The Red Car

the-red-carI enjoyed Marcy Dermansky’s novel Bad Mariewith its deliciously bad main character. So I was excited to read her new book, which also promised a rebellious lady lead. But Leah is more aimless than outright bad, and although a lot of her aimless was easy to relate to, it’s not very interesting to read.

Leah is a writer living in New York with a husband she met in grad school. Her life isn’t terrible, but she hasn’t achieved the kinds of things she’d dreamed of—or that others dreamed of for her. One of her main cheerleaders was her former boss, Judy. Judy took Leah under her wing when Leah was working an office job in California, and it was Judy’s encouragement that got Leah to finally go to graduate school. Now, Judy is dead, and she has left Leah her red sports car, which Leah always hated, and Leah has to go out to California for the funeral and to get the car.

Leah’s listlessness is easy to understand and not all that unusual. She hasn’t achieved what she hoped, but her life isn’t bad. So there’s disappointment but also a sort of comfortableness that’s hard to jostle out of. And a sudden death of a mentor might be just the thing to wake a person up. But I didn’t find Leah’s situation entirely believable or the depiction of it particularly insightful or interesting.

For one thing, I wished that there had been more ambiguity in the rendering of Leah’s marriage. She married her husband, Hans, so he could get a green card, and the marriage seems about like the rest of Leah’s life—basically OK but not great. As Leah prepares to leave for California, it’s evident that Hans is needy and possessive. All of this provides a good dilemma. But then Hans is violent, and the scale tips. Leah makes excuses, which is realistic enough, but as a reader, I was now pushed in a particular direction. Instead of wondering if Hans’s possessiveness could become destructive, I knew. It all became less interesting.

There were also these weird supernatural moments that I couldn’t decide how we were meant to read. Leah hears Judy’s voice during much of her time in California, urging her in one direction or another. And when Leah picks up Judy’s car, she becomes convinced that the car is trying to kill her. What? It didn’t help that I never found Leah and Judy’s friendship convincing.

In fact, even though I could understand the central dilemma of the book, I didn’t find much of the actual story convincing. I think the book is trying to get at some important ideas about how we make decisions and live our lives, and which actions actually matter in the long run, but the story never really pulled me in. I finished it because it was short, not because I wanted to know what happened.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 4 Comments

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South

truevineThat’s a lot of subtitle, no? And all those subtitles don’t even get into the circus sideshows.

This book first captured my interest because I grew up just a few miles from Truevine, the Franklin County, Virginia, community where the two brothers from the subtitle spent their earliest years. It was in the Truevine tobacco fields, Muse family lore said, that George and Willie Muse were discovered by a circus scout around the turn of the century:

The white man found them working, alone and unsupervised, two snow-white field hands, no more than seventy pounds and four feet tall, dressed in flour-sack clothes and turbans jerry-rigged out of rags and string. As he approached, stepping over the tobacco rows, the boys stood and nodded respectfully, as they’d been taught to do with white men.

When they removed their head coverings at his request, the man gasped. Their hair was kinky, and it was golden.

It was money in his pocket.

George and Willie were African American boys with albinism, making them a valuable find for a circus sideshow. And so they were taken away, given the names Eko and Iko, and dubbed Darwin’s missing links or ambassadors from Mars. They were told their mother, Harriett Muse, was dead, but she kept looking for them, finding them years later when the circus came to her new home in the segregated city of Roanoke, Virginia, and she dared to enter the tent to see them and get them back. Later, they returned to the sideshow life under a contract that promised a steady income, part of which would provide for their mother. But, times being as they were, managers cheated them whenever they could, and Harriett Muse went to court again and again to ensure her sons received what they earned.

Journalist Beth Macy, who was my writing teacher when I lived in Roanoke, became interested in the Muse brothers not long after she first moved to Roanoke in the late 1980s, but their great-niece, Nancy Saunders, was understandably protective of them and their story. At that time, Willie Muse was still alive and under her care, and she didn’t want to bring back the crowds that once treated him as a curiosity and a freak. It was only after Willie Muse died that she agreed to let Macy write a newspaper article and, later, this book.

When I saw Macy speak at the book’s launch last month, she said that she wanted to put the brothers’ story in context, and, for me, that was one of the most valuable aspects of this book. The circus story is interesting, and Macy discusses the problematic elements of sideshows without denying the reality that, for some performers, sideshows provided the only good income they’d be likely to earn (that’s if they were paid, which not all were). But the large number of characters and the many different companies were hard to keep track of—and I wasn’t all that motivated to work hard at it.

