With that in mind, I began my New Year’s meditation with a babbling creek. This is the image I intend to focus on this year. Just as a stream flows gently, effortlessly around logs and boulders in its path, I will find my way around every obstacle in my path. I will grow neither angry nor frustrated. I am water. I always find a way through and past a boulder. Even a dammed creek can only be held back for so long until it flows over the top or creates a new path. Nothing can withstand the persistent force of water. And in time, water erodes obstacles, dissolving them, turning them to sand.
This is one of the best books I read this year by one of my favorite authors. As I settled in and began reading, Ann Patchett wrapped me up and carried me through decades of poignant family drama. She wove the past and present, not to mention the many characters’ perspectives into one cohesive narrative, told in one point of view. It’s simply masterful. I’m in awe.
The nature of memory, insights into the human heart, and the power of forgiveness are at the core of this story.
Here are a few quotes, just because she says everything better than I can.
“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”
“But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”
“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”
“Thinking about the past impeded my efforts to be decent in the present.”
Nearly fifty years ago, as my Darling Husband (DH) and I were planning our wedding and life together, I tried to involve him in many of the details. I didn’t want to cut him out of what at the time was a traditionally female process. But, as a twenty-one-year-old man, he was disinterested to say the least. Go figure. I especially wanted his help in choosing the everyday dishes that he’d be eating from–and washing up–for the foreseeable future. I dragged him to a local department store where we selected a very simple design—ivory, with a thick band of olive green and thin brown stripe. (Earth tones were very big in 1973.) Not my first choice, but in the interest of compromise, we registered our pattern.
Weeks later my mother began displaying wedding gifts on the dining room table, as one does. Or did. Is that still a thing? Anyway, DH remarked that he liked the dishes.
“You should like them. You picked them out,” I said.
“Huh. I don’t remember ever seeing them before.”
Henceforth, I was a little less worried about involving DH in those kinds of decisions. And in the intervening years, as our needs and my tastes evolved, I chose kid-proof Corelle or beautiful Pfaltzgraffdishes with minimal input from him. Over time our earth tones were replaced by blue and white china, white enamelware, and lovely cobalt blue glass. Pretty, right?
Fast-forward forty-six years.
Old coordinated patterns
My much-loved Pfaltzgraff collection was showing signs of thirty years everyday use. I mentioned to DH that I might get some new dishes, but not all at once. I’d merely incorporate the new, little by little. DH said he’d always like Fiestaware. Me too. It’s been around since the 1930s and fits right in with our vintage-old-crap-from-every-dead-relative decor. So, I chose a few Fiesta place settings that coordinated beautifully with the remaining unchipped pieces of Pfaltzgraff. Even the transition would look fine. Slowly, I’d add more pieces I found at thrift shops and yard sales. Keyword: Slowly. The hunt would give me pleasure. Not to mention the thrill of serendipitously finding a bargain. Remember, I didn’t really need new dishes.
Conversely, DH is very much an instant gratification sort of guy. Always has been. That hasn’t changed. Hence, he soon became dogged in his search for pieces to replace every single item in the cupboard and others that were somehow iconic to the Fiesta brand. Now. Watch lists on eBay. Wish lists on Amazon. Email alerts when new pieces arrived. He ordered things without telling me until they are on their way. He even bought me a Fiestaware encyclopedia.
All to show he loves me, of course. Bless his heart.
While I am donating my discarded Pfaltzgraff to a local charity that helps needy families furnish their homes, my material footprint has not shrunk in the least. And I’ve lost control over what had been my purview for decades. Granted it’s only the color scheme for our dinnerware–and the pace at which it changes–but still.
Furthermore, we once again needed to have that little chat about how the ways in which he shows his love don’t always match the ways I feel that love.
So, where is that oblivious young man I married? At the other computer, checking to see if the cute miniature pitcher is available in Cobalt. Or maybe Scarlet.
