The Fountain Overflows

fountain overflowsSo this week has inadvertently turned into book swap week. On Wednesday, Jenny reviewed Tooth and Claw, which I asked her to read this year, and today I’m reviewing one of her choices for me, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West.

Jenny wrote a detailed and glowing review of The Fountain Overflows when she read it last year, so if you want to know what the book’s about, do go read her review. I’ll just content myself with a short summation and note a few of the things I found interesting about the book.

The Fountain Overflows is a family story, told from the point of view of Rose Aubrey, one of the twin middle daughters in a family of four children. Rose chronicles the various incidents that stand out from her childhood—evicting a poltergeist from a relative’s home, getting to know a murderer’s family, bewailing her untalented older sister’s burgeoning music career, comforting her mother and she deals with the fallout from her father’s latest irresponsible act. The narrative is episodic, but it doesn’t feel fragmented because Rose’s voice remains the same, with its coolness and maturity that manages still to maintain a child’s perspective.

One notion that comes up repeatedly is the way family shapes identity—and the way a person’s family of origin feels normal, even when it isn’t. Rose and the other Aubrey children know they’re unconventional, and they know their father is irresponsible, but their family is so much a part of who they are that having a different sort of life feels impossible. And their life isn’t so bad. They have their music and their books and the means to help neighbors in need. When they come in close contact with other families, families where there’s overt abuse or where the children are ignored, the children is those families likewise recognize some of the things that are wrong but also see their families as parts of themselves that they cannot break away from.

This idea of family as inseparable from self takes on a different light toward the end of the novel. One family member simply walks away, leaving a hole, but one that the family immediately builds a wall around and makes part of the landscape. Everyone was prepared for this to happen, sad as it is, there were signs that it was coming. It later becomes evident that another of the Aubreys has long wanted that seemingly impossible separation. Interestingly, though, she sought her way out using music, the very means most valued by the family. Her family showed her what not to be—and also what she could be.

I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up this book. I had read Jenny’s review when she first read it, but I hadn’t remembered much about it. I think I had the idea that her writing was more complex and experimental, and perhaps her other books are, but her writing here is straightforward. There’s a great deal going on under the surface—and once in a while you have to read between the lines to see things Rose doesn’t—but the style is not demanding. It’s the characters and the situation and life itself that create the complications of this book. But it’s also a perfectly enjoyable read when considered simply as a very well-written story of an unusual family making its way through the world. Which ideas to delve into and how deeply to dig are entirely up to the reader.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 3 Comments

Tooth and Claw

tooth and clawTeresa asked me to read Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw – essentially a Victorian novel in which all the characters are dragons — in this year’s book swap, after she read it herself in 2013. Her review of it sums it up so perfectly that I feel odd doing any sort of summary: go and read it, and come back for a few of my thoughts.

Walton mentions in her introduction that the book leans heavily on Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. Certainly, with both books entangled in several proposals, confessions, and questions of class, gender, and gentility, the comparison is easy to make: Trollope understood the dragons of his own society rather well, and so does Walton. Whether it’s arguing over an inheritance or arguing over who gets to eat the largest share of the dead father’s body, Victorian social mores are on display.

One example of the way Walton makes this work is with the clever device of virgin dragons’ scales coloring. While an attractive maiden dragon’s scales are a burnished gold, physical proximity of a suitor turns her scales a blushing bridal pink. A problem arises if an unwanted suitor, in an accidentally unchaperoned situation, barges into a maiden’s personal space and causes her to blush unwillingly (a rather mild metaphor for rape or other dishonor; a scarlet mark that cannot be hidden). This very misfortune befalls Penn’s sister Selendra. The family at first insists on a marriage to the buffoonish Blessed Frelt. A potion provided by a loyal servant restores Selendra’s maidenly coloration, but it is feared that she may never again be able to blush naturally. This becomes a pressing issue when Selendra is wooed by the boyishly irresponsible Sher, who, of course, stands to gain a considerable inheritance once he settles down. If Selandra can no longer blush, she cannot marry. Making the actions of the characters part of their biology, not part of their morality, makes the dilemmas much plainer.

