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A Gracious Plenty, by Sheri Reynolds –book review

Finch Nobles, who as a child was badly burned in a kitchen accident–“widowed by her own skin” (13)–has elected a living death rather than face the rejection of others. She has lived with death all her life, after all–her father was caretaker for the town cemetery–and when he died, she took over.  She lives alone in a house on the grounds, isolated from most human contact. She has no friends except for the Dead, who come to the cemetery “heavy” with secrets. They control the weather and the seasons, “coaxing the natural world along” (34).

When Finch is forced to spend more time than usual among the townsfolk, she gradually comes to understand that she is like them. Each of them has his or her own struggles or pain, but not the obvious scars.  Finch’s awakening to this truth is slow but inevitable when she gets to know the cemetery’s newest resident, Lucy Armour, who had been the town’s reigning beauty queen before she committed suicide.  Indeed, this is the only way Finch can learn that she’s no different from anyone else, for the Dead are the only ones she will listen to, and it’s their stories of secret pain that open her eyes.

As Finch and the surrounding Dead “lighten,” Finch loses the ability to communicate with them because she no longer needs them.  She emerges from her own crypt and joins the living, where she lives with clarity, instead of the haziness she inhabited that permitted her communication with the Dead. A Gracious Plenty illustrates that, despite our outward appearances, we are all the same in our pain, in our avoidance of that pain, and in our need to be loved and accepted.

Finch is crabby and prickly because she is conscious of the ugliness of her scars. She has endured stares and taunts all her life, so she opts to reside in the in-between place where the Dead go immediately after they die.  The result is that Finch is half-dead herself, numb to life. She would be stuck here, except she’s made friends with Lucy Armour, the town’s beauty queen who ran away and got involved in drugs and prostitution, and changed her name to Lucy “Armageddon” to become more authentic. It’s this name change that captures Finch’s interest, and subsequently her discovery of Lucy’s self-inflicted cuts.

Finch states, “I liked the part of her…that changed her name and sliced her beautiful body so it would be more than just beautiful. What binds us is the scars. Mine from burns, hers from a knife, and both of us numbed by it” (22).  They have both run from life, and they’re both heavy with pain.  Lucy’s suicide is still a secret–her mother, Lois,  refuses to acknowledge it–so Lucy enlists the aid of Finch in forcing Lois into admitting the Lucy committed suicide.

Finch’s acceptance of the task is an act of love that results in self-evolution: through confronting Lois with the truth, Finch sees where she has been blind to reality.  M. Scott Peck writes, “…the act of loving is an act of self-evolution even when the purpose of the act is someone else’s growth” (Road Less Traveled 82). Finch does this act of love even though she longs to be with the Dead completely so her meanness will be carried away on the wind.

When William Blott, the town drunk, joins the Dead at the cemetery, the Mediator (a guide who teaches the Dead how to “lighten,”) tells Blott, “If you want to know real enlightenment, you’ve got to lose the weight…. We’re talking about burdens and secrets…. In this place you’ve moved beyond experience. now it’s your stories that keep you down” (Reynolds 34). Blott is much like Leonard, the town sheriff, who is a blot on his father’s good name and has stifled his pain with food, where Blott retreated into alcoholism and transvestism.

Blott’s penchant for dressing up in women’s clothing proves to be handy in the cemetery because he is able to quiet baby Marcus, who’s been wailing for a dozen years, by “nursing” him with false “ninnies.” For the first time, Marcus is comforted, nurtured as he should have been by the mother who smothered him in his sleep. When Blott’s secret life is revealed after his death, local youths spray-paint his headstone with defamatory words, and Blott is devastated to discover that he was not genuinely loved and respected.

A storm is building because Blott and Lucy are enraged by the living world’s refusal to accept their truths, and they summon up a powerful storm of rage and pain, called up to “wipe out a bad memory” (153).  The storm is a catharsis that leaves the air sweet and clear because directly before and during the storm, truths are fully revealed.  Lucy’s mother finally faces that her daughter committed suicide; the chief church lady, Reba, accepts that Blott was worthwhile; Marcus’ mother admits she smothered him; the sheriff stands up to his father; and Finch finally releases her grudges against the townspeople.  Each character understands that “the idea of the person and the heart of the person–those are wholly different landscapes” (133).

Each person had her own story, but until it was told, understanding between people remained elusive.  In the words of Collective Soul: “The walls came up as the thoughts went down to the hush of disparity. I’m sure we know the problem lies with some insecurities. We’ll never see eye-to-eye as long as our tongues are tied…. In a moment, it could happen–we could wake up…. In a moment we could change” (*”In a Moment“).

We are all the same. We want to belong; we fear rejection; we have secret pain. Reynolds deftly illustrates that sameness–and the disparity–in humanity, and points to the universal need for compassion.

As some **unknown wise soul said, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

 

 

*From their album, Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid

**Various sources are credited with this quote. No one knows who said it first.

 

 

Edited: August 22nd, 2013

Straight Shooter excerpt (rough draft)

Straight Shooter
Unknown chapter

Mark Bremerton had been waiting all day to put his feet up, read a bit of John Olsson’s Word Crime, and enjoy some of that Yemeni coffee the postman had delivered.  And he was almost there:  two Aesop’s Fables, one Goodnight Moon, Three Billy Goats Gruff, one small glass of water, one last trip to the bathroom, and his five-year-old nephew, Paxton, was finally tucked in with his favorite stuffed animal, Floppy Joe.

“Uncle Mark?”

Mark paused at the door.  The earthy aroma of the coffee wafted down the hallway, making his stomach rumble.  He sniffed appreciatively, then looked back at his nephew.  “No more water tonight, Pax,” he said. “That’s the last set of sheets—“   He stopped.  The boy’s eyes were closed.   Mark walked back and sat on the edge of the bed.  “What is it, Packster?”

“Do you think Mommy can hear me when I talk to her?”

Mark placed his hand on Pax’s head and rubbed the boy’s forehead gently with his thumb.  Pax’s eyelids trembled and Mark could see wetness along the tips of his lashes. “I think so,”  he said.

“’Cause I can’t find my toe-socks.”

“Toe socks?” Mark asked.  “Must take forever to put them all on.”

Paxton opened his eyes and gave Mark a serious look.  “Not one for each toe.  They’re regular socks with—“   He thought for a moment.  “They have toe sleeves,” he said.  He pulled away from Mark’s hand. “I’m okay,” he said.

“I know you are,” Mark said.  “It was helping me think.”  He let his hand settle on top of the blanket and he pursed his lips.  “Toe sleeves.  Now I get it.  What color are they?”  A glimmer of a memory sat at the brink of his mind.  He looked around the cluttered library that was now serving as his nephew’s bedroom, mentally retracing his steps over the last week.

“You don’t look like you get it,” Paxton said.

“No, I do.  Tiny sleeves on the end of the sock. Clear as a bell.  Are they blue?”  When had he seen them?  Monday had been Lainie’s funeral.  Wednesday, the author-signing at the store. Thursday, at his sister’s house, packing up Paxton’s belongings….  His eyes lit on a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello.  Yes.  The socks had been neatly folded, green toe sleeves up, on the shelf behind the strategy game.  He’d brought the game, but left the socks.

“They’re blue with green toes,” Paxton said.  “You know where they are.”  He sat up.  “You have your remembry face on.”