For me, the book’s strength is in the exploration of the lives of African Americans in Virginia during the 20th century. The Muse brothers were born into a sharecropping community, educational opportunities were scant, and the work was grueling. Harriett, and later Willie and George, lived in Roanoke, one of the most segregated cities of the South. This was all history that took place right in my backyard, but I never learned much about it. I knew there was segregation, I assumed there were lynchings, and I saw racism with my own eyes, but I didn’t know the extent of it. Despite being born after slavery was abolished, the Muses lived in what amounted to slavery, and they were far from alone in that. Macy listened to the stories that are hard to hear—and no doubt hard for the tellers to tell—and brings them into the light.

For the most part, Macy keeps herself out of the story, only talking about herself when discussing specific challenges of researching this story or, in a few instances, her own personal reactions to things she learned. She focuses instead on the Muses, the people who knew them, and others whose life experiences touched those involved in the story. Unfortunately, the brothers are both dead, and many of the records about their early years are sketchy and contradict some of the history the family passed down. Macy notes the disputes without taking a position on exactly what happened. There’s an extensive notes section in the back (50 pages for a book of just over 400 pages), so it’s possible for those who want a deeper dive to search out the sources.

As a reader, I did sometimes feel the absence of Willie and George, and I wish there had been a way to know what they were thinking and how they felt about their lives. This book offers glimpses—Willie’s photo of his mother by his bed and his sharp words about his former manager—but there’s still a gap. History has so many gaps, and sometimes they can’t be filled entirely, but there’s value in doing what we can and learning what we can so we can better understand our past and thus do better for our futures.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 10 Comments

A Book Riot Post Round-Up

I’m continuing to enjoy writing for Book Riot, but I haven’t been very disciplined about sharing my Book Riot posts here at Shelf Love. So I’m playing a little catch-up today and sharing a bunch for those of you who don’t read Book Riot regularly or just missed them when they initially posted. Enjoy!

Shakespeare Adaptations We’d Love to See: Inspired by the Hogarth Shakespeare project, my fellow Rioters and I came up with a list of dream novelizations of Shakespeare’s plays. (We also provide an important corrective to a problem with Hogarth’s current list. See if you can figure out what it is.)

In Which a Semi-Janeite Attends a Jane Austen Con: My report on attending the Jane Austen Society AGM. Includes a picture of the absolutely gorgeous ball gown I tried on.

A Tribute to Curtis Hanson: A remembrance of the great work of the director and screenplay writer of the magnificent film adaptation of LA Confidential. (It’s mostly me gushing about one of my favorite movies.)

Books for Our Times: How Fiction Informs My Politics: A discussion of several books that are a little too resonant with the current election.

The Pros and Cons of Literary Prizes: After being seriously unenthusiastic about the Booker longlist, I had an argument with myself about the value of literary prizes.

What the Great British Bake Off Taught Me About Judging Books: Bringing together two obsessions: The Great British Bake Off and the Man Booker Prize.

Does Reading Literary Fiction Make You a Better Person? I’m Skeptical: I discuss some of my problems with recent studies about the merits of reading literary fiction.

Why I Review Everything I Read: I explain how writing reviews helps me get more out of the reading experience.

Those are just a few that I especially enjoyed writing. You can see all my Book Riot posts on my Author Page.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

slouching-toward-bethlehemWhen it comes to essays, Joan Didion is among the greats, at least she is by reputation. Before reading this collection, I’d not read many of her essays, “Goodbye to All That” and maybe a few others. I’d also read The Year of Magical Thinking several years ago, but that’s a lengthy memoir on a difficult and personal theme. Would her essays prove as rich? Or would a collection of writings from the 1960s just feel like a dated artifact?

The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem cover a range of topics and styles. There are journalistic pieces, like the riveting true crime story that opens the collection, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” There’s a piece on John Wayne and another on Joan Baez, in which Didion observes:

Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happen, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the bird and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who “feels” things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young. Now, at an age when the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez never leaves the Carmel Valley.

The journalistic pieces are very much of their time, but Didion explores the time and place in such a way evoke grander themes than those of the here and now (or the there and then). The Baez essay discusses celebrity and image and aging, and much that Didion says about Baez could apply to any number of young female celebrities in the decades since.

The title piece, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” digs into the culture of Haight-Ashbury in the spring of 1967, a place where “the center was not holding.” I especially liked reading a contemporary account of this world because now, almost 50 years later, it’s tempting to apply a clear narrative to a phenomenon that didn’t make much sense even to those in the midst of it. As Didion describes it, there was no single movement that brought people to the Haight, no revolution in the offing. Didion writes, “We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.” Didion neither glorifies nor condemns these children. She observes them, makes notes, comments. It’s not a think piece or a hot take, but it makes you think.