This book is a delightful read. Walton’s world-building is clever — so clever, indeed, that I didn’t make some connections until the very end of the book. (How did I not understand what the Yarge were? Was I just not paying attention?) The religion, the infrastructure, the class structure, the law — all are presented as if to a dragonish audience, so we never get too much, and never quite enough. I still think the Small Change trilogy is the best thing I’ve read by Walton, but this was great entertainment. Book Swap wins again!

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

Texts From Jane Eyre

oh my god


this guy

this publisher guy

is asking me about my favorite canto in Childe Harold

that’s like asking someone to pick who’s hotter

his half-sister or his cousins

it’s literally impossible

texts from jane eyreMallory Ortberg’s Texts From Jane Eyre is the kind of book you want to race through in an hour, laughing hysterically, and then lend it to everyone you know. I counsel otherwise. My advice? Browse through it slowly (the laughing hysterically part is not optional). Read a few sections a day. Stash it on your nightstand and read it before bed. Read bits aloud to friends. And then buy several more copies as Christmas gifts, and watch yourself become extremely popular.

god I love you cathy

     i love you too

     i love you so much


     it hurts how much i love you

i love you so much

let’s break each other’s hearts

     oh my god let’s

     i love you so much i’m going to marry edgar

i love you so much i’m going to run away

     i love you so much i’m going to make myself sick


good that’s so much love

     i love you so much i’m going to get sick again

     just out of spite

     i’ll forget how to breathe

i’ll be your slave

     i’ll pinch your heart and hand it back to you dead

i’ll lie down with my soul already in its grave

     i’ll damn myself with your tears

i love you so much i’ll come back and marry your sister-in-law

 god yes

and i’ll bankroll your brother’s alcoholism

     i always hoped you would


This could be just a gimmick — ha ha, what if people had phones in the past! That would be crazy! But this book is not that. Texts From Jane Eyre is satire that has little to do with the actual method of delivery: it could just as easily be telegrams, or notes, or deleted scenes from these literary works. Mallory Ortberg’s jokes (originally a feature at The Toast) work because she knows the canon so well, and loves it. These texts are a vehicle to skewer subtexts: somewhere inside ourselves we all knew that Mr. Rochester would text IN ALL CAPS, or that Scarlett O’Hara should never be given a phone, or that Edgar Allan Poe would text at extremely inconvenient hours. In a larger sense, these texts take the big personalities of the Western canon — authors and characters — and translate them into the everyday: what would William Blake be like if you had to find a place to put yet another drawing of a flaying? Would you appreciate his genius so much then, huh? What if you were Jason’s second wife, after Medea, and Medea had your number?

Don’t take this book at one sitting. Small doses increase the delight. But you’re going to like this: the better you know the books, the funnier the texts are. And then you’re going to want to lend it out. Resist! Get a second copy — the minute you lend it out, you’ll want to go back and read it again, and again, and what was that part about Jane Eyre…?

I hope you’re packed for India already

     I’m not going to India with you, St. John

That’s not what these TWO TICKETS TO INDIA say


I received a copy of this book for review consideration from Henry Holt.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | Tagged | 14 Comments

The King Must Die

King Must DieYou’ve probably heard the story. Fourteen young Athenians, seven boys and seven girls, are sent to Crete as tributes to King Minos. There they will be placed in a labyrinth with the fearsome Minotaur, the half-human half-bull son of Queen Pasiphae. Lost in the labyrinth, these tributes faced certain death. Until Theseus.

The handsome Theseus, son of the king of Athens, volunteers as tribute. When he reaches Crete, he wins the heart of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, and she gives him a thread to guide him out of the labyrinth after he achieves his plan of killing the Minotaur.

Mary Renault takes the known history of Crete, where there was a labyrinthine palace, to build an alternate version of the story, where Theseus is a bull-dancer and the Minotaur the bullish heir to the throne. But it takes a while to get to that story. The book begins with Theseus’s own beginnings, when, as a child, he learns of the dread responsibility of a king to be ready to die for his people. In Troizen, where he grew up, that responsibility was at one time taken literally, with the king offering himself for sacrifice just a few years after being crowned—the number of years varied by region. By the time Theseus was born, the custom in Troizen had changed, and kings were allowed to live longer, until they themselves decided it was time to die. But the burden of readiness remains, as Theseus’s grandfather explains:

It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; it is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all. It washes heart and mind from things of no account, and leaves them open to the god.

