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…”

 

 

 

Do You Need a Hug?

Reading Alex Williams’ article in the Sunday New York Times – Pillow Talk with a Professional Cuddler  – reminded me of Kent Haruf’s last novel, Our Souls At Night.

In the article, Williams interviewed a professional cuddler whose day job was managing a vegan restaurant.  Cuddle parties, usually held at yoga studios are nonsexual and capitalize on the power of touch to promote positive effects both mentally and physically.  National Institute of Health studies show that “touch increased levels of oxytocin, which lowered the levels of stress hormones in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving mood, increasing tolerance for pain and perhaps even speeding how fast wounds heal.”

In Haruf’s story, widow Addie asks her neighbor, a widower, to cuddle with her at night.  Read my review here.

One of my book clubs is discussing Haruf’s book soon – an opportunity for hugs.images-1

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

9781101875902_p0_v2_s192x300The saddest part of reading Kent Haruf’s latest book – Our Souls At Night – is knowing it is his last. When Haruf died recently, he deprived us of more stories with his trademark blend of philosophy, soul-searching, and good common sense.  Having discovered this author through one of his later books – Benediction – I’ve been back to read his others, but they are not enough.  I will miss him.

Our Souls At Night is a short book – only 179 pages – and easily read in a sitting, but digesting it takes much longer. Seventy year old widowed Addie walks over to her neighbor’s house one day and invites him to spend the night with her.  Louis, a widower and alone, accepts her offer, and each night, he walks over with his pajamas in a paper bag to sleep with Addie.  As they talk in bed, and get to know more about each other’s past, they start a relationship of trust and comfort.

When Addie’s young grandson comes to spend the summer away from his feuding parents, Louis readily adapts to grandfather mode – teaching the boy how to throw a ball, exploring the woods, camping overnight, even adopting an old dog from the shelter.  Addie, Louis, Jamie, and Bonny, the dog, enjoy each other and reawaken the pleasure of just having fun together, despite the snide town gossips.

Gene, Addie’s son, is scandalized by his mother’s actions, and demands she stop seeing Louis.  Why would a seventy year old’s actions be dictated by her son?  How could she give up her last chance for peace and happiness?  Could she risk antagonizing the only family she has?  The ending is true Haruf – leaving the reader with the reality of  choices, while offering possibilities and hope.

So many gems of wisdom dot the short landscape of this book:

(She) feels she has to be a certain way or she’ll be abandoned…

Most people feel uncomfortable to say anything at all…I believe they are failures of character…

(Marriage) is always two people going against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and drama and mistaken understandings.  Except…that isn’t true of you and me…

As always, Kent Haruf has left me with a lot to think about, and ideas I want to discuss…

Related Review: Benediction

Talk Amongst Yourselves

chat_icon_clip_art_7491 When asked to recommend books for discussion in a small group of “intelligent and fun ladies,” I scrolled through my reviews to find fare for a local book club.

I found:

  1. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  2. Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
  3. Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed
  4. Kent Haruf’s Benediction
  5. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life
  6. Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot
  7. Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early
  8. B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger
  9. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
  10. Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
  11. Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Some I will probably reread whether or not anyone wants to discuss them.

Benediction

9780307959881_p0_v2_s260x420-1With gentleness and respect, Kent Haruf’s Benediction examines ordinary lives in the small town of Holt in Eastern Colorado. Although this is the third book in his trilogy, following Plainsong and Evensong, this story stands on its own. Steeped in sadness with its focus on terminally ill Dad Lewis, Benediction offers insights not only into the examination of life as it ends but also into the perception of its effects on others.

With simplistic language reminiscent of Hemingway and a homespun quality bordering on Garrison Keillor or Thornton Wilder, Haruf methodically records the thoughts and language of his characters. As Dad physically deteriorates, life in the little town goes on; the characters revolve around him but simultaneously keep spinning in their own orbits: Dad’s forbearing wife, Mary; his daughter, Lorraine; his long-lost homosexual son, Frank; the salesmen at his hardware store; the firebrand minister and his family; the grandmother next door, caring for her recently orphaned granddaughter; and two towns women – two good souls among some not so tolerant. Each has fears, concerns, inner demons – revealed through Haruf’s subtle interactions – yet, through Dad, their best selves come to the fore, for him and for each other. Conflicts are not always resolved, as in real life, but life goes on – the “precious ordinary.” The death of Dad comes, but the characters and their inner battles live on – maybe for another book.

Although Kurt Haruf’s Benediction is a beautifully written testament to ordinary people, it is a difficult book to read – especially if you have a parent or loved one who recently died. Knowing the sad focus of the book kept me from reading the story for a while, even after I had downloaded it on my Kindle for a recent trip. Eventually, after reading reviews and one particular reviewer who returned to read one of Haruf’s other books in the trilogy, I decided to try. After the first 100 pages, I was hooked on the language and invested in the characters. The terminally ill father was actually a subplot – one of many on the journey of life. Haruf’s last pages, describing the death scene, however, are honest and thoughtful – but no less easy to read. Have your box of tissues nearby.