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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

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

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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