As a son of a king, Theseus also takes on this burden as his moira, “the finished shape of [his] fate, the line drawn round it.” And the first half of the book shows him growing into that moira as he leaves Troizen, becomes a king in Eleusis, and finally meets his own father in Athens. This portion of the book, while interesting on reflection, moves slowly and was hard for me to get a grip on. Knowing what comes later, I’m able to see some important themes develop along with the character of Theseus. There’s a lot here about how cultures shift and grow and how painful that can be, and the gender politics are worthy of some serious consideration. Theseus’s kingship in Eleusis could be read as anti-woman, with Theseus building up the spirits of the beaten-down men in this matriarchal kingdom. But his care for his people is paramount at every turn, and so his triumph felt correct. However, the events on Naxos at the end of the novel make me wonder if we’re supposed to see women’s rule as inherently destructive.

Where the book really takes off is when Theseus decides to go to Crete. Here, he accepts his moira, getting guidance directly from Poseidon. Watching how Renault twists the myth into something that feels more real is good fun. There are a few moments that felt  thrown in to make the story closer to the myth—the Minotaur’s actual end is one of these. But the story as a whole felt like it could have been the original in a centuries-long game of telephone that brought us the myth we have today.

Renault erases many of the fantastical elements from the story, but she doesn’t strip away all things supernatural. Theseus seeks guidance from Poseidon at several points in the story, and he believes he receives an answer. And because he’s our first-person narrator, we’re given no reason to believe otherwise. We’re also given nothing other than his belief as evidence. Theseus also appears to have the ability to sense earthquakes, believed to be the gift of the gods. I was glad to see these elements in the story, because it made the story seem more realistic than a post-Enlightenment version of ancient Greece where only the verifiable is true.

Renault’s elaborate prose rewards slow reading, even though as the plot developed I had to remind myself to slow down so I could catch everything. This is historical fiction in the style of Dorothy Dunnett, so I expect I’ll be reading more. There’s another book about Theseus, so that may be my next, although I welcome other recommendations. Given that my favorite part of this book was the riff on the story I already knew, I wonder how I’ll like her books on pieces of history I’m less familiar with.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 17 Comments

How To Breathe Underwater

how to breatheThis collection of stories by Julie Orringer sounds as if it’s going to be miserable. Here we have girls — mostly teenage girls, some younger — going through a familiar collection of life’s cruelties, fears, and humiliations: displacement, addiction, illness, grief, loneliness, guilt. Yet somehow the book isn’t menacing or terrible. In these stories there are bright flecks, moments of victory and recognition and reconciliation, that make the collection beautiful rather than unrelievedly grim. (Not that literature can’t be both, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

The worst and most unsettling thing in Orringer’s world is when the adults abandon responsibility. Ill or absent mothers snake through these stories, as in “Pilgrims,” when Ben and Ella’s parents take them to some sort of hippie commune for Thanksgiving in the hope that Ella’s mother will find healing from cancer and chemotherapy. The story would balance on a fine edge between humor and tragedy, except that the children see no humor in the strangeness of their circumstances. In “Care,” Tessa is taking care of her six-year-old niece Olivia during a day out in San Francisco. The slow deterioration of the day — Tessa’s own need for a caretaker, the absence of a real authority figure even over the child, let alone larger issues like the environment — allow us into a kind of angry compassion.

Orringer’s realism refuses to duck away from the girls’ circumstances: no plot point is ever stretched beyond its snapping point, and characters are left to breathe in ambiguity. In my favorite story, “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” a stereotypical situation that pits two girls against each other is wrenched onto a new track by what might be an act of violence, or what might be an act of pure friendship. I expected “Note to Sixth-Grade Self” to be admonitory, a “don’t go into the haunted house” sort of thing. Instead, it was a description.

