A Little Gothic Therapy

Arcadia Falls

The day begins with a message that a dear one’s cancer has spread so far and so deep that only days remain. She is far away, and we will not get there in time to say goodbye.

This cancer death comes on the heels of two others.

I feel a weight, like a heavy, flat, wooden beam, settle on my shoulders. All day long, things light on that beam, adding to its weight.

The project I’ve been working so hard on is suddenly, without explanation, terminated. A trusted colleague throws me under the proverbial bus. There’s an unexpected delay; there’s a heart-breaking disappointment. A rejection slip falls through the mail slot. Thunk, thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

At the three-way stop, the car who should be after me roars out in front of me. Then the driver, who has children in the car, reels around to gleefully give me the finger through her back window.

THUNK.

It is June, but the temperature is falling fast; I shiver. And then rain lashes against my windshield. I watch the rude lady’s van disappear, with her tender, impressionable children inside, into the gray. Gloomy thoughts and fears of loss clunk and roll heavily in my head. People get sick, I think, and people are cruel, and people betray you. People are downright, evilly, rude.

By the time I get home for the day I am sorely bent over, chin near the floor, weighted down. My throat aches from not crying. I do not want to have a pleasant conversation, a fine meal, or good and caring company.

I want a Gothic novel.

**********

I choose Arcadia Falls, by Carol Goodman, and I enter Meg’s (the protagonist’s) world. She, too, is bereft; her young husband died last year of a sudden, inexplicable heart attack. Added to wounding loss is betrayal; Jude lost all the family savings to a hedge fund. Meg, who has not worked, who has put her pursuit of her doctorate on hold now, flails around to find work that will support her and her sullen, aching daughter, Sally.

What she finds is a teaching job at a private school for the arts. It is tucked away in upstate New York, in deep woods, down paths that are hard to follow. Those dark and devious pathways feel just like the geography of my mind right now, and I pull the afghan around me, glad that darkness is meeting darkness here. Pain lego-s up with pain. I sink deeper into the cozy chair and deeper in to Meg’s world.

That world is especially satisfying because Meg is a lover of words, a woman who gave up dreams of art as a young woman; she is a folklorist. She loves words and story just like I do, so I gladly take this dark and frightening journey with a kindred spirit.

Meg blunders and makes mistakes; she initially pushes her daughter even further away, even deeper into her own grief.  The personnel at the school are a mixed lot: some seem open and friendly. Others are persecuted and long suffering. A few are bitterly, dangerously secretive.

And a student dies in mysterious circumstances and the darkness just gets darker, more opaque, cold-frightening in its mystery.

And Goodman weaves in a folk-take, the tale that lured Meg to this God-forsaken outpost, and its archetypal characters—the pure and the devious, the saviors and the damned–seem very real and believable. And the story plays out against the past–the choices of the founders affect the lives of those in the now.

I plunge into the book, not knowing whom to trust, wanting to shake Meg when she’s thoughtless or just plain wrong, feeling her hurt and isolation. I understand the joy she finds in teaching, and the guilt she feels in her attraction to the rugged sheriff. (Well, of COURSE, there’s a rugged sheriff.) I fret over Sally and whether the girl stays safe.  I shy away from even the most open of the characters, knowing a murderer sleeps in their midst. I go with Meg out into the dark, into the whipping, cutting snow, and when we finally come home,–two more dead bodies later,–the mystery is solved. The past weaves into the folktale weaves into the story of Meg and Sally, a great secret is revealed, and safety is, at last obtained.

I read like a hungry traveler for whom the book is food. And it really does sustain me.

Plunging into Meg’s darkness helps me find a way up out of mine; I climb with her out of mystery, dire financial straits, panic, loss, betrayal, and isolation. Meg mis-steps, but she recovers; she is, finally, truly pure of heart. Pure of heart wins love of child—and love of rugged sheriff, too.

Meg’s slog through the darkness and emergence into the light mirrors my own mental travels, my own wounded state. By the end of the book, even knowing that some things just suck and that there’s nothing we can do to stop them or to help our dear ones in their path, I am feeling emotionally better.

********

Why are gothic novels so satisfying? NPR.org (“A Dark and Stormy Night: Why We Love the Gothic,” by Genevieve Valentine), says these works, which may be quaint and rustic in setting, actually hit modern fears head-on. “…they’re preoccupied with contemporary problems; the essential horror of the irreconcilable world,” writes Valentine. “There’s comfort,” she tells us, “in over-the-top catharsis of the dependable dark…we love knowing what to expect.”

And that is exactly it. I knew the darkness was going to be outrageous at this private school in the woods where people keep crashing down the oddly unfenced slope, into the chasm, down to their deaths. And I expected, too, the ascent into safety, the reconciliation, the reward for the true of heart.

*********

No book can fix all of our ills, heal our friends, teach manners to the needy, or sew up the gashes of betrayal. But a Gothic novel can carry me deep, make me acknowledge the horror, and bring me back home.

