Book report: Entering Christina’s world

 

 

A teacher once pointed out that the young woman in Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, was a real person who couldn’t walk and whose entire world was the house in the distance and the field surrounding it. Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World  expands my appreciation of this famous painting by letting Christina Olson tell her own story in a first-person, present-tense narrative that immersed me deeply into her life.

Christina is stricken as a child by an unknown illness that leaves her unable to walk without stumbling awkwardly. She recovers but becomes more and more disabled as time goes by. As an adult, she rarely leaves her chair on the ground floor of her three-story house. She defiantly refuses a wheel chair, preferring to scrape her wooden chair around the kitchen to prepare meals for her parents and brothers. She crawls on her elbows when she wishes to go elsewhere, even to the home a friend a mile away.

“I wonder, not for the first time, if shame and pride are merely two sides of the same coin.”

“To me using a wheelchair would mean I’ve given up, resigned myself to a small existence inside the house… I see it as a cage…I am willing to risk injury and humiliation to move about as I choose…

She cuts herself off from many well-meaning neighbors in the nearby town of Cushing, Maine.

 “These neighbors leach pity the way a canteen of cold water sweats in the heat. The slightest inquiry is freighted with words unsaid. Worried about you…feel sorry for you…so glad I’m not you.”

When a young Andrew Wyeth appears at her door, she reluctantly lets him take over a room upstairs as a summer studio. He returns every summer to paint the fields, the farm, the house, the rooms, her brother, and her. He alone seems to see her beyond her infirmity and her crankiness.

Wyeth tells Christina…

“…I think you’re used to being observed but not really…seen. People are always concerned about you, worried about you, watching to see how you’re getting on. Well-meaning, of course, but–intrusive. And I think you’ve figured out how to deflect their concern, or pity, or whatever it is, by carrying yourself in this ‘–he raises his arm as if holding an orb–‘ dignified, aloof way….Like the Queen of Sweden…Ruling over all of Cushing from your chair in the kitchen.”

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Author Christina Baker Kline

Kline researched the very real people and places depicted to create a sensitive, insightful, and thought-provoking exploration of a familiar image. Recommend.

This is summer camp for adults

princess-cruises-sapphire-princess-balcony-galleryWe’ve been home from that long cruise for a few weeks now. The unpacking and reacquainting ourselves with real life has taken more time than I thought. Hence the long gap between posts here. Why has it taken so long to slip back into everyday life?

I think part of the reason cruising is so hard to come home from may be the same reason it’s so popular. Cruising is like the best summer camp ever. For adults.

For one thing, your meals are prepared and you don’t have to bus your own dishes. In fact, you have no chores at all. No making beds, no washing dishes, no scooping litter boxes. I remember my mother complaining that she had to retrain me every time I returned from camp.

There is at least one pool. I don’t remember my summer camp having hot tubs though. Or an indoor pool for inclement weather.

And, just like at camp, you can meet people from all over. On a cruise that means the world. Literally. Australia, Portugal, the Ukraine, Indonesia, the Philippines.

All the cool kids wear a lanyard with their ID badge–your Sea Pass. You carry no cash. All financial transactions are handled by swiping that card. That bucket of Coronas you had delivered to you at the pool every afternoon? The pricey massage? The candy bar at the gift shop? At the end of camp, your parents settled up. Sadly, on a cruise, settling up is your responsibility.

Camp counselors (your Cruise Director’s staff) lead tons of indoor and outdoor activities. You get to try activities you’ve never tried before. Every day the long list of events included trivia contests, bingo, bridge, belly dancing, knitting, yoga, rock climbing, gambling, a chorus, a flash mob, sushi making, and more.

Of course, the major difference on a cruise is that you are free not to participate. Want to lie in your bunk and read all day? Or drink yourself silly? Or nap beside the pool? Or just hang out and smoke with your friends? Totally your choice. No one will bug you, except maybe your traveling companion.

And there is no “lights out” or “reveille.” You set your own schedule.

Pretty nice. I’m now wondering if an Assisted Living apartment might be similar. Meals prepared. Helpful staff. Scheduled outings to malls or museums. Like a cruise ship that doesn’t go anywhere, you know? It certainly makes the possibility more appealing. I’m now beginning to consider a long cruise as a transition to such an arrangement when/if the time comes. Costs are comparable, I imagine. Getting rid of everything and cruising for a month or so before moving into Happy Acres would certainly soften the blow of giving up my independence.

For now though, I enjoy sitting here, drinking my coffee, and waiting for the stateroom attendant. The bed needs to be made and we need some fresh towels. Then I remember I am home. Crap.

Real life is overrated. I want to go back to camp.

 

Book review: The lies that bind

51xLRaJHsxL._SY346_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.

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Author, Ann Patchett

“‘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!

Book review: The art of making something from nothing

lucy-bartonMy Name is Lucy Barton

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?