When you arrive at the entrance to Uptown Square, with its marble arches and potted palms, you will pretend to see Cara and Patricia inside. You will kiss your mother and watch her drive away. Then you will stand beside the potted palms and wait for Patricia and Cara. You will take off your broken glasses and put them in your pocket, and adjust the hem of your shirt. You will wait there for ten minutes, fifteen, twenty. When you run inside to use the bathroom you will hurry your way through, afraid that you’re keeping them waiting, but when you go outside again they will still not be there.

Stop this. They are not coming.

Do this, because that really was your life then; do that, because you actually did it, and now you are who you are today. It was far more poignant than any mere advice could have been.

I picked this book up because I read about it in Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, and I’m so glad I read it. There are no smooth ways across here, but there is growth and learning, and the occasional spark of real understanding and love. These are good stories, definitely recommended.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 1 Comment

Plausible Prejudices

plausible prejudicesJoseph Epstein is an essayist, short story writer, and editor who worked for years at The American Scholar and is a long-time contributor to The New Criterion, Hudson Review, and Commentary. He’s written biographies, as well as books on gossip, friendship, snobbery, and divorce, but I was most interested in his familiar essays on literature — book reviews, really, with a few other essays assessing the state of literary criticism at the moment.

Plausible Prejudices was published in 1985, and (as Epstein frankly admits in his introduction) is almost entirely negative. “My case is that literature is going through a very bad patch at present — that there is something second-rate about it, especially in America, though not here alone,” he says. Norman Mailer, John Irving, Philip Roth, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, and John Updike all come under his subtle knife, or, as George Washington might have it, his little hatchet. He also considers older writers (these, generally, with a wry but more approving eye): Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, A.J. Liebling, Edmund Wilson. A few essays on language round out the book.

The book reviews are the best part of the collection. Epstein is wonderfully well-read, always equipped with the perfectly barbed quotation with which to sting his subject. He is marvelously readable: his language is sharp, elegant, and breezy without being flippant. I laughed often (especially at those barbs), and I was impressed by his wide-ranging knowledge of his subjects’ work. (In “Why John Irving Is So Popular,” he seems to have read all five of Irving’s novels to date, and in “Mailer Hits Bottom” he seems to have read all eight of Mailer’s novels, plus a good chunk of his journalism. Such self-sacrifice is beyond the pale for most of us.) His observations are, for the most part, also deadly accurate. Again in “Why John Irving Is So Popular,” Epstein points out the repetitive theme of mutilations and amputations in Irving’s novels. “There arises the question, to adapt a phrase of Henry James’s,” he says, “of the disfigurement in the carpet.” All this work is to support Epstein’s lively undergirding sense of the purpose of literature. According to him, wrong-headed praise of bad literature, or insufficient praise of good literature, means that things have gone wrong in a larger sense: he means with his criticism to uphold “a yes to life, a yes to literature, a yes to the necessity of holding writers up to the highest standard, a yes to the act of writing itself.”

Epstein blames the “bad patch” in American letters on the political agenda of the university. Once the university began studying contemporary novels, he says, and setting up black studies programs and women’s studies programs and so forth, things went sharply downhill.

Years before the intervention of contemporary writing in the university — or has it been the other way round: the intervention of the university in contemporary writing? — nothing was conceded to a writer because she was a woman or he was a Jew or she was a black or he was a homosexual. There was something called the Republic of Letters, and this republic took no census. It included only people who were serious about writing. There was also a fairly simple division of writers, or at any rate only one that mattered: good writers and bad.

Epstein goes on to conclude that when a university uses contemporary literature in the classroom, or does research on those authors, it judges them to be as good, or greater than, classic authors, which means that “Virginia Woolf would be a greater writer than Tolstoy, which, as Virginia Woolf herself would have told you, is scarcely so.”

It is depressing to see a sharp thinker like Epstein wield this sort of rhetoric. He must certainly know that for centuries — indeed, millennia — this Republic of Letters had a gate that was strait and narrow, and only those thought worthy of education were allowed in at all, to begin their work of being serious about writing, or of being good or bad. Women? Dogs on their hind legs, I’m afraid. Africans? Slaves? Native Americans? You must be joking. I suppose at least it keeps the squabbles down, about the right-of-way: of course you need not concede anything to women, if there are no women in your Republic.

