In Hibernation

Although I’ve found and shared suggestions from fellow writers about how to survive in this fearful time when pushing the elevator button is an act of bravery, the constant news of the escalating virus has me stunned.  For the first time, books have not come to the rescue.  Oh, I read but without interest; I write but without passion; I listen to stories but without attention.  I try to avoid the news but find it necessary.

The world is upside down but we still can communicate, with more zest than a century ago when the H1N1 flu pandemic lasted 15 months and was the deadliest disease outbreak in human history – until now.  Government officials keep teasing with 14 day quarantines, and work at home mandates for a month, but history and common sense predict this will be longer.  Although by nature I am happy to be on my own, and most times resist the ubiquitous social gatherings, I find I want to connect now, however I can – talking on the phone, writing lengthy emails, texting back and forth, writing now into the void of a blog post.

I am over zealous in following the social distancing mandate, and I have washed my hands into a rough dry state worthy of a Palmolive commercial.  I manage all my bills and correspondence electronically, and I’ve wondered if I should stop ordering from Amazon unless I can get more Clorox to wipe down the packaging. I’ve tried eating well with the requisite vegetables ( as long as they last); I’ve tried eating comfort food (cookies have a long shelf life); I’ve tried yoga (in bed), meditation (with a timer), and staring at water (ocean not tap).  I cook, I clean, I keep busy when I am not napping.  Yet, it doesn’t seem enough to calm my frayed sensibilities.

Music is good as are mindless movies for a while, but I want more.  I want what we all want – peace of mind – and immunity.

I have no suggestions, no clever quote or book to ease your mind.  My literary hero these days is Dr. Fauci. You know what to do: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday, hold your breath in the elevator, stay home.  For now, I’m in hibernation – wake me up when this nightmare is over.

 

Looking for The Answers

41QJCaxgslL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_   How do two people fall in love and what is love anyway?  In The Answers,  Catherine Lacey proposes a bizarre way to find out as she creates a dating dystopia with scientific inquiry into questions impossible to explain. As Lacey describes the subservience of the women forced to play roles, albeit for money, the timeliness of their interactions with the self-serving, egotistic male protagonist seems eerily timely.

Jaded movie star, Kurt Sky, decides to conduct a scientific experiment to decode the brain’s function during limerence—the physiological and psychological stage of a body as it falls in love – by hiring a harem, with women fulfilling specific functions for one man: Anger Girlfriend, Mundanity Girlfriend, Intimacy Girlfriend – and Maternal Girlfriend (who cooks him grilled cheese sandwiches) – each playing a specific role.  Mary Parsons,  young and sick, and desperate to make money, takes the job with the “Girlfriend Experiment” as the Emotional Girlfriend, whose duties involve listening attentively to Kurt, nodding at the appropriate moments, and responding with supportive scripted interactions.

To pay her expensive bills from a holistic treatment called Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthetics  (PAKing) – a loose cross between reicki, massage, meditation, and aura readings – a cure for her unexplained and constant health problems that have stumped the orthodox medical profession, Mary answers the ad posted in the health food store.  After signing a nondisclosure agreement, she begins her daily routine in her new job, blandly observing Kurt as he rambles on about his dead mother and his issues with fame.  Mary, as are all the other Girlfriends, is wired to monitor her electromagnetic brain waves, body temperature, heart rate and other organ functions.  Her responses are analyzed by behind the scenes researchers who monitor her every move with invisible cameras and computers.

Mary’s off-the grid past with a manically religious father, along with her unsuccessful relationships with men, is slowly revealed through her silent thoughts,  – ““Every minute of her life had been rented or given to someone else,”  and her interaction in the experiment becomes a coping mechanism for her to keep her secrets.  On the surface, her demeanor seems the perfect counterpoint to Kurt, and she eventually displaces the other Girlfriends to become his “true love.”

When the neurobiology researchers decide to play with emotions by issuing “Directives” through the wires attached to the participants, the story reminded me of the science fiction movie hero WAL-E and his robot girlfriend Eva, with her “Directive.”  The reader will need to suspend belief to enjoy the action, but Lacey makes this easy to do with her humor and subliminal forays into the minds of men.  Although Lacey has a clear agenda,  the story line is compelling and entertaining with an ironic note in the ending.

Lacey raises questions that can never be answered.   Mary’ s PAKing guru assures her:

“…no matter how much we want it, nothing is ever fixed or final, and all the answers we get are the ones within us, and they change. So often they’re not the ones we want to hear.”

