Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (2015), edited by Meghan Daum
A collection of essays from writers explaining their paths to childlessness. Some stayed on the path their whole lives, some tried and failed to conceive and ran out the clock, some found childlessness thrust upon them late in life and accepted it with contentment, or even relief. The essays were all interesting, if a bit navel-gazey, and generally a lot of the same.
There are a lot of repeated justifications on offer. Again and again we read that someone is a writer at his or her core and could not produce if children demanded attention nearby. Maybe, but these 12-hour writing binges of which they speak seem a bit romanticized. And were the toilet to overflow during that time, wouldn’t they still step away to deal with it? I guess that doesn’t happen every day. Many of them are teachers (because so many writers are also teachers–being a writer is not, it turns out, the prescription for a financially stable life) and write about how they feel confident they are touching lives and creating legacies through their profession instead of through reproduction, and I buy that argument.
So many of them, especially the teachers, enthuse about how much they love children, how precious their students and nieces and nephews and friends’ kids are to them. How they prefer the company of children to the company of adults. The women write about having to fight the stigma of being a childless woman–being told they are cold, selfish, etc.–but they contribute to the stigma by protesting so vehemently.
I think only Tim Kreider, in “The End of the Line,” comes right out and says he hates children and everything associated with them. He writes with a lot of dark humor, some of which lands and some of which does not, but I liked his essay overall because he brought some interesting philosophy into it. Some of the more intellectual essays (Kreider’s, Lionel Shriver’s) delve into fear of death, and present not having children as fighting against an innate impulse to breed, although, disappointingly, nobody gets deeply anthropological. It would have made a nice change of pace to have one or two essays really looking at the topic from that perspective. I recently read Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology, a similar collection of essays except they’re all about being fat, and there were a wide range of perspectives in that collection that I appreciated more after reading this.
Other repeated themes are dysfunctional childhoods, and chronic mental or emotional disorders. These writers chose to remain childless, and in some cases, single, to avoid continuing destructive patterns or introducing another person into an unstable environment. Elliott Holt writes how she could not subject a child to her recurring depression, but that having a dog works to get her out of bed in the morning. I could not agree more! The dog represents the perfect level of responsibility for someone prone to depression or narcissism or interiority.
For this category of the childless (childfree, if that’s how you prefer it), nobody puts it better than Danielle Henderson, in “Save Yourself”:
I negotiate the terms of my life every day and work hard to maintain an emotional status quo that I had to create from scratch. That’s hard to do with a child in tow.
An interesting read, though maybe not to be read all at once.
This is a collection of columns Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame) wrote anonymously for Dear Sugar between 2010 and 2012. What’s so great for me about Strayed’s writing—this is present in Wild (both book and movie) as well as saturating all the responses she gave in the Dear Sugar column—is her intense, humane feminism.
In one letter to Sugar, a man writes in about being torn between a “crazy” ex and her best friend, and the weird romantic triangle that has sprung up amongst them. (Looking at its placement online, the question appears to be the first one that Strayed answered, taking over for the original Sugar.) In her response, Strayed lays out the situation for him as things he knows, things he knows he doesn’t know, and things he doesn’t know he doesn’t know, the most important of which is that neither of these women are the right choice for him at this time. But she also diverges briefly to interrogate his description of his ex:
How can it be that so many people’s ex-girlfriends are crazy? What happens to these women? Do they eventually go on to birth babies and care for their elderly parents and scramble up gigantic pans of eggs on Sunday mornings for oodles of lounge-abouts who later have the nerve to inquire about what’s for dinner or is there some corporate Rest Home for Crazy Bitches chain in cities across the land that I am unaware of that houses all these women who used to love men who later claim they were actually crazy bitches?
However, she also ends by promising the letter’s writer, “You are loved.” The crazy ex-girlfriends interlude is a scolding, but not a mean-spirited one. She wants everyone to learn. If you believe what she has written (I do), Strayed has seen in her life more than her own share of horrors, but she has made peace and wants others to make theirs. If she is a bit precious about the way she expresses this, I’m OK with that.
Because she can also write like a motherfucker.
A collection of nonfiction essays about being fat and the attendant issues: self-esteem, politics, health, sex, etc. I’m a comfortable fatty myself, and I picked it up warily, but I found it to be mostly a good read overall.