Mark breathed in sharply and a flash of ache painted his insides. Pax sounded like his mother.  “I’m not sure,” he said, “but I might have an idea.”  He stood up and reached over to pat Floppy Joe on the head.  “He looks very tired.  You two need to get some sleep.”  He knew he was being a coward, but God, he was tired.

Paxton’s lower lip slowly jutted out.  “I want my toe socks,” he said.

Okay, how did Lainie deal with this?  Mark could see a storm brewing in Paxton’s face, could practically smell the rain.  A regular temper fit was doable, but the boy’s mother was freshly in the grave—maybe the socks would comfort him.  Mark checked his watch.  9:30pm. They’d been bedtiming for an hour and a half.He did not want to go out. Did not want to walk through his sister’s house tonight.  Did not want—

A sniffle brought his attention back to Pax, who was rubbing his eyes with his pajama sleeve. “Please, Uncle Mark?”

“All right, let’s go,” Mark said.  He could deal with a trip across town better than he could an upset child.

“I’m not a crybaby,” Pax said, throwing back his covers and slipping off the bed.

“No, you’re a trooper,” Mark said. He leaned against the doorway and watched Paxton struggle to put his shoes on over his footed pajamas. It struck him that he could not remember the last time he’d seen Pax laugh.

“Leave the shoes, Pax,” he said.

“But Mom said not to—“ Paxton grunted as he tried to force his foot into his shoe.  “Maybe I should just get dressed.”

“No, leave it. Let’s go.”

Pax squinted at him.  “Mom said—“

Mark cocked an eyebrow at him.  “I’m going to get some coffee, which will take approximately one minute.  If you think you can have your shoes on in that time, have at it. But if you want those socks tonight, you’d better be ready.”  Mark left the room.

He’d just put the lid on his travel cup when he heard the shuffle of his nephew’s footsteps on the hardwood floor.  He switched off the coffee pot and met Pax by the front door. Pax gripped Floppy Joe in one hand and his tennis shoes in the other.

Suppressing a smile, Mark lifted the keys off the keyholder by the door and ushered Pax through.  When he turned from locking the door, he saw Pax tiptoeing across the gravel to the Jeep.  He sighed and followed him to the car.  As he buckled Pax in the back seat, he said, “Clothes get dirty all the time, you know.  Then we wash them.”

“But what if they rip?” Pax asked.  “Can you sew?”

“Yes,” Mark lied. He shut the door and went around to the driver’s side and got in.  He made a mental note to buy more pajamas, then drove to his sister’s house across town.

As he pulled into the driveway, he noticed three things:  his aunt’s car in the driveway, the lights were on in the house and on the porch, and there was a For Sale sign on the lawn.  Mark cut the engine and shoved open the door and stalked over to the sign.  He yanked it up and tossed it to the porch steps.  “What the hell,” he muttered.

He glanced around, taking in geraniums drooped over the wide porch railing, their tired flowers barely clinging to the stems.  The fiery bougainvillea bushes that climbed up the walls of the white house looked none-the-worse for wear, and the jade plants looked healthy.  But the geraniums.  Lainie’s favorite flowers.  He went to the faucet and turned on the hose and watered everything.  The front door creaked open as he was tossing the hose to the middle of the lawn.  He turned, and saw his elderly aunt, Regina, standing at the top of the porch steps.  She was wearing strappy red sandals, a fluffy yellow dress that probably cost as much as that signed edition of Mark Twain he’d had his eye on, and a wide-brimmed purple straw hat.  Her crimson lipstick was smeared across her cheek.

“Fifi.  Is everything okay?”

“Marcus?”  She held out her hand to him.  “You must help me.”

Mark leapt up the stairs and put his arm around her, guiding her over to the porch glider.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m so upset,” she said.  She let Mark steady her as she sat down.  “Clancy has been missing for two days and I just know that Japanese man ate him.”

Mark rubbed his eyes and gave her a sideways look.  “Your neighbor ate your dog?  I don’t—“

“Clancy has never run off in his whole life,” Regina said.  “Ever.  He is loyal and sweet and such a good dog and—“  Her lips trembled.

Mark said, “Okay, look.  Pax is out in the car.  Let me go get him, and then we’ll talk.”  He wheeled around and walked to the car to get Paxton, hoping he hadn’t seen the sign on the lawn.  “Hey, buddy, sorry about that.  I got busy watering the plants.”  He unbuckled him and lifted him into his arms.  “Everything’s wet so I’ll carry you, okay?”

Paxton clutched his shoes and Floppy Joe to his chest and held up his arms.  Mark bumped the door shut with his hip and carried Pax to the porch, where he set him down.

“Paxton!”  Regina held her arms out.  “How’s my favorite five-year-old?  Come give me a hug.”
Paxton looked up at Mark, who nodded, then he went and stood obediently in her arms, his own hanging limply at his side.  Regina rested her cheek on the top of his head, then brushed a light kiss on his hair. “It’s so nice to see you,” she said, and leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes.

Pax gave Mark a quick look out of the corner of his eye, and Mark waved him on.  “Go on in to your room, Pax.  I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Mark picked up the For Sale sign.  He stood there and held it up.  “Do you know about this?”

Regina laid her hand on her forehead.  “I think I have a temperature.  I’ll go in and lay on the couch.”

Mark frowned at her.  “Fifi, did you put this sign on the lawn?”

Regina shook her head.  “It was here when I arrived.”  She got up and walked to the door, smoothing her dress.  “Come inside?”

Mark followed her inside, setting the sign in the entranceway.  “Why would someone put this on the lawn?”  He turned to look at Regina, but she had already gone into the living room.

A crack of light shone down the hall from beneath Pax’s bedroom door.  Mark flipped on the hall light and gazed at the family photographs:  Lainie cradling Pax when he was a month old, her black curly hair a halo, her smile mysterious and content.  Another one showed Lainie holding a sprinkler over her head while she danced in the water drops.  He’d taken that one a couple years back.  Another:  Paxton in a tiny black suit and tie, standing stiffly at his mother’s side on the church steps.  His father’s funeral.  Mark rubbed his eyes tiredly.

Paxton burst out of his room. “I found them!”  He held up the pair of bright blue socks.

“Great,” said Mark, sorrow rippling through him.  Even now Pax was unsmiling.  His face was fierce, triumphant, even, but not a shadow of a smile.
“Is there anything else you want to get while we’re here?” Mark asked.  He looked over the pictures, seeking one that showed his nephew smiling. He found one of his own mother.  The glass was cracked but the picture was intact.  She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and a white sundress with daisies on the hem, and she had a small kitten draped over her hand.  He lifted it off the wall.

“Who’s that?” Pax asked.  He craned his neck to see, and Mark showed him the picture.

“This is my mother—your mother’s mother,” he said.  “Your grandmother.  She died when I was about your age.”  He tipped the picture back so he could look at it more closely.  “I remember that cat,” he said.

“Mommy says you remember everything.”  Pax tilted his head.  “Do you really?”

“I remember things I see,” Mark said.

“Then how come you have to read the same stories every night?”  Pax gave him a dubious look.

Mark laughed a little.  “Because I’m lazy, and I like looking at the pictures.  Don’t you?”

Pax nodded and stuck his hand behind his back.  “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“I remember stuff. I’m not clairvoyant.”

“Clairboyant?”  Pax asked.  He repeated it softly to himself.  “Clairboyant.”

