Can a TV show or movie improve on a great book?

The Handmaid's Tale: book vs the show

(Publication news: a new portal story in The Sun (perhaps my last portal story for awhile – I am finally taking a break from them!); and a teen anti-hero fantasy story in the November issue of Cicada)

I’ve been thinking about this question lately–about this impulse we have, to turn really good books into TV shows or movies–as I’m rereading The Handmaid’s Tale after flying through the Hulu series. The TV show was good, the acting really good. But the book is so, so, so much better.

My main qualm with the TV show is the impulse to simplify June/Offred’s character into someone who hates Gilead with all her heart and is also a hero in making. June, in the TV show, protested the government takeover with other women at first. She dropped the stone that she was supposed to use to kill Janine. She struts with the handmaids in a visual display of (perhaps misguided) power. She seems a little special, maybe a little extraordinary. While in the book, she is much more complacent (and more complicit?) and complex (Atwood has described the character as “an ordinary, more-or-less cowardly woman (rather than a heroine.)” June/Offred hates the Commander but also seems to have pity for him or claims to. She doesn’t imagine herself saving anybody. She simply wants to stay alive. Her daughter is a distant memory, not an actual child she can save. Sometimes she even seems to buy into Gilead’s guarantee of safety and security for women. It’s not like things were perfect before power was seized. “Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

June’s complacency seems in reaction to, and contrasts from, the political feminism of her mother, which is not applauded or found effective in the novel.

(Interested in reading more about “Offred’s Complicity and the Dystopian Tradition in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”? Check out this fascinating and very readable academic article.)

In the book, I was shocked to find June/Offred praying, maybe untraditionally, but it’s still a prayer to God, the same God that Gilead’s powerful is praying to (though June doesn’t think God intended what is going on: “I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant.”) Note that June/Offred’s daughter does not appear in her prayers. And the book has additional layers of complexity from the narrative frame: June is very conscious that her story is a reconstruction, and she admits she it is impossible to capture the actual event as it was: “It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.” Occasionally she tells us a detail, then revises her story, saying that’s not really what she did, or what happened.

And the style of the book! It’s breathtaking: dreamy, beautifully written, at times a little surreal. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs, which I have read and reread so many times–Atwood is such an expert at flow and the pacing of a sentence, at breathless run-on sentences but also making metaphoric jumps that capture a character’s emotional state.  

“I pull her to the ground and roll on top of her to cover her, shield her. Quiet, I say again, my face is wet, sweat or tears, I feel calm and floating, as if I’m no longer in my body; close to my eyes there’s a leaf, red, turned early, I can see every bright vein. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I ease off, I don’t want to smother her, instead I curl myself around her, keeping my hand over her mouth. There’s breath and the knocking of my heart, like pounding, at the door of a house at night, where you thought you would be safe. It’s all right,  I’m here, I say, whisper, Please be quiet, but how can she? She’s too young, it’s too late, we come apart, my arms are held, and the edges go dark and nothing is left but a little window, a very little window, like the wrong end of a telescope, like the window on a Christmas card, an old one, night and ice outside, and within a candle, a shining tree, a family, I can hear the bells even, sleigh bells, from the radio, old music, but through this window I can see, small but very clear, I can see her, going away from me, through the trees which are already turning, red and yellow, holding out her arms to me, being carried away.”

One struggle I had with the TV show–something I struggle often with narratives on the screen–is the format doesn’t seem to fit. The smooth panning camera shots, a soundtrack, the orchestrated walks of the Handmaid’s–it feels too polished. Some kind of rougher (documentary?) style seems called for. I wanted it to feel real rather than to feel like I was watching a larger budget TV show. And in the show, despite the voiceover in Offred/June’s voice, we are forced to become observers of Offred/June, rather than her confidant. How could it have been otherwise? Perhaps never showing us Offred’s face, but only showing what she sees (but then to not show the emotion on Elizabeth Moss’s face!). My final peeve with the show: why cast beautiful actors and actresses as non-beautiful characters? In the novel, Serena Joy and the Commander are oldish. Neither are remotely beautiful or handsome. Serena Joy’s nose “must once have been what was called cute but now was too small for her face. Her face was not fat but it was large.” She walks with a limp and needs a cane. The Commander is described as looking like “a retired museum guard.” Why turn Serena Joy into someone who looks like a young model, and have the Commander played by Joseph Fiennes? It could have been too easy to dislike them otherwise, I suppose.  

Other movies or TV shows I crankily feel did not improve on the book: any of the Harry Potter movies (I thought Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was way better than any of the movies based on the original HP books); The Road (I only made it halfway through this film); Wolf Hall (made it through 2 episodes); Arrival (based on the short story “The Story Of Your Life”)(though the movie Arrival is good, the short story is nearly perfect). 

Still, I’m grateful that The Handmaid’s Tale show came out this year, if only because it got me, and apparently a lot of other people, to return to the book, which is now up there as one of my favorite novels.  

Round-up of some things

leg, meds, books

New publications: a story on Terraform; then there’s this cool accompanying piece putting the story in context; also I don’t think I mentioned my Lightspeed story about portals (I still love portals!); and an accompanying interview; one of my stories made it into the 2017 Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology (whoo-hoo!) (two other stories of mine are notable stories for that anthology as well); and my creative non-fiction experiment “A List of My Utopias” is reprinted in the fall Utne Reader.

Writing on antidepressants update: for my depression I have moved on from Lexapro to….Prozac (read initial write-up here). I did get up the courage to ask my new psychiatrist what about Wellbutrin (Lev Grossman’s anti-depressant of choice), though I realize that probably is one of the worst reasons to think a drug is good for you (because you like the author). But due to my past history with eating disorders, Wellbutrin is countraindicted for me, says my psychiatrist, which means….no. I was bummed, as Lev Grossman doesn’t take Prozac, and Prozac does not exactly have a great reputation in the media–in my mind, it is kind of the poster child of anti-depressant overuse or the numbing effect you hear stories about. But it is also supposed to be the most activating (I love this use of the word) of the SSRI’s. So far, after ditching Lexapro and taking a week of very low dose Prozac, I’ve noticed it’s harder to fall asleep at night, but at the same time I am no longer falling asleep at the computer while I write. Whoo-hoo! Or needing 2-3 crazy long naps during the day!! This is a very exciting development. Lexapro works great for a lot of people, my psychiatrist explained, but other people experience sedation/drowsiness as a side effect, and I happened to be one of those folks.

As with Lexapro, there is still a kind of muting of strong emotions with Prozac. I don’t find this necessarily an awful thing, as my personal life is a bit crazy right now, and staying calm or unbothered helps keep my depression from spiraling downward. Though I do miss having this urgent need to process and write about the shitty stuff that happens in my life. Before meds, after some huge family blow-up, I’d race to the computer and just plow out pages of pure grit and emotion that would usually end up being very dark but also very interesting to me. I find it a lot harder to channel that emotion now or to even want to record my crazy last week for a future story idea. On the good side, that distance is helping keep me functional. And also it’s easier to imagine writing about something other than myself. Downside: those emotions are what fueled my writing for the past few years. Maybe it will just require some extra effort. Suicidal ideation: even on meds, I’m still struggling with this, though to a slightly lesser degree. My therapist thinks a higher dosage might help. But higher dosages worry me, as already I’m aware of that distancing/muting effect. What’s helped this week is trying to clear my mind of all the repetitive thoughts and worry and negative stuff, and forcing myself instead to think of 1 small thing I want to do that will happen in the next few hours. For example, I want to work on revising a story I am almost done with. Or, I want to use my arm bike and watch Stranger Things this evening. I want to bake an apple cake with my son! Etc. Then I tell myself I am going to be here until I do that thing, because that thing sounds nice. And I just really focus on how that one thing is going to happen and I want it to happen. Once that thing happens, I pick the next small thing. Then, repeat. Still an experiment in progress. 