It does not fix or heal me, but this story makes me ready to carry on.

***********

Image taken from amazon.com

Not By Choice, But By Genetic Chance: A Dread Disease

 

Beautiful Boy

 

It was a stunning community event. Sam Quinones, the author of Dreamland, which focuses, largely, on the devastation the opioid epidemic had on Portsmouth, Ohio, a community not so far from here, was speaking at the city’s auditorium. He had spent a day talking–talking to doctors and parents and residential care workers, to case workers and students, to everyone and anyone connected with the seeping stain that black tar heroin is painting in southern and central Ohio.

Now he addressed a crowd that almost filled the auditorium, which seats, without irony, 1,776. His talk was moving and compelling, and a panel of people whose lives were directly and irrevocably tied to opioids followed him. Theirs were the stories that hushed the crowd, that brought tears and anguished questions.

There was a mother who knows her son is safe now: he’s in prison. There was a pastor who has made fighting addiction and poverty his twin missions. There was a man who runs residential homes for recovering addicts. And there were four addicts in recovery who stood and told their stories:

Didn’t ever intend to get hooked, but couldn’t help it. Had to have it. Bad company. Started stealing–from stores and  public places, then from friends, and then finally, from family. Relationships cracked and shattered; the kids, taken away. The legal system. Jail time. Rehab and relapse. Trying again and again.

The loss of trust. It was a theme each of them spoke to. Some, further away from the addiction’s hold, were loudly encouraging. “It’s hard! But it can be done! Don’t give up hope!”

Others, still fragile, talked about the future:

“I love my parents. I hope they can trust me again one day.” 

“In a year, I’ll still be clean, and I hope to get my children back.

Their messages were like prayers written on scraps of prayer and flung into the wind: let this be true. Let this be true.

******************
In the aftermath of this event, in a community where the problem races, I went looking for things to read and found David Sheff’s beautiful boy (2008, Houghton Mifflin.)

Sheff writes about his son, Nicolas, a child of his first marriage. Nic is a bright, creative spirit. Nic, without his father’s knowledge, gets drunk for the first time at age 11–on a family vacation, during a wholesome outdoorsy family time, with a friend they’d brought along so the boy wouldn’t be bored. Nic slides into other experimentation, and winds up firmly and defiantly addicted to methamphetamine and heroin.

Sheff details what a child’s addiction does to a family, and what it does to a parent. He dissects all of his failings–his immaturity during his first marriage; the times he brought strange women home when Nic was a tiny child–women the boy would never see again. The fighting.

Sheff remarried, to a a woman who cared deeply about Nic; the new family produced a boy and a girl, little people whom Nic, the book tells us, adores. He told his little siblings stories–they had a whole imaginary world that they explored together. He took them to playgrounds; he was a protector and a confidante.

And he stole eight dollars from his little brother’s piggy bank when he was desperate to score.

Sheff’s is a story of anguish and desperate hope: the rehab program that promises a way out. The call that his boy has checked out, disappeared, given up. Nic’s resurfacing, in a dingy apartment, with a girlfriend who uses, too. Sheff writes about going to see his son who can barely rouse himself to answer the door. He writes about standing in the doorway of the apartment and not entering. The floor, he writes, was covered in some kind of brown liquid.

Another rehab, a surge of hope, a year of sobriety. A relapse, and despair. The cycle repeats often enough that Sheff’s family gives up, and Sheff finds himself on the brink of that tough love pronouncement: You’re on your own. I just can’t do this anymore.

But he and Nic’s mother decide to try one more intervention. They get Nic into a different program in a different place. This one seems to work. The book ends with Nic’s recovery.

I look Nic up to see if he is still okay, and I find that he himself has written two books about his addiction, and that he and his dad are on the lecture circuit, talking about the addiction, what it does to people, what it does to families. It’s a relief to see he’s doing well.

David and Nic Sheff

****************
Because a man I know, a social worker who works with recovering addicts says that relapse is part of this illness. And addiction IS an illness, he stresses. Maybe, yes, the addict did make that first choice–chose to smoke it or pop it or shoot it into a vein–for whatever reason: loneliness, desperation, acceptance, daring. But after that, says this man, biology kicks in. This was not the person to experiment: this person had an addict’s genes.

Like mental illness–with which it often cohabits–addiction is a disease with unsavory and odd behaviors attached, and so, instead of sympathy and help, society often offers judgement and condemnation. It’s hard not to react bitterly when someone you trust steals from you. Or threatens–and sometimes follows through–to hurt you.

I think of all the programs Sheff tried to get his boy into, and of his reluctant acquiescence to therapy for himself and his wife.  I think of the people on the stage, passionately sharing, after Quinones spoke. And I think this is an illness, a problem, an epidemic, that people cannot handle themselves. Addicts cannot tough it out to personal recovery, and families cannot hide their woe.