Mark smiled down at him.  “With a “v”, clairvoyant. The actual definition is to see clearly, but it means to be able to see things that you can’t see with your eyes.  Like to see the future.”  He saw Pax’s blank look and added, “To know what’s going to happen tomorrow because you see it in your head.”

Pax nodded. “I see.”

Mark laughed.  “Did you just make a joke?”

“No,” Pax said. He said the word again.  “Clairvoyant.  I like that word. It’s big.”

“It’s a big word,” Mark agreed.

“Mommy talks big to me, too.  Talked,” he corrected himself.  He turned and shuffled down the hall to his bedroom, fingering his socks.  He stopped at the doorway and turned back.  “I found this,” he said, holding up what looked like a playing card.

His words didn’t register immediately with Mark.  He pinched his nose and shook his head slightly, trying to dislodge the ache.  He set the picture down on a small hall table and walked over to Pax, taking the card from him.

“Huh,” he said, turning it over in his hand.  A tarot card?  It had a picture of a tower on it with people falling off the edge. “All by itself?”

Pax shrugged.  “Can we spend the night here?”

Mark leaned through the doorway to look at Pax’s bed.  “You don’t have any sheets,” he said, glancing down as Pax moved past him to climb onto his bare bed.

“That’s okay,” Pax said.  “I won’t be cold.”

“You can’t sleep on a bed with no sheets.  C’mon,” Mark said, stuffing the card into his pocket and holding out his hand.  “Let’s get some sheets and make your bed.  Or,” he paused.  Not sure it was a good idea, but:  “would you like to sleep in your mommy’s bed?”

Pax sprang off the bed and ran to his mother’s room.

Guess so, Mark thought, following slowly. He walked into his sister’s room and saw that Pax was already nestled deep under the covers.  He tucked the blankets around Pax’s shoulders, then settled in a nearby rocking chair.

He started rocking.  “In the great green room…”

Pax fell asleep, and Mark continued to rock, thinking about the book he’d left on the coffee table at home.  The best laid plans.  Tonight had been the first night he would have had time to read.  He glanced over at Pax, noting his slow, easy breathing.  Worth it, he decided, and dug into his pocket to bring out the card.  Didn’t know Lanie was into tarot, he thought, and yawned.  He set the card aside, then got to his feet and stretched.

He went to the living room and found Regina curled up on the couch, asleep.  He stood over her for a moment.  Why she always insisted her neighbor was out to get her was beyond him. He covered her with a nearby afghan and kissed her forehead.  Then he checked to make sure all the doors were locked and turned off all the lights, leaving the hall light on for Pax, and made up Pax’s bed for himself.

Edited: March 15th, 2010

Joe Gould’s Secret–book review

While a casual reading of Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret might persuade the reader that the secret was that Gould never actually wrote his epic history of conversations he overheard, I think Mitchell tells us straight away what his secret was in the first few pages of his book.  Joe Gould tells Mitchell, “There is nothing accidental about me” (5).  This neatly captures his secret:  even when he was suffering from his choices, dressing “under a red exit light” (9), not writing that history,  he was where he wanted to be, not surrounded by a “shirt-sleeved multitude” (13).

Mitchell initially describes Gould as “an ancient, enigmatic, spectral figure, a banished man” (53),  but he gives him flesh and spirit a few pages later, with an interesting effect:

“…his face was alert and on guard and yet so tired and so detached and so remotely reflective that it was almost impassive. Looking straight at me, he looked straight through me.  I have seen the same deceptively blank expression on the faces of old freaks sitting on platforms in freak shows and on the faces of old apes in zoos on Sunday afternoons (57).

It’s as though Mitchell is fiercely warning the reader that Joe Gould is not a sideshow.  I was intrigued by this—not that Mitchell was showing his compassion but that he warned people as surely as if he’d told us to back the hell off.  The mechanics?  I don’t know what to call it, but I know I want to write like that.   In another passage, Mitchell writes, “…or I would see him sitting among the young mothers and the old alcoholics in the sooty, pigeon, crumb-besprinkled, newspaper-bestrewn, privet-choked, coffin-shaped little park at Sheridan Square” (53).  Besides being a delightfully visual sentence, this paints a vivid picture of the author himself, I think.  I catch an underlying impatient despairing anger in the way he rattles off how dreadful the park is—then he tops it off with “coffin-shaped,” as though its inhabitants were already dead.  (Much later, Mrs. Sarah Ostrowsky Berman refers to “the city’s living dead” (158).)

One thing in particular captivated me in this book:  the similarity between the author and his subject.   I probably wouldn’t have noticed it except for one small statement of Gould’s:  “I was under-sized; I was a runt, a shrimp, a peanut, a half-pint, a tadpole” (62).  What struck me was that it sounded like something Mitchell would write.  Indeed, he rattles off descriptions in exactly the same manner throughout the book.   For example, in addition to the previously cited passages, he describes a barroom:  “…it was long and narrow and murky, a blind tunnel of a place, a burrow, a bat’s cave, a bear’s den” (97); in describing magazines Gould brought out:   “They were dog-eared and grease-spotted and coffee-stained” (76).   I considered the possibility that all the dialogue was simply Mitchell’s style, but he took notes, and, I believe, recorded some conversations.  Journalistic integrity dictates that he transcribe exactly what Gould said.

So I wonder:  Did Mitchell see himself in Joe Gould?  Gould’s fascination with every day conversations certainly mirrors Mitchell’s job as a journalist, but I think another statement of Gould’s captures the meat of it:  Referring to his monstrously long history, he says, “Everything else I’ve ever done may disappear, but I’ll still be immortal” (77).  I think, at the heart of every writer, is the desire to have one’s words live beyond one’s life.  I wonder if Joe Gould’s secret was Mitchell’s as well.

