Escaping into Yourself – Lions

Unknown   A small town on the Colorado Plains, with a sign off the interstate directing passersby to the “ghost town,” frames Bonnie Nadzam’s Lions, a complicated allegory of the conflict between being true to your roots while yearning for a better life.  Nancy Pearl of National Public Radio (NPR) compared Nadzam’s story to books by Kent Haruf, but its mysterious message, ambiguous hero, and haunting setting reminded me of the Man Booker 2016 longlisted book, The Many by Wyl Menmuir .

Nearly deserted but for the one bar across from the one restaurant, a dive serving strange combinations of sandwiches and hearty stews, both on the one short street, the town has housed the Walker family for generations.  The latest in the long line of talented welders, Jim, declines offers for more money in the city, sometimes trading for food or other items when the  locals cannot pay.  His reputation brings in enough work to keep him busy; when it does not, he spends his off-time leisurely reading paperback Westerns and eating canned peaches and sardines in his shop,  Life is good for Jim; he doesn’t seem to need or want much.

Although he has trained his son, Gordon, to follow in his trade, Gordon’s girlfriend, Lizzie   wants to escape.  The two are the only young people in town, and Lizzie yearns to go to college, and never come back.

After descriptions of the stark landscape and the despondence lingering in the air, Nadzam begins her story with a stranger and a dog coming into town.  The mystery of his background is never solved, but his death triggers a series of events leading to a confrontation.

When Jim suddenly dies of a heart attack, his dying wish imprisons his teenage son to a life of welding and a mysterious bondage to care for someone living in the hills.  For years, Jim has carried supplies to a site miles out of town, staying for days, and then returning to his welding.  The local gossip created mythology around these trips, delegating Jim as a savior for a long-lost Native, possibly now a ghost, who lives in a hut in the hills.  Later, Jim’s wife laughs off the lore by saying she always thought Jim’s out of town excursions were merely his way of escaping for awhile, but Nadzam nurtures the possibility of someone dependent on Jim’s visits, and mysteriously never offers an answer.

Determined to leave, Lizzie convinces Gordon to enroll in college, leaving his mother in the care of the neighboring bartender and eatery owner.  After a quick trip to Walmart on the way, Gordon helps Lizzie move into her dorm room, and goes to his own dorm, unpacking his father’s favorite chair and paperbacks, but never attending classes.  Within weeks, Jim is ready to return, stealing off in the middle of the night, leaving Lizzie behind.

From here the story becomes even more obscure.  Gordon returns only briefly to unload his father’s chair, then drives off into the hills with the familiar supplies his father often brought.  When his truck is found deserted on the road, Lizzie returns to help with the search, convinced he is hiding somewhere.

What happens to the town? to Lizzie? to Gordon?  Let me know if you read the book, and we can discuss it.

Lions is not for everyone, and it is not as good as the promised Kent Haruf clone, but the story did hold onto me, and still does.  While some still can ignore modern technology, refusing to have a computer or participate in social media, how long will it be before they are swept away into history – unless, of course, they choose privacy, secluding themselves from it all.  Nadzam offers a few phrases worth remembering, as she deftly underscores Lizzie’s struggle and the determination of those who would remain in the dying town – perhaps more the point than the story line:

“Deserve has nothing to do with what we get.”

“You didn’t always get – you almost never got- the whole story of every man, woman, or child who asked something of you in this world.  What  you got was the moment they stood before you.  You’d have to take your chances, make your best judgment, and do whatever you were going to do.  There was a sort of resolve you had to consult that went deeper than the fact of a man’s personal history…”

 

 

 

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What Would You Do for Love? The Ninth Hour

51ZwhNBTHvL._AC_UL160_   The first time I saw Sister Mary Kathleen without her veil and starched cowl, my thoughts sacrilegiously went to her weight, no longer hidden behind her flowing robes.  Nuns were my second mothers from first grade through high school from Sister Anita in second grade who hid me in the coat closet to read the upper level books while my classmates struggled through beginning readers, to Sister Marie Gabriel, who inspired all girls in her Latin class to don the habit to look like her – rumor had it she was once a Rockette.  Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour has nuns living through the early twentieth century, but Sisters Jeanne and Lucy had many of the same blithe goodness and no nonsense attitudes of the nuns I remember.

McDermott frames her story around a young girl, Sally, from before her birth to after her death.  The book opens with Sally’s father, Jim, committing suicide, an act with consequences throughout the story for unborn Sally, her pregnant mother Annie, and their interactions with the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who come to their rescue.  The nuns give Annie a job in their laundry, where Sally plays as an infant and later entertains the nuns with her antics.

Sally spends all her free time with the nuns, and eventually, as many good Catholics girls do, she entertains the idea of becoming one of them.  Her shadowing of Sister Lucy ministering to the needy families, elderly shut-ins, disabled invalids, and sickly poor quickly removes her aspirations to be a nurse.  Changing sheets, diapers, and bedpans does not appeal to her.