It’s takes a village: that’s Quinones’ message. If I had to boil Sheff’s message down, I would say it is this: Don’t give up hope, But get help, get help, get help.

Taking a Literary Tumble

Stack

I had been doing pretty well, really, with my resolve not to buy or borrow more books until I’d read the ones on my shelves.

It was a winter of acquisition: we discovered some really good used book sales at libraries and in communities. The campus library began a long purge and almost every Thursday an email would arrive, saying, “Come and help yourself to remaindered English literature books!” or “Come build a stack of fairy tales and folk lore!”

So, several times I brought home hefty bags full of books that looked fascinating, and during winter’s cold months, I read some Willa Cather and some Adela Winters St. John, read some British novelists from the early 1900’s, and cleansed my palate with some children’s books and memoirs. The unread books went from being a tottering tower to a sturdy stack.

Then we started a small discussion group at work to talk about Hillbilly Elegy, and one of the participants told me I really needed to read a book called White Trash as a companion piece to JD Vance’s discussion of growing up Scots Irish in Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky.

That sounded interesting, and I’d heard other people mention White Trash as a portal into a worthy point of view. I found it in the local library’s electronic catalog, and I placed a hold. Then I also placed a hold on a book by David Sheff called Clean. Sheff is our community read speaker this year; he also wrote Beautiful Boy,  a frank and poignant memoir of his son Nic’s battle with addiction.

So one day, I took my son Jim to the library and picked up the two books. And while Jim wandered through the stacks of DVD’s, I remembered that I had always wanted to read Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk; a quick search showed me that was on the shelf, ripe for the picking. And I remembered, too, that I had been meaning to read Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. I read Nobody’s Fool last summer; then we tracked down the film, which we watched as a family and universally loved. Everybody’s Fool was a widely sought new book at the time; I think there were 27 holds ahead of me when I looked it up on the library site.

“I’ll wait till that dies down,” I thought, and now it was on the shelf.

I also found The Bertie Project, one of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, on the new book shelves. I love the concept of those books–written in installments for a Scottish newspaper–and I love the slightly surreal events that take place therein.

And I found a book about a grown daughter who returned home, after years away, to live near her mother, and who got involved with her mother’s bridge club. That was called The Bridge Ladies, it was by Betsy Lerner, and something about it just called to me.

Suddenly I had been to the checkout station and was toting home a bagful of six books, and I realized that I had taken a pretty good topple off my resolve not to borrow books until the home books were read.

Ah, well, I thought. If I’m going to fall, I might as well fall BIG.

*************

My mama always told me that if I commit to a book, unless it’s just trashy, unless it’s values are so distasteful they make me shudder, I had to see it through.  So I started with Bertie–the 44 Scotland Street series is light and funny, poignant and disturbing, but quick to read. And this one was a little more serious–this one had Bertie’s dad contemplating an extramarital relationship that might just rock the entire family apart. Bertie’s mother is one of the most enjoyably antagonistic characters I have found–it’s so much fun to despise her,–but the possibility of Stuart straying made the light-hearted book series suddenly serious.

The Bridge Ladies broke my heart. I thought it was a book my mother would have enjoyed. I was glad when the author broke through to a greater appreciation of her own mother through her forays into bridge. And, having just recently read Kay Redfield’s Jamison’s textured biography of Robert Lowell’s mental illness, I was rocked to read the author’s casual admission, embedded in a chapter, that she has bipolar disease. It made me think about creativity and ‘craziness,’ and the knife’s edge that some of us have to walk.

Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk was lyrical and foreign in some ways–I cannot imagine cohabiting with a goshawk, or snapping the necks of bunnies as part of training one. But other themes were very familiar and very real–the depth of loss and the effort not to flounder after the death of a beloved parent. The embarrassed slog through viscous depression. And McDonald’s writing is unique and intelligent and challenging. “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away,” she writes, and I, not wanting to ever be that close to a bird of prey (much less its evening munchies), I get it.

I am starting now on Everybody’s Fool, surprised that our opening viewpoint is provided by Douglas Raymer, now Bath’s chief of police, but once the hapless patrolman who shot at Sully when he refused to stop driving his pick-up on the sidewalk. Raymer arrives at the interment of Judge Barton Flatt, the curmudgeon-y small town justice who sympathized with Sully and made Raymer’s life hell.

This, I can tell, is going to get interesting.

****************

And I am thinking I need a plan and a schedule for reading Clean and White Trash, both books I’d put more in the ‘learning and reference’ mode than in the recreational reading variety. I need to dust off my scholarly habits. I am thinking I may read a chapter of one each morning, of the other just before dinner each night.

My days are like bricks chinked together with books. And that is very much okay.

****************

So, I’m on the last of my recreational library books; when it is finished, I’ll find a new bedtime story from among the rich variety of books on my shelf. And I’ll read through my ‘learning’ books,–read with a pad and a pen, taking notes, making connections, typing thoughts to send to people I connect with on these topics and in these ways.