Edited: December 20th, 2009

Stop Time, by Frank Conroy–review

That Frank Conroy’s memoir is titled Stop-Time is intriguing, in that within his story there is a sense of no-time.  While we know from the author blurb that he was born in 1936, and thus understand that he grew up in the 1940s, and while he vividly paints his physical surroundings, Conroy doesn’t include many cultural references that would seat the reader in a specific time-frame.  It doesn’t matter for the story, but it makes it difficult to orient oneself, which may be the point. Perhaps Conroy, via his memoir, is “sending [his voice] ahead to animate the bleakness, supremely conscious of himself as [a] pinpoint of life in a world of dead things.”  In his story he “ramble[s] over…miles of wasteland, trying to find the center of it, the place to know it, [sensing] the place around [him] but they [are] too thinly spread, too finely drawn over all the miles of woods for us to grasp them” (29).  He is writing of his boyhood explorations with his best friend, and “us” in that final sentence refers to them, but it fits his readers as well.
Briefly, at odd moments, Conroy abruptly switches to the present tense in his narrative, which serves to bring the reader directly into the moment.  It’s an effective device, but one for which I could discern no pattern.  A few times he employs it when he is writing about the here and now, and other times it seems he is emphasizing the importance of a memory, but he doesn’t use the technique consistently.  Each time he uses it, it does stop time; perhaps it is because he is abruptly in the moment himself, as when he first shows his wife sleeping beside him and reveals that he still can’t figure out if he is alive or dead.
Conroy doesn’t expound on his inner turmoil as a child, but I believe he reveals anger at two points.  He tells of sneaking into his parents’ room through a transom, after which he lands on his head.  He writes, “The pain was barely noticeable.  (No more than, fifteen years later, a woman’s teeth in my arm)” (157).  He leaps from gleeful sneak-thievery to sexual innuendo, and it makes no sense within the context of the scene.  Even if one were to stretch the association and equate his delight in conquering the locked door to later sexual exploration, he makes no further reference to anything remotely sexual in the next paragraph.  So I wonder if his statement, “the pain was barely noticeable,” is a bigger one, an angry yet wistful brushing-aside of the immense emotional pain he endured as a child.  I realize this is a stretch, too, but still, I wonder, particularly since this memoir is praised as being almost free of self-pity.  He jars the reader one other time when he is gazing on the face of his newborn sister.  He writes, “I spent a lot of time looking at her…as if by being there long enough…I would come to understand the mystery (I was a child, remember) of life” (154).  We know he’s a child—we’re 150 pages into his story, and nowhere else has he felt the need to remind us that he was just a kid.  Why here?  I wonder, again, if this is a bit of anger seeping out.
One notable instance in which Conroy shows an emotional reaction occurs, interestingly, in the chapter, “The Coldness of Public Places”.  He tells of his mother’s “nightly bout[s] of weeping, faintly girlish, expressing exhaustion rather than sorrow.  As a plea to Jean [his stepfather], they never worked” (137).  He goes to his room to collect his schoolbooks, with no rumination, no personal reaction to his mother crying, but later, in the library, when he witnesses the hidden anguish of a young girl, he is shaken.  He writes, “I recoiled from the peephole as if a needle had pierced my pupil.  In a frenzy of confusion I began sorting books as if nothing had happened” (140).
Conroy’s narrative is episodic, with a somewhat disjointed forward motion.  Trees, cars, travel, and shadows are recurring motifs, which serve to underscore his innate need to dissociate himself from his life.  He writes of both feeling invisible and wanting to disappear, as when he hides within the dog kennel as a child and when he drives drunk as an adult.  He tries to find a sense of family with the dogs, but after their sudden, inexplicable feral behavior, they become as much a mystery to him as his own family is.  He writes, “They had their own cabal from which I was excluded” (105).  He hides in trees from his mother, and as a teenager he runs away from his stepfather, hitch-hiking toward Florida until he realizes he will never see his baby sister again.
It seems that his baby sister is the one family member toward which he feels affection and from whom he doesn’t hide, yet she is the one character about whom he almost completely excludes from his memoir.  We meet her as a baby—and that’s it.  His mother spirits her off to Denmark, and when they come back, we have no sense of who she is as a person.  When she is a baby, and he is fascinated by her, he mentions that she is important simply because she exists.  His silence on the matter seems to underscore this.
What I take away from Conroy’s memoir as a writer is the idea that even ordinary events are worth writing about.  I’m stuck sometimes because I think everything has to be dramatic or horrific, and while I have plenty such events to write about, I worry that the reader will come away from my story with sadness, rather than the hope I prefer.  Conroy reminds me that a story is more than the sum of its parts.  He also shows that one’s writing is, indeed, informed by what one reads.

Edited: December 20th, 2009

Review-All God’s Children, by Fox Butterfield

Butterfield’s portrayal of Willie Bosket should be required reading in college ethnic courses as well as those of American history. His careful rendering of the details of Willie’s family history along with that of Edgefield, South Carolina reveals a disturbing pattern of distorted ethics that I have never encountered in all my years of schooling.  Yes, we read about slavery, but we don’t learn about how its effects continue to resonate in our current culture, nor do we learn about the insidious nature of the “code of honor” in the South.

All God’s Children demonstrates not only the importance of fathers in the role of a child’s life, but also the subtle way parents influence their children’s behavior.  One counselor noted that Willie’s real problem “…has to do with his underlying sense of inferiority and insecurity and the rage which he personally feels towards his mother and which his mother expresses to the world partly through his behavior…the real trouble was Laura and her rage at having been mistreated” (192).   This is illustrated by her laughing at his bad behavior at different points in the narrative.  She does nothing not because she feels helpless but because she is vicariously venting through Willie—and it is Willie who pays the ultimate price.

That Willie’s photo is featured in promotional material for a reform school is savagely ironic.  That he begins acting out at eight years old and no one rescues him is heartbreaking.  That he survives his childhood is mystifying.

What is also baffling is that our nation continues to regard penal institutions as a catch-all solution to crime.  Willie is clearly the product of an ineffectual system that took up where his family left off.   Breaking family chains of dysfunction requires taking a risk, but if the mother herself is unaware of those patterns, how can she address the issue?  Willie’s mother didn’t know, and was so steeped in her own rage that she didn’t care.  What difference might she have made if she had cared?

Poverty is a key issue in Willie’s story.  He gets passed around various institutions, and it seems the only thing that would have brought a caring adult into his life—one willing to take a risk for an extended amount of time—is money.  Money would have bought him psychological attention, for one thing, and it would have filled his tummy when he was little, when he was on the streets trying to make a buck for food.

It is altogether chilling that our nation has this undercurrent of historical violence that seems to go unnoticed.  We sanitize our history books and continue to repeat our mistakes, and Butterfield aptly demonstrates how dangerous this is.  While he doesn’t offer one concrete solution, his research illuminates both where we’ve come from and where we should not continue.  And lest anyone should think his actions are inconsequential, he should note what inaction creates.

Edited: May 17th, 2009

Review- Louise Wisechild, Sue William Silverman, and others

Childhood abuse is in the news so often that the term itself is almost a cliché. A reader might be tempted to think, upon seeing yet another memoir of abuse on the store shelves, that here is just another tragic story in a long line of many; that it has nothing new to say; that these memoirs are all the same. To an extent this is true: each has the sexual exploitation of children, each is an emotionally difficult read. And each makes the reader wonder at the myopic selfishness of the human race. However, each of these stories also bears the singular voice of its author, and in this respect that new memoir on the shelves is offering something new. Although childhood abuse memoirs seem to be flooding the bookshelves, each is important and necessary, for each memoir reaches different people. The abuse is the same, yet not.

Louise Wisechild’s point of view in her memoir, The Obsidian Mirror,  is somewhat scattered among several different characters which represent her fragmented self. The characters themselves are distracting, and yet they are what make the fragmentation real to the reader; she deftly shows us these warring factions within her, never resorting to long-winded explanations. Wisechild also demonstrates with form how memories come to her unbidden, a propos of nothing. She does this by indenting her narrative, abruptly telling the reader that she’s had a flashback. The memory narrative is a bulleted indentation, which serves to pull the reader into the past along with her; it also shows the nature of memory: we may be talking about something unrelated and poof, here’s a flashback.

The simplicity of Wisechild’s story makes her book a must-read for abuse survivors who have just begun their recovery journey. It’s almost as if the author were another child whispering secrets to her friend, which makes this new journey of recovery seem manageable. Particularly helpful are her descriptions of her therapy sessions. Starting therapy is one of the scariest steps in personally dealing with childhood sexual abuse; Wisechild’s portrayal of her sessions demystifies sessions by showing her own experience. One reader on Amazon writes, “The therapy sessions are described in detail, it’s like sitting in on the session and seeing her process happening as she sifts through memories and makes connections with the way her adult attitudes and beliefs were shaped by the abuse. The reader gains vicarious healing by being drawn along in Louise Wisechild’s journey to find her answers from within herself.”

