Ann Patchett is one of my favorites. Her ability to place a reader into a scene and inside the heads and hearts of her characters is masterful. She is funny, perceptive, and even-handed as she tells this family saga from deep inside.
The first words of Commonwealth plunge us into a christening party for little Franny Keating. Bert Cousins is an uninvited guest who arrives with a huge bottle of gin. Franny’s L.A. cop dad, Fix Keating, her pretty mother, Beverly, and Bert set the whole story in motion when after a few too many glasses of orange juice laced with that gin, Beverly kisses Bert. Or he kisses her. It hardly matters. Divorce and the inevitable blending of two families ensue. The six children spend summers together in Virginia with minimal supervision from Beverly and Bert.
“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”
Those summers of running amok lead to a tragedy that the children witness, and the details of which they keep secret. That secret both shatters and binds them. Everyone involved is affected by the event, not least of all Franny. At twenty-something, she’s a law school dropout and cocktail waitress with a degree in English. She meets and falls in love with—or perhaps in awe of—a famous novelist. Like Scheherazade, she entertains Leo Pozen with the story of those raucous long-ago summers, including the secret. He is inspired by her tale, and uses it as the basis for a new novel, which becomes a bestseller and years later, a movie.
Now in midlife, the children are rocked by the public disclosure, but are still bound by the love and responsibility they share toward each other and their now aging parents and step-parents.
“‘People are scared of the wrong things, Fix said, his eyes closed. ‘Cops are scared of the wrong things. We go around thinking that what’s going to get us is waiting on the other side of the door: it’s outside, it’s in the closet, but it isn’t like that… For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that’s going to kill them is already on the inside.’”
I recommend Commonwealth and these two others by Patchett. Enjoy!
By Tony Horwitz
Think you understand the Civil War? Think you understand its causes and the influence it still holds on America? This book may cause you to think again, especially about why some folks can’t let it go, 150 years later.
As a boy, the prize-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War, particularly the books of old photos he studied with his Jewish immigrant grandfather. That passion is rekindled when, after returning from assignments in Bosnia and the Middle East, he is awakened one morning by the musket fire of Civil War re-enactors just outside his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those shots signaled the beginning of a quest.
Throughout his travels, Horwitz demonstrates his curiosity and courage, his sense of humor and of history as he introduces readers to a host of characters including a band of “hardcore” re-enactors who diet just so they can look like starved Confederates and who spoon to keep warm on long cold nights. At every stop, he chats up bartenders, bikers, store-clerks, elected officials, teachers, home-schoolers, park rangers, as well as the staff at small museums and visitors centers. He even embarks on a marathon odyssey (dubbed a “Civil Wargasm”) from Antietam to Gettysburg to Appomattox with the super hard-core Robert Lee Hodge (pictured on the cover) as his guide. Horwitz covers a murder provoked by the display of a Confederate flag. He searches for Tara and meets a young woman who makes a living as a Scarlet O’Hara look-alike. He spends a day with Shelby Foote, as well as time with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
What emerges defies easy description.
“In the neo-Confederate view, North and South went to war because they represented two distinct and irreconcilable cultures, right down to their bloodlines. White Southerners descended from freedom-loving Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Northerners—New England abolitionists in particular—came from mercantile and expansionist English stock.”
“For the past several weeks people had been talking to me about ‘heritage.’ But like the flag, this obviously meant very different things to different people. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans I’d met in North Carolina, it meant the heritage of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. For <others> it was the heritage of segregation and its dismantling over the past forty years. Was it possible to honor one heritage without upholding the other?”
The result of Horwitz’s inquiry is a complex mosaic–sometimes funny, sometimes frightening–full of irony and contradiction. He sees a hardening of attitudes on both sides from the mid-1980s onward. They are more contentious and less interested in facts. While this book is nearly twenty years old now, the conflicts Horowitz exposes resonate even louder today. Modern battlefields are “classrooms, courts, country bars” where the past and the present rub up against each other, in sometimes deadly ways.
“While I felt almost no ideological kinship with the unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War—race in particular—remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1862, this was a regional dilemma, which it wasn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles—even a common language—seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime.”
After this last election, the half of us on the losing side can perhaps feel at least a little empathy for those who can’t let it go. Americans again face a bitterly divided country. Friends and family members find themselves at odds. And once again our survival as a free nation is at risk. That alone is worthy of our consideration and a look back at what happened last time.
Elizabeth Strout has written a gentle book with no real plot or movement except back and forth in time. A young mother and writer is hospitalized for many weeks with a serious but undiagnosed illness. At her husband’s request, her estranged mother comes to stay with her–in her hospital room. She’s there 24 hours a day, refusing the cot she is offered, refusing to leave, or to sleep. This visit—the only way her mother seems capable of saying, “I love you,” –brings up painful memories of the unhealthy, dysfunctional family they shared. Lucy realizes “… how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts.”
While there, the mother relates stories of other people’s unhappy marriages, seemingly unaware of her own. Lucy reflects, “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”
“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the cervices of my mouth, reminding me.”
When her mother-in-law reminds her that she “comes from nothing,” it rankles her. “But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.” Indeed, the “nothing” others may see is the stuff from which we create our lives. Nothing isn’t nothing.
School and books save Lucy. As she writes her novel, her mentor assures her, “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Her advice is to go “… to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And she does.
While Strout’s writing is poignant and evocative, I was left wanting more of a pay-off or big reveal. I remember having similar thoughts when I read Olive Kittridge. Have you read either of these? What did you think? Is there enough here to make a good story?
If you learned your life was nearly over, how would you choose to live?
Dr. Paul Kalanithi, the author of When Breath Becomes Air, is thirty-six and about to finish a decade of training as a neurosurgeon, when he receives a devastating diagnosis. Stage IV lung cancer. This beautifully written book describes Paul’s journey from doctor to patient as he sees his future shrink.
Kalanithi’s oncologist advises to him to find his values, but he finds them shifting as his illness progresses. He repeatedly asks himself, “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” Should he go back to work? Should he and his wife have a child? Should he write a book? He works through these choices in a compelling and very human way.
Because his specialty is the brain, where identity resides, Kalanithi had helped patients and their families with some of these difficult decisions. Sometimes, “…the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living.”
“I had to help those families understand that the person they knew—the full, vital independent human—now lived only in the past and that I needed their input to understand what sort of future he or she would want: an easy death or to be strung between bags of fluids going in, others coming out, to persist despite begin unable to struggle.”
Some of you may not be up to reading this book. Its emotional journey may parallel one in your own experience too closely. Nonetheless, I believe we need to have some of these difficult conversations with our loved ones before they become necessary. It’s not only about how we want to die—with compassion and without pain—but how we want to live—with purpose and joy. Those making decisions on our behalf need to know our wishes and we need to know theirs. I recommend this book as a way to start the conversation.