The books on my shelves wait for me, kindly; they understand that new books arrive and demand attention, that initiatives and events call for outside reading.  And the ‘visitor’ books–those library emissaries–open new doors in my mind, leave me imagining new pictures.  I can close my eyes and there, I see, is the goshawk flying, trim to the English meadow-ground; I imagine the preciseness and the devastation of its kill.

I know a little bit about bridge now, and its terminology–enough to be conversant but not dangerous.

It was a good topple, this fall into library tomes; it was a palate-cleansing, interest-piquing tumble. I slowed down and concentrated on each of the visitor books, and I enjoyed--am enjoying–their very different voices and tones and spirits.  I am learning, as I explore, a lot.

And I am ready, again, to engage with the books on my shelves, to meet authors long gone and titles long forgotten.

I will pick up that thread; I will honor my commitment to the books on my shelves. But I am energized and renewed by my trip to the library and by reading the books I couldn’t help but bring home.

Ardent Temperments…An Unquiet Mind and Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Kay Redfield Jamison)

KR Jamison

*************

“My son hears voices telling him to kill me,” I desperately confided.
“Well,” said his therapist, “don’t take it personally.

**************

They mutter under their breaths; they sing on street corners. They talk to people who clearly aren’t there.

Often they are unkempt and oddly dressed; often, indeed, they are smelly and inappropriate. They shuffle; they dart. They fix us with piercing gazes and they speak what seems like nonsense.

And we laugh–what else is there to do? We laugh or we turn our backs; we walk away from that disturbing, unusual display. It’s weird, it’s odd; it hurts us to watch.

Even for those of us who live with it, for those who understand that this is physical, a brain disorder, it’s difficult. It is hard to be in the presence–it is hard to be in the LAND–of the mentally ill.

So imagine what it must be like to live there.

*************

Kay Redfield Jamison, the blurb on the Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire book jacket will tell you, is the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders, and a professor of psychiatry, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is learned in her field, which centers largely on bipolar disorder; she is well-educated and well-read. She has written a definitive textbook; she has written popular books that bring the reality of bipolar disorder into mainstream conversation.

She has done this because it is her field. She has done this because it is her life.

An Unquiet Mind is Redfield’s first memoir, and it talks about her childhood, in a quirky family, moving from coast to coast. She was a brilliant, intense child; her illness manifested itself, as it often does, in her college years. From then on, her life would have two paths: pursuing the dreams she had BEFORE, and controlling her descents into mania and depression.

Honestly and without self-pity, Redfield shows us what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, and what it’s like to live through a manic episode. “During these agitated periods,” she writes, “I became exceedingly restless, angry, and irritable, and the only way I could dilute the agitation was to run along the beach or pace back and forth like a polar bear at the zoo.”

In a manic state, she might wear dramatic makeup and dress more provocatively than she would when her mood was balanced; she would say things she’d regret, and she would spend money she could ill afford on things she didn’t need. And then, gradually,  the manic state would end, and her mood would swing into its expected aftermath: depression.

“So after mania,” she writes, “when most depressed, you’re given excellent reason to be even more so.”

Yet even Jamison was medication-resistant. Even as a practicing psychologist, as one who clearly knew and advised clients that taking lithium was the key to controlling the disease, she thought she could do without it. She’d control it other ways–with exercise and diet, say, or with her brilliant mind. It took time and gentle guidance from trusted mentors, continuous family support, and descents into madness and depression, for her to finally grapple with her need for medication. She had to accept that she had an illness, and a chronic one–but one that, with the right drugs, could be controlled.

When Jamison tells of the story of Robert Lowell, who was, maybe, the finest American poet of the last half of the twentieth century, the weight and the cost of bipolar disease become even more clear. Lowell was brilliant and charming, a sweet, often shy man, and one who valued loyalty and strength of character. And when he became manic, it all changed. He commonly sought an extramarital connection, seeking out inappropriate, usually younger partners, hurting them, hurting his wife. He said harsh and damaging things, things he didn’t mean or think,  to his dearest, closest friends. He was violent at times, and he drank, drank, drank, which exacerbated the problem.

He had to be institutionalized, often  delivered by the police. Once, when they arrived to fetch him, Lowell made them sit at his kitchen table and listen to him recite a poem. Then he went meekly off to the mental hospital. Again.

Lowell’s illness afforded him a weird benefit–he remembered vividly every single thing he did and said during his manias. He knew how much he’d hurt his wife, his friends, his family. The subsequent depressions were made worse by this shameful knowledge.

And then, he’d come back into his right mind.  And a measure of how wonderful that mind was is this: his friends and his family all stood by him. They sloughed off the hurtful things and awaited his return.

*******************

“We are all,” Redfield writes in her memoir, “as Byron put it, differently organized.”

