic--it all expressed the dissonance I felt, and having my sense of smallness reflected back at me put me strangely at ease. How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it did matter to me, and in this setting that felt natural, the way the needle on the cactus in the huge desert is natural.

It's not a question of getting over it or healing. No, it's a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It's not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sing You Home, by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is an adventurous author--a few years ago, she incorporated a comic book into one of her novels. With Sing You Home, she (lyrics) and collaborator Ellen Wilber (music) have written a soundtrack for the book. The 10 songs, performed by Wilber (provided on CD with print copies of the book, available online to those who read an ebook), are each connected to a chapter in the novel. Since one of the central characters in Sing You Home, Zoe, is a music therapist, this ancillary could be a good idea--but the songs I listened to were mediocre and did nothing to enhance the reading experience. Top-notch recordings of the songs that Zoe used in therapy or listened to herself would perhaps have been more effective.

Aside from the addition of the soundtrack, Sing You Home follows Picoult's successful formula. It features multiple narrators--in this case music therapist Zoe, her husband Max, and friend Vanessa--each with a distinctive voice. The story rests on current "hot topics"--gay marriage, infertility, and evangelical Christianity. Many of the story's conflicts are played out in the familiar setting of the courtroom--and there's a Picoultian twist at the end.

To avoid being a "spoiler" (I'm feeling sensitive about what I write because a review of another Picoult title is by far the most viewed page on my blog), I won't say more about the plot, other than to say that some of the crucial developments in the story weren't believable to me. They certainly could happen, but I didn't feel Picoult provided the context we needed to believe that they would happen.

The parts of the books that I most enjoyed were the scenes in which Zoe was practicing her profession of music therapy. These scenes gave me insight not only into how music therapy can work but an appreciation for how a therapist changes e course during a therapy session to meet the client's needs. I didn't hate the rest of the book--and at least no children died tragically as a plot device (only pre-born children). Still, Picoult's innovations have not prevented her books from becoming predictable--even the supposed "twists" no longer really surprise.

Favorite passage: None

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Kitchen Daughter, by Jael McHenry

The first chapter of The Kitchen Daughter is a gem. Ginny Selvaggio is at her parents' funeral, and she's having difficulty dealing with all the people--looking to her sister for cues, as well as rescue, she also uses what are clearly long-term coping strategies--thinking about cooking, cooking, and shutting herself in the closet with her hands shoved into one or another pair of her parents' shoes. McHenry describes Ginny's responses so well that we immediately grasp that Ginny has some kind of social disorder (which turns out to be undiagnosed Asperger's--probably) and how she copes with it; we also like her, want to cook with her, and understand quite a bit about her family situation.

Ginny's married sister Amanda is well-intentioned but a bit too "take charge," and much of the story is about their conflicts--about whether they should sell the family home (where Ginny still lives), whether Ginny should move in with Amanda's family, and whether Amanda's daughter Shannon might have the same problem that Ginny has. There's also a magical realism element--starting at the funeral, when Ginny cooks something exactly as specified on a hand-written recipe card, the ghost of the person who wrote the recipe appears. Through these appearances, Ginny learns more about her family history and is warned against letting Amanda do something...what neither we nor Ginny know. In another subplot, the family's cleaning lady plots to get Ginny out of the house, and Ginny becomes friendly with her grief-stricken son.

Reading this book is not about the plot--it's about the window into Ginny's mind and her coping strategies (I absolutely love her 'Normal Book" and the way she thinks about cooking and food to calm herself). And it's about pondering what it means to be normal, to help someone you don't really understand, to grieve.


Favorite passage:
I lose myself in food. The rich wet texture of melting chocolate. The way good aged goat cheese coats your tongue. The silky feel of pasta dough when it's been rested and rested just enough. How the scent of onions changes, over an hour, from raw to mellow, sharp to sweet, and all that even without tasting. The simplest magic: how heat transforms.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Faithful Place, by Tana French

In Tana French's third mystery novel set in Dublin, she once again takes a character from her previous book--this time Cassie's boss in Undercover, Frank Mackey--and makes him the center of the story. The divorced Frank has just picked up his nine-year-old daughter for the weekend when he gets a frantic call from his sister Jackie, the only member of his family he has talked to in 22 years. The night he left the family apartment on Faithful Place 22 years ago, he was planning to elope to London with his girlfriend Rosie Daly . . . but Rosie apparently stood him up. Now, however, her suitcase has been discovered in the abandoned building where teenagers used to hang out. When her body is found in the basement of the building, Frank must not only try to figure out who killed her--and it seems highly likely that it was someone in his family--but rethink the meaning of his past and the ways in which viewing himself as the jilted lover shaped his life.

The Mackey family is ferociously dysfunctional. Frank's efforts to untangle the mystery of Rosie's death are complicated by the fact that his sister and ex-wife have secretly been taking his daughter Holly to visit the Mackeys so she can "get to know her family" and Holly is drawn in to the family's craziness.