Acceding to all the buzz about this book, I put it on reserve at my local library. Twice. The first time I returned it without reading because I fell victim to a case of “Overdrive overload.” All the books I’d been waiting for showed up on my Kindle in the same week. Aack! The second time I settled in for a challenging, yet beautiful ride.
In 1862 Abraham Lincoln is not yet a beloved icon. The Civil War has just begun. Lincoln is widely believed to be inept and certain to be a one-term President. When his young son dies of typhoid, Mr. Lincoln recognizes the grief that other parents are suffering in the still young war—a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000.
“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.
But those historic events only set the stage for George Saunders’ novel,Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, I had to google “bardo” and learned that it is “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.”
The entire novel takes place in a Georgetown Cemetery where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest in a borrowed crypt. That cemetery is also populated by numerous and diverse spirits who while quite chatty, aren’t exactly certain of their condition.
This novel is stylistically challenging. Each of the fictional and historic characters speaks or relates the speech of another without much connecting tissue. Their contributions may only be a word or a few lines long, like listening in on the conversation at a large cocktail party. Or perhaps it’s more like a pointillist painting or a patchwork quilt. You may need some distance to appreciate the big picture. That being said, you’ll either get on board with the way the story is told, or you’ll give up. Author Saunders says that’s fine.
Here are a few snippets of the text that give voice to the Lincolns’ grief at the loss of their boy.
“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforce sadness-masks to hide any sing of their happiness, which—which went on.”
“He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved hm so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the from of fussing and worry and doing, Only there is nothing left to do. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”
“Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother…Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.”
The whole “dead men talking” thing reminded me of the cemetery scenes in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, but with a much darker, deeper, more poetic edge. If it were a movie, I imagined Tim Burton might direct it because of his darkly comedic style. However Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have secured the rights and no director has yet been named.
Draw your own conclusions about reading it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The audio-book was available at my library this week, so I’m having another go. Now that I know the story, I’m enjoying the vivid voice portrayals on my morning walks and appreciating it much more.
I listened to the brilliant reading by Cathleen McCarron of this brilliant book during walks and car rides this summer. (Thank you, Overdrive!) I found the damaged, habit-driven Eleanor utterly charming. Her very literal view of the world makes for some very humorous moments. Eleanor’s not crazy but the world certainly is. Besides, her strict adherence to routine has allowed her to keep memories of a horrendous childhood trauma at bay. However Raymond, her company’s nerdy IT guy, starts chipping away at those defenses and opens her to new experiences. Slowly. Gently.
Honeyman drops hints to Eleanor’s past throughout, but the whole truth isn’t revealed to the reader until it’s revealed to Eleanor. Perfection on a page. A lovely read and a reminder that everyday kindnesses can go a long way. Recommend.
I first bought the Kindle edition after it was recommended at a writing workshop. However, about halfway through all his delightful footnotes, I realized I needed a hard copy to sit on my shelf next to The Elements of Style. Benjamin Dreyer is that good. Readers, writers, and word nerds of all sorts will enjoy his conversational, snappy (sometimes snarky) commentary on what seems to be the moving target of proper English usage, capitalization, and punctuation.
I’ve even shared some tidbits with my nine-year-old granddaughter. Do you know when “flyer” is the correct spelling and when it’s “flier”? We do, now.
Recommend, but just go ahead and buy the hard copy.
Observation of my fellow humans is a hobby of mine. And maybe the teensiest bit of quiet judgment. But honestly, the endless variety in shape, size, color, language, mode of dress, experience, and expression fascinates and amazes me. Every day.
For context, at the moment I’m on a cruise ship with 400 of my fellow Americans and 1000 Australians. (Sadly, not one ofthem is Hugh Jackman) The other 500 passengers are from just about everywhere else. One thing we have in common though, in spite ofour differences: We’re all on vacation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a big beautiful boat that willdock in Tahiti tomorrow. So, you know–life is good. Very good.
Nonetheless, it appearsthat somepeople can stillfindsomething tocomplain about.