Reading: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. An amazing book and ideal for insomaniacs as it is very long (1,000+ pages) and not available as an audiobook. So I would never have the time to read it were it not for my sleepless nights. But man, the ending is so beautiful, and also so bleak. The book is a masterpiece in its ability to make every one of its characters human and relatable, including Gary Gilmore (check out a fascinating photo of him here), the convict who murdered two people and ended up being executed by the state of Utah. Also Lincoln in the Bardo. An almost perfect book. Daring, heartfelt, moving, funny…and the audio book rocks. Also my kids have insisted I read the Mighty Jack series as well as all three Zita the Spacegirl graphic novels (all of these books by Ben Hatke). I really loved the first Mighty Jack, where a boy gives away his mom’s car in exchange for some magical seeds. He does this because his assumedly autistic sister speaks about the seeds. That’s a great set-up for a story.  

Watching: I’ve gotten kind of tired of movies this past year–something artificial or forced about having to wrap things up in about 2 hours. Instead, I’ve been watching more TV shows, Just finished The Bridge (Bron / Broen – the Nordic version), season 3. Heartbroken that season is over. I am in love with the two detectives in that show. I’ll write more about it later. Also loving Lady Dynamite, Maria Bamford’s Netflix series. It’s a great funny smart show about mental illness that has kept my spirits up during broken leg recovery. And Stranger Things. I love so many things about this show, but most of all for the character of Will’s mom, a mom who believes her missing son is still alive, even if such belief makes her appear insane. She toes the line between insanity and other worldly stuff, which is a fascinating and complex line that fantasy or horror tends to ignore. 

Leg update: I told my husband, people ask me what happened, and I tell them I have a broken leg, and then they get really quiet. He informed me it is obvious I have a broken leg, and maybe instead I should try saying, “I had a hiking accident.” This has turned out to be a much better answer and generally has made for longer conversations. Though I still struggle with talking about the whole incident casually, and turning it into a neat little story with a happy ending — look, I’m healing! etc. That somehow seems to do a disservice to the violence of the whole incident. I miss my surgeon in Saranac Lake. It’s weird thinking that my leg is just one of many legs that he has operated on and will continue to operate on. He does appear to have a LinkedIn page but I am guessing that is creepy, when your patients want to be a contact. Being a surgeon must be an amazing job. You are putting people back together, and you get to see parts of them that they themselves will never get to see.

The language of surgeons: I received a record of the postoperative report, dictated at either 1:40 a.m. or 2:23 a.m. on August 22. I find the language fascinating and oddly moving (maybe because it’s about me?). But there are also these lovely turns of phrases – my leg was “draped in a standard fashion” and how my patellar tendon was “carefully retracted medially, ” and how “across the fracture site held a nice position.”  I wish I knew where my surgeon was, what kind of room he was in, when he recorded this and how soon after the actual surgery. I think judging by the time it was fairly immediate. Still, how could someone remember all these details? This is as close as I can get to the iphone photo I wish someone took of my surgery, which is a weird impulse that kind of disturbs me, but I want to see a photo of it anyway. What was the expression on my face? I find it fascinating and odd that I have no memory of the time, and this surgeon, and all the people who participated in the surgery, know more about what was happening then to my body than I did or do. Anyhow, here it the report:

    The patient was placed on the operating table in the spine position, placed under general anesthesia, and the leg was prepped with triple prep and draped in a standard fashion. The leg was exsanguinated with elevation only, no Esmarch bandage was used, and tourniquet was inflated to 250 mmHg. A closed reduction of the fracture was obtained and the fracture was held with traction and on the radiolucent triangles. A longitudinal incision over the patellar tendon was made through the skin and subcutaneous tissue and a longitudinal incision in the patellar tendon was performed and it was carefully retracted medially and laterally giving access to the proximal tibia. The guide pin was advanced under fluoroscopic evaluation and found intraosseous. Then reamed over that with a 8-mm reamer and then used the beaded guidewire to advance it to the proximal aspect of the tibia mid shaft across the fracture side into the distal tibia. It was noted to be a nondisplaced posterior malleolar fracture. We then began serial reaming the tibia and decided that a size 9.3 nail would be the appropriate size, so we did ream to 10.5 5 and then 11.5 proximally. With the fracture in a reduced fashion, we advanced the 9.3 x 34 mm nail proximally across the diaphysis of the tibia across the fracture site and into the distal tibia in appropriate position. The fracture was well reduced in the AP lateral projection. we then did a static locking screw proximally, drilled off the guide itself medially medial to lateral, drilled both cortices and then placed in the 3.5 cortical screw. We then went to the distal aspect and did a medial to lateral screw using the perfect circle technique and a 3.5 screw was used there and then with the foot in a dorsiflexion position to keep the posterior malleolar fracture reduced, we did an anterior posterior 3.5 locking screw with perfect circles and that across the fracture site held a nice position. The area was widely irrigated. All the incisions were irrigated. The incisions were closed with the 3-0 Monocryl and staples. We did put a 5 mm end cap in case the nail needs to come out some other time. The insertion site was irrigated out. The patellar tendon was closed side-to-side fashion with a 2-0 Vicryl. The peritenon was closed with 3-0 Monocryl, subcutaneous tissue closed with 3-0 Moncryl and staples. Sterile dressing was placed and a posterior splint was applied and the patient transferred to recovery room in stable condition. 

Another book for the Slow Paced Genre Realism category

The Leftovers!

I forgot an essential book for the “slow-paced genre realism” category I recently made up: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I discovered the novel after watching the first episode of the excellent TV series. (The beginning of The Leftovers pilot, by the way, contains what may be the best three minutes in television I’ve seen. Please watch if it you haven’t! Overall The Leftovers an amazing job of depicting the complexity of parents and parenthood and this three minute intro is no exception).

The premise of The Leftovers: 2% of the world population has disappeared (about 140 million people). Though we get a sense of the chaos that happened immediately after “the departure” as it’s called (and that chaos certainly has apocalyptic tones), what is brilliant about both the book and the TV series is that the story really begins 3 years after the departure, when things have kind of returned enough to normal to resemble literary realistic fiction. The world still works. People have jobs. The infrastructure is functional. Yet everyone is affected–haunted?–by the disappearances and are dealing with their grief in their own way. Nobody understands why it happened: was it the Rapture? If so, why were non-Christians taken along with Christians? And why were bad people taken as well as good people? What does it say about someone if they were left behind? And where did the people who are gone go? Did they go to a better place? A worse place? Did they just disappear? 

Those questions are never answered, by the way, which I think is great. The answers might be the preoccupation of a different version of the novel, one more formulaically genre-ish, but this book’s concern is the way people deal with their grief, and how people move on, or don’t.

The Leftovers strikes me as “post-apocalypse light.” In most post-apocalyptic fiction that I’ve read, enough of the world’s population disappears to disrupt normal day-to-day functioning. The planet becomes a scary wasteland, and the story concerns itself with how people survive and eventually rebuild. They’re like adventure novels. In The Leftovers, only enough of the population is missing for practically everyone to be affected in some way. Most people saw someone disappear or they are related to someone who disappeared. But more than enough people are left that life can continue on seemingly unaffected on the surface. Everything is still functional in theory–there is electricity, cars, jobs, grocery stores, food. It’s the grief and the doubts that are crippling: why were certain people taken and why were certain people left behind? It’s really a novel about grief and all the ways that we can lose people. 

The book is slow and beautiful and subtle and devastating but also somewhat hopeful at the end. It also contains one of my favorite passages about motherhood. This passage rips my heart out by its teeth, so I’m going to include it below. 