I also wonder about the language of competition inherent in Epstein’s theory. If we consider contemporary authors, either in or outside of the classroom, why does that mean we automatically think they are “better than Tolstoy”? If we study Tolstoy, but we also study Shakespeare, Gilgamesh, Austen, the Iliad, and Toni Morrison, are we automatically judging Morrison to be the best because she’s the most recent? Or what? Why is it a competition? When I teach literature, I look at each work for what it offers: themes, prose, historical context, subtlety, beauty, representation of a body of literature or a school of thought. I wonder what it might teach my students and how it might spark conversation. I want them to learn to think, and to make their own judgments, and I want many kinds of voices to enter into that education. If diverse and contemporary voices necessarily make for a worse patch in literature, how long must we wait to find out whether they’re worthy to speak?

Other parts of his writing ring equally false. His essay on Willa Cather, for instance, with its heavy-handed insistence that there’s absolutely no videotaped proof she was a lesbian, begs its own question: if he thinks her orientation couldn’t possibly shed light on her work, why is he writing the essay? In another piece, on euphemisms for sex, he quotes at length what I thought was a very clean passage, with nothing really more explicit in it than “the tottered senses’ outgiving of astonishment,” and then says that the passage is “extremely repulsive — enough to put a virile man off his sexual feed for quite a spell, enough to drive a refined woman into a nunnery.” Um. What?

In other words, I had mixed feelings about these essays. I enjoyed reading them and thought Epstein’s analysis was clear-minded, worth reading, and eminently fair. His writing is a pleasure: elegant, funny, wise. His insistence, however, on checking everyone’s credentials at the gate of the Republic of Letters begins to seem officious. Is this the purpose of literary criticism? Is this the “yes to life” he proclaims at the beginning of the book? Give me leave to question it.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 23 Comments

The Blackhouse

black houseOn the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s outer Hebrides, the abandoned blackhouses are useful for private trysts, but the 16-year-olds we meet in the prologue of this novel by Peter May don’t find the kind of privacy they seek when they enter the blackhouse by the shore. Instead, they find a body, hanging by the neck and eviscerated. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, formerly of Lewis, is called in to assist in the case, which is similar to a murder he investigated in Edinburgh. Fin hasn’t been back to Lewis for 17 years, and he doesn’t want to go now. But he also doesn’t want to be at home anymore, trying to cope with the recent loss of his son.

On arriving in Lewis, the memories Fin has kept at bay for years keep coming back. He sees old friends and old enemies—the victim, in fact, was a bully from his school days. The book’s chapters alternate between the present-day story, told in third-person, and Fin’s first-person recollections of his childhood in the small village on the island. He remembers the victim, Angel Macritchie, well enough to know that plenty of people might want to see him dead, and as we see more of Fin’s memories, we understand why.

For most of the book, the crime story borders on dull. The suspects are, well, the usual ones—various people with grudges, a rabble-rousing outsider, and a priest with a dark past. (Because of course the priest has a dark past. Is there a fictional priest that doesn’t?)  Even Fin doesn’t seem that interested in the crime; he, like the reader, keeps getting distracted by his past, where the mysteries are far more mysterious. It’s lucky, then, that all that baggage from the past is connected with the mystery; otherwise, we’d get nowhere.

Fin has spent most of his adult life putting his past behind him, and he’s slow to reveal all the things that happened that have kept him away. We get hints of some misunderstandings, perhaps a tragedy or three. Much of the mystery centers on the annual guga hunt, when a group of men journey to a small island to kill young seabirds. The chapters that describe this tradition are harrowing, but fascinating. That would be true even without the dramatic events in Fin’s life that relate to his one firsthand experience collecting guga.

This is a book about the past coming back, but I couldn’t quite accept just how stuck in the past many of the characters seemed. The problem wasn’t just people following old traditions or never leaving home; it was the way the characters’ personalities and patterns of interaction seemed so thoroughly engrained, beginning from the characters’ very first day of school. It was almost as if the whole place and its people just froze in time, hardly growing or changing at all. I grew up in a rural area, so I know how that can happen, but this seemed too extreme. I think, though, some of the problem may have been Fin’s perspective, because even in the third-person sections, we see little beyond what Fin sees. Late in the book, when Fin finally talks to someone who considered the murder victim a friend, we get the idea that maybe not everyone is so locked in their old roles as Fin imagines.