Thinking she might still have the calling to be a nun, Sally takes the train to the motherhouse in Chicago.  Having been sheltered from the real world, Sally quickly discovers she does not have the patience or the virtue to deal with the low life she encounters on the ride.  Unlike the saintly nuns she admires, Sally realizes she is more likely to punch someone than meekly hand over her money.  When she arrives in Chicago, she immediately takes the returning train home to New York.

Ignorant of her mother’s new love affair with the milkman who is married to an invalid, Sally finds the bed she shared with her mother now taken when she returns.  Mrs. Tierney, a friend of her mother’s, offers her a room in her family’s big house, and Mr. Tierney finds her a job at his hotel’s tea room.

The story bounces around in time frames, teasing with information (Patrick, Sally’s future husband, is one of Mrs. Teirney’s sons), and flows back and forth through the years.  Most of the story is told in flashback with Sally now dead and Patrick in assisted living.  Although the narrator seems to be one or more of their grandchildren, McDermott achieves the effect of reminiscing about the old days, with jumps to narration by the principals in real time.

The one constant vein throughout is the presence of the good nuns.  Each nun in the story follows a familiar stereotype but with an underlying note of human weakness: the take charge Sister Lucy who orders the emptying of chamber pots and deftly bandages sore limbs but uses her influence to punish a bully; the rulebreaker  Sister St. Saviour who rescues the widow and child but who would defy church doctrine by burying a suicide in the church’s consecrated plot; the hard working Sister Illuminata who labors in the damp basement never complaining about her arthritic knees but dances through her ironing; and Sister Jeanne, who finds good everywhere but facilitates the final murder in the story.   They are distinct individuals and despite their vision-blocking headgear, they see everything and know more about what’s happening around them than they let you know.

Like most stories with Irish characters at the core, death in The Ninth Hour is prominent, along with misery and despair.  Nevertheless, the love stories – about Sally and Patrick, about the nuns for those in their care, about Red Whelan who takes Patrick’s grandfather’s place in the Civil War – all conspire to create an uplifting message and remind the reader of a time when self-sacrifice meant more than self-serving.

 

Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite authors, has a witty view of life to simultaneously lift my spirits while connecting me to his cynical view.  Having related to Tepper in Tepper Isn’t Going Out and laughed through his Travels with Alice as well as innumerable articles in The New Yorker, I had avoided his love letter to his dead wife, Alice, until one of my book clubs picked “About Alice” for a discussion. Unknown-2  The shorter version appeared in The New Yorker, published in 2006 – Alice, Off the Page.

In an interview for the New York Times  By the Book Trillan cites “About Alice,” the book he wrote about his wife who died in 2001, waiting for a heart transplant, as his most personally meaningful.  He also listed books that have “broken through {his} resistance to the magical,” with, not surprisingly, another famous humorist’s book in the collection of his favorites (mine too) – Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

The New York Times offered a review of “About Alice” in 2007 – Scenes from a Marriage.

Peter Stevenson writes: 

“This book can be seen as a worthy companion piece to other powerful accounts of spousal grief published in the last decade: Joan Didion’s tale of John Gregory Dunne’s fatal heart attack, John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s and Donald Hall’s narration of Jane Kenyon’s death from leukemia.”

Since Alice’s death on September 11, 2001, Trillin has continued to write books and articles.  The last one I laughed over was his candidate for the scariest word in the English language – upgrade.  I could relate – maybe you can too?

“As the upgrades increase in frequency, I can imagine a future when, with the latest upgrade, I can’t find anything at all…With the upgrade to my smartphone, the podcasts I used to listen to are lost somewhere in the ether around West Virginia.”

Related Review:

Tepper Isn’t Going Out

 

Degrees of Separation

Using a fellow writer’s suggestion of six degrees of separation connecting books, authors, and articles, I started with the travel section of the New York Times and found 1) an artist, who led to 2) an author, 3) a new book, 4) a reminder of a novel reviewed, 5) an obituary, and ended with 6) a slight deviation off course to books on psychology.
content   Starting with Suzanne MacNeil’s description of Vancouver Island’s lush beauty, I found Canadian artist Emily Carr, whose famous work documented the beauty of the region.  Her book Klee Wyck (“Laughing One”) was published in 1941 to document her efforts to sketch and paint the totem poles found on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

“And, who, you might ask is Emily Carr?…Painter, writer, admirer of forests and totem poles…environmentalist before the word was popular…an ardently independent woman at a time when women weren’t necessarily applauded for striking out on their own…Besides the statue and all the things named after her, including a university in Vancouver, she has been the subject of biographies, films and a novel (by an American, no less — the late Susan Vreeland). “

fl-cover-2-200   I wondered about the mention of a novel based on the artist,  and found Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, historical fiction based on Carr’s life as a Canadian artist.  The book includes some of Carr’s paintings.  Had I read anything by Susan Vreeland? Why did her name sound familiar? A quick search led me to my review of Clara and Mr. Tiffany. 225x225bb   MacNeil referred to the author as “the late Susan Vreeland”?  Her recent obituary from this past August noted her breakout novel in 1999 – The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and another I’d read – Lisette’s List.