(This is a letter written by Nora to Kevin, who she is trying and failing to date, about what happened the evening her family disappeared. )

We were having a family dinner.
   It sounds so quaint when you put it that way, doesn’t it? You imagine everyone together, talking and laughing and enjoying their meal. But it wasn’t like that. Things were tense between me and Doug. I understand now why that was, but at the time it just felt to me like he was distracted by work, not fully present in our life. He was always checking that damn Blackberry, snatching it up every time it buzzed like it might contain a message from God. Of course it wasn’t God, it was just his cute little girlfriend, but either way, it was more interesting to him than his own family. I still kind of hate him for that.
The kids weren’t happy, either. They were rarely happy in the evening. Mornings could be fun in our house, and bedtimes were usually sweet, but dinners were often a trial. Jeremy was cranky because … why? I wish I could tell you. Maybe because it’s hard to be six years old, or maybe because it was hard to be him. Little things made him cry, and his crying over little things irritated his father, who sometimes spoke sharply to him and made Jeremy even more upset. Erin was only four, but she had an instinct for getting under her brother’s skin, pointing out in a matter-of-fact voice that Jeremy was crying again, acting like a little baby, which made him absolutely furious.
   I loved them all, okay? My cheating husband, my fragile boy, my sneaky little girl. But I didn’t love my life, not that night. I had worked really hard on the meal — it was this Moroccan chicken recipe I’d found in a magazine — and nobody cared. Doug thought the breasts were a little dry, Jeremy wasn’t hungry, blah blah blah. It was just a crappy night, that’s all.
   And then Erin spilled her apple juice. No big deal, except that she’d made a big fuss about drinking from a cup without a top, even though I told her it was a bad idea. So what, right? It happens. I wasn’t one of those parents who gets all upset about something like that. But that night I was. I said, “Damn it, Erin, what did I tell you!” And then she started to cry.
   I looked at Doug, waiting for him to get up and get some paper towels, but he didn’t move. He just smiled at me like none of this had anything to do with him, like he was floating above it all on some superior plane of existence. So of course I had to do it. I got up and went into the kitchen.
   How long was I there? Thirty seconds, maybe? I gathered a handful of towels, winding them off the roll, wondering if I’d taken enough sheets, or had I possibly taken too many, because I didn’t want to make a second trip but didn’t want to be wasteful, either. I remember being conscious of the chaos I’d left behind, feeling relieved to be away from it, but also resentful and overburdened and unappreciated. I think maybe I closed my eyes, let my mind go blank for a second or two. That was when it must have happened. I remember noticing that the crying had stopped, that the house felt suddenly peaceful.
   So what do you think I did when I got back to the dining room and found them gone? Do you think I screamed or cried or fainted? Or do you think I wiped up the spill, because the puddle was spreading across the table and would soon start dripping onto the floor?
   You know what I did, Kevin.
  I wiped up the fucking apple juice and then I went back into the kitchen, put the soggy paper towels in the garbage can, and rinsed my hands under the faucet. After I dried them, I went back to the dining room and took another look at the empty table, the plates and the glasses and the uneaten food. The vacant chairs. I really don’t know what happened after that. It’s like my memory just stops there and picks up a few weeks later.
   Would it have helped if I told you this story in Florida? Or maybe on Valentine’s Day? Would you have felt like you knew me better? You could have told me what I already think I know — that the crying and the spilled juice aren’t really that important, that all parents get stressed out and angry and wish for a little peace and quiet. It’s not the same as wishing for the people you love to be gone forever.
   But what if it is, Kevin? Then what?
 

The TV series made some interesting but successful adaptions from the book, including giving one of the book’s minor character a much more prominent role. Holy Wayne, a charismatic cult leader, is dismissed as a charlatan in the book. With Holy Wayne in the TV series, we don’t know if he’s for real or not, or if he’s just taking people’s money and giving them hugs–he claims he can hug away people’s pain–but the thing is, people think that he is helping them. People, such as Nora in the scene below, believe he is for real. I think that’s rare and complex, to put practical doubts aside and show a cult leader giving something necessary to the people who believe in him. (I have little patience for cult leaders being shown as simplified one-dimensional villains, as practically every book that contains a cult leader portrays them, but that is a post for another day.) Re-watching this scene, I can understand why some people thought the TV series was overly devastating and dark–I believe it was called “the most dismal show on television.” There is none of that exciting adventure, where people triumph over the landscape/devastation/cannibals, that you often see in post-apocalyptic fiction (for more thoughts along this line, check out this New Yorker essay: “The post-apocalyptic imagination is shot through with unacknowledged wish fulfillment”). People in The Leftovers are certainly not triumphing. They are usually just really, really sad. But I think that’s a more realistic and honest tone than that heroic adventure vibe many apocalyptic books give off. 

The Joy of List Making Part 2: The Throwback Special

I recently became obsessed with The Throwback Special written by Chris Bachelder. I started off listening to it as an audiobook while aqua jogging in the local YMCA’s pool. It’s a difficult book to listen to in the first place, lots of shifting points of views (the novel follows 22 men) and tons of little gems of descriptions and dialogue that you might miss if your attention wanders for, say, a second. It’s especially difficult to listen to while aqua jogging in a pool, as pools are noisy to begin with, at least the pool I use, and you’re also getting splashed, and sometimes the nice water aerobics women sharing the tiny roped off corner of the pool with you are trying to talk to you. (What is the perfect book to listen to while aqua jogging? I haven’t quite found it yet…). So after a first listen through, I read this book again, this time on my Kindle. Then I listened to it one more time. Then I went back and reread anything I highlighted, which seriously was about half of the book.

I think I’m done with my rereading, but really, it’s an amazing book stylistically, a book I tried to study and learn from as I read through it again. How does Bachelder manage to be so funny while not belittling his characters and turning them into a joke?  How, in this time, in the current political/publishing climate, do you write about 21 white middle-aged men (1 of the men is bi-racial) and still have their stories seem vital, valuable, and worth telling? How do you take a story about football and guys and make a reader like me, who is completely uninterested in football, and prefers I’ll be honest to read stories about women, love the novel? And then there’s all the smaller stuff: how Bachelder is an expert at not over-explaining. How he slips in small details and then leaves the details behind, letting the reader make of them what they will (such as this hint at a character being suicidal: “In his garage where he did not kill himself he had constructed a prototype of a self-washing house window.”). How he has his characters tell these amazing, interesting, yet at the same time ordinary stories to each other and then the particular story isn’t brought up again. The story isn’t connected to some future event either. It’s put out there, often in a monologue format, and usually not everyone is listening to it, and that telling of the story is its own purpose.  

I could go on and on but I’ll limit myself to one more thing Bachelder does extremely well: list making as a narrative device. His lists have this great rhythm to them but I also love how he breaks the rhythm with dialogue or grammatical variation or by varying the length of a list item. And also I love the emotional variation of his lists too.

TRENT HAD COME HOME to find his daughter going down on a boy. Jeff had come home to find his daughter going down on a girl. Andy had come home to find his kid doing like this with an aerosol can of whipped cream.

“Yeah, whippets,” said George, the public librarian.

Tommy had come home to find that his dog had eaten a package of diapers. The surgery was twenty-five hundred dollars, and now he had pet insurance. Nate had come home to find his wife Skyping with a man in a military uniform. Bald Michael had come home to find his son hurting a cat. Whenever Peter comes home now, his daughter is reading. He was so anxious for her to learn to read, so worried when she showed little interest, but now that’s all she does. She doesn’t even talk to Peter anymore. She just sits in corners, knobby knees pulled up to her chin, the book held over her face like this, like a veil. The other men knew about books over the faces of girls. Carl came home to find his son building something with a lot of wires. Wesley came home to find that his twins had built twin snowmen. The picture was on his phone if he could only find it. Fat Michael had a friend who came home to find that the rags he had used to apply linseed oil to his furniture had spontaneously combusted, causing sixty thousand dollars of property damage. When Steven had come home, everyone in the house was just gone. 

Here’s a great list of the various t-shirts that the men wear to sleep.

THE EMPTY HALLWAYS WERE HAZY WITH sconce light and Wi-Fi radio waves. The small red lights of ceiling smoke detectors blinked in no discernible pattern. An elevator car rumbled in its shaft, transporting nothing but a name tag (Marc) and the scent of degraded deodorant. A ghost coursed the stairwell. The vending alcoves clicked and hummed.

Vince’s T-shirt read Daytona Beach, and he snored intermittently.

Carl’s T-shirt read No Coffee No Peace, and the Sharpie wouldn’t wash off his hands.

Wesley’s T-shirt read Richardson’s Lawn & Garden, and he composed, in his mind, in the dark, a long letter to his son.

Gary’s tank top read I ATE THE MEGABURGER, and he snored aggressively.

Bald Michael’s T-shirt read Miller High Life, and his sleep apnea machine made a pleasant bubbling sound like a fish tank.

George’s T-shirt had a picture of Darwin with an enormous block of text far too small to read, and he snored slowly.

Nate’s T-shirt read WTF?, and in the dark he regretted the cigarette.

 Robert’s T-shirt was inside out to conceal the design, and in the dark he worried that his older daughter was developing an eating disorder.

Andy’s T-shirt read Which Way to Rock City?, and he snored like a cartoon hound.

Gil’s T-shirt had a picture of Thor and Loki, and his hand was asleep beneath his pillow.

Myron’s T-shirt was yellow, and he snored with a placid countenance.

Tommy’s T-shirt was incomprehensible, and he snored beneath his mustache.

Fat Michael’s sweaty shirt read Bailey’s Peak Challenge 2006, and he ran seven-minute miles on the treadmill in the hotel’s Workout Center, wearing his Joe Theismann helmet and staring blankly over the single bar of the face mask into the wall-length mirror.

Derek’s T-shirt read University of Virginia School of Law, and in the dark he wondered if he should put some pachysandra or other ground cover on that steep slope in his backyard.

Steven’s T-shirt had a picture of sunlight passing through a prism, and he snored consistently.

Jeff’s T-shirt read Ninja in Training, and he told Steven, snoring beside him, that as much as he hated to say it, this would probably have to be his last year.

Randy’s T-shirt read Thompson Optical, and he could begin to feel the gentle tug of the pill.

Chad’s T-shirt read California Dreamin’, and he snored without making a sound.

Charles’s V-neck T-shirt was white, and all of his T-shirts were V-neck and white.

Adam’s T-shirt read Second Place Is the First Loser, and in the dark he calculated his chances.

Peter’s T-shirt was blue, and he stared at the clock, waiting for the number to change.

Trent’s T-shirt read Big Data, and although he courteously wore a nasal strip, he snored with calamitous volume. When he woke up, he discovered that his nose was running. Though he did not have a cold, or he hadn’t had a cold when he went to bed, mucus was now streaming down his face, his neck. In the dark he reached toward the bedside table for a tissue or towel. He grasped something soft, and brought it to his face. As he did so, he realized that the mucus was blood, and that the tissue was a jersey.

The final excerpt uses, in the last section, the list as a plot device–cool! I especially love, in the list below, the list as a question, and the uncertain list where not even the narrator knows what is going on. 

THERE WAS A DEER next to the dumpster behind the hotel. It stood still in the rain, ears alert, waiting to be frightened. A grainy version of the deer occupied a small box in the third column of the fourth row of the surveillance grid of the sixteen-channel CCTV monitor at the front desk. Like anyone shown on a surveillance monitor, the deer appeared to be involved in a crime.

In another box of the surveillance grid, the parking lot glittered blackly.

In another box, four grown men threw a football in a hallway.

In another box, two employees from the AquaDoctor scrubbed the lobby fountain with soft brushes.

In another box of the surveillance grid, the stairwell was so profoundly deserted as to seem post-human.  

In another box, an elevator passenger dropped into a three-point stance.

In another box, it was very difficult to tell what exactly was going on. 

In another box, a man wearing an elbow pad ran an unsustainable pace on the treadmill in the workout center.

In another box, two grown men threw a Frisbee in a hallway.

In another box, the continental breakfast had long since ended.

In another box, was that a cat in a hallway?  

In another box, inhabitants of the conference center applauded silently.

In another box of the surveillance monitor, the front desk clerk ignored the sixteen-channel surveillance monitor.

In another box, a man pacing and gesticulating alone in a hallway was either suffering from mental illness or using a phone with a hands-free headset.

In another box, an upside-down bird gnawed grainily on the knotted rope in its cage.

In the final box, an elderly man walked with purpose and a dignified limp through the lobby doors, into the hotel, vanishing from the box. He then reappeared in the front desk box, placing his elbows on the desk in a manner that seemed both inquisitive and assertive. He spoke with the front desk clerk — he appeared to speak with the front desk clerk — then walked briskly out of the box. The elderly man reappeared in the elevator box, pressing buttons, or more likely pressing a single button repeatedly. Here, in the elevator, you could see him well. He was perhaps seventy-five, with a full head of neatly trimmed gray hair. He was tall, with excellent posture. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into dark pants, but it was not difficult to imagine him wearing a uniform of some sort. The man did not, like almost all passengers, look at himself in the mirror on the back wall of the elevator. After a time, the elevator doors opened, and he exited the box. He reappeared in a different box of the sixteen-box surveillance grid, walking toward a group of grainy men throwing a football in a hallway. Most of the men dispersed immediately, though one of the men stood against the wall as if frozen. His face, which was not clearly visible on the surveillance monitor, had a startled expression. The abandoned football still spun on the hallway carpet like the altimeter dial of a rapidly descending aircraft. Midway down the hall, the elderly man stopped outside of a room, and knocked on the door. The vending alcove was neither visible nor audible. The man appeared to say something to the door. One is forced to assume that he was viewed through the peephole. Eventually, the door opened, and the elderly man entered the room, disappearing from the box in the fourth column of the second row of the surveillance grid.  By this time the deer, too, was gone from the box with the deer in it.

Louise Erdrich, LaRose, Hearts

(side note: I have a new story out in the January/February issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which is really huge for me, because….Ursula LeGuin has had stories published in that magazine! Also I’ve been trying to get in there for, oh, about 13 years…)

Back in the summer, I was going through a LaRose / Louise Erdrich obsession, so, in my obsessed state, I decided to go through the novel and make a list of how Louise Erdrich describes and uses her characters’ hearts. I remember being interested in a couple things: first, simply, that people’s hearts kept coming up throughout the book. It seemed an unusual descriptive point to keep circling around. But also I was interested in how Erdrich sidestepped cliche and managed to make her heart descriptions meaningful, moving, and illuminating. That’s really hard to do. It’s like trying to describe multiple characters’ tears (“Never describe your character’s tears,” I remember one of my writing teachers once telling me). Just rereading the experts below makes me want to reread LaRose again or maybe read everything Erdrich has ever written. But what about Shirley Jackson?! What about all the great sounding books on all the best of 2016 lists? What about rereading, and rereading, and rereading The Throwback Special, my latest obsession? Anyhow, here are a lot of ways that Erdrich describes hearts.  

 

He lets Landreaux come close enough for him to take the infallible shot. Closer and closer yet. There it is. Peter squeezes the trigger gently with his heart exploding. Nothing.

 

The birds were silent. Snow was falling off the trees that day. She had scrubbed her body red with snow. She threw off everything and lay naked in the snow asking to be dead. She tried not to move, but the cold stabbed ice into her heart and she began to suffer intensely. A person from the other world came. The being was pale blue without definite form. It took care of her, dressed her, tied on her makazinan, blew the lice off, and wrapped her in a new blanket, saying, Call upon me when this happens and you shall live.

 

Landreaux sat down at the table, touched the edge. He didn’t want to speak, to bring up the thing he dreaded. He could feel the tension bubbling up inside, the quickened pump of his heart.

The agreement, whatever we call it, Peter started.

Landreaux just nodded, staring at his fingers.

The question is, said Peter.

Landreaux’s heart just quit.

The question is, said Peter. What’s it doing to him?

Landreaux’s heart started beating again.

What’s it doing to him, he weakly said.

 

You dove, he said. He stroked her shoulder all one way, like feathers.

A mean dove. Who will peck out your heart, she said.

That would hurt.

I can’t help myself. Will you stay with me, she said, suddenly, if I go crazy?

There was desolation in her voice, so he tried to joke.

Well, you already are crazy.

He felt tears on his chest. Oh, he’d gone too far.

In a good way. I love your crazy!

 

The sugar would jangle her nerves, she thought, but it didn’t. It slowed her heart. A dopey, fuzzy wash of pleasure covered her and she nearly blanked out before she made it to the couch.

 

Then she had another thought— their tradition worked. Dazzling act. How could she or Peter harm the father of the son they’d been given? She closed her eyes and felt the heavy warmth of LaRose as she rocked him to sleep,

 

Tooth Pain & Loving Shirley Jackson

There is the possibility these two things are related

(Side note: I have a new story, “Two Moons,” out in the December issue of The Sun. This is the second part of a 3 part novella about a mom who is struggling to parent her difficult son.) 

So first let’s talk about tooth pain. For the last 8 weeks I’ve been struggling with mild to extreme pain on the upper left side of my mouth. When it was the worst, especially when I was off Advil and trying to monitor the pain, the pain in my teeth was all I could think about. So I free wrote about my tooth and all the trips a good deal. The pain was most intense after the first root canal and crown on a separate tooth, but before the redo of the first root canal (with a second root canal on another tooth yet to come), and I told myself, well, lucky you, here is an opportunity to write about very intense pain and the fear that comes with it–that this pain might be permanent, as I know it is for some people. That this is your new normal. That the source of the pain might never be found. The possibility that the pain is all in your head (is it still pain then, if one is imagining it?). And how the act of trying to describe pain to someone who is not feeling your pain is nearly impossible. How does one put pain into words? Must it always be through metaphor? I haven’t gone back to look at all that writing yet–it will either probably be very interesting or very awful–but I’m hoping it might fit in somewhere in this massive mess of a creative non-fiction project about depression that I’m hoping to work on in the upcoming year. It was fascinating, for me at least, to compare depressive mental pain with extreme tooth pain: is one preferable, or more bearable, over the other? What kind of pain would you choose, if given a choice?  

Around the time I became obsessed with the pain in my teeth, I also became obsessed with Shirley Jackson. I like to think that these two events are somehow related. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, the new biography about Jackson by Ruth Franklin, which I recently finished, is fabulous. I feel like all women writers, especially married women writers, should read it. I loved watching Jackson develop as a writer as her life unfolded, and I loved watching her work through her failures and her year of writer’s block, when she was unable to write anything. And seeing how she juggled her family, her work in her house, and her writing. And seeing editors refusing to publish a book of her short stories even back then, even by Shirley Jackson, because books of short stories didn’t sell as well as novels (is it comforting, that this was still happening so many decades ago, or is it just sad?). The portrayal of Jackson’s somewhat disappointing marriage to Stanley Hyman was fascinating and honest. Franklin did an excellent job suggesting how tensions and anxieties in Jackson’s life, especially with Jackson’s mother and Jackson’s husband, were reflected in her writing. Hyman and Jackson’s love was intense, especially at the beginning of their relationship, but things quickly turned complicated, as Hyman wanted an open relationship, while Jackson didn’t. There was a jaw dropping section early on in the book where it seems like Jackson is suggesting that Hyman raped her (marital rape is a tricky business, especially back then, I imagine). This quote is from Jackson’s diary: “If it’s sex I can’t do anything about it,” the entry reads in part. “He forced me God help me and for so long I didn’t dare say anything and only get out of it when I could and now I’m so afraid to have him touch me.” This incident happened early on in their marriage. They would stay married for 25 years, up until Jackson’s death, though there was the suggestion that she was about to leave Hyman right before she died. I think at times, even later in the marriage, Hyman and Jackson still loved each other–perhaps I think this more than Franklin, Jackson’s biographer, does–but their love just didn’t look like the typical narrative. I loved so much about Jackson by the end of this book. How she struggled with fear and anxieties (she dropped out of college at one point after having some kind of breakdown–Jackson was probably suicidal then, and later in life she was agoraphobic)–but how perhaps that all allowed her to write the material that she did. I love this quote. 

“but i have always loved (and there is the opposition: love) to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where i was afraid and take it whole and work from there. so there goes castle. i can not and will not work from within the situation; i must take it as given. . . . i delight in what i fear. then castle is not about two women murdering a man. it is about my being afraid and afraid to say so, so much afraid that a name in a book can turn me inside out.”

I loved how she was a mom, and a housewife, and she wouldn’t have been able to write what she did if she had been something else. She had such crazy dreams at night. She believed in ghosts. She loved her kids a lot. She had hoped her marriage would be different and that, after marrying, she would never be lonely again. Anyway, the book is well worth a read. The only danger is it will probably make you want to read every single piece of Jackson’s writing, as I am now planning to do. 

Shirley Jackson with her children, North Bennington, Vermont, 1956

Reading list for holiday break: yes, most of these are Shirley Jackson novels. The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson); The Throwback Special (a book by a male writer, Chris Bachelder, about men and sports – not my usual thing, but that’s why I love this book club I’m in, so I get to read books I wouldn’t otherwise pick up); We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson); The Lottery collection of short stories (Shirley Jackson); The Sundial (I didn’t know of this Shirley Jackson novel until I read her bio–it’s about a family who holes up in their home, believing the world is ending. It’s unclear at the end if the world is about to end, or if it’s just in their heads. I love that idea). I do want to read Jackson’s more domestic humor books (Raising Demons, and Life Among the Savages–Ruth Franklin in the Jackson bio suggested these books are the precursors to mommy blogs). But I think that might need to wait until January. 

Uprooted and a really cool surprising love scene

(side note: I have a new story out in July/August issue of the teen magazine Cicada as well another story out in the August issue of The Sun. Also a short piece I did about my broken finger, casts and parenting is now out in this lovely print version of Penny)  

I just finished reading Uprooted (Naomi Novik), a fantasy novel and a great summer read. I loved a lot about this book–the narrative voice is funny and true, the narrator is super likable, the descriptions of the creepy woods are excellent, the plot is exciting. Though I’ll admit I was disappointed that the book eventually succumbs to a rather traditional romance (young girl falls in love with cranky older–in this case 150 years older–man, but he doesn’t look old, so maybe it’s okay–and underneath his crankiness, there is rare glimpses of kindness, like maybe he has a heart of gold but just doesn’t show it) (but I don’t know, I still questioned why she loved him so much–is the heart of gold there or is she just imagining it?) (and if someone has a heart of gold but pretends they don’t, will that be satisfying in a relationship later on?) (perhaps she loves his magic more than his personality–I like this idea best, that she falls in love with his magic more than him) (or maybe she adores the crankiness?) (it would have been interesting had he actually looked 150 years older–would she still have loved him in the same way then? I would really like to read that version of the novel!). 

Anyway, before all that traditional romantic stuff happens, there are some really lovely scenes where Agnieszka (young narrator) and Sarkan (old magician who doesn’t look old) do magic together. Sarkin practices a very traditional, rational magic, and Agnieszka’s magic is more intuitive and wild.  I’m always on the look out for examples of love that look different from how we usually describe it, and I was kind of blown away by this scene. 

“A month into my new training, he was glaring at me while I struggled to make an illusion of a flower. “I don’t understand,” I said— whined, if I tell the truth: it was absurdly difficult. My first three attempts had looked like they were made of cotton rags. Now I had managed to put together a tolerably convincing wild rose, as long as you didn’t try to smell it. “It’s far easier just to grow a flower: why would anyone bother?”

“It’s a matter of scale,” he said. “I assure you it is considerably easier to produce the illusion of an army than the real thing. How is that even working?” he burst out, as he sometimes did when pressed past his limits by the obvious dreadfulness of my magic. “You aren’t maintaining the spell at all— no chanting, no gesture—”

“I’m still giving it magic. A great deal of magic,” I added, unhappily.

The first few spells that didn’t yank magic out of me like pulling teeth had been so purely a relief that I had half-thought that was the worst of it over: now that I understood how magic ought to work— whatever the Dragon said on that subject— everything would be easy. Well, I soon learned better. Desperation and terror had fueled my first working, and my next few attempts had been the equivalent of the first cantrips he’d tried to teach me, the little spells he had expected me to master effortlessly. So I had indeed mastered those effortlessly, and then he had unmercifully set me at real spells, and everything had once again become— if not unbearable in the same way, at least exceedingly difficult.

“How are you giving it magic?” he said, through his teeth.

“I already found the path!” I said. “I’m just staying on it. Can’t you— feel it?” I asked abruptly, and held my hand cupping the flower out towards him; he frowned and put his hands around it, and then he said, “Vadiya rusha ilikad tuhi,” and a second illusion laid itself over mine, two roses in the same space— his, predictably, had three rings of perfect petals, and a delicate fragrance.

“Try and match it,” he said absently, his fingers moving slightly, and by lurching steps we brought our illusions closer together until it was nearly impossible to tell them one from another, and then he said, “Ah,” suddenly, just as I began to glimpse his spell: almost exactly like that strange clockwork on the middle of his table, all shining moving parts. On an impulse I tried to align our workings: I envisioned his like the water-wheel of a mill, and mine the rushing stream driving it around. “What are you—” he began, and then abruptly we had only a single rose, and it began to grow. 

And not only the rose: vines were climbing up the bookshelves in every direction, twining themselves around ancient tomes and reaching out the window; the tall slender columns that made the arch of the doorway were lost among rising birches, spreading out long finger-branches; moss and violets were springing up across the floor, delicate ferns unfurling. Flowers were blooming everywhere: flowers I had never seen, strange blooms dangling and others with sharp points, brilliantly colored, and the room was thick with their fragrance, with the smell of crushed leaves and pungent herbs. I looked around myself alight with wonder, my magic still flowing easily. “Is this what you meant?” I asked him: it really wasn’t any more difficult than making the single flower had been.

But he was staring at the riot of flowers all around us, as astonished as I was. He looked at me, baffled and for the first time uncertain, as though he had stumbled into something, unprepared. His long narrow hands were cradled around mine, both of us holding the rose together. Magic was singing in me, through me; I felt the murmur of his power singing back that same song. I was abruptly too hot, and strangely conscious of myself. I pulled my hands free.”

 

A few reasons why Louise Edrich and LaRose are amazing

(side note: I have an essay up on Orion about why insomnia can be a little beautiful, and an essay on Brain, Child about why I got rid of all my parenting books) 

I’ve been studying Louise Erdrich’s new novel LaRose these past mornings. It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything so great that I wanted to go over it, sentence by sentence, and figure out what the author is doing and how the heck she does this (books I’ve done this with in the past: Wolf Hall (many times), Alice Munro’s short stories, Alice McDermott’s Someone) (I’m noting that these are all women authors–I wonder if there’s something specifically female in their use of language that makes me want to study their writing).

I love Erdrich’s dialogue, which sparkles, sparks, and is often hilarious. Her characters argue with fierceness but also with this underlying love (versus my own characters, who seem to argue with this biting meanness or detachment which I sometimes wish wasn’t there). Erdrich is not afraid to use exclamation points. And I find it interesting she doesn’t use quotation marks to note dialogue (despite my googling skills, I’ve been unable to pull up an interview where she reveals why. What came up, instead, were readers irritated at Erdrich for not using quotation marks. The Guardian has an interesting little essay about not using quotation marks, in which an author suggests quotation mark-less dialogue is “more immediate, more with it.” I can see how it flows more smoothly, perhaps seems more spoken.) 

Here’s some dialogue that I loved between a married couple, Peter and Nola Ravich. Some background, which will probably be very confusing (sorry): the Ravich’s next door neighbor, Landreaux Iron, accidentally shot and killed the Ravich’s son Dusty, so the Irons gave their own son LaRose to the Ravichs. Now Emmaline Iron (LaRose’s mom) wants LaRose back for good. Peter is trying to explain this to Nola and thinks it might help if Nola talks to Emmaline herself. I find the line about Landreaux’s height so funny, where Peter tries to say he’s practically the same height too. Nola’s cruelty when imitating Emmaline is so pointed and precise, and the shift in conversation, when Nola says she would kill Landreaux for Peter, is breathtaking. Throughout it all this warmth between Peter and Nola remains.  (I also think Erdrich is a master of really short paragraphs!)

“Two days later, he tried to have the conversation.

I just don’t like her, Peter, I don’t, because she is a self-righteous bitch.

Why do you say that?

Peter had read magazine articles that advised questions when you wanted to divert a way of thinking in another person. Or you wanted to stall.

Why? he asked again, then ventured. She’s your sister. You could try.

Okay, I’ll tell you why I can’t try. She’s got that program director’s attitude for one thing. Like, here’s Emmaline. Posing at her desk. Wehwehweh. I can listen. Listen with my hands folded and my head cocked. You know? Emmaline puts on her listening mask and behind that mask she’s judging you.

They were outside, at the edge of the yard. Nola ripped up a stalk of grass and put the end in her mouth. She narrowed her eyes and stared out over the horizon, that line at the end of the cornfields, between the sweeping coves of trees.

For emphasis she dipped her head to each side. Right. And left. Judging me.

She tossed the stalk of grass away.

Oh, I guess I could. Talk to her. If she would give back LaRose.  

Peter glanced at the ground, disguising his hope.

It’s been four days. I get it, said Nola. I really do.

I never said.

But I get it.

Peter nodded, encouraged.

I mean, it’s wrong, but I get it. She’s holding him hostage because she wants my attention. She wants me to be like, Oh, Emmaline, how are you, how is your project, your big deal, your this, your that, your girls that Maggie likes so much? How generous you are, Emmaline, what a big-time traditional person to give your son away to a white man and almost white sister who is just so pitiful, so stark raving. So like her mother that Marn who had the snakes. People never forget around here. And they will never forget this either. It will be Emmaline Iron the good strong whaddyacallit, Ogema-ikwe. The woman who forever stuck by that big load Landreaux and even straightened him out so he could, so he could . . . I’m just saying I would kill him for you. I see your face when you’re chopping wood. I’d kill him for you if it wasn’t for LaRose. So their damn unbelievable plan worked its wonder because now I’m better.

Peter questioned that now, but said nothing.

And nobody’s going to kill the big freak. He’s too fucking tall.

He’s only six three, murmured Peter. I’m six two.

I hope our son doesn’t get that tall. I hope LaRose doesn’t turn into a killer hulk.

It’s been a while now, said Peter.

Yeah, the years have gone by, haven’t they, Nola said.  

I love Erdrich’s depictions of imperfect families and imperfect marriages — couples and parents trying to love their spouses and families and sometimes failing, but still putting up with it. Nola and her daughter Maggie were particularly interesting to me.  Maggie, at first, seems to have oppositional defiant disorder. She is hateful and manipulative and cruel. (On LaRose’s first night at the Ravich’s house, Maggie kicks LaRose out of bed and onto the floor. “What are you crying for, baby? she said. LaRose began to sob, low and profound. Maggie felt blackness surge up in her. You want Mom-mee? Mom-mee? She’s gone. She and your daddy left you here to be my brother like Dusty was. But I don’t want you.”) (though LaRose and Maggie do end up loving each other and become very close). On the other hand, Nola, the mother, treats her daughter with cruelty and really hates her daughter, especially in beginning (“Nola’s eyes followed her daughter, sour death rays. She had raised a monster whom she hated with all the black oils of her heart but whom she also loved with a deadly confused despair”). It’s a complex and very real relationship. 

Erdrich has some great descriptions of less than perfect marriages too. In the Iron household, wife Emmaline is struggling to connect with her husband Landreaux after the accidental shooting which changed/ruined their life. Yet they remain married, and though their love has changed, it’s still love, I think. I don’t often get to read about unsatisfying love in a marriage where a couple stays married. 