French continues to explore the meaning of family and the construction of memory within the mystery/thriller genre. This third novel has a more believable plot line than her two earlier works and in that sense is more enjoyable than the others. The language is not, however, as lovely as in the previous two novels (especially In the Woods)--perhaps this is an indicator of French's skill in creating different voices for the characters who narrate the novels. Perhaps we'll learn more in novel four (I'm predicting the narrator will be Detective Stephen Moran, whose dark side is as yet unrevealed to us).

Favorite passage:
She [Frank's ex-wife Olivia] looked so lovely, and so tired. Her skin was starting to turn worn and fragile, and the sickly kitchen light picked out crow's feet around her eyes. I thought of Rosie, round and firm and bloomed like ripe peaches, and how she never got the chance to be any other kind of lovely except perfect. I hoped Dermot realized just how beautiful Olivia's wrinkles were.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer

In Swim Back to Me, Ann Packer presents six stories (one technically a novella), with the first and last effectively linked by shared characters. The book opens with "Walk for Mankind," a novella set among faculty children in 1970s Palo Alto. The story is narrated by an adult Richard Appleby, who was an eighth-grader living with his professor father at the time of the story. Professor Appleby seems to have little notion of what a 14-year-old's needs might be; meanwhile, when Richard visits his mother once a month in Oakland, she tries to expose him to "the real world" by taking him for walks in the ghetto. At school, Richard is intrigued by the new girl, Sasha Horowitz, who not only befriends him but invites him into her family, which to Richard seems like the ideal two-parent, two-child lively unit. As the year progresses, however, Richard's feelings toward Sasha become romantic; meanwhile, she has become involved with a 25-year-old drug dealer. This relationship interferes with Richard and Sasha's friendship, but he is nonetheless devastated when Stanford does not ask Mr. Horowitz to stay on for the next school year. Clearly, this year in his life has shaped Richard's life.

The book's final story takes us into Sasha's family more than 30 years later. The family--parents long since divorced and Sasha herself married and divorced--has gathered for her brother's late-in-life wedding to a much younger woman. Sasha has become the caretaker for her difficult father, a fact that grieves her mother Joanie but that Sasha accepts. When Joanie mentions that Richard's sadness that year in Palo Alto prevented her from leaving her husband sooner, Sasha remembers her wildness that year--totally out of character for her either before or after--but she has forgotten Richard. Given the obvious importance she played in Richard's memory, this is a shocking reminder that even a close relationship may mean totally different things to the people involved.

I was also moved by three of the four self-contained stories. "Molten" is the story of a bereaved mother's attempt to connect with her dead son through his favorite music. In "Dwell Time," a woman happily muses about her new marriage and blended family--until her new husband does not come home. As she learns what has happened, she ponders what to do when he does return. "Her Firstborn" is told from the perspective of an expectant first-time father, whose wife (in a previous marriage) had a baby boy who died at five months. As he tries to protect her from the questions and comments he thinks would wound her, he worries about why she wants their new baby to wear the dead baby's clothes.

Although I found the story "Jump Time" less effective, I highly recommend this collection. Packer's characters are multidimensional; they inhabit families, relationships, and places with absolute authenticity; and they deal with pain and loss in ways as variable as we ourselves might.

Favorite passages:
Just two weeks and he's an expert on Danny, on his Dannyness, each day placing into an infinitely expandable container every new thing he knows to be true about his baby. He thinks of what he knows about the dead baby--about Jasper--and it's next to nothing: he liked to be flown through the air like an airplane, he loved to have his father tickle his toes. Dean's had it all wrong: it isn't that Lise had a baby who died, but rather that she had a baby, who died. He looks at her, creases around her eyes as she smiles at Danny, and he feels a little space open up in his mind, for all she can tell him about her first son.

"We're so glad you're here," he says, and I think I'm not losing a brother, he's losing a personal pronoun.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Once Upon a Time There Was You, by Elizabeth Berg

In the prologue to Once Upon a Time There Was You, Elizabeth Berg lets us know that both John and Irene Marsh had serious doubts on their wedding day. So perhaps it is no surprise that, as the book proper starts, they are divorced, with John living in St. Paul, MN, and Irene in Northern California.

The couple's 18-year-old daughter Sadie is returning to California from a week spent with John. with whom she has a close relationship despite not living in the same state with him. She is planning a weekend getaway with her boyfriend Ron, which she is covering up by telling her somewhat smothering mother that she is going rock-climbing. The weekend turns into a disaster, and John must fly to California to help Irene deal with the crisis.

While Berg's intent, according to a piece I read, was to explore whether two people who had gotten divorced could love each other again, I never really felt that there was a snowball's chance that Irene and John would get back together. Whether they would be able to get along well enough to work through the family crisis seemed a more realistic question. I don't want to do the spoiler thing, so I'm not going say more about the plot, but suffice it to say, while this is an easy read, it's not particularly rewarding. Berg's earlier works are much better.