Here’s what you need to know: in one of the earliest essays—I believe it’s Natalie Kusz’s “On Being Invisible”—the author recalls a group of women having a meal together and a thin woman declaring that she’d eaten too much, that her midsection was growing out of control (pinching it between her fingers to demonstrate), and that no man would ever want her if she continued. A much larger woman was part of the group and asked, reasonably, “so I guess no man wants me, either?” The thin woman deflected, saying she didn’t know her friend was looking to date. This is one of the many illustrative stories included in this collection that demonstrate the ways that fat people are minimized by others; they are treated as though they are failing, lacking, unfinished, unworthy people, people who don’t have (couldn’t possibly have) other struggles, other thoughts, other priorities in their lives that take precedence over their weight and their appearance.
If that anecdote, or my reading of it, doesn’t resonate with you—if it seems petty or self-indulgent—I would not recommend picking up this book, because everything this book wants to say is detailed in incidences like this one.
The ones that meant the least to me were the ones about the nagging of hunger and the shock of crash diets, about the shame cycle of losing and gaining. That has never been what we might call my personal fat experience. I liked the ones about people who were striving to meet emotional, intellectual, and even physical goals that had nothing to do with weight or size; the people who have accepted themselves as large people and live appropriately large lives. Pam Houston’s “Out of Habit, I Start Apologizing” was lovely and well-written. Cheryl Peck’s “Queen of the Gym” described a similar revelation I had at the gym one day: if I’m the fattest person here, I’m doing something right. I’m also fine with the ones where a fat person attempts to be cool with themselves, such as editor Donna Jarrell’s selection “Fat Lady Nuding,” in which she reluctantly attends a nudist New Year’s Eve party. They are all stories about how we can be interesting, multi-faceted men and women, but most people, when they look at us, think they know something fundamental about us: that person hates themselves and wants to lose weight. But then sometimes they are not thinking that; sometimes we are thinking that they think that. It’s all very complicated.
Those are the best stories from inside the fat cave. Some others come at it from different angles: journalistic, medical, psychological. Sarah Fenske’s selection is fairly outrageous: a journalist, she meets with some men who habitually pick up fat women in bars to sleep with them and then compare notes about who bagged the biggest hog and talk about how gross it was. She successfully walks the fine line between showing how absolutely odious they are, but also how pathetic they are, and how damaged in their own ways.
Atul Gawande, a major name in the medical humanities, is always worth reading; here, he profiles a man who has surgery to correct his morbid obesity, and Gawande shows the continuing battle beyond the surgery. A book about fatness cannot not include a story about the damage that can be wrought upon a body by it, and Gawande is one of the most impartial observers we have to write about it. From another angle—a fundamentally judgmental one—there is Irvin Yalom’s “Fat Lady,” about a shrink who struggles with the fact that he hates his overweight patient. And I hated him at first, for this, but over time, as his patient labors to lose weight, and he labors to connect with her, something pretty moving comes out of it.
The biggest names in the collection are David Sedaris and Anne Lamott, but both of their selections are forgettable. I knew from them being public figures that neither is an overweight person. Lamott’s essay suggests that she has grappled with bulimia, and is beautifully-written, as she does, but not particularly incisive about the trials of fatness.
A memoir/book of personal essays by comedian Patton Oswalt, Silver Screen Fiend traces Oswalt’s rise as a young comedian and his filmic education in the independent moviehouses of L.A. I enjoyed the book, but I have to quibble with a major component of it: the characterization of Oswalt’s compulsive moviegoing as an “addiction”—and he uses the word literally, and not flippantly—is really not an apt one, at least as far as he dissects it. He lives a functional life while it is going on. He claims that relationships are damaged—he describes losing at least one girlfriend—but if there are any substantive personal losses that he incurred, he does not share that. His career thrives during this period, whether or not he feels he is working at the height of his creative powers. And when he decides he needs to “get out of the dark” (figuratively and literally), he just does.
I see movies compulsively, the way Oswalt details in the book. His era was the 1990s, so he was checking off titles of the movies he’d seen in books, while I’ve used the internet. I download lists of movies to see (the AFIs, Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, etc.) and track my progress in painstakingly nerdy spreadsheets. [True story: my boyfriend Mike has a movie room, which is to say a room in his apartment that is entirely filled up with shelves, boxes, and crates of DVDs, videos, and Blu-rays. He feels vaguely embarrassed about this and joked often with me at the start of our relationship that when I saw the manifestation of his obsession I would be disturbed and probably run away. I responded by showing him my movie-tracking spreadsheets.]