I thought, in parenting a child with high-functioning autism,–who, like many autistic folks, has additional diagnoses of major depressive disorder and OCD–I understood the biological bases of mental illness. I thought I had relinquished the idea–taught in psychology classes not so very long ago–that I, and my son’s father, had somehow ’caused’ his illness.

We would not think a harsh word or over-indulgence would cause, say, diabetes; we are willing to believe, though, that bad parenting causes autism.

When Jim first was diagnosed, we decided that openness was key: we shared his illness, freely and openly, with family and friends. We invited questions. It’s an illness, we averred; it’s physical and chemical.

And yet—when our beloved boy, who is smart and funny and devoted,—enters into an ill time, I am am angry or embarrassed or hurt. How can he SAY that? I wail inwardly.

Jamison’s books help me feel the knowledge, as well as KNOW the knowledge, that mental illness is physical illness, not in the control of its victim.

Mental illness comes with pain and wounding, with despair and glimmers of hope. And we live in a time–the best time yet–when there is real hope of control, if not recovery; of maintenance, if not cure.

Jamison reminds me of the infinite contributions that have been made by people with mental illness, of the ways in which every society has been enriched and blessed by creative members who happen to be sick. I closed her book on Robert Lowell determined to track down his poetry and letters, to see what he had to share.

I’ll read the rest of Redield’s writing, too.

And I hope that I will be more enlightened, that I will practice understanding, that my demeanor may teach another. Mental illness is physical illness.

No one chooses to be mentally ill.

The Things I Should Read, and the Things I Do

Genres

 

A series mystery, a memoir, and a memento mori walk into a library. Only two of the books make it onto the “Exciting New Reads’ shelf.

************

I am lounging in the library as my son browses the films and the graphic novels.  I have dozens of books to read at home, so there is no point at all in browsing the New Books.

But what the heck: none of the periodicals call to me today. Why don’t I just look?

Ten minutes later, I have checked out two books and I am sitting at a table, looking through Jennifer Weiner’s Hungry Heart. I just read a very positive review of it, and of the other book, Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour.

Jim  comes, beaming, from the circulation desk with a triumphant stack of DVD’s and a couple of graphic novels, and we bundle things into canvas bags and head home.

************

Hungry Heart is a memoir, sort of, a largely linear tale of Weiner’s life, interspersed with a couple of interesting essay-chapters on subjects related to writing.  I like the narrative voice right from the start–it is sassy but self-deprecating, casual but very, very smart.

I learn that Weiner was a chubby kid whose parents divorced, whose father (a psychiatrist) developed some pretty serious issues himself, and whose mother embraced her true gender identity after the split. The dad mostly disappeared, surfacing, to submit his kids to bizarre public behavior and to ask for money, only rarely.

But the rest of the nuclear family–Mom (Fran), Jennifer, her sister, and two brothers,–stayed tight. Weiner’s stories reveal a close and loving family bond cemented by humor.

Hungry Heart tells the stories of Weiner’s successes and her quests—her yearning to be thin, her weight reduction surgery, her romances, failed and fruitful. I learn that she is a smart and serious scholar of English literature, one who easily got into Princeton, worked hard and graduated into a series of progressively more important jobs at a variety of newspapers. She married a very nice man and has two daughters; they divorced, but remain friends and co-parents. And she married Bill, who knew her when and who, at the right time and in the right place, is ready to commit to the next, shared adventure.

She buried her father, who died in sad straits, fallen far from his once highly respected status.

She writes, Weiner does, about raising her daughters, about weaving her mother’s partners into family life, and about the foibles and accomplishments of her siblings. She writes about BFF’s, and she writes about dogs. She tells us what it was like, having her second book made into a wonderful movie.

I haven’t read any of Weiner’s books, but I did watch In Her Shoes on DVD after reading a review that said it was smart and touching and very well-written. Great acting, too.

I loved that movie–such fun.

And I have to say this: I haven’t read Weiner’s books because they were labelled ‘romance,’ dubbed chick lit,and I don’t normally read that kind of literature.

************
Eeeeeeuw. How snooty. How…English teacher-y. As if I’m too…smart, sophisticated, intellectual for something labelled ROMANCE.

That snobbishness is a subject Weiner tackles in a chapter called “Twitter, Reconsidered.”  She talks about the stuck-up response of critics and pundits to work than can be considered chick lit. And as chick lit developed into a genre, Weiner recalls, the in-the-know-y kinds of people began to discard books so labelled; they pinced those books in two wary fingers, dropping them with that look on their faces that says, “What IS that awful odor?”

“Chick lit,” Weiner writes, “thundered an (anonymous, of course) editor, was ‘hurting America.’ It was driving real literature off the shelf, forcing high-end writers to turn their framed MFA toward the wall and insert gratuitous scenes of giggly brunches and drunken sexcapades into their serious works of fiction.”

I caught the disdain virus; I never even picked up a copy of a Weiner book, although I’d read how popular she was. Too…light, I thought, smugly.

***************
So I finished Hungry Heart with that thought on my mind, and I went looking for a nice palate-cleansing kind of read: something just for fun before I tackled the Roiphe book, which is a collection of reflections on great writers–Susan Sontag, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, among others–facing their own deaths. Weiner’s book had left me with a great deal to think about–about what constitutes great writing, about how images of beauty shape our values and perceptions, and about whether or not all writers have been lonely children.

I needed something compelling and distracting and FUN as my subconscious digested all those wrestly kinds of topic.

I found a Dorothy Gilman mystery, The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax, on the most recent stack of treasures I’d rescued from the used book store clearance rack. I have been looking for a fun, engrossing mystery series. Mrs. Pollifax was a 1970’s era grandmotherly type who loved hats, her garden club, volunteering at the local hospital once a week…and doing the odd job for the CIA.

This episode took her to Istanbul and to dangerous nether regions in Turkey, pitted her against sneaky, nefarious villains, but it also armed her with her own wiles and karate skills, and gave her unlikely and worthy companions. The book is not completely saccharine–a nice man dies in the endeavor to rescue a double agent–but the good guys win in the end,and Mrs. Pollifax, unassuming and easy to dismiss, is in all ways a hero.

It was a delightful book and I read it right through in the nooks and crannies of one busy day, feeling just a little bereft when it was done.

I think it qualifies as chick-lit.

****************
So. Palate cleansed, I picked up The Violet Hour. And let me say this: Roiphe writes beautifully–I found that her prose lilted and shone. (“I learned how they faced or did not face, embraced or evaded, made peace with or raged against death, sometimes all at once,” she writes of the authors she studies in her preface, for example.)

Halfway through the first section, the part about Susan Sontag’s death from leukemia in her seventies, I put the book down and closed it for good. Well-written or not, the reading coincides with the final illness days of my wonderful friend Kim, herself a writer, herself concerned with ‘making a good death.’

Some words, no matter how beautifully written, cut sharp and deep, too close to the bone.

And some things must be lived through in the moment, and not, in that moment,  read about.

******************

Those three books, layered on each other, made me think about what we consider “worthy reading.”

I thought about Weiner, a Princeton grad writing books about ordinary women and promoting what she calls ‘body positivity.’

I thought about Dorothy Gilman, who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania and Art Student League, who started writing at age 9, and who ultimately wrote 14 books in the Mrs. Pollifax series, among others. In her New York Times obituary, the writer noted, “Reviewers sometimes quibbled about the improbability of the novels’ basic premise.” But the obit also noted that Mrs. Pollifax was “…an irresistible, early feminist heroine.”

Weiner’s female characters could wear that mantle, too, and I intend to read her works (twelve novels, she has, now, to her credit, along with her memoir and the first in a YA trilogy.)

I will go back and read the Roiphe book when it doesn’t mirror my dear friend’s situation, when I  can read those words in an objective, reflective mood.

And I will stop labeling books before I read them.

**************
I attended college in the 1970’s, when literati were arguing about ‘the canon,’ and about admitting women’s voices to that rarified group, along with voices from other cultures and from under-represented groups and viewpoints. For a long time, as a result, I refused to read anything but books written by women.

Shame on me for being so judgmental.

Because here’s what I think: we should read whatever speaks to us in the moment. It’s good to make ourselves stretch, reading things that challenge and enlarge our world view, our scope of consideration. It’s good, too, to read things that comfort and connect, that reinforce our dearly held beliefs.

We read both to grow and to affirm.

We shouldn’t limit ourselves because our society considers some genres ‘lowbrow.’ Wasn’t Dickens, after all, once considered a hack who cranked out stories for money? Time will test our current writers. In the meantime, we should enjoy what we enjoy.

So here’s what I’m thinking. I’m going back to the way I chose books as a child, poring through stacks, reading the book flaps, checking out a book based on how interesting it sounded. I didn’t read reviews back then, and I may just eschew them now, meeting each new work without preconceptions, and wading in to hear its voice.

A Fine and Fearful Family History

American Trilogy

 

I grew up wondering about my grandparents, who were all dead before I was born. Grandmas, I observed longingly from watching the lives of my friends, were people who rewarded good grades with hugs and dollar bills and hot fudge sundaes. Grandpas tossed footballs in lazy backyard arcs, genially agreed to hold one end of the jump rope, picked kids up after school in their big old Grandpa-boat cars.

Kids spent weekends at the homes of their grandparents. There, they were allowed to watch the TV shows THEY wanted to watch. The grandma made cookies for them. Sometimes, the grandparents took kids out to a restaurant to eat.

If my grandparents were alive, I used to wonder, would I receive all of those wonderful bennies?

And what about the missing aunts and uncles? My father was one of fourteen siblings, my mother one of seven, yet we only saw a couple of our aunts and uncles on even an irregular basis.

Why? I asked my father, who turned glum and changed the subject.