Emmaline would not check out if he did; she would survive for the kids. For herself. Also, the good stuff was in question. Emmaline had put a wall up, Landreaux thought. He even pictured it— brick but at least there were gaps, maybe windows. Sometimes she reached both hands through, unclenched, and Landreaux hurriedly clasped her from the lonely side. He understood the wall as blame for what happened. He did not understand when she said he was asleep. His eyes were open. He was driving. He was pulling up in Ottie’s driveway.

And one last scene between Emmaline and Landreaux….I love how, in the excerpt below, Landreaux is trying to keep/accept Emmaline’s love, whatever she can offer him—which is different than what she offered before, when they first met and fell and love. Landreaux is trying to make this lesser or at least different love be enough. There’s some grief in that, some loss–but I love the image at the end, where Emmaline imagines she and Landreaux together, not in some idyllic paradise but in a slough with a “muck bottom” where “ducks batter their way across and up,” the place where Landreaux almost got killed. Probably not the place either of them want to be, but that’s where they are, and they’re there together.

He went straight to her, bent over and put his arms around his wife sitting in the chair. She put her hand up and held his arm. The kitchen light was harsh. She closed her eyes and leaned back. He pushed his chin lightly along the crown of her head.

You smell like outside, she said.

She kept her hand on his arm, frail gesture. Hardly the way a woman treats her husband when she’s become aware that it might be her cousin Zack who comes to the door. Hardly. Something, though. The hand on his arm hardly represented what had been their passionate marriage, their once-upon-a-reservation storybook time. She just held his arm. He leaned over her, his elbows on the back of the chair. Leaning wasn’t much, when compared to how they used to push a chair under the doorknob in a cheap motel where the lock was broken. They used to think they were something special. Lucky. They used to say they were sure nobody else had ever been this happy, ever been this much in love. They used to say, We will get old together. Will you still love me when I’m shriveled up? I will love you even better. You’ll be sweeter. Like a raisin. Or a prune. We’ll be eating prunes together. That’s the way they used to talk. But now they were tasting the goddamn green plums, weren’t they. Bitter. What about me? Will you love me? I don’t know, it depends on where you shrivel up. That’s the way they used to talk.

Landreaux straightened up and got two glasses of water. He sat down in another chair. Emmaline felt a surge of fear that suddenly contained what might be, could be, identified as possibility. She took a drink of water and closed her eyes. She saw a slough thick with reeds, muck bottom, tangled, both deep and shallow. She saw the ducks batter their way across and up. She saw herself, Landreaux beside her. She saw them both wade in together.

A friend of mine is considering reading all of Erdrich’s novels. I’m considering doing this as well, the problem being I have literally several hundred books on my to read list right now. I’d like to do this with Munro as well, read all of her work. I think it would be fascinating comparing the writing styles of Erdrich and Munro. Both write so exactly but without overdoing it. I never feel a forced lyricism or romanticism when I’m reading them. Erdrich’s books have a warmness to them, a connection to the community, while Munro’s characters seem often to isolate themselves, or be isolated. I feel like Munro is always looking to the landscape and rooms and people’s dress as a mirror to a person’s emotions. Erdrich does this but sparingly (although she does have a great description of Nola’s uncluttered sterile house, though that comes so late in the novel–until then we never really see the rooms that the characters live in). Hmmm, and why not throw in Alice McDermott too? Perhaps I see more similarities between McDermott and Edrich–McDermott’s novel Someone had such an underlying foundation of love, despite the various tragedies that cropped up, as does LaRose.

Random Thoughts I’ll Compile Here Since I Haven’t Posted Anything For Months

Writing about suicide: Adam Johnson’s fabulous short story “Nirvana” (from Fortune Smiles) and the YA book All the Bright Places have gotten me thinking about the challenge of how to bring suicide into a story. Johnson does a great job of the narrator husband struggling to love his depressed and probably suicidal wife who can’t stop listening to Nirvana (the band) and will probably be unable to get out of bed for the rest of her life. How do you create love in that setting? It’s a powerful, moving story. Though honestly I could not put All the Bright Places down, I found Finch, the suicidal bi-polar boy, to be a bit too charming. What if he was just depressed? What if he wasn’t so likable in his manic phase? What would the story be like then? It did feel like Violet (popular pretty girl who is struggling with older sister’s death) only knew, and perhaps could have only loved, Finch as his manic self. Was it really love then? The thing about teenage love, I suppose, is that it has less strings attached than, let’s say, marital love with house and kids. Though it’s sad to leave it behind, you could more easily. Had Finch only been depressed, I’m guessing Violet would have never fallen in love with him in the first place (or if she had been able to fall in love with him, that would have been a very interesting and complex story). For my own writing, I was pondering if the least interesting point of view in a story about suicide was the suicidal person’s point of view. Why would this be? And who to tell the story from then?  

YA tropes: though I love really, really YA, some of the repeating tropes are starting to get a little old for me. The cute outsider boy in a band. The boy who likes the girl who eventually likes him back. The awful parents. The clueless parents. The absent parents. The parents who are the cause of the characters’ problems. Are parents of teenagers actually so terrible?

YA books that transcend those tropes: Picture Me Gone (a girl who has a close relationship with her parents, her parents are good, they do make mistakes but everyone works past that – it’s also a great mystery); Tamar (historic World War II novel about resistance in the Netherlands. Parents make mistakes but it also shows the parents, or in this case the grandparents, at a young age making those mistakes, and it shows the complexity of how a mistake is made, and then having to live with those mistakes); The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (I don’t remember there being any romance in this book, finally. Instead it is brutal, honest, breathtaking account of race and the American Revolution ); The Summer Prince (the prince loves the narrator’s best friend (a boy) but also loves the narrator (a girl). In fact he has gotten some tech alterations and now loves everyone, including the city — can that still be love? And the girl loves the prince….it was kind of mind-blowing to see a different set up of teen relationships here);  

Where are the YA books where: nobody likes anybody romantically; people like each other but then those people like other people for the entire book; people like everybody; the parents are good and doing their best; kids cause their own problems; there is not some revelation at the end and it’s just really messy

Why is everyone not reading to their children in public? I know, I’m kind of an extreme reader, so maybe it makes sense I have two kids who also really really love books. But when traveling, I do wonder why am I the only parent reading to their child in the entire airport? I’m not exaggerating. I can not remember seeing another parent reading to their child in all my travel these past 9 years. Even at the library, it seems the kids are flocking to the computers instead of sitting in their parents laps, or beside their parents laps, listening to a book. Reading is my daughter’s and my number one activity to do together, and I am already worried about how sad I will be when she no longer wants me to read her books (though she has offered that, once she nails this reading thing, we can take turns reading Harry Potter #5 to each other, she reads a chapter, I read a chapter, etc.). Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if airports had little children’s libraries that you can borrow books from for the flights? 

Alice Munro: I have been reading her slowly every morning, trying to learn from her. Just finished “The Love of A Good Woman,” a 4 part novella which makes incredible twists between each of the parts. 

What I want to be reading: a really good historical novel. I didn’t see many (any?) on the best of lists 2015 though. How about a really good YA historical novel? That’s what I want to be writing right now. I went back and reread Bringing Up The Bodies over the holidays and tried to enjoy the book while, at the same time, tried to study how Mantel is such a pro at dialogue. Each character speaks distinctly, in his or her own style, and for much of the book — or all?–the action of the story is people sitting in rooms and talking. But somehow Mantel makes it work.

Meta fiction: For the past year, I’ve felt disillusioned with fiction, maybe because some major stuff was happening in my life. When I was writing about that major stuff, it felt so false to try and craft it into a traditional well-written story. I didn’t feel like putting on an attention-grabbing beginning, or putting a thoughtful ending on it, or adding some connection between the characters, or making sure the whole thing felt satisfying to the reader–because that didn’t seem true to my life. So I wrote a meta novella about a mom parenting a boy with autism and two meta short stories, one about marriage and another about religion, all of which the writer played a role, and now all that is done, and I am…purged! I hope. And ready to start fully reimagining characters again. (I know, according to one of my writer friends, adding creative non-fiction to a fiction story is EVERYWHERE these days, but that’s not why I did it, honest!) (though I do think Adam Johnson does this very nicely in his short story “Interesting Facts”) 

Harry Potter: just finished reading the new illustrated version to my 6 year old daughter, and I’m listening to the 7th and final book with my 9 year old son. What changes those characters, the plot, and even J.K. Rowling’s style went through over those 7 books! I didn’t love The Deathly Hallows on my first reading many years ago, but this time I thought the book was great (up until the battle scenes toward the end, which got a little battle-ish for my taste).  The break from the usual traditions of the first 6 books is startling: while Harry starts at the Dursleys, he is never going back to school, there is no riding the train or sorting hat this time. And the impossibility of the task that Harry is left with, to find the remaining horcruxes but who knows where they are or how to get rid of them, is captured so accurately in the first half of the book. Harry is alone (well, with his two friends, but the three of them are alone), Dumbledore is gone, and he has to do something that’s really, really hard. About 1/3 of the way in, I as a reader began to feel just as hopeless as Harry and Hermonie and Ron (where is this book going? is it going anywhere?) — I mean this in a good way. I liked sharing Harry’s despair. And I feel like Snape’s evolution of a character is so excellent. Though I’ll admit I may never understand the logic of the whole Elder Wand (why is Harry its master if the wand was buried with Dumdledore, and I know Malfoy is involved too?). Anyway, I unabashedly love these books. 

John Irving: I wish he wrote more concisely, as I have to read Avenue of Mysteries for a book club I’m in and it is 20 hours long. I’m curious at what speed I can listen to and still absorb the plot. X1.5 is okay (only 15 hours long!). Will x2 work (10 hours long!). x4 would be awesome but…(5 hours long!). I was trying to think of him as a Charles Dickens, but I feel like Dickens prose is denser and his use of language much more surprising. That said, Irving has made me laugh out loud, which is difficult to do while on a long run, and I am intrigued by the manic farcical energy of some of his scenes. 

Andrew Solomon + expanding our ideas of pregnancy & motherhood

far-from-the-treeAndrew Solomon has produced some of the most articulate, intelligent writing about parenthood which hopefully is forcing us to finally expand our definition of what parenthood is. I’ve felt for a long time, ever since becoming a mother 8 years ago, that most literature is simplifying parenthoods’ complexities. Solomon’s book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is an exception: at 976 pages (or 40 hours long for the audio version!) it more than captures the pain, sorrow, and love that I know as parenting, and it shows, likewise, that parental love can take on so many forms. And that trying to love can be as meaningful as loving. It was one of the most powerful reading experiences that I’ve ever had. I read it two years ago, but after my son was diagnosed with autism last fall, I went back to reread the autism chapter, and found the accounts even more moving, as I now was one of those parents trying to understand, accept and love a child so different from me. Solomon’s discussion on neurodiversity as it relates to parents is especially rich– do parents try to cure their child’s autism or accept it– as well as his description of the “autism parents’ literature of miracles,” whose draw is hard to ignore.  

“Two diametrically opposite fictions contribute to a single set of problems. The first comes from the autism parents’ literature of miracles. In its most extreme form, it describes beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were a passing winter frost, and, after wild parental heroics, dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm. Such narratives of false hope eviscerate families who are struggling with the diagnosis. The other plotline is that the child does not get better, but the parents grow enough to celebrate him rather than seek to improve him and are fully content with that shift. This whitewashes difficulties that many families face and can obfuscate autism’s authentic deficits. While the lives of many people who have autism remain somewhat inscrutable, the lives of people whose children have autism are mostly avowedly hard—some, excruciatingly so. Social prejudice aggravates the difficulty, but it is naïve to propose that it’s all social prejudice; having a child who does not express love in a comprehensible way is devastating , and having a child who is awake all night, who requires constant supervision, and who screams and tantrums but cannot communicate the reasons for or the nature of his upset— these experiences are confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, unrewarding. The problem can be mitigated by some combination of treatment and acceptance, specific to each case. It is important not to get carried away by either the impulse only to treat or the impulse only to accept.”

The journey to find a cure for one’s child is exhausting and disappointing. One could devote, or lose, their life to that sort of thinking: if only I read the right books, or enough books, or find the right therapist, or implement to ideal parenting methods, etc. Solomon describes one mother who accepts her son’s condition as being more at peace than the other mothers with him he spoke: “Marvin Brown’s mother, Icilda, has delineated what she can influence and what she cannot, and she does not rail against what is beyond amelioration. It is easy to patronize “simple wisdom” by honeying the rough circumstances from which it generally springs, or by representing it as simpler or wiser than it is, but Icilda Brown seemed more at peace with her son’s condition than almost any other mother I met. A lifetime of nonchoices had given her a gift for acceptance. She demanded good services for her son, but did not expect those services to turn him into someone else.”

Solomon wrote a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about pregnancy and depression, and I think this article works to do the same thing Far From The Tree does. Pregnancy, like parenthood, is not this joyful experience for everyone. The ending of the article is lovely, and the last line breaks my heart in its truth:  “Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.” Mothers will try to love their children, Solomon acknowledges, but not all mothers are able to love their child in they way they intended to love. I think what Solomon is saying applies not only to pregnancy but to motherhood, and not only to women with depression but also to women who struggle with the realization that they can’t be, for whatever myriad of reasons, the sort of mother they thought they were going to be.  

“We still have retrograde ideas about how pregnant women should feel, and we need to revise them — not only for depressed women but for all women. Pregnancy is portrayed and talked about almost exclusively as a time of rapture and fulfillment. But it involves a major shift in identity, a whole new conception of self that can lead to depression and anxiety. Change — even positive change — is stressful, and in this way pregnancy can constitute a kind of elective trauma. An abrupt transition into selflessness is not immediately appealing to everyone. Pregnant women long given to self-doubt may question their ability to take care of the child. A society that glorifies motherhood while resisting basic accommodations like guaranteed extended maternity leave makes the identity shift more frightening and abrupt than it needs to be. People given to anxiety now have a harrowing array of new anxieties to grapple with. As one woman I interviewed observed, “The things that make motherhood joyful also make it terrifying.” We should strive for a more pluralistic idea of pregnancy — for one that accommodates a wide range of moods and attitudes.

The British psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker has argued that competent mothering requires two warring impulses — to nurture the child on one hand, and to push him or her into the world on the other — and suggested that maternal ambivalence was the catalyst for achieving these apparently opposed objectives. But modern society has stigmatized the pushing and sentimentalized the clinging, and so we have denied basic truths and caused ambivalent mothers to see themselves as bad even though ambivalence can be highly productive. Mothers often exaggerate, to themselves and to others, their protective, adoring feelings, and they discount their feelings of irritation or anger as weaknesses. But a child should meet with irritation and anger some of the time; he or she should understand what those emotions are, what provokes them, how they are expressed and how they are resolved. Depression is obviously not desirable, but openness about it is tied to being honest about the challenges that motherhood entails. And that openness must begin prenatally if it is to be realized once a child has entered the picture.

There are many things that can help depressive women: the love of a supportive partner and friends, of course, but also acknowledgment of their illness and ready access to effective treatment. Most who battle antenatal or postpartum depression are committed to their children, and are trying to commit to the identity that is motherhood. For some expectant mothers and new parents, love seems to be automatic; it wafts them instantly up to a new level of consciousness. Others have to climb a very steep staircase to reach the same heights. The fact that the exercise can be agonizing and that some women cannot quite make it does not dull the intent behind it. Depression calls on resources some women have and some women don’t, including a capacity to hatch intimacy out of despair. Wanting to love your child is not the same thing as loving your child, but there is a lot of love even in the wanting.”