Anyway, my point is that you can want to check things off lists and still be OK. Certainly, we should not compare ourselves to people who agonize, wither, and sometimes die over real addictions.
Looking past that, it was really a great read. The book is funny-ish, but not typical of your average comedian memoir because Oswalt has got grander ambitions, and strives for poignancy first. He also has a grander vocabulary than most comedians and shows it off grandly. This bothered me more at the beginning than later, so either it started out somewhat overwritten and then settled down, or I just got used to it.
The behind-the-scenes of the entertainment world is quite satisfying in some places and less so in others. He does not write much at all about King of Queens, which is fine with me as I do not care about it, but if that’s what you’re looking for, take note. He also tells some unflattering stories about famous people but gallantly refuses to identify them, which irritated me every time. Maybe I wanted him not to draw attention to the fact that he is not identifying them—or maybe to just go ahead and identify them, because one bad story in a Patton Oswalt memoir is not going to ruin anyone’s career, and probably everyone on the internet already knows anyway.
On the positive side, the establishment of the Largo as an alt-comedy mecca is given a lot of ink, and is one of the best parts of the book. He writes about it with reverence for its place in the field, with nostalgia, with warmth. The story of Oswalt staging live readings of The Day the Clown Cried is also a terrific little anecdote about trying something creative to launch a career (and also as a process tale about entertainment and copyright infringement). And personally I loved the entire Down Periscope section, both as an insider’s account of how that particular flop came to be, and also for Oswalt’s unembarrassed observations about his own naive aspirations. I read a celebrity memoir for just that kind of thing.
This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.
After finishing both the Wolf Hall miniseries on PBS, and the two books from which it was adapted (Booker Prize winners both, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel), which I read pretty much in tandem with, or just ahead of, the miniseries, I decided to really overwhelm myself with some Tudor mythology. I rewatched the fantastic 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII (directed by Alexander Korda). Other interested parties should know that, in addition to being on DVD, the film streams at Hulu (with a Hulu Plus subscription) and for absolute free at archive.org.
The movie is the story of a former king of England, Henry VIII, the one we know had six wives in succession. This movie opens on the day of death of Anne Boleyn, wife #2, and continues through wife #6, showing how the different women drifted in and out of Henry’s life, how they pleased and disappointed him in their own unique ways, and how Henry, powerful as he was, never managed to marry a good woman and keep her. I love this movie, because I’m completely in the bag for any story set amidst the Tudors, especially the larger-than-life Henry and his iconic daughter Elizabeth I (who makes only small cameos in this film). (Well, that’s why we needed Cate Blanchett.)
The film is overall a bit sunnier in appearance than more modern palace intrigue films; the vogue now is to film inside cramped spaces lit by a single candle so everyone and everything is in shadow and we can understand how brutal it all was. The action is mostly concentrated inside, so we don’t get any jousts, though there are choreographed dances and a wrestling match. The relationships are the feature and the draw. But further, there is something odd and beautiful in the narrative structure that even after this, my third or perhaps fourth watch, I can’t quite put my finger on.
The story unspools strangely. The first scene (after the titles which give the viewer a brief orientation in Henry’s marital history) is an unlikely one: a gaggle of women, seamstresses or embroiderers, giggling over Henry’s bed and speculating what it must be like to sleep with a king. A double-edged sword it is, really, as indicated by this particular, a day when Anne Boleyn will be executed for treason, and when, once the death is verified, Jane Seymour will marry into her place. Being married to a powerful man means also being vulnerable to the man’s power.
In the first few minutes, we also get to meet the townies who are settling into the bleachers, primed and ready to watch Boleyn’s death, and an English and a French executioner posturing over who is more qualified to behead a queen. Then courtier Thomas Culpepper goes to fetch Jane at the king’s behest, and the two of them run, childishly, from one end of the palace to the other, to return to him. The odd playfulness of the moment renders it almost dreamlike. Certainly, it does not adhere to any sort of standard biographical film template (which may not have even existed at the time).
Anne, played by Merle Oberon, floats languorously through her few scenes, getting prepped for her death in the Tower (“will the cap hold my hair, when—when—“) and speaking philosophically about her death, all while seeming tragic and scared. The film draws a direct parallel from Anne to Jane by having Anne remark ironically (literally from atop her beheading block), “It’s a lovely day,” and then cutting to Jane, peering out a window and feigning cheerfulness: “What a lovely day!”
Henry finally appears something like 10 minutes into the movie, his voice knifing through the chatter of his servants, his stance in the doorway imperious. He barks at his advisors, but also lasciviously nibbles at the neck of Jane (played by Wendy Barrie) when she comes in. He’s a huge man and boorish, but also graceful and emotional. Though the Oscars were barely in their adolescence when The Private Life of Henry VIII came out, it did manage to claim a nomination for Best Picture and a win, Best Actor for Charles Laughton, who—Damian Lewis be damned!—is my quintessential Henry VIII, red hair or no.
We get another parallel here—a chilling one, where the film cuts from the man hammering away at the chopping block where Anne will lose her head to Henry, pressed up against the grating of his palace window, rhythmically tapping, impatient for the act to be done, the barbaric act he has put into motion.
Henry VIII: “Consider it [marrying for a fourth time]? I would consider it a victory of optimism over experience!”
Poor Jane Seymour is dispatched with quickly, as she was in real life, and the largest portion of the movie deals with Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). Fifth chronologically, she is second of the ambitious schemers, Boleyn being the first. She manipulates her way into Henry’s favor, secures herself the queenhood, but continues to carry on with Culpepper, to the detriment of everyone.
My favorite of the wives is the fourth, Anne of Cleves, the oddest of odd ducks, an awkward but intelligent German noblewoman who agrees to be married to the great king, but then talks him out of consummating it, ensuring herself a favorable annulment settlement and status as the “King’s Beloved Sister” that she would retain for her natural life. The scene where Henry and Anne spend their wedding night playing cards is a classic—she beats him soundly, and Henry stalks out of the chamber, where multiple noblemen and statesmen are waiting to hear of the de-virgining, and are instead met with the interrogation, “Anybody got some money? Somebody get some money!” Anne turns out, improbably, to be a confidant for Henry. It can’t be an accident that this great role went to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife (and future Bride of Frankenstein).
The women are a great draw in this movie, but the true star here is the gruff, plump Laughton, virile in his character’s youth but increasingly grizzled as the years and wives wear on. (Those ever-changing embroidered initials over Henry’s bed mark time passed and new vows said.) Henry does awful things, and allows awful things to be done in his name; he is far from a pure soul. (The movie seems to want to position Culpepper, played by Robert Donat, in this role. It doesn’t really succeed at that, especially because his part in the Katherine Howard affair is never resolved in the movie.) But when Henry gloats and beams over his newborn son, he seems like a good man, just one stuck in a difficult situation. The character’s increasing age also brings increasing sympathy, and late in the film he describes feeling more peaceful, less inclined to fight and wage war over territory. Not really a factually correct facet of Henry’s history, but narratively, so very satisfying.
Don’t Breathe a Word, Jennifer McMahon
I am always picking up books like this–mysteries with intriguing premises like vanished-without-a-trace disappearances–and when I read them I am disappointed by the inevitable practical conclusion. I think only Agatha Christie has sufficiently dazzled me with the inventiveness of her resolutions (like Sparkling Cyanide, although I haven’t read that since I was a teen, and maybe it’s not as clever as I remember). Don’t Breathe a Word sets up a supernatural-tinged disappearance (a little girl who says she’s going to live with the fairy king) and manages, more or less, to stick the landing, so I was hugely pleased.
The main character is Phoebe, a sensitive drifter, who is dating Sam, a guy whose sister may have been abducted when they were children. Or she may have crossed over into the land of fairies, as she often professed to want to do. The mystery is reopened and immediately complicated by anonymous phone calls, imposters, criminal set-ups, a magical pregnancy. I started keeping a list about halfway through of all the mysterious elements to which I expected answers. McMahon came in at about 95% there. The only mystery that was not solved–and which may have simply been a continuity error–is this: did Evie have her own bike or not?
Ultimately, the mystery comes to a satisfying conclusion, and even though there are practical resolutions, as is necessary, the supernatural elements are not forgotten. The closing moments of the book are chilling. A great read.