The resolution to the mystery also helps explain why some of the characters seemed particularly bound by time, and it resolves much of my unease about a few much-too-coincidental developments. The ending leaned a little too hard on its shocking twist for my tastes, but I’m impatient with supposedly shocking twists. I’d almost rather know who the killer is from the outset and then work out the how and why as I go.

Still, even with these gripes, I found this plenty entertaining. It’s the first in a trilogy but feels complete on its own. Will I read more? Perhaps. I enjoyed it enough to feel that my time wasn’t wasted, but one of the challenges of being a reader is knowing that for every basically OK book I read, I’m using time that I could spend with something I’d love. So … we’ll see.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | Tagged | 14 Comments

Lament for a Maker

lament for a makerI’ve been reading Michael Innes’s mysteries in order, and this is his third. The others have been enjoyable, if somewhat academic detective stories, starring a young John Appleby, and I was looking forward to this one. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the whiplash-inducing structure, peculiar style, and lunatic resolution I found in Lament for a Maker.

Ranald Guthrie, laird of the extremely gloomy castle of Erchany, has two main characteristics: his extreme miserliness, and his fear of death. As he walks through the rat-infested halls of Erchany, he chants the strains of William Dunbar’s medieval dirge — Timor mortis conturbat me — and most of the nearby town of Kinkeig thinks he’s mad. (With reason, you have to admit.) He’s attended by the still more unpleasant Hardcastle couple, and by a “daftie,” Tammas. Two unexpected guests are stranded at Erchany on Christmas Eve (one of whom just happens to be Guthrie’s American heir) only to witness Guthrie’s fall from the top tower in the middle of the night. Was it suicide, accident, or murder?

The structure, to begin with, is reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. There are five narrators, each with a distinct voice, and each offers an opinion on the death of Ranald Guthrie. Innes makes each solution seem quite complete and convincing, until (UNTIL) we receive different information with the next narrator’s account. The first narrator, a cobbler, writes in Scots dialect:

 Full of criminal law was old Speirs ever since he started stocking Edgar Wallace for Dr. Jervie’s loons, and would air his views every night at the Arms, with a pack of gaupit bothie billies listening to his stite as if it were the wisdom of Solomon.

The second narrator writes in full-fledged Mitfordese, the third in Pompous Lawyer. The fourth is John Appleby himself, and the fifth… well, the fifth would be telling.

I wouldn’t be complaining about this, ordinarily. In fact, it’s kind of fun (except that it took me quite a long time to get past the Scots.) But Innes piles on one plot development after another as well, and eventually, about two-thirds of the way into the book, I was rolling my eyes rather than turning pages with eagerness. This book is so very ornate that it becomes the Dance of the Seven Veils rather than a nice, cleanly-plotted mystery with some sense of character. One of the key pieces of information is actually delivered by a rat dragging it into the room and then dying. Really? Really? And when the final solution to the mystery does appear, it’s so over-the-top that it eclipses even that little bit of the surreal.

Still, I plan to read more of Innes’s mysteries. You have to admire someone who goes all-out crazy in his third book. Maybe in the next Appleby mystery, there’ll be time-travel, or a descendant of Attila the Hun, or a character with an evil spider monkey for a pet. After this, I can’t predict with any certainty, and that’s not something I often run into with mysteries!

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 6 Comments

A City of Bells

city of bellsJocelyn Irvin has just come out of the Boer War with “an incurably lamed leg and a future that consisted of nothing but an immense question mark.” Restless and ill-tempered, he goes to the one place he believes he can find peace: the ageless cathedral city of Torminster, where his adored grandfather has served as canon for many years. Here, he finds the rest of the family, which consists of his acerbic grandmother, and the two children they’re caring for in their old age: Hugh Anthony and Henrietta.