Another reader writes, “In reading her book I was also introduced to bodywork as a helpful therapy to heal from the residual body effects of sexual abuse. Louise provides helpful information about this because she is a massage therapist, who works with incest survivors.” Most people—not just survivors, but the general population—have never heard of bodywork, or body memories. Wisechild writes of both as though they are natural routes to regaining mental clarity and ridding oneself of toxic shame. She is unique in this regard (I think)—most memoirists focus on their personal history.

Sue William Silverman tells her story from the beginning in an unrelenting series of horrific events that she endured from early childhood into her late teens. Her memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, is both artful and restrained, which serves to emphasize the trauma she experienced. She narrates the story from as far back as she can remember, age five, telling the reader, “I knew the pleasure before the shame.” This stands out because most memoir authors do not point out that the abuse felt good. Silverman doesn’t go into detail about the pleasure, but that one sentence is significant. Readers Silverman’s memoir on Amazon write, “I found a kindred spirit in Sue. She has survived the fires of hell at her parents [sic] hands. There are many triggers in the book so if you are a survivor of sexual abuse make sure you are ready to face your body memories;” “It hurt but it helped…I identify with Sue…so much similarity in the pedifile’s [sic] character. However, Sue is much more forgiving and loyal. My father died by the time I was 18…that was closure for me;” “The writing of the book, in a sense, becomes the final chapter of her recovery;” and “To be repeatedly raped by a rich, powerful father–the silencing horror of it. And then, painfully, courageously to regain her own voice” (Amazon). People connected with Silverman’s story, and one reviewer mentioned the hope she found in Silverman’s it. This makes sense, given that Silverman mentions the pleasure she felt when her father touched her; any writer who admits that breeches another taboo that’s nestled within incest: if you’re a victim of it, you only allowed to have felt pain.

Part of what is disturbing about Silverman’s story is that there’s no closure. Is there any hope for her? Or for the reader who has had the same experience? What can the reader take away to help her on her path? The open-endedness of her story illustrates the fact that recovery is a journey, and that although she has finally found her voice she doesn’t have all the answers. Survivors of abuse want someone, anyone, to have answers; it is good to be reminded that someone out there is quietly living her life not knowing everything, yet being okay with it.

Lois Gould’s short story, “Businessman,” from the collection, Close to the Bone, is a memoir of her father. Her story is lush with human details. The reader knows her family. Her parents are vividly drawn, from her mother’s stylish wardrobe to her father’s cigar-smell, and the reader knows them inwardly as well: the father’s careless secretiveness, the mother’s callous disregard of her children. One thing that makes her story stand out is the fact that her father did not beat her; he beat her brother. Her father was contemptuous of women, which is not unique in these stories. But telling the story of vicarious abuse is different, and someone who grew up in a similar situation needs Gould’s story. (It’s not globally unique, of course. It’s just not what one typically discovers on the memoir shelf in a bookstore.)

Catherine Texier’s short story, “My Father’s Picture,” also in Close to the Bone, actually focuses on her mother. She writes, “My mother’s breasts. They’re always in my face…I see them in the bathtub, when we take baths together” (232). Her mother flaunts her sexuality in front of Catherine in defiance of her mother, with whom they live. The story is as much about Catherine’s father’s absence as it is about her mother’s emotional and sexual abuse, but it is the female aspect of incest that is different. In fact, one wonders if readers even identify what her mother did as incest. The idea that mothers molest seems to be another taboo: only fathers perpetrate sexual abuse. Why is this? Is the concept of male power so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that mother-as-sexual-perpetrator cannot be ingested? Texier’s story shows that mother abuse exists. We need more stories like hers.

Louise Wisechild’s second memoir, The Mother I Carry, is stylistically different from Obsidian Mirror. The characters she used to tell her first story still exist, but she has incorporated them into herself. She refers to them occasionally, as when she describes her reaction to a fifteen page letter her mother has written to her brother: “It’s been eight years and she still uses the same phrases she used when I was fifteen years old. And they still bring Fuckit to my throat” (199). Wisechild is fully in her body, and this is reflected in the way she recreates her childhood memories. She tells of sitting in the dirt, crying when some boys called her names: “I like how soft the dirt is. When I sit in the dirt I can feel my bottom and I don’t feel like I’ll fly away any minute…A great tiredness is pulling at my limbs” (69). She writes of a memory from age fourteen: “I hate my body for blushing. I hate my fat body for wanting a cupcake” (146). Again she emphasizes awareness of body, which few memoirs do. Her tone is still that of a confiding adolescent, but her growth along her journey shows, and now the tone seems more purposeful.

In Fire of the Five Hearts, Holly A. Smith’s memoir as a therapist treating incest survivors, emotion is unfettered and freely expressed. She writes, “These children were trying desperately to mimic a secret they could barely articulate, much less comprehend” (76). She compensates for their muteness: “My sorrow has eroded and devoured my spirit. Its new embodiment comes to me in the form of tears…I feel the constriction, and…an immediate bitter taste of bile and an obstruction of air. It rises with great fury up my throat, and I cannot speak. The tears collect underneath my bottom lid and pool there, refusing to erupt and stream down my cheeks. My lower lip quivers and then is stilled. The tears evaporate, never evolving into a satisfying, cathartic weep” (63). What is ironic is that memoirists writing of any childhood abuse are strongly urged to eliminate such emotive writing from their stories because the dry telling will allow the reader to fill in the emotions herself. Any memoirist writing like Smith did would be labeled as over-wrought and dramatic. An interesting juxtaposition exists: in therapy the therapist is controlled and unemotional, while the patient is allowed free emotional expression. In both instances the restriction is necessary; nevertheless, the restriction itself is interesting.

It is also ironic that memoirs are supposed to remind the reader that those little girls were much more than their bodies; what happens instead is that a sharper awareness of their bodies, their victimhood, has been created. Were we to meet any of these authors face to face, would we not think primarily of them as victims of sexual abuse? Why is this so?

If we encounter a survivor of a major disaster, we do not compartmentalize them into the victim category. Rather, we regard them as people who had bad things happen to them. The people who lost their houses in the California wildfires, those who suffered through the 9/11 attacks, war survivors, hurricane Katrina victims, earthquake survivors—none of these people is automatically assigned the label of victim, yet they all underwent tremendous emotional and physical trauma. We recognize that they are more than what happened to them; they do not become the event.

This is not true of sexual abuse victims. If we were to encounter, say, Sybil, on the street (assuming we recognized her,) would we not immediately think, sexual abuse? Augusten Burroughs’ name conjures the term as well, although to a lesser extent, perhaps because he has written other works that make him seem more rounded, which leads to my point: incest memoirs, instead of showing the world that the author is a human being who suffered, are instead reinforcing the notion that victims are still victims, not whole people who had bad things happen to them. Memoirs should be regarded as wounds exposed, their words the seepage of an infection too long untended. They should be seen as individual stories rather than as a whole, but somehow they still get lumped into an autobiographical stewpot in the same way that we seem to label the authors as victims.

Recognizing these stories as part of a whole rather than the sum of its parts will lead to healing of the collective whole. The singular voice of each author contributes to the chorus, whether the voices are dramatic or detached, sad or triumphant. It is good that the shelves are flooded with memoirs. People are finally telling their stories, and, while those who remain silent won’t find their own stories in all of the published memoirs, they will find them somewhere, as long as the brave ones write.