Didion includes herself in her journalistic pieces, but she also writes straight-up personal essays, several of which are in this collection. I especially loved “On Keeping a Notebook,” where Didion writes:

We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; on of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat …. The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished.

The piece “On Morality,” with its “fashionable madmen,” is alarmingly relevant, and I’ll probably need to read it many more times to fully take it in.

The travel essays that close the collection are also very good. As a whole, the collection is pleasing in its variety. Didion had range.

As I read these essays, I kept thinking of how many of today’s essayists blend the personal and the observational in the way that Didion does. Leslie Jamison specifically came to mind as an heir of Didion. Didion’s insights and her words feel so much weightier than a lot of what I read today. I wonder how many of today’s essayists will still be read in 50 years. But does Didion seem especially profound because, in this collection, she’s speaking from another era? Whatever the case, I’m eager to read more.


Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 8 Comments

Blood Done Sign My Name

blood-done-sign-my-nameIn the United States, when we are first taught about the Civil Rights movement, in our high schools and sometimes into college, it goes something like this: There was segregation and injustice, and it was bad. And then Martin Luther King, Jr. came along, and there were nonviolent protests. And the only people who were against integration were racist, potbellied, tobacco-chewing Southerners, but they put up quite a fight. And then the federal government came along and passed some wonderful laws, and segregation was over for good. Hooray! Isn’t it great to be American? 

Guess what, folks. That is not the truth. It is not even close. The truth is far more complicated and painful than that, and it reaches much farther into the past and comes all the way into the present. Timothy Tyson’s book, Blood Done Sign My Name, is part history and part memoir, and it says over and over, in all the ways he can think to say it, that unless we come to terms with the truth of our past, we have no hope of racial reconciliation. This means that we have got to stop telling ourselves that story we first learned — the one we’re happy about, the one we’re comfortable with — and start listening to what really happened.

Timothy Tyson grew up the son of a white Methodist preacher in eastern North Carolina, where his family had deep roots. “My family was as Southern as fried okra and sweet tea,” he says.

When we said we were going to do something “directly,” which is pronounced “dreckly,” we meant we were going to do it sooner or later, one of these days, maybe never, and please don’t ask again. If I hadn’t learned to read, I might never have found out that “damn Yankee” was two words.

And it was in Oxford, North Carolina, in 1970 when Tyson was eleven, that Henry Marrow, an 23-year-old black veteran, was murdered in public by three white men. The three men chased Marrow down, beat him, and shot him in daylight as he pleaded for his life. Tyson describes the history of the civil rights movement — which had barely brushed Oxford, as with many small towns — and the wake of the killing, including his father’s role as a liberal white preacher. Oxford serves as a microhistory, a way of looking at a huge social change in miniature.

At first, I was a little hesitant to read this book because I usually try to read about events like this from the point of view of people of color. I was a little worried that Tyson would try to establish his credentials based on his father’s progressive views, and dispense wisdom from there. Instead, I found myself impressed by his clear-eyed understanding of his father’s place in that society, and indeed his own. At one point, he tells a story of the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated — he was only nine at the time — and of comforting Mrs. Allen, the black woman who worked for their family.

For years, I have told myself the story of Mrs. Allen and me on the day Dr. King died. Without thinking about it much, I have remembered it as a story of how, even at one of the worst moments in hour nation’s racial history, the color line could dissolve in redemptive love…. And yet I have to confess that my account erases some of the important truths about my relationship with Mrs. Allen and the moment. In a society where white men made decisions and black women made dinners, she was a black woman who worked for my white parents. … Mrs. Allen, who understood her world clearly enough, did not need explanations about the power of redemptive suffering from me. She had a church, a family, and a whole life of her own of which I knew almost nothing. And she had already realized, as I would come to understand only many years later, that what had happened on that bloody balcony in Memphis threatened to destroy any path that could ever connect us. As I look back at the story, I still feel the enveloping love she gave me. But what strikes me the most is the soothing and self-congratulatory way I interpreted the moment in my memory, and how much greater was the distance between us than I could possibly comprehend.

This book is immensely powerful, mostly because it deals in silenced history. I knew the outlines of the black freedom struggle, but many of the details I read in this book were new to me. I didn’t know that after Brown vs. Board of Education, many towns simply closed all public parks and swimming pools and recreational areas rather than integrate them; they turned down gifts of public land rather than have integrated spaces. I didn’t know that Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, blamed Dr. King’s assassination on King himself and on the politics of nonviolent direct action, calling it “a great tragedy that began when we started compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.” (I thought I might explode with rage when I read that.) I didn’t know that the FBI sent infiltrators and informants into groups like the NAACP, loaded with drugs and weapons, trying to discredit and divide black groups and send citizens to jail. It had of course occurred to me that the histories of local spaces that African-Americans pass on from one generation to another might be significantly different than the ones white people tell, but the examples Tyson gives — in Oxford, in Memphis, in Wilmington — are heart-wrenching.

Tyson is also clear about the ways white people have not just erased stories, but made them more palatable to themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the caricature we have made of Dr. King.

In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates. Politicians who oppose everything King worked for now jostle their way onto podiums to honor his memory. Many of them quote Dr. King out of context as they denounce “affirmative action,” despite the fact that King repeatedly, publicly, and passionately supported that principle…. There remains no place in American memory for the economic vision of King, who said in 1957, “I never intend to accommodate myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the many in order to give luxuries to the few.” … The radicalism of King’s thought, the militancy of his methods, and the rebuke that he offered to American capitalism have given way to depictions of a man who never existed, caricatures invented after his death.

The history of the murder of Henry Marrow also stood out to me vividly. The town of Oxford did finally change, but why? It wasn’t the moral (or even legal) imperative of desegregation. It wasn’t the terrible murder of an innocent man, or the miscarriage of justice when all three of his murderers were acquitted. It wasn’t even the violence that happened afterward — the riots, the burning of white property — though that made some white citizens of Oxford sit up and say “You have our attention, and maybe we’ll change something someday.” No, it was the economic boycott. It was when black people stopped shopping in white establishments, stopped going to the movie theater, stopped getting their gas in town. When it hit them in the pocketbook, Oxford quietly desegregated. This made me furious. What will make us uncurl our fists from power over human lives? Apparently only gold, or the offer of more power.


The ending of the book includes a powerful moment when Tyson brought his father on a trip with his students through the south, visiting important sites of freedom and slavery. He vividly evokes a visit to a plantation where the tour is focused on the “good old days” and barely mentions the slaves on which those days were founded. The students, devastated after the surreal visit, reel back to the bus in tears. Tyson’s father stands and prays, and every student — of every belief and none — bows their heads. They pray for the enslaved people — for the unacknowledged genius, for the heartbreak and the suffering. But they also pray for our own time. “We confess to you,” Tyson’s father says, “that we, too, like the men who once owned Destrehan Plantation, have been tempted to love things and use people, when you have called us to love people and use things. We ask your forgiveness for our complicity in these evils, and in the evils of our own time, and pray your healing for our hearts.” This is no false humility. Tyson believes in that complicity, and that if we do not face the truth of our past we will never be able to find healing in our own time.

This is a microhistory. It isn’t comprehensive; it doesn’t touch every aspect of the African-American experience or everything about what it was like to live at that time or in that place. But oh, I was deeply moved and impressed by this book. I’ve been talking about it to whoever will listen. I recommend it highly, and I hope you will seek it out.

Posted in History, Memoir, Nonfiction | 12 Comments

A Spool of Blue Thread

spool-of-blue-threadIt’s Anne Tyler’s thing to write about families. I’m fairly sure if she set out to write about something else — water rights, for instance, in the Southwest — she’d wind up writing about the ranchers’ parents and grandparents and siblings and in-laws, and we’d know their birth order before the end of the first chapter. She loves to present her readers, not exactly with “dysfunctional” families — it’s not usually that grim — but with flawed families, people who can’t see their own mistakes and patterns, people who are trying to do their best and often miss the mark.

And here we are again with the Whitshank family. A Spool of Blue Thread revolves around Red and Abby Whitshank and their home on Bouton Street in Baltimore. The Whitshanks have four children: Amanda, Jeannie, Denny, and Stem. They are a tight-knit family with a strong sense of belonging that, to an outsider, may be faintly ridiculous at times:

But like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills. Calling in a repairman—even one of their own employees—was looked upon as a sign of defeat. All of them had inherited Junior’s allergy to ostentation, and all of them were convinced that they had better taste than the rest of the world. At times they made a little too much of the family quirks—of both Amanda and Jeannie marrying men named Hugh, for instance, so that their husbands were referred to as “Amanda’s Hugh” and “Jeannie’s Hugh”; or their genetic predisposition for lying awake two hours in the middle of every night; or their uncanny ability to keep their dogs alive for eons. With the exception of Amanda they paid far too little attention to what clothes they put on in the morning, and yet they fiercely disapproved of any adult they saw wearing blue jeans.

These rituals — these mannerisms, these quirks of belonging, of marking insiders and outsiders — could be taken as snobbery, or just as silliness. But as Tyler continues telling us the family’s history, including the story of Red’s father, Junior, we begin to understand the role class and gender have played in this family’s story. The grandfather came barefooted from the country to learn to be a master builder, and built his family home with his own hands (with, perhaps, a little larceny involved.) The grandmother hung on for dear life to a relationship she started when she was a “developed” thirteen, because she saw it as her only escape from the world she knew. The paragraph I quote above takes on a new cast in this light: it’s not satirizing the Whitshanks’ easy snobbery, it’s showing their desperate grasp on a middle-class life they aren’t really sure they deserve.

All but Denny, the problem child. It’s well known that there’s often a scapegoat in families, the one child who shows up with all the problems, the “identified patient.” Everyone else seems healthy, except this one person who carries the burden. That’s Denny, who snoops around and knows all the secrets and is angry and resentful and a complete jerk about it. He sucks up all the attention, all the air out of the room, because he’s the repository of the pain the rest of the family hasn’t had to feel. He can’t tell everything he knows, but he’s acting out the truth in the context of a flawed and uneasy dynamic. He rejects their signs of belonging, but he wants them, too. It is not irony but craft that when his mother begins to lose her memory of all the secrets, he is freed to tell them — and can finally forgive and be forgiven.

My own favorite character was Nora, Stem’s wife. The Whitshanks have all labeled her not very bright because she’s religious, but in one fraught situation after another, she says or does something kind or insightful that eases the situation. (She’s also practical and unoffendable, two things that come in very handy in the Whitshank family.) She hasn’t allowed herself to be shut out by their categories of who belongs and who doesn’t — by not being a Hugh, for instance, or by liking casseroles when the rest of them don’t. She just allows herself to be herself, and is part of the family by acting like it.

This isn’t my favorite Tyler book — that award probably belongs to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, or Saint Maybe, and I really liked Ladder of Years. But I did enjoy reading about the Whitshanks and their flawed family history, and their careful class-built walls of who belongs and who doesn’t. It made me wonder who we all keep in and out, and why.


Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 7 Comments


emmaI read Emma for the first time about 20 years ago. I liked it very much, but it didn’t become a favorite. In fact, it took me 20 years to get around to it again, and I only returned to it because I had decided to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting this weekend. The theme of the weekend was “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.” I enjoyed the second reading of Emma very much, but attending the conference enhanced my appreciation of this complex book even more. Many of my musings here will build on insights I gained at the meeting.

Aside from Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Emma Woodhouse is perhaps Austen’s least liked heroine. And the reputation is, in some respects, deserved—more so than Fanny’s. Emma is an interfering know-if-all who talks Harriet Smith out of an advantageous marriage to a man she loves, throws her at a man who has no interest in her, and looks down on many of her neighbors for no good reason, even going so far as to openly insult one of them in public. However, Emma is young and she learns from her mistakes—even if it’s slow going at times.

One of the things that I found striking on this second reading is how isolated Emma is. Highbury is a tiny town, and Emma is at the top of the class structure there. Many of her actions could be her way of asserting and maintaining that status because it’s all she has. She befriends Harriet Smith because Harriet agrees with her in all things, something Jane Fairfax would be less likely to do. Harriet is not a threat in the way that Jane is. But, the truth is, Jane’s situation is far more precarious that Emma’s, which perhaps explains her clinging to an obviously terrible engagement with a cad like Frank Churchill.

In “Funny Lady: Dangerous Humor and Female Empowerment in Emma,” Mackenzie Broderick pointed out that Emma is really a black comedy. The prose may sparkle, but when you look at what’s actually happening, the story is pretty bleak. Jokes are how characters assert their power, but they also reveal people at their worst, as is seen in Emma’s insult to Miss Bates at Box Hill. But, as a woman, Emma knows what it is to be on the other side of the power structure, and so she understands her error and is horrified about it—and she didn’t need Knightley to point out how wrong she is. She knew it right away. But if she wasn’t able to see that and change her ways, Emma could easily turn into another Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a point made by Rebecca Posusta in a presentation titled “Who’s Afraid of Miss Bates?”

Indeed, many of Emma’s actions seem both more selfish and more understandable when you look at her prospects. She’s been confined to this tiny town, more so than she needs to be. In “The Post Office Is a Wonderful Establishment: Epistolary Novels, Private Space, and Postal Culture in Regency England,” L. Bao Bui, pointed out that she’s not been to Box Hill, only seven miles away; she hasn’t been to the shore; and despite being 16 miles from London and having a sister there, she does not go to London for the season. Frank Churchill could go to London ostensibly for a haircut. Emma has not been in society enough. She’s not had to pay deference to anyone, except her father. She clings to her status as Highbury’s alpha female because it’s all she has.

As for Emma’s father, I originally saw him as a comic figure, but the more I think about it, the more troubling I find him. Much of Emma’s plight can be blamed on his unwillingness to let her go. Look at the novel’s supposed happy ending, where Mr. Woodhouse consents to Emma’s marriage only because there have been robberies nearby and he decides they’ll be safer with Mr. Knightley in the house. The tone there is cheerful, but really? People criticize Mrs. Bennett all the time, but at least she’s looking out for her daughters. Aside from trying to control everyone else’s diet, Mr. Woodhouse looks out only for himself. The whole town walks on eggshells around him, and the more I think about it, the more unsettling it gets.

I know many people really love Mr. Knightley, but I continue to find him one of Austen’s blander heroes. On the first read, I was genuinely surprised when he and Emma ended up together. It hadn’t occurred to me, and I felt then (and to some degree still feel) that they’re together because there’s no one else around for either of them. And I’m a little unsettled by the fact that his primary role has been to chide and instruct her, even if he does so out of kindness and happens to be right. What does that say about feminine power in the world of the novel? Must a woman like Emma always be directed by a man?

Emma, more than Austen’s other novels, is about the heroine’s personal growth. Mackenzie Broderick noted in her presentation that it is Emma’s flaws that drive the plot of the novel. The marriage plot seems beside the point. And when I start trying to make the marriage plot essential, I don’t like the implications. Is Knightley a Petruchio to Emma’s Katherine? None of the sessions I attended at the AGM dug into their relationship, but there’s plenty there to think about.

For more on my JASNA AGM experience, check out my post at Book Riot.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 26 Comments

The Long Winter

long-winterWhen I looked over the Shelf Love archive, it surprised me to see that I have never reviewed one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels. Teresa and I reviewed Pioneer Girl, her (heavily annotated) autobiography, and I reviewed The Wilder Life, a memoir about being a “bonnethead” by Wendy McClure. But despite the fact that I have read all of the Little House books many, many times, and continue to read them as an adult, and read them to my children, I have never brought that reading here. I am currently having my 9-year-old son read The Long Winter aloud to me, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about it as a novel. It is a complex book in a number of ways.

The book opens in the hot prairie summer, with Laura bringing Pa a drink as he’s mowing hay. The two of them find a muskrat house in the slough, and when Pa sees how heavily it’s built, he forecasts a hard winter. Why does God protect the muskrats and not people? Laura wants to know. Because people are free, Pa tells her:

“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”

Animal instinct is the theme of the next part of the book, as when the first frost comes, every bird and animal — every bit of game that the Ingalls family requires for food — high-tails it south, presumably under the protection of God. Pa doesn’t like it; Ma, who is an extremely sane person and has no intuition whatsoever, is sure that everything is going to be just fine. Cue ominous music.

The next warning is one step closer from the animals to white men’s civilization (from the point of view of this book, of course.) An Indian walks into Mr. Harthorn’s grocery while Pa is buying a piece of salt pork (significantly because he could not shoot a rabbit), and warns the men that every twenty-one years, a terribly hard winter comes, and there will be blizzards for seven months. Here is the description of the Indian:

He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight. His arms were folded under a gray blanket, holding it wrapped around him. His head was shaved to a scalp-lock and an eagle’s feather stood up from it. His eyes were bright and sharp.

Here we have a combination of the dignity and wisdom that come with age (“Old! Old! I have seen!” says the Indian), intelligence (the sharp eyes) and a connection with the animal world, protected by God (the eagle feather.) For an analysis of the word “bright” in connection with the Indians’ eyes, I’ll refer you to Tom, who has talked at length about the Prairie Sublime.

I should mention briefly that this is an example of the phenomenon of the myth of the vanishing Indian, in which 19th-century people believed (or wanted to believe) that Indians were a doomed race, fated to disappear. Native people show up quite often in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s earlier books, and in significant numbers. Then, after the vivid moment when the Osage ride away in a long line, they are fewer. This, to my memory, is the last Indian we ever see in her books. After this, the presence of Native people is erased in favor of settler culture.