Torminster is a town straight out of Trollope, where the Dean of the Cathedral is the reigning monarch, and gossip causes things to happen faster than any other motivating force. When Mary and Martha, who run the sweet-shop, cause it to be known that Canon Irvin’s grandson has come to Torminster to set up a bookshop, it’s irresistible, whether Jocelyn wants to do it or not. And so he steps into the little house recently abandoned by Gabriel Ferranti, the poet who used to live there and talk to Henrietta about beauty and eternity, and he sets up a bookshop for Torminster.

But Ferranti, his disappearance and his suffering, are a bigger mystery than it seems at first sight. And that mystery, too, is irresistible, because in Grandfather’s care no one can be lost without sorrow. Jocelyn doesn’t find the peace he is looking for, but he finds work, and love, and responsibility, and care, and those lead to a sort of peace in the end.

I have mentioned in my last few posts that I’ve read several books in a row that deal with books and immortality. This was by far my favorite of them, just as Elizabeth Goudge is one of my very favorite authors. (I think she is under-rated and under-read, marked as a “chocolate-box” author and thought simple-minded because she often has happy endings. Nonsense.) This is what Grandfather has to say on the topic:

In my experience when people begin to read they go on. They begin because they think they ought to and they go on because they must. Yes. They find it widens life. We’re all greedy for life, you know, and our short span of existence can’t give us all that we hunger for, the time is too short and our capacity not large enough. But in books we experience all life vicariously.

And again:

“A bookseller,” said Grandfather, “is the link between mind and mind, the feeder of the hungry, very often the binder up of wounds. There he sits, your bookseller, surrounded by a thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts and conditions. And there come into him other minds, hungry for beauty, for knowledge, for truth, for love, and to the best of his ability he satisfies them all… Yes… It’s a great vocation.”

“Greater than a writer’s?” asked Felicity….

“Immeasurably,” said Grandfather. “A writer has to spin his work out of himself and the effect upon the character is often disastrous. It inflates the ego. Now your bookseller sinks his own ego in the thousand different egos that he introduces to each other… Yes… Moreover his life is one of wide horizons. He deals in the stuff of eternity and there’s no death in a bookseller’s shop. Plato and Jane Austen and Keats sit side by side behind his back, Shakespeare is on his right hand and Shelley on his left. Yes. Writers, from what I’ve seen of them, are a very queer lot, but booksellers are the salt of the earth.”

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The Empathy Exams

07book "The Empathy Exam" by Leslie Jamison.Why do so many of our favorite stories involve extreme suffering? What’s the value for us in watching others’ pain? I wonder this about myself sometimes. Jude the Obscure is, after all, among my favorite books, and I enjoy reading real-life disaster stories and true crime. I have my limits, but on the whole, I like my stories sad. Happy endings to those sad stories are nice, but not required. Am I just a voyeur, relishing other people’s pain, turning it into my entertainment?

In this essay collection, Leslie Jamison explores other people’s pain—and our interest in other people’s pain. The collection begins with the title essay, “The Empathy Exams,” which describes her work as a medical actor, pretending to be sick for a series of medical students and then rating them on how well they demonstrated empathy. Her descriptions of this work alternate with the story of her own abortion and heart surgery. The jumps back and forth between the two experiences made the essay less than successful for me. There were no new insights here, aside from a few musings about the contrast between what we may expect to feel and what we actually feel. But the essay as a whole felt unpolished, rambling. It probably didn’t help that I read it in my office lunchroom with Ebola panic news stories blaring behind me on CNN, but I just reread the essay and only liked it marginally better.

The other essays, on the other hand, were great. It’s probably a good thing that one of my favorites, “Devil’s Bait,” came second in the collection, when I was trying to decide whether to continue reading. In this essay, Jamison recounts her experiences at a conference for people with Morgellons disease, a condition that involves strange, unidentified fibers growing out of sufferers’ skin, sometimes causing sores, itching, and a feeling of having insects crawling under the skin. Whether the fibers are real is up for debate, with the CDC unable to verify their reality and those with the disease being certain that they are. Jamison treats the people she speaks to with compassion, recognizing that whether or not the fibers exist, the suffering cannot be denied. She can see it in her own experience, as she talks to a woman named Dawn, who is fearful about her future:

With Dawn I fall into the easy groove of identification—I’ve felt that too—whenever she talks about her body as something that’s done her wrong. Her condition seems like a crystallization of what I’ve always felt about myself—a wrongness in my being that I could never pin or name, so I found things to pin it to: my body, my thighs, my face. This resonance is part of what compels me about Morgellons: it offers a shape for what I’ve often felt, a container or christening for a certain species of unease. Dis-ease. Though I also feel how every attempt to metaphorize the illness is also an act of violence—an argument against the bodily reality its patients insist upon.

My willingness to turn Morgellons into metaphor—as a corporeal manifestation of some abstract human tendency—is dangerous. It obscures the particular and hidden nature of the suffering in front of me.

It’s so easy to want to turn others’ suffering into our own, to seek common ground, to make their pain into something we understand. I don’t think that’s always a bad impulse, especially if it makes us more able to provide support. Yet every pain is specific, and if I assume your pain is like my pain, I might be getting your pain wrong or, worse, expecting you to cope in the same way I have. Whatever empathy we can offer on the basis of commonality of experience has limits.

But our uniqueness has limits, too, an idea Jamison explores in “In Defense of Saccharin(e).” Here, she considers why people are so often suspicious of sentimentality and wonders at what point an expression of feeling tips over into a syrupy falseness. She makes a case for strong emotion, while acknowledging her own fear of expressing it:

There are several fears inscribed in this suspicion: not simply about melodrama or simplicity but about commonality, the fear that our feelings will resemble everyone else’s. This is why we want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert that our emotional responses are more sophisticated than other people’s, that our aesthetic sensibilities testify, iceberg style, to an entire landscape of interior depth.

In most essays, Jamison is an outsider to the suffering, observing other people in pain by visiting a prison inmate or watching a documentary about the West Memphis Three, yet she keeps her own self in view, examining her own reactions to what she’s observing. Why does she feel empathy here and not there? Some essays are more distant than others—the two “Pain Tours” are probably the least intimate, offering short descriptions of people and places she’s visited or thought about.

The final essay pulls everything together to present a “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In this essay, Jamison chronicles one story of women’s wounds after another, some real and some fictional. There’s Miss Havisham, Sylvia Plath, anorexics and cutters, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, and Carrie White. Each case is unique, yet they’re all, somehow, representative of a particularly female sort of pain. Why do these stories of suffering women resonate? Why do we tell and retell them?

Stephen King’s Carrie, the girl who was told to plug up her bleeding as soon as it became visible, eventually takes her suffering and turns it outward. Jamison writes,

The premise of Carrie is like porn for female angst: what if you could take how hard it is to be a girl—the cattiness of frenemies, the betrayals of your own body, the terror of a public gaze—and turn all of that hardship into a superpower? Carrie’s telekinesis reaches the apex of its power at the moment she is drenched in red, the moment she becomes a living wound—as if she’s just gotten her period all over herself, in front of everyone, as if she’s saying, fuck you, saying, now I know how to handle the blood.

I don’t necessarily agree with her reading of Carrie. It’s not like Carrie left that bloodbath triumphant, but perhaps that speaks to the danger that could come of taking control of our suffering. Because I do think we may tell these stories as a way of gaining control over our pain. I’ve recently gone through a couple of months of physical therapy, and my therapist told me more than once that I needed to tell her when something hurt, that keeping silent wasn’t going to help me get better. It seems obvious, but aren’t we conditioned to be stoic about our pain, even when telling someone may be the only way to cure it?

This week has seen multiple women speak up about being physically beaten by a prominent radio personality. In this case, the women kept silent for years because they didn’t think they’d be believed or they wanted to forget it. Jamison notes in this essay that doctors are more likely to give pain medicine to men than to women, discounting women’s pain as “emotional.” Women who say they won’t be heard when they speak may have a point. But maybe telling our stories again and again and again and again and again can become a way of handling the blood. Jamison closes the essay with these words:

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.

Maybe we listen to people’s stories of pain because those stories need to be told. And stories that need to be told also need to be heard.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 10 Comments