51ZfXSH8Y-L._AC_US218_  MacNeil described Carr as “an ardently independent woman at a time when women weren’t necessarily applauded for striking out on their own…” diverting me to Penelope Green’s article in the Style section on Gretchen Rubin’s new book The Four Tendencies.   Rubin’s theory proposes that everone falls into one of four personality types (the new Myers Briggs categorization), depending on their answers to a short quiz asking how they respond to expectations.   I wondered how Emily Carr fit into Rubin’s classifications. Would Emily Carr be a Questioner, an Upholder, an Obliger, or a Rebel? Maybe a little of the first and last, or maybe leaning to the label I received after taking Rubin’s test – Questioner.

51np2MaD5FL._AC_US218_  Rubin’s mention of the Harry Potter sorting hat led to Carol Dweck’s Mindset, a book advising readers of their possibilities when they change their view about themselves – “rigid thinking benefits no one, least of all yourself.”  According to Dweck, everyone has the ability to change their minds about what they can do and who they are, no matter what the personality test label or the sorting hat has identified them as,  and Bill Gates’s review of the book offered more insights.

The article in the Style section was right above an article by Gabrielle Zevin. Hadn’t I just read snd reviewed her new book Young Jane Young? This article had a funny and inviting title – The Secret to Marriage is Never Getting Married.

And so I ended my degrees quest connecting with:

  1. Klee Wyck by Emily Carr
  2. Forest Lover Fby Susan Vreeland
  3. Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
  4. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
  5. Mindset  by Carol Dweck
  6. The Secret to Marriage is Not Getting Married by Gabrielle Zevin

Related Links:

Scandal Reboot – Young Jane Young

Unknown-3  Since Alexander Hamilton had an extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds in the seventeen nineties, American politicians have been notorious for sex scandals, but Gabrielle Zevin uses the details of one of the most famous in recent history, involving an intern, in her hilarious yet poignant story of Young Jane Young.

With the requisite degree in political science and aspirations to someday hold office herself, Aviva uses her family connections for an unpaid internship in a legislative office. Her voluptuous figure does not go unnoticed by her supervisor who advises her to find a blouse to better contain her overflowing breasts, and by the Congressman himself who mentally notes her possibilities.  The story continues as expected, following the historic details fairly closely, but with a few embellishments on Aviva’s mother, Holocaust survivor grandmother, and philandering father.  The scandal is exposed when the Congressman and Aviva are involved in a bizarre car accident, reminiscent of Ted Kennedy’s scandal in Chappaquiddick,  and Aviva is branded with the scarlet letter; the Congressman apologizes for any pain he might have caused, and successfully wins reelection.  Sound familiar?

Zevin then imagines what life would have been like if Monica Lewinsky, the inspiration for the tale, had changed her name and moved to an obscure town in Maine.  Instead of trying to sell handbags or giving paid interviews to pay her legal fees as the infamous intern did, Aviva quietly disappears when she becomes pregnant.  Using the Jennifer Lopez movie as her inspiration, she creates a career as a wedding planner and seems to be on the road to recovery and a new satisfying life, until Aviva decides to run for mayor of the small town.  Her opponent, a former disgruntled client, discovers her secret, and inadvertently exposes her past to her thirteen year old daughter, Ruby.  When Aviva’s lurid blog resurfaces after fifteen years – nothing disappears from the internet – Ruby uses her mother’s credit card to fly to Florida to confront the Congressman she thinks might be her father.

The story is divided into five segments, from the point of view of Aviva’s mother with her own dating debacles and Zevin’s exaggerated take on the Jewish mother who only wants the best for her daughter.  The other sections involve one with Aviva herself as she reminisces years after the affair, and another with her daughter Ruby’s protracted missives with her penpal in Indonesia.  A funny pick-your own-adventure chapter details how different decisions made by two people with extremely different levels of power could have averted the disaster.  With a reverent nod to the politician’s wives who endure their husbands indiscretions, Zevin creates a sympathetic character in the legislator’s wife, who manages to retain her self-respect throughout the ordeal.

Zevin offers a redemptive  ending with Aviva surviving the slut-shaming and winning her election   – this is fiction, after all.    Zevin has her heroine choose not to be ashamed in the end – a good prescriptive for anyone with mistakes in the past.

Review of Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry