The Language of Sand–Ellen Block

 

Damage.  Abigail Harker, a PhD-bearing lexicologist, has lost her four-year-old son and husband in a house fire and she flees the site of her pain to Chapel Isle, a lonely island off the Carolinas, where she becomes the new lighthouse caretaker in a lighthouse that no longer shines its saving beacon.  The lighthouse is a mess, people call her Abby, and the islanders are unwelcoming, but Abby sticks it out and makes friends with a handful of locals as she works to clean and restore the lighthouse keeper’s cottage to its previous glory.  Abby’s move is ascetic.  She wants to isolate herself and perform grief as she believes it should look.  When she laughs while listening to a talk show on the radio one day, she catches herself because she’s in mourning and people in mourning don’t laugh.  It’s only when she sees she’s not alone on that stage that she begins to let go a little.

The lighthouse is supposedly haunted and the pursuit of this ghost mimics Abby’s living with the ghosts of her husband and son.  Abby is a lexicographer and Block begins each chapter, one for each letter of the alphabet, with a dictionary-like entry of a word appropriate to the chapter.  It’s a little cutesy, but it sets a tone and keeps with the idea of Abby’s love of language. 

Block is skilled at creating characters of some depth with great economy of language.  Each of Abby’s new friends could have their own novels to explore their back stories.  The island itself becomes a character under Block’s skillful pen.  Or these days probably keyboard.  And, maybe because I’m from a small town,even the bingo scenes resonated as authentic. 

Most compelling, to me, was Abby’s fear of fire.  In the fireplace.  In the gas oven.  Here I felt her loss most closely, even more than when she was caught off-guard by a memory.

Like many of these types of books, there is reading guide at the end.  In addition, there is a too-cutsey interview of the author by the main character.  Block tells us that she wrote this book to deal with loss in the wake of 9/11 and that she’s writing a sequel, which has now been published, titled The Definition of Wind.  I’ll forgive Block the cutesy interview as well as the come-hither author photo and read it because I fell for her characters and can’t wait to meet them again and enjoy Block’s skill at her craft.

Finished 9/27

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Men I’ve Dated–Shane Bolks

Shane Bolks was a middle-grade teacher. This occupation seems to have given her plenty of “lab” time in the world of adolescent insecurity, of which her protagonist, Rory Egglehoff, is a master.  Rory is a Star Wars/Star Trek/sci-fi fan(atic) whose mother is a hippie named Sunshine and whose biological father is an unknown member of the commune in which Sunshine resided in the early 70s.  Rory’s stepfather is a tax laywer who accomodates his wife’s liberal tendencies, including her vegetarianism, most of the time.  One of the best scenes in the book is a flashback to when Dan, Rory’s stepdad, surreptitiously during “errands” took her to Burger King to get a Star Wars glass.  In addition to the glass, he got her a burger in all of its corporate meaty sinfulness.  That, Rory says, is when Dan became her dad.  Add in Stormy, her sister, who’s also into the alternative, counter-culture lifestyle of their mother, and Rory, the accountant, feels out of place. 

Her best friend, Allison, was in the popular crowd at school and they have stayed friends, even though Rory continually feels herself unworthy.  When Rory’s school crush, Hunter, re-enters her life through work, Allison comes up with a plan to make Hunter fall in love with Rory.  Fashion makeovers happen.  Appeals to Princess Leia’s level of confidence ensue, and Hunter is hooked.  Rory discovers that, even though he was popular and seemed perfect, he’s a real person with funny interests, weak spots, and old emotional scars. 

Rory becomes a frustrating protagonist when she becomes so involved in her insecurities that, even though Hunter has kissed her and is showing interest, she refuses to break up with her insensitive super-geeky boyfriend, Tom, and she ditches her sister, best friend and mother, as well as lies to nearly everyone she knows, including Hunter.  Insecurities are terrible, but this becomes a pathos that’s almost inexplicable.

Overall, Bolks has created a likeable character, even if the story itself seems too good to be true (geeky girl lands hunky popular guy, even if they are now in their 30s).  However, the cast was fun enough that I think I’ll look up her next book, which stars Rory’s best friend, Allison.

Finished 9/25

Excitable Women, Damaged Men. Stories—Robert Boyers

The cover alone is intriguing.  Of course, my eleven-year-old son looked at it, asked what it was about and, when I said crazy people, he said, “Why would anyone want to read about crazy people?”  Why?  Because we’re all a little crazy.