Edited: May 17th, 2009

Review-The Gathering, by Anne Enright

A Twist of the Grave

Anne Enright’s narrator in The Gathering, Veronica Hegarty, initially seems to be a petty, bitter woman, a woman who’s lost her way in a gaggle of siblings. She vibrates with anger over past hurts, and it seems she’s embarking on a journey to wallow in those hurts.  She doesn’t seem to know her true north, and her musings come across like gropes in the dark.  She is obviously grieving over her brother, Liam’s, suicide, and she reveals that she is not “properly alive” (80); that, like her former lover, Michael Weiss, she merely exists.  The difference between them, she says, is that he chose “just to exist [to] see what came his way” (81).   Most striking is her rage at her mother for bearing so many children, which the reader may, at first, interpret to actually be anger that her mother doesn’t know her name.   This notion is dispelled when Veronica inwardly erupts after dealing with the undertaker.  She considers her “child-battered body [and is] proud of it…for the people that came out of it, feeding the grave.  Feeding the grave!” (79)  A-ha, says the reader.  This, then, is a story about grief.  But no—and yes.   Yes; Veronica moves through the stages of grieving; she speaks of her memories and current experiences as though she is remembering them right now, going back and retracing the memory if she realizes she doesn’t have it right, or if she is lying to herself and the reader, and Enright presents the story as though it were a dialogue between two close friends.  However, Veronica is also on a quest for the truth of her past, for the truth, period, for, as she says, the dead require it.  Her quest begins in a haze of denial, not just regarding the fact of Liam’s death, but regarding their shared past; it begins with feeding the grave and ends with cam reilige, a twist of the grave that unexpectedly and ironically offers hope.

After Veronica breaks the news of Liam’s death to her mother, she muses about her grandmother’s romance with Lambert Nugent.  Here, she says, is where the seeds of Liam’s death were strewn.   She concocts a story about Ada’s and Nugent’s first encounter, and it isn’t until she’s moved through this short tale to the end that the reader realizes that she’s invented it, and then the reader wonders why.  It seems odd, and it creates a surreal sense that the narrator is about to lead us on a labyrinthine path to nowhere.  Can Veronica be trusted to tell us the truth about anything?   This surreal quality is embedded throughout the entire narrative, and for good reason:  this is how the mind works when working through the grieving process, and we are there with Veronica each step of the way.

Veronica brings us home to her husband, whom she alternately despises and loves.  She’s almost apologetic about this, but defiantly honest.  Her mind jumps to other childhood experiences, then it’s back in the present, dealing with everyday minutiae and funeral arrangements, then it’s back in the past again.  And she ruefully acknowledges that she sucks:  “If someone sucks, then they are the worst possible type,” she says, then she ends up “sitting still while the loud world passes by, with a long coffee spoon in my mouth, sucking” (83).

Veronica’s persistence in rooting out old memories is a means to survive.  “This is how we all survive,” she says.  “We default to the oldest scar” (97).   But as it turns out, Veronica’s oldest scar does not lie in Ada’s past but in her own, although she believes it is Liam’s wound:  at first she remembers seeing Liam molested by Nugent, but later on the memory turns out to be her own.  Again, there is a surreal quality to the memory, and neither the reader nor Veronica is certain whose memory it is.  Perhaps the memory belongs to Veronica, Liam, and Kitty, since all three of them lived in the house where the abuse occurred.  Perhaps, in fact, it belonged to all of the children.  This is left to the reader to decide.

In the beginning, Veronica is railing against her mother’s incessant breeding, and it seems this is her wild grief talking.  She’s just lost her brother, and is now faced with both her own mortality and that of her siblings.  In the end, however, Enright tantalizes the reader with the possibility that Veronica may either be pregnant or would welcome it.  This is ironic because of Veronica’s refusal to attend the funeral of another relative when she was pregnant with her first-born, Rebecca; she was afraid of cam reilige, the twist of the grave, because it could have a decidedly negative effect on her baby.  That Veronica is now “falling into [her] life” after dealing with Liam’s death is indeed, a twist of the grave.

Edited: May 17th, 2009

Review-The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

My review

Susie Salmon, the latest young murder victim of her neighbor, Mr. Harvey, tells of her own death thus:  “When you begin to go over the edge, life receding from you as a boat recedes inevitably from shore, you hold on to death tightly, like a rope that will transport you and you swing on it, hoping only to land away from you are.”

She describes being raped by Harvey in a similar fashion, her prose evocative yet tightly written, and allows the reader to fill in the blanks.  Sebold never resorts to hand-wringing or drippy narrative, which is all the more striking when one considers that she writes from her own experience as a rape survivor.

Sebold manages to fashion a very dark subject into a light story; she captures the detached spirit-sense very well.  In fact, the over-riding atmosphere of the story is reminiscent of a person’s dissociative state.

It is interesting to note that Sebold bristles at the notion that “The Lovely Bones is “working out” her rape…. In an interview, she says, “First of all, therapy is for therapy. Leave it there. Second, because you’re a rape victim, everyone wants to turn everything you do into something ‘therapeutic’ – oh, I understand, going to the bathroom must be so therapeutic for you!”

She continues, “OK, there aren’t that many women who come out and say they’ve been raped who also write a novel about violence. But when people discover you’re a rape victim, they decide that’s all you are.” (Viner)

On the one hand, the novel does seem to be an exorcism to a degree.  The further along I read, the more convinced I was that the author had had a traumatic experience because of Susie’s detachment; Sebold captured the tone perfectly.  On the other hand, Susie was supposed to be detached; she was dead.

Also interesting is the concept of a personal heaven Sebold portrays in the novel.  The concept itself invites the reader to speculate on her own heaven, but Susie’s heaven seems vague, perhaps because she doesn’t know what she wants.  She does seem to feel some responsibility for the world she left behind, as shown in her reflection of the time she’d held the bottle in which her father was building a ship:  “And I would wait for him, recognizing the tension of that moment when the world in the bottle depended, solely, on me.”

This rings the chime of “victim’s guilt,” that shame that’s embedded in abuse survivors.  That bell tolls in the like-minded reader, binding her to Susie—and perhaps to Sebold as well.

In terms of plot structure, the novel had some difficult moments for me.  I was unable to suspend disbelief when Susie possessed Ruth’s body and Ray immediately knew it was her. How could he have known her?  They’d only barely started exploring each other when Susie was murdered.

Furthermore, it was disturbing to witness a victim perpetrate what constituted rape on another female, with or without Ruth’s implied consent.  Throughout the novel Susie narrates sensations she feels in others’ bodies, and to an extent this is acceptable.

When, for example, she tells of feeling the kisses her mother feels on her neck from the detective, the reader understands that this is her mother, that the lost child would of course seek to feel through her.  She is “follow[ing] the physical to try to understand things that were impossible to comprehend” (273).

Susie detaches herself somewhat from the lovemaking, unlike what she does when Ruth and Ray had sex.  Whereas her mother “had her own moonlit skin” (197) Ruth disappeared and Susie took over.  She tells of feeling “every sensation…but …could not see Ruth” (300).

If there is any question about Ruth’s supposed acquiescence, it is dispelled when Susie tells of feeling Ruth struggling inside the body with her.  “It was lust and rage yearning upward” (301).   Ruth made way for Susie—after all, Susie had “willed” it, and apparently the reader is supposed to cheer for Susie getting that last one thing she wanted.

