Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Innocent Murderess

How many times have I aimlessly wandered the aisles of a bookstore picking up and putting down books whose covers catch my eye? How many of those times have the books I've bought either collected the dust of years on shelves unread or been read and completely forgotten?  One mislaid day in 2002, the book goddess smiled on me, and I happened upon my first Margaret Atwood. I had no idea who she was at the time and have no idea to this day why, on one of my rambles through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of Alias Grace. What I do know is that for the next 15 years, if pressed to choose a favorite book, this random treasure was it. All my life, I've read so much that I struggle to choose a favorite book, but somehow and for reasons I still don't fully understand, this one caught me.  After all the intervening years and so many more books, including new Atwoods, I will have to revise my assessment to say Alias Grace is now one of my favorite books.

This summer, my daughter read it for the first time and urged me to re-read it. As usual, in Alias Grace, Atwood defies easy categorization.  Psychological thriller, historical fiction, gothic mystery, interpersonal drama, character development and study, elements of all those fill the pages of this entertaining read. Just like many of the novel’s characters, I found myself captivated and haunted by the ever elusive Grace. Is she a cold-hearted, calculating murderess or a na├»ve, innocent rube?  Or, as I suspect, like most of us, is she much more complex and nuanced, harboring some qualities of both?

Maybe the not knowing, the uncertainty is the point. Once again, Margaret Atwood proves to be prescient. With all the recent discoveries about the fallibility of memory, with all the current failings of justice in our country and our world, and with some of our deepest spiritual leaders finally beginning to address the darkness as well as the light in all of us, we would all do well to learn to pause and think and reserve judgment more often than passing it.  The cautionary tale of Grace Marks teaches us, if nothing else, that the voiceless and the vulnerable are always the easiest to blame.  But is that kind of easy injustice what we want to embrace?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Second Half-Century

Anna at Guedelon
photo by Amy Brandon

As I have neared and now passed age 50 over the last couple years, I find myself changing slowly, like a jagged mountain eroding into a smooth stone, more likely now to be prone to naps than to tempests.  As my emotions settle, my mind seems to wake and clear, and my reading interests move in different directions.  Often,  I find myself reading ten or eleven books at a time now. This became possible only when I learned to let go of goal-oriented reading.  Usually, eventually, I will finish what I start, but not always.  Even if I don’t finish, I still find I take something positive away from most books.  I look at reading now more like mining for gold dust than like searching for the Hope Diamond.  Not every book is a diamond, but most contain at least a little pretty dust.

Right now, at this point in my life, I feel like I’m reaching the end of the person I was and am on the cusp of a new and different person.  I hope this new person will be able to write more. I’ve missed writing about what I’ve read.  For a time I came to feel like I either didn’t have anything new to say or wasn’t able to express what I was thinking. Maybe we all have to get quiet and shut down for a while to clear our minds for new thoughts and new ways of being.  Wisdom seems to come at a glacial pace, if it comes at all, no matter how many books I devour, but I will keep on devouring them, looking for those traces of gold dust.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We Miss the Log in the Mirror Every Time

"The high point of my day was seeing Frank emerge from the chrysalis of his closet to unfurl his sartorial wings." 

My Book Guru is three for three so far this year.  It's time for another dinner and book discussion so I can get some more ideas! Her third recommendation, Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson is an entertaining little novel about a reclusive author and her ten-year-old autistic son and their "forced" cohabitation and interaction with an assistant from the author's publishing house.

MM Banning (Mimi) is a literary one hit wonder. Upon publication, her only novel becomes a huge hit, quickly earning its place in the school canon, and its author just as quickly retreats into herself, literally and figuratively, and is not heard from again for many years.  (Shades of Harper Lee's life.) During this reclusive period, Mimi mysteriously becomes the mother of an autistic son.  He is her only relative and she his, and for a while, all is well, until she becomes the victim of a scam artist and realizes she needs to produce another book to provide financial security for herself and her son, Frank. In order to write, Mimi needs help tending Frank, thus the presence of Alice, the assistant who serves as the book's narrator, in Banning's home.  Given Frank's propensities, this task becomes almost Herculean in the effort it requires. Most of the book centers around Alice's attempt to find a way to develop a relationship with Frank. I won't say more.  If you want to know how this turns out, read the book.

Several of the novel's themes resonated with me, especially given our current cultural climate. Both Mimi and Frank, each in her or his own way, are almost too sensitive to exist in our society as it stands now. When are we going to learn not only to accept but to embrace and celebrate difference?   It's way past time for us to grow up and stop being threatened by and afraid of difference among us. That's what our bent toward tribalism and isolationism really is...fear.  We are so afraid of those who are different that we band together en masse to expel them from our sight.  How far removed is this from the practice of leaving our weak for the wolves?  Think about that every time you find yourself telling someone to find a way to fit in or to "get over" injustice.  How do we, as a society, respond to people who perpetrate banal and sophomoric cruelties like the ones Frank has to endure in this lovely little novel? Do we reject them, or do we elect them?  Funny how we seem to be able to see the cruelty in others' stories but not in our own.  To paraphrase one of my favorite teachers:  we see the splinter in someone else's eye from 50 feet but miss the log in the mirror every time.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Undermajordomo Minor

photo by me

"His heart was a church of his own choosing, and the lights came through the colorful windows."

Thanks once again to my friend, Jennifer, for a fantastic reading recommendation!  I think I'm going to appoint her my Book Guru.  I hope she will find the title pay enough.  Feel free to use it as a resume builder, Sister.

When she recommended Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, she said that she had no idea how to describe it or how to explain why she liked it.  I completely concur with that assessment.  It's a quirky novel full of likable characters and witty, engaging dialogue, but I don't really know how to explain exactly what it's about or even why I found it so compelling.  The best description I can come up with is an allegorical fairy-tale-type coming-of-age story about a lovable, dishonest and somewhat self-centered young man who leaves home, gets robbed, gets unrobbed, gets a job, falls in love with his robber's daughter, makes friends with said robber among others, makes enemies, gets murdered, gets unmurdered, finds himself abandoned, becomes unjobbed, and embarks on a quest to find his love and life.  How's that?

Here's what I know for sure:  I loved just about every minute of this book and miss the characters and their snappy dialogue and insouciant attitudes like people I wish I knew.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Norwegian By Night

photo by me
"Most things are both true and absurd." Sheldon/Donny 

Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Jennifer, I started 2017 off with an entertaining, quirky little book.  Norwegian By Night by Derek Miller is part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part introspective journal of an 82-year-old, Jewish-American, Korean War vet named Sheldon who is also named Donny.

In the last few years I seemed to have been drawn to anything set in Scandinavia, so I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside as Sheldon/Donny attempts to elude both the Norwegian police and the KLA mafia-type bad guy whose son Sheldon/Donny has inadvertently kidnapped.

The book kept my interest and was a great diversion during the snow storm this weekend. I had never heard of either the book or the author, but I will definitely read his other work.  If you need a quick and entertaining read, I highly recommend this one.  Even better, I found it on Kindle for $1.99.