Boyers begins his collection with a lovely scene in which a mother, supine on the floor, screams at the top of her lungs.  He had me at scream.  The first tale, “Excitable Woman,” examines the relationship between a neurotic mother left divorced at the age of sixty and her detached and passively angry son. 

“Samantha” is an angry young black woman who tries to give the middle finger to the system and to everyone participating in it.

“Perfect Stranger” watches the devolution from interested spectator to overly-invested stalker.

“The Visit” questions what our heroes are like in their daily lives and what happens when we see them being ordinary.

“Torso” seems to be about a sad single mother, but ends up turning its lens on a sad older artist.

“Tribunal” discomforts in its look at how we crave and repel the exotic and how we construct our sense of identity through the eyes of others.

“In Hiding” returns to parent/child relationships and draws a sympathetic portrait of a retired gym teacher/widower isolated from his daughter and left in a mud pit of a retirement community.

“The French Lesson” explores the search for the feminine self in the 70s and suggests the futility of looking for identity anywhere but within.

“Secrets and Sons” returns to the hero theme and asks how well we know somone and how we know how well we know them.

There are many themes interwoven through Boyers’ tales.  One is sexuality.  Many of the tales about men contain homoerotic or openly homosexual interpersonal issues.  Many of the other stories, such as “Torso” and “Samantha,” touch on sexuality without making it the central theme. 

The overarching theme, however, seems to be seeing.  How we see others.  How we see ourselves.  Sons are unable to see mothers.  Daughters are unable/unwilling to see fathers.  How do we see our heroes and how much do we really want to see?  When we think we truly see a person, how do we know we’ve seen it all?  How much do we care about how others see us?  What obligations do we have to those who see us casually?  Can we change our vision of ourselves by putting ourselves in a new setting? 

Boyers title could as easily have been “Damaged Women, Excitable Men,” as what makes us excitable is often our damage.  The title could also, therefore, have been “Everyone.” 

What Boyers manages to do best is put us in the position of both spectator and object at the same time that creates a cognitive dissonance and discomforts us enough to question both roles and their relationships with each other.  Reading about his excitable women and damaged men pushes us to think about how we see.  And that’s a beautiful thing as I see it.

Finished 9/23

Tea for Two–Trish Perry

 

Once again, the lure of food caused me to pick up this novel.  Food and the desire for a light read.  It’s Christian chick lit, but of higher quality than the Spa Girls volume I read earlier this month.  Tina is a 34-year-old counselor in small east coast town whose husband committed suicide a short time after their divorce at the age of 20.  Holy early marriage, batman!  Milly, the British proprietor of the local tea house, is the mother figure to all in the tale, and she plays  matchmaker between Tina and Zack, a lonely single dad of two teenagers whose evil wife left him and their children four years previously.  Zack needs help with his troubled teens, not to mention someone to be a mother figure, and Tina needs to find real love.  Both are smokin’ hot, which doesn’t hurt, although how they manage to stay hot and eat Milly’s endless stream of treats is a bit of a mystery. 

Overall the characters feel like real people, although when Tina talks about her church and its nondenominational nature and has a discussion with a teen about finding Christ, the story leaves the narrative tracks and feels like it’s marketing to Christian chick lit readers.  It wasn’t a bad read, but I won’t be rushing to find anything else by Trish Perry, and it’s not just because I have a bias against someone putting Trish as their first name on the front of any book cover.  It lacks the authorial ring and sounds more like a country music star’s moniker.  Then again, if Trish Perry writes about Milly, I’ll be eating my words while I wish Ms. Perry included recipes for some of Milly’s concoctions.

Finished 9/20

 

A Pug’s Tale–Alison Pace

 

 

Alison Pace has her eye on the wants of the book-buying public.  A Pug’s Tale combines the art museum/art theft atmosphere of Da Vinci Code, the insecure girl of Bridget Jones, and the dog story of Marley and Me.  It’s as fun as a walk with your dog through Central Park, but also about as much exercise.  Pace’s heroine, Hope, is dog-sitting for her boyfriend, the lawyer, Ben, who’s off doing good in the African country of Kinshasa.  Her companion is the adorable pug, Max, who speaks to her in dreams and has a nose for art fakes.  The theme of the whole tale, besides creating fun for the reader while tying into all of these publishing trends, could be reality.  How does a person tell the difference between a real and a fake work of art?  Friend?  Love?  Hope is a well-meaning sleuth, but not all that bright.  When a fake Fantin-Latour painting shows up in the Met, she conspires with her co-workers to hide the theft from the police and work on solving the mystery themselves.  It’s one of several thin spots in the story, covered over with a riff from Woody Woodpecker asking if only Woody had called the police.  Hope makes a bad ethical call for not completely believable reasons (particularly for someone who has worked in art restoration in the Met for years), and ends up morally compromised in the end.  That moral compromise, however, leaves the door open for another book in this new mystery series. 