 

Idaho

9780812994049_p0_v4_s192x300   Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a shattering and thought-provoking story, centered on a complicated collection of characters, connected by a mother’s murder of her own child.  Reading to discover the motive brings no satisfaction; Ruskovich is more interested in the inner workings of each mind, not just the killer.  Learning of Rustovich’s O’Henry award prompted me to read Idaho, but no surprise ending here.  The story weaves in and out of lives, backtracking, going into the future, dwelling on the present.  At times, the circular pattern is hard to follow as each character is slowly revealed.

The cast of characters meander in and out of the story, with flashbacks to the central focus, the murder of six year old May and her older sister June’s running away from the scene – never to be found. Later in the story, artist’s renderings of June’s appearance as she might be at different ages adds to the strangeness.

Jennie pleads guilty to cutting off May’s head with a hatchet while May sang in the back seat of their truck.  She begs for a death sentence, but is sent away to prison for life.  There she meets Elizabeth, a younger woman who has murdered her boyfriend and the neighbor who witnessed it.  Jennie attends poetry classes and takes notes for Elizabeth, who has been banned from class for her attack against another inmate.

May’s father, Wade, has inherited his family’s penchant for early onset dementia – all males seem to succumb in their fifties.  Ann, a music teacher at the local school, gives Wade piano lessons – his effort to focus his mind to strengthen his oncoming memory loss.  Before too long, Ann offers to marry Wade to care for him as he declines.

Almost as an aside, Elliot, an older boy with one leg from a horrible accident at the school, has the attention of both Ann and June, who has a secret crush. Rustovich connects his life as a tangent to the main action – another lesson in life’s struggles.

Are you keeping up?  Amazingly, Rustovich intertwines the lives of all the characters, although not until the end does her clever weaving become apparent.  The murder may be the focus but it is not the point.  Jennie’s sudden act may have been a moment of anger, but more likely an unthinking inexplainable move of frustration in the moment.  The author never really worries about the horrible act; the murder just makes no sense.

“Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”

As Ann continues to discover more about the murder before Wade loses all memory, her pursuit of the truth seems to be a race with his decline.  Ultimately, he loses all memory and she is left with only Jennie as her source of information.  In the end, Ann creates a new life for the now elderly Jennie, and when the two wives eventually meet, it is not as dramatic as expected.

Their lives go on, despite the horrors – as does all life.  Maybe that was the point the author wanted to make.  The book is difficult to read, but full of thoughtful diversions leading back to how people cope.

 

 

 

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

9780062277022_p0_v3_s192x300  National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich makes a horrible incident more tragic in her latest novel of Native American life – LaRose.  An Ojibwe man is out hunting for deer and accidentally shoots and kills his best friend’s 5-year-old son, Dusty. Erdrich creates the inconceivable – trading the hunter’s young son, LaRose, for the dead boy he shot.

The hunter has a 5-year-old son of his own; in keeping with the tribe’s tradition, 5-year-old LaRose goes to live with Dusty’s family.  Although framed as a traditional old-world way of compensating for loss, the action is jarring and incredible.  Nonetheless, it creates a compelling story.

I tried reading Erdrich’s award winning The Round House but never made it through.  Determined this time to discover why Erdrich is so revered as a writer, I read on but it wasn’t easy.  Her language is plain; her sentences choppy.  The story jumps around, hard to follow.  But Erdrich conjures up real Native American characters who take what they can from the white man’s world while preserving their heritage.

In LaRose, the two families struggle through a series of missteps to find forgiveness and justice, and in the end decide to share the little boy, LaRose, and muddle through all the difficulties associated with passing him back and forth.  The story is more  about coping than forgiveness: scenes of old women in a nursing home managing their pain, adult men straddling loyalty to the reservation and the white man’s country, saintly LaRose trying to keep peace between his adopted mother and his real mother; the mothers in pain and denial.

I respect reviewer Mary Gordon’s assessment of the author in the New York Times:

“Perhaps the most important of Erdrich’s achievements is her mastery of complex forms. Her novels are multivocal, and she uses this multiplicity to build a nest, capacious, sturdy and resplendent, for her tales of Indians, living and dead, of the burden and power of their heritage, the challenge and comedy of the present’s harsh demands.”

But I probably will not read another of Erdrich’s novels.