One recent morning, after a particularly rough night of twenty-foot seas, I overheard a young man complaining at Guest Services. It seems his stateroom was creaking a…
I loved this luscious, lyrical, and somewhat bawdy historical fiction. Debut author, Imogen Hermes Gowar offers readers not only a great story but also an intimate view of the culture and mores of late 18th Century London. (Click herefor a tour with the author.) I’ve read enough Regency Romances (thanks Jane Austen & Wilma Counts!) to be familiar with the period, but this exquisite piece of fiction added oodles of delightful, quotidian detail to my lexicon. Foods. Utensils. Customs. Clothing. Language. Expectations. Examples: syllabub, jade, rosolio, redingote, doxy, Lascar, pelisses, dandyprat, tipsy-cake, calamanco. Reading on a Kindle allowed me to look up word without running to a dictionary. Better yet, the new words never got in the way of the story, but simply added to its depth and feeling.
Jonah Hancock is a respectable but unremarkable businessman longing for some measure of happiness after the death of his wife and child. Angelica Neal is a haughty and renowned courtesan who finds herself suddenly without a protector. Mrs. Chappell is the elderly and successful “abbess” of a “nunnery” where Angelica began her career. Through vividly drawn characters from very different worlds, Gowar explores themes of freedom, security, captivity, and ownership, suggesting that ownership harms both the owner and the owned. Everyone, as the adage reminds us, is the hero of their own story.
The interactions among these characters within and without their strict class boundaries makes for some lively conversations and insights, including this one with the aged bawd, Mrs. Chappell.
“Hypocrites!” she exclaims. ‘Who let their own daughters starve almost to death, or put them in cruel marriages, or slake their lust upon them most unnaturally. To think I do any worse by them. Tis an insult! The girls that come to me –and, mark me, their own parents bring them often enough—suffer worse abuses in their own homes that they ever will with me.”
I believe the two (yes, two!) mermaids—one dead, one alive—are stand-ins for the longings, desires, and even that fears that each of the vividly drawn characters harbors. Fortune. A child. A protector. Status. Happiness. Survival. However, “…mermaids are the most unnatural of creatures, and their hearts are empty of love.”
And from the lyrical voice of the mermaid herself, we hear her compel Mr. Hancock to her.
“A loss is not a void. A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives. You think your arms are empty, but I shall lie in them…I am here; you are not alone. Here I am; I am grief, the living child of your suffering. I am the grief that sits within in you; I am the grief that sits between you.”
Thank you, Ms. Gowar, for a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Recommend.
IN THE DOGHOUSE is loaded with what I expect from author, Teri Case–heart and hope. But DOGHOUSE contains a lot of humor too. Skip, a rescued Wolador (a wolf-lab mix), reacts to the breakup of his pack with his own brand of well-articulated dog logic. He feels sad and lonely and worries that he is to blame for the breakup of John and Lucy. Darn that Bunny, anyway.
While a couple’s undoing after ten years together is naturally fraught with emotion, telling the story from poor Skip’s point of view—along with his efforts to help Lucy cope–make it particularly sweet and poignant. Remember, a dog lives in the bow-now.
When Lucy finally stops crying, she decides to move forward and not go under. She and Skip step outside their comfort zone and get to know a few new people, together. Lucy starts a rewarding new job at an assisted living center. She and Skip connect with colorful, well-drawn neighbors in their building, including the mysterious but handsome hoarder next door and a young Harry Potter fan who also happens to be on the autism spectrum. She and Skip attend doga (dog yoga) classes. Slowly–and by fits and starts–they build a new and much larger pack.
Lucy changes, becomes a new and improved version of herself. Does she really want John back now? Skip’s not so sure that’s a good idea.
After reading two heavy, sad, dark novels peopled by dysfunctional families with abused and neglected children (you know, typical literary fiction fare) I was in need of a palate cleanser. IN THE DOGHOUSE was the perfect antidote. Sure, there is some grief and loss, but also so much light and love. And if you are a dog person—or know one—I can’t recommend this feel-good book enough.