Along the way, Pace makes some enjoyable observations about human nature.  When you walk a dog, people smile at you, even in New York.  When Hope is talking to her friend?, the septuaginarian heiress, Daphne, she says, “I told her everything, or at least a great deal of it.  I think when you are defining ‘everything’ in the context of things told to other people, it’s never exactly that.  I think the closest you can get to everything is that; close to it.” 

The book was fun, I fell in love with pugs, and enjoyed imagining myself running around the Met.  I might even look for Pug Hill, Pace’s previous book starring Max and Hope.  However, one of the tests of a good story is losing yourself in it.  When the reader begins to notice the mechanics, the writer has failed, at least for the moment.  Pace tells the story in first person, which is tough to do and may be the cause of some of the breaks in the facade.  Some of the breaks, unfortunately, are just holes in the story.

If you want to read the first chapter, visit Alison Pace’s site: http://www.alisonpace.com/a-pugs-tale/

Finished 9/18

 

The Clothes They Stood Up In and the Lady in the Van–Alan Bennett

 

This slim volume containing two short stories was my second volume by Alan Bennett.  The first story was fictional, the second nonfictional.  Bennett disavows any common theme between the two stories, but there is something here about possessions and identity, either the identity we create for ourselves or the identity others place upon us.

In “The Clothes They Stood Up In” Mr. and Mrs. Ransome lead a cardboard life, hers more so than his.  He enjoys Mozart and it’s while they’re out hearing Mozart that they are burgled.  Mr. Ransome is a stickler for language and Bennett has fun riffing about the misuse of language in the modern world in the voice of Mr. Ransome.  Everything is taken, right down to the telephones and toilet paper rolls.  Although they are shaken at first by the loss of their possessions, both begin to see advantages to their losses.  Mr. Ransome sees a chance to update his stero equipment.  Mrs. Ransome sees a chance to rid herself of the stuffy possessions that characterize her middle-class life and start over.  She ventures into the Asian grocer’s and a furniture store she would not have patronized previous to the burglary.  She finds a rocking chair that, while cheap, is comfortable for her back.  She hides her forays into this other world from Mr. Ransome. When their home is found re-assembled in a storage unit, they are both a bit deflated until they realize that a young couple have been using their home, including their mattress.  Then both are swept away with the joys of imagination, fueled further by their discovery of a cassette tape with the sounds of their young couple enjoying the porn Mr. Ransome had hidden. 

The claustrophobia of a middle-aged middle-class life makes reading this story a bit claustrophobic.  When a victim’s counselor comes to talk with Mrs. Ransome, she comments that “lots of people could give up things….what they couldn’t do without was shopping for them.”  Mr. Ransome hides from Mrs. Ransome the fact that he dies his moustache as well as his stash of porn.  Mrs. Ransome hides the origins of the sweet potatoes and curry she now serves as well as the new rug and rocking chair.  Both Ransomes miss the paths through their things, their daily rituals, more than their things.  When Mr. Ransome suffers a stroke while viewing his porn stash and listening to the illicit cassette tape, Mrs. Ransome takes care to cover him and place a pillow under his head before calling an ambulance.  As he lies unresponsive in intensive care, Mrs. Ransome tells him they are going to make a change and suggests ways to improve their sex life.  Mr. Ransome dies shortly after this speech, seemingly unable to comprehend the changes that have taken place in his wife and mortified at the truths she has discovered about him.  It’s only when Mr. Ransome is dead that Mrs. Ransome can truly start over. 

Ms. Shepherd enters Bennett’s life in the late 1960s when her van/domicile was parked outside his home.  Ms. Shepherd was eccentric in the extreme and ended up living in her van in Bennett’s car park and a lean-to in his garden.  He did her shopping for her, tolerated her smell, and found himself annoyed by her obstinence and many quirks.  When she dies, Bennett discovers her real name, her family, and some of her story.  What he does not find is why she chose to live her life in what most people would define as squalor.  What he realizes, however, is that she did not see herself as living in squalor.  For her, her identity did not come from her things. Those around her created an identity for her based on her things.  The stench surrounding Ms. Shepherd comes as much from the hypocrisy of her neighbors as the used incontinence pads littering her van.

Once again, Bennett’s eye is sharp.  His look at middle-class life is like hearing a painful truth from your best friend. 

Finished 9/15

Leaving Tabasco—Carmen Boullosa trans. by Geoff Hargreaves

Who could resist a book with a bright yellow cover and a red hot chili pepper?  It was only after I brought my haul home from the library that I realized I had two books with a title that started off “leaving.”  My husband says if I bring home more books like this next time, he’s going to start getting his affairs in order. 

The book begins with the narrator writing as an exile in Germany (the exile theme appears again for me) in 1997 and returns to 1961 when she, Delmira, was an eight-year-old girl in Agustini, Mexico.  So where does Tabasco fit in?  Apparently mostly in the title because Agustini is in the state of Tabasco, but the story if firmly set in Agustini and the tiny world there like the tiny world of so many towns, like the little town I grew up in, and in which Delmira’s family, the Ulloas, dominate life and a good portion of the town’s economy.

Delmira lives with her eccentric mother and grandmother and a cast of Indian servant women—a house of women only.  Her uncle, Gustavo, sails in and out and dotes on her in a way that only an uncle can.  Her father is a phantom who lives in Europe and about whom Delmira knows very little. 

Delmira is acutely aware of her family’s status in their little town, but does not realize how her privileged status has impacted her until she is in her room undressing after a communist demonstration in her little ville and she becomes aware of her nanny, who is about her same age, as she throws her clothes on the floor for the servant to pick up. 

At one point Delmira is traveling with her mother and the town priest to say mass for the surrounding villages.  They stop between two villages so she can nap, as is their custom on these trips.  However, on one afternoon she awakens to the sounds and then the sights of her mother and the priest having sex in a hammock they’ve strung between two trees. 

The book takes an interesting turn when Delmira begins recounting what seems like a set of Biblical plagues striking Agustini–birds who can’t fly, frogs raining against windows, etc., which occur for ten Sundays, but then she falls ill with yellow fever and is no longer sure whether or not these events happened.  The plagues are no less fantastic than the tales her grandmother tells regularly before bed as the serving women comb out her hair. 

The native people of Tabasco are supporting characters in the story.  They come to market, they hear mass before the inhabitants of the town, they work on the farms, they work in the houses.  Their women are violated by the men of the town like farm animals and then castigated by the women of the town for their less morals.  Their stories are the untold tragedies that form the backdrop of the privileged life of Delmira and her fellow whites in Agustini.

Near the end of the book, Delmira learns the power of words and print when she prints a flier and signs her name to it as part of the communist demonstration in Agustini in protest of the roadside massacre of a local man.  She flier is sent to an outside newspaper and soon federal police are swarming the town and arresting Delmira, the priest and the local secondary school teacher.  They are only saved through the intervention of Uncle Gustavo, who is friends with the governor.  Delmira is then spirited out of the country to Germany, where she remains until the start of the story in 1997.  In the concluding chapter Delmira doesn’t tell us what has happened to her since she arrived in Germany.  She sketches the bones and muses about the selves she has invented.  She says:

“I want to tell stories, to fill my readers the way my grandmother filled those nights when she failed to slide her hand over my head and failed to stroke my back and never uttered a single word of tenderness or planted a kiss on my cheek.  Filling life out that way, with dreaming, with writing, leaping from one story to the next.  But if I’m out of breath after disclosing merely the ups and downs fo my childhood, if I haven’t managed to tell you how I got fired from my job in Berlin, how I modified passages in the work of Lope out of rebelliousness or plain boredom, how I tried to imitate those passages in real life, how I walked through the valley of the shadow of the lie, poisoning my everday life and my daily acquaintainces, I know I won’t be able to get my second wind and tell you a true story about something that never happened or happened only in the world of the imagination, surging to the surface full of fiery force, exposing life’s meanings.  Here I’ve just managed to tell you who I once was, the only thing I have ever really been.  Shall I now become a writer and desert my old self?  For the present I don’t dare venture an answer to that.  I simply don’t know what I’m going to be.  I don’t know if I dare go back home, leaving behind all the other places I’ve known, or if there’ll be a square centimeter of Agustini that I’d recognize…..”

Another story of exile and of the need to write to realize who we’re called to be. 

I leave the novel certain that I’m missing something.  And I think I have to leave home to find it.

Boullosa, Carmen.  Leaving Tabasco.  Trans. Geoff Hargreaves.  Grove Press, NY:  2001.

Finished 9/14