In any case, soon after this warning, the blizzards do indeed begin, and the narrative is no longer about animals or even Indians, but about the “free and independent” people of the town who are isolated by the snow. Of course Wilder stresses the Ingalls family’s isolation, and the mind-numbing hard work it takes to survive, but she shows several different ways people can react to the pressure. There’s Mr. Foster, who foolishly shoots at a herd of antelope when he’s out of range, and ruins the possibility of food for the town. There are the storekeepers, who raise prices on food and lumber so that only the very rich can afford them. There’s the stationmaster in Brookings, who gives up trying to send a train to the town. And then there are Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder, who risk their lives in a breathtaking chapter by going in search of wheat they don’t know is even there, to save a starving community.

The end of the narrative arc, then, is about community — two young men who break through the isolation to prove that helping one another is the highest social order. When they bring the wheat back and Mr. Loftus (who fronted the money) proposes to sell the wheat for double what he paid for it because that’s “good business,” the town finally rebels; it’s against the communal spirit in which Cap and Almanzo made the trip. “Who says we made that trip for pay?” demands Almanzo. And Pa reminds Loftus, “Don’t forget every one of us is free and independent. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” Freedom and independence won’t protect you from the blizzard as the muskrats’ instinct will, but they’ll protect you in a community.

The last chapter of the book, when the spring finally comes and the train full of groceries arrives, is a celebration of family life and of survival, but also of a specific kind of community. The Ingalls’ friends, the Boasts, arrive, who have been wintering on their claim. The people around this table, the people in this community, are people who reacted with wisdom and hard work to the stresses of the winter. (Mr. Foster and Mr. Loftus are not here, for instance.) The book ends with song, as all the books do. Pa’s frostbitten hands have healed enough to play the fiddle, and he brings it out. But this time it’s not a wistful lullaby. The theme of the book is that your fate is your own look-out, so the song accompanies it:

Then what is the use of repining/ For where there’s a will there’s a way/ And tomorrow the sun may be shining/ Although it is cloudy today.

(I’d write out all the verses, which strongly rebuke whiners and cowards, but you can go read them yourself.)

This book does not have a simple message. I’ve heard over and over again that Wilder writes about a single theme — that she’s racist, for instance, or that she writes about an independent family who won’t be “beholden” to others, or that she’s anti-statist — but these books are far more complex than that, both in terms of contradictory opinions within them and in terms of craftsmanship. There are individual chapters here that absolutely convey the terror of the blizzard, such as the one where Laura and Carrie are almost lost; there are others where Wilder conveys the numb, hungry boredom of waiting in the cold for a blizzard to be over, and the sense that the weather is almost personal. I appreciate the skill of the novelist, as much as I appreciate reading with my son.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Classics, Fiction | 7 Comments

We Live in Water

we-live-in-waterIn 2013, I read Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, a novel about a middle-class man in free-fall. That novel was satirical and insightful and interesting, it made me laugh and it made me think, but somehow I didn’t pick anything else up by Walter until my book club had me read his book of short stories, We Live in Water. This is a whole different thing, my friends.

The stories all take place right around where I live — Spokane, Washington, and the surrounding area. The farthest away he gets is Las Vegas, where a Spokane native has gone to look for his stepsister, who may have become a hooker. Mostly, though, it’s Spokane and the Idaho panhandle and Seattle and perhaps once or twice as far afield as Portland. It made these stories vivid for me; I knew the neighborhoods and streets, the pawn shops, the elementary schools, the faces of the people.

Walter’s protagonists — all men — are drowning. They are facing various kinds of misfortune: a busted economy, meth, a zombie plague, prison, a lifetime of bad decisions. In “Anything Helps,” Bit, a homeless man, “goes to cardboard” even though he hates to do it, because he needs twenty-eight dollars: it’s his son’s birthday, and he wants to buy the latest Harry Potter book for him. What that money signifies — to the people in the cars at the intersection, to him, to his son — is not a facile lesson. The title story involves a father whose mistakes cannot be made right, who has two minutes to tell his six-year-old son… what? What will carry him through his whole life? “We ain’t like fish, Michael,” he says. “You can do whatever you want.” But the message of the story — indeed, of the book — is that that isn’t true; we live in water, and we can only know what surrounds us. “Wheelbarrow Kings” is a genuinely funny story, about two tweakers pushing a gigantic television set through the streets of Spokane in order to pawn it. Several of the stories have that kind of dark humor, set in a context that makes you laugh but pokes a bruise. The last piece, more of an essay than a story, is “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” and I can’t do better than recommend you read it. I live here too!