Why? I asked my mother, who told me I was better off not knowing.

I believed, early on,  that any family history was better than huge empty gaps in knowing. Later, I grew warier–perhaps it WAS best just to bury any questions and appreciate life in the present and anticipate the future.

Perhaps there was freedom in not having those family dictates, those expectations, to define me or to rebel against.

But still. I marveled at people who could rattle off their family histories, who talked about the yearly reunion at the lake, who could tell passed-down stories about funny things that happened to great grandma when she was walking to her one-room school house.

So reading Jane Smiley’s American trilogy–Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age,–was a fascinating adventure.

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Smiley starts us off with the marriage of Walter Langdon and Rosanna Vogel, in 1920’s Iowa, and she takes us, year by year, through one century of their family’s life. Time rolls relentlessly on; politics happen, progress happens, war happens,–famines and weather calamities befall; despots and dictators and charming, skillful leaders rule and let go of their power. Other faces emerge on national and international stages.

All of this, of course, affects the Langdons, but the American trilogy is very much a history told through the stories of the fictional characters who lived it.

We see farm life through the eyes of a baby who grows up living it. We see the yearnings of those who want to stay and farm, and those who can’t wait to shake off Iowa’s dust and hit the city. We see how hard it can be to parent, and we see how hard it can be to live under a parent’s strict rules.

We see young men go off to war, and we see young women fall in love and make momentous decisions in a ten-second span. We go from babyhood to adulthood with characters, and we age with Frank and Rosanna. We see love; we see settling. We see what happens to a bookish boy on a midwestern farm who discovers he yearns, not for the embrace of a woman, but for the love of other men.

We sneak behind the scenes in government intelligence agencies, 1960’s cults, and marriages of convenience and passion.

It is a fascinating study. Imagine being able to say, “In 1953, here’s what happened in my family.”  Smiley creates that possibility for her fictional folks.

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This makes me curious about Smiley, so I look her up, and I read an article about her and the American trilogy, “A Family’s Century.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/07/books/jane-smileys-some-luck-is-the-first-in-a-trilogy.html?_r=0) It is dated 10/17/2014; it is in the New York Times; it is written by Charles McGrath; it coincides with the release of Some Luck, the first book. Smiley, McGrath notes, has, in typical fashion, already (at that point), written the other two volumes.

The article reports that Smiley went to college in Iowa in 1972, signing up for a master’s in medieval lit as a backdoor to enter the University of Iowa’s MFA in writing program. (This worked for her. Amazing to think that today’s Smiley, prolific, respected, and bearing the Pulitzer Prize, was ever rejected admission to any rank of writers.) She lived a thirty minute drive from the college, and she observed Iowa life as she drove back and forth from classes. The seeds of an American family saga were sown.

McGrath tells me, too, that Smiley admires Charles Dickens, and she is just as productive.  She has written in a range of genres, McGrath notes, and each adventure into a different sort of writing yielded success.

Perhaps irrelevantly–but interestingly,–the article also discloses that Smiley is 6’2″, and has been married four times. Some Luck is dedicated to all of her husbands, including the current holder of that title.

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My family were never, in any of my knowledge, farmers. My forebears, it is said, sailed the oceans, marched in armies, worked in factories, landed in jail. Truth and rumor are hard to separate, but it is not hard, whatever the family history, to relate to Smiley’s characters, to the genesis of a family on a farm, and the endless possibilities of where the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, might end up.

Like my family, some of the Langdons fought–with each other, and in wars. Some looked at each other in wonder, unable to conceive of anyone making THOSE particular choices. Some were true, and some betrayed. Some took stupid risks and lived to tell the tale, and some died young. Some found great love, and some never stopped searching.  A few gave up and simmered in bitter, lifelong disappointment.

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I read Smiley’s books in a half year arc, shoe-horning other tales, fiction and non-fiction, in-between, coming back when the need for a good story, a strong narrative, immersion into a compelling tale, reared its head.  I finished Golden Age last month, finished it with regret that some loose-ends would never get resolved, that some sinners never repented, that I would never know the end stories of the children just launching in 2019. But despite the sadness and the failure of some to reach potential, the family story rang true–an American trilogy convincingly told, a story of the American dream achieved and maintained.

When I closed the book,  the word ‘triumph’ was firmly in my mind.

The Out-Sized Comfort of The French Chef

julia

 

When I was very young and feeling flu-y, my mother would tuck me up on the living room couch. She’d bring me a glass of ginger ale with ice cubes and a handful of saltines, and she’d turn the TV on. There wasn’t too much on daytime TV back then, and sometimes Mom would settle on a funny cooking show.  The lady on the show was tall and had a squawky, excited voice, and I remember watching, through a fevery, plugged-sinus haze, her throwing her head back to laugh delightedly.