She “had been given a gift” (302) and flowers were being thrown at Ruth Connors feet.  Afterward, Susie pinches herself and feels nothing, and the reader is taken back to when she was raped and murdered; the sense of dissociation is strong here, and while, yes, she is leaving Ruth’s body, the description is eerily similar to that of the rape.

I would also have liked to see more development of the problem of the mother’s abandonment.  The only time we see consequences is when Buckley is antagonistic toward the mother when she returns home, and even that is barely addressed.

The fact is that the mother left her surviving children, communicating via the occasional cheery post-card, during a time when they needed her and no one really holds her accountable.

In spite of these troubling issues, Sebold’s story is engaging and compulsively readable and her personal history adds to its poignancy.  Nevertheless, I am baffled at the critical acclaim this story received.  Is it because Susie emerged as a triumphant survivor and was able to move on?

It’s disquieting that no one mentions how Susie mirrors her own abuse, and no reviewer seems to be bothered by the rather lame reunion of the mother with the remaining family.  I found no mention anywhere of either of these issues, only praise for the story.  This in itself feels dissociative and unreal, like I see a dragon in the living room and everyone else is walking around it but pretending it’s not there.

Overall, the story doesn’t ring with the honesty that, say, Amy Hempel’s stories do.  How can there be truth if the characters don’t fully reside within their own skins?  Susie spends nearly the whole tale suspended above the other characters, and she has no real grasp of her “own” heaven.

Sebold denies the connection between the story and her own experience, yet the story itself points to it, simply by virtue of things not quite being worked out.  So while the style and the lack of melodrama are both laudable, the story reads like an ill-conceived fantasy by a person who’s trying to make sense of her own trauma.  And I wonder what it is about our collective narrative that we applaud Susie’s perpetuation of victimization. Is it okay because she was a victim herself? Is this the only way she could find her heaven? I wonder how Ruth feels about that.

View all my reviews.

Edited: January 26th, 2009

Book Review-Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell confesses in her travel memoir, Assassination Vacation, that she drags her friends and family along with her when she visits monuments and historical sites. She does the same with her reader: the book reads like a chatty car ride to obscure, off-the-beaten path places such as a hike up a mountain to see where Theodore Roosevelt was when he received the news that President McKinley had been shot, as well as to well-known places like the Lincoln Monument or the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Vowell blithely confides that she is usually either the youngest of the group at museums, or the oldest, and she prefers being the youngest because it means she has a shot at being the prettiest. It is this intimate dialogue that engages the reader while she relates her depth of knowledge of American presidential history. While we learn about history we’re also learning about Sarah Vowell, and it was this that I found the most interesting and, at times, off-putting.

Vowell lets you know who she is and what she thinks with sly, self-deprecating humor. We know by page three that she is impatient with ceremony, aloof around strangers until the subject of American history is introduced, and that her mother’s voice rings strong within her. I found myself liking her as I read her chapter on Lincoln: she seems to take pains to be even-handed in her treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln and her son, Robert Todd Lincoln, as well as with Booth and his conspirators, as though she’s trying to understand them as people. She quotes Booth’s journal, in which he bemoans America’s reaction to the assassination, then writes, “Not that I have much sympathy for Booth’s groaning, but I think I understand where his befuddlement comes from. Where could Booth have gotten the fantastical idea that committing political murder would be greeted as an act of heroism? Not from the South…A little poking around in the Booth biography uncovers his earlier rendezvous with history—the 1859 execution of john Brown” (82). While Booth didn’t agree with Brown’s ideology, he ”adored Brown’s fight-picking, gun-toting methods” (83). The tributes Brown received inspired Brown, “So,” she writes, “Booth isn’t entirely misguided in thinking he’d inspire a song or poem himself” (83).

Vowell’s pursuit of the ghost of Lincoln helped me connect with him myself, as well as with the mourning nation. I found myself sympathizing with Mary Todd Lincoln in particular because of her obsession with séances. Back then people thought she was insane where today she would be understood to be reaching out in grief for her sons. I respond personally to this because after my mother died I was obsessed with tarot card reading, and I think both are a form of trying to somehow take control—of something. If we could just know what comes next maybe we could at least prepare for it. Mary was committed to an insane asylum by her son, Robert, and she never forgave him for it. He didn’t understand, I think, and it makes me wonder what I didn’t understand about my own mother, who I’ve often thought was mentally unhinged. Did I judge her too harshly? Do I still? These stories about Mary and Robert make me wonder.

Vowell moves on to other presidents, focusing mainly on Garfield and, later, Theodore Roosevelt. What I found fascinating was the fact that even presidents can be nobodies. I don’t mean they actually were nobodies, only that they were forgotten, like Garfield. That Garfield’s name isn’t better known is surprising to me in light of his refusal to be cowed by the very powerful bully, Senator Conklin. Garfield resisted Conklin’s constant nagging to put certain people in office, and Conklin was not a man to be ignored. Vowell’s stories about Garfield made me like him and want to read more about him.

It was in these pages, however interesting her stories were, that I developed a distaste for the author herself. She writes about Guiteau, Garfield’s murderer, and his five-year stay in a polyamorous community in Oneida led by John Noyes, which banned

“all expressions of over-the-top passion…[a] gifted violin player in danger of becoming a virtuoso and thus too attached to his instrument handed it over to the Oneida authorities and never played again. When a visiting Canadian teacher complained that the community did not foster “genius or special talent,” Noyes was delighted, replying, “We never expected or desired to produce a Byron, a Napoleon, or a Michelangelo.” You know you’ve reached a new plateau of group mediocrity when even a Canadian is alarmed by your lack of individuality. (144) (emphasis mine)

Up to this point I was willing to brush aside Vowell’s political mini rants, which are peppered throughout the book. I took them as simply being both part of who she is and part of her message. But now I was turned off because she was displaying a closet nationalism, the very thing she seems to be against. This hypocrisy made me read the rest of the book with a more critical (or jaundiced) eye.

She writes disparagingly of one of Garfield’s early speeches in which he speaks of the value of leisure time to think, somehow not connecting a later lament in his journal: “What might a vigorous thinker do, if he could be allowed to use the opportunities of a Presidential term in vital, useful activity?” (167) Garfield was pressed in at all sides by “indurate office seeker[s]” including Guiteau himself. He despaired over the amount of time it took to deal with them, and Vowell quotes this, but doesn’t make the connection. Neither does she explore Guiteau’s motives for killing Garfield, writing it off as insanity, along with Guiteau taking the Republican party’s metaphor too far. (During the election campaign they said that a vote for a Democrat was a vote against the United States.) Vowell writes about a humiliating encounter between Guiteau and John Blaine, Secretary of State, in which Guiteau is summarily dismissed by a harried Blaine with a shouted demand that he never again broach the subject of being the ambassador to France. A month later, Guiteau shot Garfield, and in his confessional letter Guiteau reveals that he hatched his idea to kill Garfield four weeks earlier. Vowell does not discuss any possible connection between Guiteau’s humiliation and the assassination, nor does she explore Guiteau’s tireless attempts to be a part of Garfield’s company as perhaps a clue that his assault was less due to politics than to pride and alienation. This made me wonder if her dismissal of Garfield’s earlier youthful “leisure” speech was more to do with her own predilection for off-the-cuff impatient observations than with the value Garfield was espousing.