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Also an Emmy winning HBO mini-series

Book review: Just who is truly mad and truly guilty?

514kx79myl__sy346_Truly Madly Guilty

First, let me express my love/hate for Liane Moriarty’s ability to suck me in and keep me reading just one more chapter. She made me care about the characters and then she dropped bread crumbs of information at just the right moment. In short, it is pacing perfection.  Or torture.  I like to read to fall asleep and this one kept me awake.  Not scary, but certainly compelling.

Erika and Clementine’s friendship has always been an uneven, uneasy one. As children, Clementine’s do-gooder mother pushed her to be friends with Erika, whose family life was a dysfunctional mess. Erika became a project of sorts that Clementine often resented.   Clementine, a cellist, has always been a little absent-minded, disorganized, and careless. Where did that ice-cream scoop disappear to? Erika, an accountant, is neat, orderly, and conscientious–maybe a little OCD. There is a sense, now that they are adults, that the traits they developed were perhaps in response to one another, as much as anything else.

Something awful (tragic? scandalous?) has happened at a neighborhood barbecue. We aren’t sure what, but it has deeply affected Erika and Clementine. Clementine has taken to giving little motivational speeches about “One Ordinary Day.” Erika has a gap in her memory about the event and keeps trying to fill in that breach. What did she do? Was she to blame?

The question of who’s mad and who’s guilty will lead you through the book. You will suspect just about everyone of something along the way. Moriarty artfully ends each chapter with some little hook to make you read on. And because all these original characters (like the former pole-dancer who is now something of a real estate mogul) tell their own sides of the story, you may have to read a few more chapters to satisfy your curiosity. I just couldn’t stop.

Their spouses, children, parents, and neighbors all play a role and each one feels a bit of guilt for what happened. And I’ll bet you’ll be both surprised and touched by how each person—from the youngest to the oldest– responds in their own way. Recommend.

Others books by Liane Moriarty you might enjoy. I did.

 

Book review: Squabbles in the nest

the-nestThe Nest

by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Four adult children of the Plumb family are all planning on a large gift from the estate of their father, which they’ve taken to calling “The Nest” Their deceased father believed, “…that money and its concurrent rewards should flow from work, effort, commitment, and routine” and lived accordingly. For the most part, his children have lived differently.

According to the terms of the inheritance, each would get an equal portion when the youngest, Melody, turned forty. Until now, they have each been living their lives in anxious anticipation of a very large monetary gift. They’ve run up substantial debts which they have concealed from their spouses, knowing that the Nest would bail them out. However, their mother—still alive and now remarried—pays to hush up a tragic scandal involving Leo—their charming but untrustworthy brother. Trouble is, she pays it out of the Nest, which reduces their shares to a fraction of what they were expecting. They’ve made promises they simply can’t keep, debts they can’t pay, kept secrets and told lies that will now be exposed. What to do? How will they get out of the mess they’ve helped to create? Can they somehow convince their siblings that they are more deserving of a larger share? Can they trust Leo to repay the Nest?

Each character is well drawn with quirks and idiosyncrasies that let readers get to know them and their motivations. Even the secondary characters are fully realized. Sweeney alternates points of view masterfully, so that each character gets to plead their own case as the reader is drawn through this warm, fun, and satisfying read.

A few  examples of Sweeney’s fine writing:

 “Her resolve melted and her clenched knees unfurled like the petals of a ripening peony.”

“The quick pulse at the corner of her eye was beating as if there were tiny wings trapped beneath the skin.”

“…her heart was pounding so hard she thought it might cross the street ahead of her.”

If you enjoy listening in on family dynamics—especially when they aren’t your own–you might enjoy this book. You might even find yourself grateful, as I did, that you have the family you do.

Claire’s one really good recipe

Another in the sometime series from “Annie Cooper’s Recipe Scrapbook.” The foods are all mentioned in my still-in-heavy-rewrite novel. Claire holds a tender spot in her heart for this recipe and for one particular member of the family it came from. Enjoy!


Butternut Squash with Apples

from the kitchen of Claire Jordan

Auntie Claire isn’t much of a cook and I was surprised when Mom told me this favorite fall recipe was hers. When I asked Auntie Claire about its origin, she got a faraway look in her eyes and said it came from the mother of an old college friend. Somehow I got the feeling that there was more to the story.

  •  About 1 ½ pounds butternut squash, peeled and chopped.  About 5 cups. Many produce departments now carry peeled and chopped squash.
  • 4 medium tart apples, chopped.
  • ½ cup dried cranberries, cherries, raisins, or combination
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
  • 1 ½ tsp. grated fresh ginger or 1 Tbsp. ground ginger
  • ½ tsp. salt (or more to taste)
  • 1/8 tsp. black (or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup butter or margarine

Directions: In a slow-cooker combine all ingredients and stir. Cover and cook on low setting for 3-4 hours or on high for 1 ½ hours.