She was different from the tightly corseted, red-lipsticked, glamor girls on other stations, that cooking lady was. She was comforting and large and very, very real. I would drop off to sleep as she brandished some kitchen tool or other, and I’d wake hours later, refreshed and fuzzy-headed, to a TV screen gone dark, and to the bustle of my brothers coming in from school.

Decades later, I would discover Julia Child’s cookbooks, and just thinking about her brought back that comforting, nourishing feeling.

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I got very serious about cooking in my mid-thirties, home with a little one and stretching dollars to cover a one-income budget. I was determined that food could be both economical and splendid, and I haunted the local library for cookbooks as well as leisure reading.  And it seemed that every cookbook I read somehow pointed back to one common source: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I borrowed that book many, many times from the library’s shelves. Finally, I ordered it and its companion volume, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two.

Mastering became my go-to book for a really tasty–or “flavorsome,” as Child wrote– roasted chicken. And I decided to learn to make my own sauces–it’s crazy, I told myself, to pay hard money for someone else’s bottled version of what I could make, fresh, at home. Mastering was my primer.

And sometimes I would read it just to read it–just because that wonderful, lusty voice was present there. “If you are interested in price alone,” Child wrote in ‘Chapter Six: Poultry,’ “you will often wind up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear…”

And in the sauces chapter, Child inspired: “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking, yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”

Her words made me smile, gave me confidence, hearkened me back to that cozy, sick-day comfort of long years ago. So I began to wonder about the woman herself.

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I was pleased to discover there were many, many books by and about Julia Child–even before the advent of Julie and Julia brought her, once again, into mainstream conversation.

So I read about her wholesome California childhood in a sporty, outdoorsy family. She was a tall girl, Julia was: she topped out at 6’2″, but she seemed to have friends and suitors and to not be terribly worried about her height. She and her equally tall sister, Dort, were busy and popular all through school. And Julia went on to an east coast college (she went to Smith, and  she liked it, too). But after college, she seemed hard put to settle in; she was restless and bored and nothing seemed to quite click.

And then,–World War Two, and Julia winds up doing war work in Washington, where she’s selected to go overseas, to the exotic East, where she meets  Paul, where life changes utterly and completely.

What a wonderful real life romance, the tall, gawky girl becoming the well-loved woman. She was well-loved by a man who opened new vistas for her, new worlds of books and art and music. She gave Paul security and devotion; together they made a daring, intrepid team.

After the War, Paul’s work took them to Paris, where Julia, again, floundered. She dabbled in this and that–painting, hat-making–until finally, fortunately (for her and for us), she enrolled in a French cooking class. You know what they say about the rest.

The French Chef in America tells the after-story–after Mastering became a best-seller, a staple in every cook’s kitchen; after Julia became, because of her poorly paid but very visible television appearances, a celebrity. Paul, who had always been the dominant partner became–quite happily it seems–his famous wife’s help-meet.  He painted; he helped on the set; he photographed and sketched her culinary creations. They traveled, always, together.

They were, she insisted, a team, and so they remained, through bad health and turbulent times, through fame and changing relationships and new friends and losses and houses in Cambridge and France. They were, Paul and Julia, an intensely creative pair.

Julia outlived Paul by many years, and she died, still vibrant and vital and working, just a sliver shy of her 92nd birthday.

This part of her story is written by her grandnephew, Paul Prud’homme. He co-authored My Life in France with Julia, and he wrote the rest of the story solo. The French Chef in America reads like a novel; it shines with Prud’homme’s affection for his aunt.

And it makes me realize, at this stage in time, just what an impact that squawky-voiced lady had on our culture. She opened the door, Julia did, for chefs like Alice Waters and Jacques Pepin to make their impact on American cuisine. I believe her television show, The French Chef, created a whole new genre–Guy Fieri, say, owes his paycheck to the pioneering work of Julia Child. She even inspired bubbly comedy. Prud’homme writes that she and Paul kept a videotape of Dan Ackroyd’s ‘Julia’ skit next to their TV. When visitors came, they would ask, eagerly, “Did you see Julia on Saturday Night Live?” and they’d play the clip and laugh uproariously.

It was Julia, Prud’homme contends, who inspired the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show.

And, of course, she helped United States citizens evolve the way we cook. She tugged us gently and relentlessly away from Spam and cream of mushroom soup; she dragged us into patisseries and boulangeries and she made us go to the farmers’ market and taste lettuces picked fresh that morning. Oh, we still like our comforts and conveniences, of course, we do; but Americans have developed a palate and a taste for fresh, honest, wholesome food.

Fresh, honest, and wholesome: that’s the kind of food Julia Child inspired us to eat, and that’s how I picture her out-sized personality. Head back, laughing, no apologies for height or blunders, she led us, collectively, down a whole new path. She taught us the joy and verve and finesse of cooking. And she laughed when we dropped the chicken, and she crowed when our soufflés rose and crested. She encouraged and cajoled and nourished us, that gawky girl from California. She found her passion and she followed it, and she shared it with the world.