In the Woods, Tana French
A well-formed, suspenseful mystery, part of a current trend of Irish crime novels. The narrator, Adam “Rob” Ryan, is hard-boiled and intense–borders on cliched, but his backstory is fresh, all his own. As a preteen, he played with his friends in the woods. One day, he was the only one who came back, his shoes soaked with blood and a big, gaping hole in his memory. As a grown-up, he works as a detective, partnered with Cassie Maddox. She’s spunky and competent but not annoying, a major achievement for author French. They have a Mulder & Scully-esque platonic codependence. They sleep on each other’s couches, they are inseparable. Cassie is the only person who knows about Ryan’s past.
The crime they’re investigating—for this is a procedural, and there must be a too-close-to-home crime—is the murder of a little girl who had a bright future as a dancer. Her body is found right outside the same woods where Ryan lost his friends years earlier. Her dad is strangely familiar to Ryan. And so this modern crime invokes memories of Ryan’s past. It all sounds incredibly rote, I know, but it works. It’s got excellent pacing and the characters are compelling. The detectives are actually intelligent; they actually pore over paperwork and evidence and make logical connections, instead of solving everything due to contrivance. Also, French makes an elegant connection between the general idea of a loss of innocence (crucial to both mysteries) and the ominous unexplored territory of the woods.
Spoilers follow: click ahead at your own risk!
Teacher Man, Frank McCourt (2005)
Everything you want to get from Frank McCourt’s memoir Teacher Man is in the first chapter: a funny, poignant, true-to-life anecdote of McCourt’s first day in an English classroom in inner-city New York, when, not knowing what else to do, he ate a kid’s sandwich. He has his reasons for doing this, and ultimately it seems to work in his favor. Incidentally, he describes the sandwich and it sounds delectable. (Of course, anyone who has read Angela’s Ashes knows that Frank spent the majority of his childhood on the edge of starvation, and a fetishization of food seems to have resulted.) I had never heard of anybody putting olive oil on a cold sandwich, but I tried it afterwards (and yum!).
I have a couple years’ worth of teaching experience and McCourt hits many familiar notes. The disappointment that the message is not getting through; that fear that kid after kid passes through your doorway not knowing one damn thing worth knowing, not one more than when he passed through it to begin with. Those class periods where you let the discussion derail from the topic into something unrelated just because it’s such a relief to hear the kids talking.
But also those days when you’re in the groove, and you happen upon the exact right way to define something and you can see in the kids’ faces that you’ve put a pin in place for them. You Have Taught Something and They Have Learned Something. How magical that can feel; how much the handful of times that actually happens will sustain you through all those other days.
There’s other stuff here that is less interesting: McCourt’s marriage, which was rocky, although his wife barely registers as a character. His attempt to remove himself from the teaching life (or at least elevate himself within it) by (futilely) seeking a PhD at Trinity. This book doesn’t touch as raw and emotional a place as Angela’s Ashes did, but you should already know that going in based on the fact that in this book nobody is starving or dying of preventable illnesses.
McCourt is a master storyteller and every minute of the book is funny and relatable, a word that is overused but really applies here. Some authors are technically proficient and write beautiful prose, but the worlds they create are unrecognizable. McCourt’s world is a mirror image of a contradictory reality—funny but sad but warm but harsh but boring but redemptive and so on. I think that all of us in this life—teaching, writing, literary academia—look at Frank McCourt as the success story we could all still maybe achieve. The majority of his life was built on frustration and dissatisfaction and then, finally, in his old age, he began to create, to write about his life with enormously successful results. He was 66 when his first book was published—67 when it won the Pulitzer Prize. The way McCourt paints himself, it’s clear he never imagined that he would eventually end up there, and probably no one else in his life believed he would, either.
Night, Elie Wiesel (1960)
This book, a first-person account of author Elie Wiesel’s experience in a concentration camp during World War II, was first published in the 60s, to little fanfare. It struggled along, taking years to run through its first printing, languished for a few decades, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, picked up some steam in the 90s, and then in 2006 got picked for Oprah’s Book Club. It hit the big time then, tripling the sales of the previous decades in a couple of years. For that reason (particularly for the Oprah reason) I expected a positive-skewing “Being in the camp taught me to embrace humanity,” kind of story. I was surprised to discover that that’s not the case at all.