Although Vowell didn’t delve as deeply as I would have liked with regard to Garfield, this book is a worthwhile read because of her passion and style of writing, which is breezy and informal, and she has a knack for weaving in and out of past and present tense that doesn’t jar the reader.

Edited: December 15th, 2008

Down On All Fours: Jane’s Guide to Living (Review of Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Banks)

Melissa Banks’s book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, is just another chick-lit book, although its message is more subtle than others of its ilk. Jane, the main character, does not fret about having an inadequate love-life; nevertheless, she reveals angst throughout the stories almost in sotto voce through her actions and certain comments. Presupposing that an independent woman is someone who is strong and self-confident, is intent on following her own goals, and is not determined or controlled by others, a reader would be justified in expecting Jane to be at least one of those things. However, Jane is strong only in the sense that she’s a survivor: She’s survived a number of hapless love affairs; she’s survived working with a virago; and she’s survived the death of her father. Although the men in Jane’s life are prominently featured in the book, and a cursory reading seems to reveal their impact on her life, it is Jane’s high-school gym teacher, arguably a woman, who shapes Jane’s philosophy, not just in love, but in life: “Get down on all fours and eat grass.”

 

While Jane doesn’t castigate herself for her singleness, her role in the stories is that of a woman looking for love, so obviously she’s discontent with her status of being without a partner. Her first love relationship is with a man named Jamie, whose sonorous voice stops her when she raises a reasonable objection to vacationing with his ex-girlfriend and her husband. Jane is down on all fours throughout the tale, first because she agrees to go, then again when she panders to his defensiveness about his friends: “I realize that all I mean is that they seem posed, but I continue, [with banal descriptions of the surroundings], anything to keep from sounding as though I’m criticizing his friends.” She kowtows when Jamie asks her how she likes Bella: “A voice tells me to say, Great, and I obey.” When Jane tours the island with Bella’s husband, Yves, because Bella is out cavorting with Jamie, Yves takes her to a duty-free shop and sprays samples of perfume on her arms and “gives the verdict…before [she sniffs].” The reader never learns if she even likes the perfume. Jane does not confront Jamie about his decision to desert her that morning. She asks him where he’d gone, but doesn’t pursue the matter, going down on all fours and taking the casual dismissal as though it was something she must accept. Jane eventually breaks up with Jamie, but only because she’s found another man.

 

Jane’s “down-on-all-fours” philosophy continues in her ill-fated relationship with Archie Knox, a man who is more than twice her age. Although Jane’s aunt gives an oblique warning about Archie the evening Jane meets him by saying that Archie would have brought the woman he was with over to meet them if she’d been “Somebody,” Jane is intrigued by him. Another warning comes from Archie himself, when they meet several years later at a party. “Somebody has to take care of you,” he says, and gives another one later in the evening over supper with Jane. “He told me my aunt was the most beautiful woman alive, even at eighty. He touched my chin, and moved my head from side to side, studying my profiles. He smiled and said, “No resemblance at all.””

Jane, down on all fours, has nothing to say to that.

 

Throughout the relationship, Jane accepts Archie’s assessment of her, telling the reader outright that “he was always right.”  When he’s impotent and implies that it’s her fault, she doesn’t call him on it, only pretends to be consoled. She characterizes their relationship as “[m]ore like Mr. Wilson and Dennis the Menace.”   When Archie subtly denigrates her to Sophie, her best friend, she doesn’t call him on it. After Archie talks about her like “some made up character  to his associates at a publication party, and then later corrects her grammar because, he says, “I’m helping you to be better,” Jane goes down on all fours and moves in with him. She submits to his uncaring, thoughtless treatment when she’s grieving over her aunt’s death: “The night I found out she died, Archie and I lay on the sofa for a long time. He combed my hair with his fingers. When he got to a knot, he’d give it a little yank.”    She doesn’t pull away from him. After the funeral, Jane overhears Archie talking on the phone in an intimate tone. He tells her brightly that his ex-wife can’t wait to meet her, and reveals, placatingly, that he told his ex-wife of his plans to marry Jane. Jane takes issue with Archie’s tone of voice, and Archie responds with an accusation about Jane’s final night with Jamie. Jane neither denies it nor tells him to mind his own business; neither does she remind him of all the times he’s regaled her with tales of his sex life before her. She just stands there, and the next day she finds that he’s lapsed into drinking. It’s never said aloud, nor referred to by Jane, but the implication is that it’s Jane’s fault. By not addressing this issue, Melissa Banks is allowing the implication and underlining Jane’s “down-on-all-fours” philosophy, even though Jane leaves Archie because of it.

 

Back in New York, Jane is down on all fours in her relationship with her new boss, Mimi. She accepts Mimi’s reduction of her duties from associate editor to “an assistant she’d decided to bring up.”   She submits to being treated like a doll: Mimi “brought in lipsticks she no longer wore, silk scarves she thought I’d like.”  When Mimi keeps explaining “some basic aspect of publishing to [Jane],” Jane stifles an authentic “I know” because she doesn’t want to appear unwilling to learn. When Jane finally has had enough of Mimi’s belittlement, at the same time she stands up for herself she reveals that, like Mimi, she had needed to be told who she was. Thus, even though Jane tried to be assertive, she was still “down on all fours.”

 

When Jane discovers her father has leukemia, she crawls back to Archie again and submits to the same disparaging treatment he handed out previously. It’s during this time that she leaves her job and her father dies, and the familiarity of her relationship seems to make it easier for her to grow some wings. She continues to be on all fours with Archie, but seems to recognize that she had been seeking the kind of love she had from her father and ends the relationship. She does this still on her knees, though. When they’re discussing why she was leaving, she reveals that she can’t do anything till he does it first: “I shook my head, and he stood up, so I could.”

 

In the final chapter, although Jane meets Mr. Right and manages to snare him, she shows that she believes her failed relationships are her fault, that she hasn’t found herself, and that she still needs to be told who she is. “Tell me I haven’t wrecked every relationship I’ve been in,” she laments to Sophie. She elicits the help of two women by way of their book, How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right, half-wishing she’d picked up an Edith Wharton book instead, even though she disdains them and has found their cheerleader-y types unhelpful in the past; she thinks these two must have some knowledge she lacks. She says, “Half of me has to make fun of the book.”   And she turns to these bimbos for advice? A clear-headed, critical-thinking woman would not consider taking the advice of someone she finds remotely contemptible, yet here’s Jane, down on all fours again. After using the techniques they prescribe, which causes Mr. Right to walk away, Jane discards the silly prescription and follows his advice to be herself. In some respects, Robert is a mirror: they like the same things and she finds she doesn’t have to explain certain things to him because he understands intuitively, which reveals the adolescent belief that finishing one another’s sentences and reading each others’ minds means true love has been found. While this may be comforting to her, it’s also narcissistic, and is perhaps her way of finding herself—in another person. She has neglected the necessary introspection and has actually gone against her father’s advice and has taken the easy way out by joining with a guy who mirrors herself. Ironically, if Jane had bought an Edith Wharton book instead of the dating guide she chose, perhaps she would have recognized the prison she was in and would have begun an inward journey that would have made her a truly independent woman.

 

This book plays on the fears and insecurities of modern women and wraps it in a pseudo-feminist novel.  We’re not pretty enough, or good enough, or smart enough unless a man tells us we are.  But if we “get on all fours and eat grass,” we’ll find ourselves in a man, too.

Edited: December 15th, 2008

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