In my book club, reactions to this book were very mixed. A lot of people found it too grim, and we got into a long discussion about homeless people and poverty. And it’s true that the characters populating this story don’t have much. Their trucks don’t start unless they’re parked on a hill; they hope they have enough for a frozen burrito at the 7-11; they don’t repair their houses. But that’s not Jess Walter’s point, to show us a group of those less fortunate than ourselves. He looks at individuals, one story at a time, because each story is worth while. He loves these guys, you can tell. He gives them huge dignity, no matter what kind of terrible failures they are. He looks at them with the eye of a cinematographer, with narrative and beauty and plot, and if there’s a lot of sadness here — a refusal to hand out easy redemption — there is also the fact that people are going down fighting.

I thought these stories were tremendous. The entire collection points out that we are living in a time where empathy is lacking; where we tend to blame the poor for their own poverty. The only way to change this is seeing and understanding one person at a time (one zombie at a time), one intersection at a time. Stories like this can help.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 12 Comments

Difficult Loves

difficult-lovesDifficult Loves is a collection of short stories by Italo Calvino, published quite late in his life (1984, only a year or so before his death) but written quite early indeed, most of them in the 1940s and ’50s. This means that if you read them expecting the style of the Calvino most of us know — the Calvino of If on a winter’s night a traveler, or Invisible Cities, or The Baron in the Trees — you’ll be surprised. These stories date from earlier than that; they are mostly from his Italian neorealist period, and as such are far more concrete in form and content than the novels I mention. As time goes by, however, that tone begins to shift. The collection has a lot to offer — not only in terms of watching Calvino find his way toward what would increasingly be his voice as an author, but on its own merits.

The collection is divided into four sections. The first section, “Riviera Stories,” is almost not stories at all, but sketches: slivers of life, detailed portraits of people in certain social situations. (Though even here a sense of the fabulous peeks out, as in “Adam, One Afternoon,” in which a young man named Libereso pursues a young woman named Maria-nunziata (the Madonna’s name) with gifts of snakes, toads, roaches, ants, fish, and slugs. Ah yes, I see you, Calvino.) The second section, “Wartime Stories,” ought to be more serious — peasants and partisans against German and Italian Fascists — and it mostly is. Here we see famine and rifles, a boy who can’t miss his shot, urgent messages crossing the country. But even here, “Animal Woods,” in which a German finds himself in a part of the forest where the Italians have hidden their livestock, has the clear sense of a fairy tale.

The third section, “Postwar Stories,” is the most difficult to engage with for me. These stories are a blend of the burlesque and the baroque, and sometimes the grotesque (any more -que words? Maybe opaque?) Yet some of them are wonderful, like “Theft in a Pastry Shop,” about men performing a heist from… well, a pastry shop. This story starts out as your basic noir crime fiction: the leader “walks along in silence, through streets as empty as dry rivers, with the moon following them along the tramlines.” They are silent, grim types with a job to do. But two pages in:

It was then that he became aware of the smell; he took a deep breath and up through his nostrils wafted an aroma of freshly baked cakes. It gave him a feeling of shy excitement, of remote tenderness, rather than of actual greed.

Oh, what a lot of cakes there must be in here, he thought. It was years since he had eaten a proper piece of cake, not since before the war perhaps. He decided to search around until he found them.

And the story takes a completely different turn, more Fellini than Chandler, with a last line you’ll never forget.

The last section, “Stories of Love and Loneliness,” is the closest we come to seeing Calvino’s mature preoccupations and style. Five of the eight stories are about the blurred line between art and life, truth and fiction. My own favorite was “Adventure of a Reader,” about a man who can’t focus on his fling with a real-life woman because his book is so good (we’ve all been there, right?) But perhaps the most perfect story was “Adventure of a Photographer,” about a man who ends by being unable to photograph anything but other photographs, and who destroys his love affair in the process. This story was full of wonderful, twisty paragraphs:

The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow… The minute you start saying of something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.

I may have given the impression that I think Calvino’s fantastic and fabulous writing (in the literal sense of those terms), his chameleon nature that never does the same thing twice, his deep originality of form, are somehow unserious. This is far from the case. I am not the sort of person who believes, grouchily, after a magic show, that I’ve been had. Rather, I admire the craft, and believe in the magic, and look to see how it was done, and ask to see it again, again, again. Difficult Loves comes close to a look behind the scenes, and for that I am grateful.

Translated, beautifully and variously, by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright.

Posted in Short Stories/Essays | 6 Comments