This book—which is very short, novella-length although it’s a memoir, not a novel—passes by like a dream, or rather, a nightmare. Elie the boy (he was a child when his family was taken) doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to pinpoint what the war means for people or society. He’s not got the time of an Anne Frank, who before she was taken to the camps spent a lot of time in hiding with nothing much to do but read and write in her diary and thus had a lot of unique insights on the thing. Elie the boy just worked. Worked. Starved. Feared. Slept when possible. And watched his father, much older and not in peak physical condition, waste away under the strain.
The part that continues to stand out for me now is the run. The men in Wiesel’s camp need to be moved to another camp several miles away. There are too many of them to be transported by vehicle—not that they would have been, probably, because as far as their captors are concerned they are lesser than human and not worth any concern—and so the men are led there in formation, not walking but running. Running beyond the capabilities of their starved, tortured bodies. Running beyond the capacity for pain, like zombies. Trampling those who fall.
Maybe this part stuck out for me because I am physically pretty weak. I do a lot of walking, in general, but I run never. And reading this kind of book, you are forced to imagine yourself in these surroundings. A story of survival never fails to cause me to question how I would have fared in the same situation. Having guns trained on you is surely a psychological incentive to do a lot of things that seem impossible. But there is something more in the run, in this entire book, really, something that extends beyond fear, a source of motivation to live. And it’s not faith; Wiesel is damn straight about that. Like I said above, this is not a work of catharsis or triumph of humanity. He has lost his faith, he writes, and that is where it happened, in the camp. And years of safety and security in America, family, success, have none of them turned that tide for him. What is it, then, that kept him moving? That kept him living?
I wish I could say I figured out what it was, but I did not. There are two sequels of sorts, Dawn and Day, which I did not read, and maybe the trilogy puts a cap on that story. Those titles do suggest as much.
Lucky, Alice Sebold (1999)
Rape, among all crimes, carries with it a unique shame response in the victim. The trauma plays itself upon the conscious and subconscious of the victim causing them to think they deserved it, or that their own actions caused it to happen.
Lucky, a memoir by Alice Sebold about a sexual assault she survived while in college, goes many interesting places. The narrative opens with the rape, no preamble; Sebold lets her protagonist self introduce herself in and amidst the assault. The attacker is a stranger, someone who jumped out of the shadows and took her down as she walked home through a park. According to RAINN, so-called stranger rapes account for just 1/3 of all reported assaults. Still, it is stranger rape that women fear, for which they are counseled to be constantly on their guard.
We get every small detail of the aftermath—she finds her way home, tries to wake her roommate and can’t (drunk) and then kind of wildly asks for help from a resident advisor or someone on desk duty or whatever. At the hospital, she is subjected to invasive bodily searching, medical exams, and grilled by the police. The story continues: after an unhappy hiatus at home, Sebold returns to college and is just starting to feel normal again when she sees her attacker on the street. He is arrested, and then prosecuted.
Afterschool Specials and Lifetime movies have taught us that the rape story ends with the trial and conviction of the rapist. This story doesn’t, of course, because it’s really not about a rape, but about Alice, a girl, a character, a real person who takes longer than a month or a year or time encapsulated in a 120 minute movie to rebound, psychologically, from this. Her nightmare continues. She feels broken, she feels scared. She feels scarred. Like this blotch on her cosmic record will never be erased, will follow her everywhere, has ruined her chances for living a normal or happy life. The book is well-paced and emotionally intimate. Alice the girl is a likeable protagonist, one we can continue to wish good things for, though very few good things happen to her within the covers of this book.
Sebold followed up this memoir with a fictionalization of a rape, The Lovely Bones (2002).
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
We had sort of a harsh winter this year and I felt myself rebelling against the inevitability of nature. (Or more accurately, the inevitability of walking my dog through the snow.) In the midst of that, I decided to make February’s genre nature writing, so I could feel a little more comfortable with this whole I-am-subject-to-the-will-of-the-weather-gods thing. Also, it would get Pilgrim at Tinker Creek off my to-be-read shelf where it had been sitting for five years.
So, I love Annie Dillard’s writing. It’s a touch too smart for me at times (I don’t care much for philosophy) but she has a way of phrasing things, and especially of building upon an image that works for me. I liked The Writing Life, I loved An American Childhood, and I find For the Time Being enthralling. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is all about Dillard living in a cabin in rural Virginia, walking through fields and swamps, observing bugs and frogs, and thinking about life. Her obvious jumping-off point is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which I read years ago. Both of these books—Thoreau’s and Dillard’s—are amazing pieces of American literature / philosophy, and it makes me feel like a total philistine, or someone entirely lacking in spiritual being, not to care for them. But I kinda don’t. I don’t like nature. I like couches. I like store-bought food. I like disinfectant.