Favorite passage:
You're a Minnesotan. Your people just discovered that lemon juice doesn't have to come from a green bottle. But that doesn't mean everyone's so benighted!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

Where to start with A Reliable Wife? Perhaps I ought just to say that, despite the novel's strong reviews, I did not like it.

The dislike started early. I don't think I had gotten past the first page when I had thought, "Oh, geez, another author who thinks that, if you write in short sentences, you're Hemingway." (Example" The clock ticked. The hour struck. Everything moved again. The train was late.") These choppy sentences are interspersed with sentences that seem to be trying to hard for both style and depth. ("But, if you had been there and you had, in some unfathomable way, recorded the stillness, taken a negative of it as the glass plate receives he light, to be developed later, you would have known, when the thought, the recollection was finally developed, that this was the moment it began."--This monster of a sentence appears right before the four quoted above.)

Then there are the three despicable characters at the heart of the story--Ralph, the wealthy Wisconsin industrialist; Catherine, his mail-order bride; and Antonio, who may or may not be Ralph's son. Not only are all three unlikeable, they were for me totally unbelievable. All have sad back stories (Ralph's mother stabbed a needle into his hand and ground it against the bone to show him what hell was like--a place she fully expected him to end up from birth), a dysfunctional obsession with sex, and no idea how to have a real relationship with another human being. While Goolrick may intend to redeem two of the three through love and forgiveness at the end of the book, I simply didn't believe they were doing anything other than adopting new masks.

Finally, the author says he was inspired by a book of photographs and news clippings showing the dark side of the end of the nineteenth century among poor people in rural America. Yet, he does little more than allude to the stories of the poor people who die, go mad, or suffer terrible losses; they are simply sources of entertainment and surprise to Ralph and Catherine, who are wealthy and urban, respectively.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
In the country, there was insanity. There were fires and burnings and murders and rapes, unthinkable cruelties, usually committed by people against people they knew. It was at least personal.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Give Me Your Heart, by Joyce Carol Oates

I am currently trying to slog through Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (not my first attempt). In a chapter titled "Who Is a Novelist?"she talks about the difference between the author and the literary persona in a way that captured the struggle I had recently while reading Oates's book about being widowed (Oates herself seemed to find that persona burdensome). Smiley says: "As the author gets older and publishes more work, his or her literary persona grows larger, stronger, and more out of control. . . . The literary persona is a verbal construct but it speaks with a human voice, and to those who don't actually know the author, it seems to be the author." The Oates I encountered writing about herself was not the Oates I expected based on her literary persona.

I was more comfortable with this collection of short stories, subtitled Tales of Mystery and Suspense, which took me back to the literary Oates, though the creepier side of that persona. Still, imagine my surprise to come across the following in the very first story: ". . . you, Dr. K--, the man, are not the individual who appears in your books; the books are clever pretenses, artificial structures you've created to inhabit temporarily, as a crippled, deformed individual might inhabit a structure of surpassing beauty, gazing out its windows, taking pride in posing as its owner, but only temporarily." Oates does indeed seem to struggle with the conflict between self and literary persona.

Although Give Me Your Heart contains only ten stories, their conceptions of the human heart are so dark that they wear you down as you read. In "Split/Brain," a woman returns home unexpectedly from the rehab center where her husband is recovering; she notices her sister-in-law's car parked some distance from her driveway. Knowing that her ne'er-do-well nephew often drives the car, she enters the house calling his name. The resulting confrontation is predictable, but Oates gives the story another spin by returning to the thoughts in the woman's mind as she enters the house.

Several stories--"Strip Poker," "Bleeed," and "Nowhere"--involve girls (teenagers or younger) in dangerous situations with older males. In "The Spill," Lizabeta is the younger second wife of a man whose household includes various family members that no one else will take in. One of these relatives is John Henry, a mentally disabled nephew. Lizabeta fears that John Henry will harm one of her young children, telling herself over and over, "He would never hurt them. He would never." In the 1950s, however, Lizabeta cannot even dare to ask her husband to get rid of John Henry. So what can she do besides wait and watch? Perhaps the most disturbing story is "Vena Cava," which takes place entirely in the brain of a severely wounded soldier who has returned to North Dakota from the War on Terror. His wife is not the woman he wanted to marry, and he does not recognize his son as his own. Of course, he also believes that an actor is playing him. Oates describes his confused thoughts so masterfully that his story would be heart-breaking, even if it didn't end as badly as it does.

I recommend this collection, as long as you're not in a depressed state and don't read too many of the stories all at once!

Favorite passage:
. . . it was then that Jess's mother uttered the astonishing words Jess would never forget: "I wish I could believe you."

Not accusing so much as yearning, wistful. And her mouth strained, ugly. And it was the final moment of Jess's childhood, as it was, for Jess's mother, the final moment of a phase of her motherhood. Though neither could have said. Though neither would have possessed the words to speak of their loss.