“Is this what it’s like, I thought then, and think now: a little blood here, a chomp there, and still we live, trampling the grass? Must everything whole be nibbled? Here was a new light on the intricate texture of things in the world, the actual plot of the present moment in time after the fall: the way we the living are nibbled and nibbling—not held aloft on a cloud in the air but bumbling pitted and scarred and broken through a frayed and beautiful land.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
But Dillard made me feel, at least momentarily, like my rebellion is totally futile. That, I think is her main objective.
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
Not wanting to leave nature writing to just the one book, I read this one, too. It’s super short, and it needed to be because Pilgrim took me forever to read. I had never read The Call of the Wild before, though I think most people read it in about the eighth grade.
London looks at an animal (a dog, Buck), removed from his domestic existence and thrown into a savage one, how he changes and evolves in that environment. I love the way Buck, the dog, is characterized. He has a unique personality, but he’s also just a dog. He’s beaten and then he’s loved; he tries to run fast and survive on scraps. He fights the other dogs because he wants to be in charge. He’s a character, but he’s not anthropomorphized beyond what a dog is actually capable of observing and interpreting. (As far as we know, I guess.)
The story is meant to inspire in us a question of whether humankind is the same; if the animal can be instinctually feral, can man also be so? Is there really any point in surrounding ourselves with these trappings of civilization? The book came out in 1908, but I tend to mentally place it in the 1950s when everyone had TVs and electric washer-dryers and were determined to walk on the moon. I suppose every generation has its symbols of man holding dominion over nature, which is why every generation can glean something from this story. (Except for me because I’m still here on the couch, clutching my disinfectant and my futile intellectual will.)
I thought The Call of the Wild was OK, but actually I prefer London’s short stories. It’s been ten years since I first read “To Build a Fire” and I’m still not over it.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
When I first started this book—this was in January, forgive me blog gods!—I wrote on Facebook that the early story was slow-going; a more accurate assessment is that I was reading slowly in the beginning. (There is a difference between the two situations.) What happens is, in the beginning of Dragon Tattoo, the main character (a male journalist, and not the girl) is convicted of slander for accusing a high-powered businessman of fraud. Or unethical business practices. Or something. And early on in the book, there’s just a whole lot of this guy, the journalist, discussing with various people the ins and outs of the case, and on the record and off the record and holding companies and it’s just all very inside. I don’t normally read stuff I need an MBA to understand.
The book takes off considerably when an actual mystery presents itself. The combination of journalistic-detective was fun because I am unusually invested in research as action. Blomqvist goes through scrapbooks and news clippings and archives and painstakingly pieces together answers to this mystery he is trying to solve, much of which ends up hinging on a 40-year-old photograph. As he very slowly makes headway, I was rapt. Unfortunately, the book lost steam again almost as soon as the motive behind the murders was unmasked and the confrontation with the murderer took place. It was a very typical, “Ha HA, you did not suspect me, did you, foolish investigator? Now I will strap you into my doomsday machine and wait to be bested by you or your spunky sidekick.”
And then so much had to be wrapped up—Blomqvist’s book. The corporation. The magazine. The money. What Lisbeth is going to do now. And AGAIN it was so much with the takeovers and the holdovers and the offshore accounts and it was done in PAINSTAKING detail. I have no doubt that there’s a market for this kind of mystery. Someone, somewhere, is writing a review all, “I LOVE the way this book tied together mystery and high finance,” and I’m glad for them. For me, it was just a real disappointment, because for awhile there in the middle, the book was amazingly suspenseful.
The characters were no real selling point for me, either. There’s nothing wrong with Blomqvist, but nothing particularly compelling about him either. Lisbeth had a lot of potential as a heroine, but I don’t think she really came together as a character. She has a lot of attitude and commits some outrageous acts, but I didn’t get any sense of her psychological underpinnings (except: she has a lot of rage).
Dragon Tattoo is the beginning of a three-part series, of course. I have not yet—even six months later—been possessed to pick up the second book. I have some interest in the movies (all three have already been produced in Sweden and an American version of the first is coming out soon). Maybe Lisbeth will make more sense to me embodied by an actual young woman.
Postscript: Credit this to Susan Orlean: “According to another friend, people who work in bookstores have a new name for Larsson’s book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. They call it The Girl Who Pays Our Salaries.”
What most baffles me about this book is that it became a bestseller in America. I am an advanced reader. I have waded through some dry, boring stuff that you can’t even imagine. I have coached myself into having a completely open mind about fiction, saying, “well, there’s got to be something of value here, I just need to find it,” and even I considered quitting a few times early on.
I cannot imagine an average reader—someone who runs through disposable mysteries at a moderate rate—actually reading this book. I can imagine them starting it, stalling out at the early financial stuff, and abandoning it. I really wish that I could see statistics which compared the number of consumers who will buy this book versus the number of consumers who will actually read it.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
This is the polar opposite of Larsson’s book, the kind of mystery they call a cozy. Cozies take place in bookstores and bakeries. They make crime—even murder—comfortable. Generally, I find these kinds of mysteries frustrating and weird. Especially because of the murderers’ tendencies to respond to being caught by saying, “Whoops, you caught me. It’s true, I did it.” Murder is a dark act! Some are passionate, some are cold and cruel. It usually represents the worst impulses of human nature. It’s not something quirky florists should be poking their noses into.
I thought I’d try this one, though. What distinguishes The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, somewhat, is that it takes place in Botswana. The setting made it all seem more plausible. Private investigator Precious Ramotswe’s town has got markets and hospitals and car repair shops—they’re not living in huts or anything—but it’s definitely a rural, less developed world, and that’s reflected in the mysteries she pursues. In fact, there are no murders in the book; she solves smaller cases, missing persons, stolen money, and a thing with a doctor whose supervisor believes he might have a drug problem or a split personality or something. The stakes are a bit lower, then, and things are a bit more relaxed than in these mysteries where serial killers are going to strike every 48 hours.
Mma Ramotswe keeps with this laid-back attitude by being an excessively low-tech investigator. She does a lot of thinking and making connections, a lot of asking people questions, and a lot of posing as someone with innocent curiosity (that’s where being a woman serves her well). She doesn’t go through any kind of licensing or instruction. I think all American private investigators have to be licensed; this belief is based on the my knowledge that in Season 3, the lead character in Veronica Mars studied and then sat for her PI exam.
HBO produced this story as a TV show a couple years back starring Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe. I don’t think it went anywhere, and ended production after one season. Still, I would be interested in seeing the show more than I would be in reading any more of the books. Some gifted actors and a TV production team can take a thin, wispish story like this and really bring some gravity to it. I’d be interested to see if they did. And I bet the locations were GORGEOUS.
One Good Turn
When Will There Be Good News?
Started Early, Took My Dog
(Jackson Brodie series, Kate Atkinson)
British author Kate Atkinson went from writing straightforward literary fiction (stories about families, about marriages, plots having to do with family secrets and suburban malaise) to writing mysteries, beginning with Case Histories in 2004. Case Histories, which is the first in a continuing series, features Jackson Brodie, a police detective turned private investigator, who constantly gets embroiled in serpentine, sometimes long-unsolved murders.
The next two Brodie books (One Good Turn and then When Will There Be Good News?) follow the Murder She Wrote formula of wrong-place-wrong-time where Brodie falls into murder investigations without needing to seek them out.
One Good Turn introduced Louise Monroe, a hard-boiled single mom who is also a police detective in Edinburgh—she plays pivotal roles in both the second and third books. I LOVED Louise. She’s super-capable as a cop and a total misanthrope in her personal life. She’s baffled and mildly grossed-out by her teenage son and his boy-ness. She and Brodie engage in a pleasantly complicated relationship that’s never quite romantic and never quite professional either.
What I really love about these is that Atkinson works so hard to invest her characters with life. She doesn’t just give her characters traits: this one’s an alcoholic, this one has a dog, this one never got over his dark past. That’s pretty common in mysteries, which are mostly about the mystery itself, about keeping the plot driving forward, whose characters are only mechanisms. For mystery authors, letting the characters sit and reflect for a minute, follow mental tangents that illustrate who they are as people, is not always a priority. For Atkinson, it is. In fact, I would characterize her books as mysteries for people who don’t generally care for mysteries.
The fourth book in the series (Started Early, Took My Dog) came out in March; I read it as soon as I could get my hands on it. So far Atkinson has not disappointed.