Monday, October 27, 2008

Alice Sebold, Debra Dean, and Elizabeth Berg

Occasionally, one of my reader friends will ask me why it is that I seem to review only books that I think are good, and my response is something like, “Well, there are so many really good books and so little time to talk about them, why should I bother to review the bad or the not so good.” Add to this that so much about our own histories goes into the reading of a book; so much is determined by our moods, our preoccupations, our comportment. Quite good books can appear otherwise if we are not ready for them as readers. At any rate, today I am going to depart from my customary habit and talk briefly about three books: one quite good one, one that caught my attention but did not leave the lasting impression I usually insist on for reviews, and one that has gotten lots of attention but that I think is not really deserving.

Let me begin with the book that has received lots of attention, but that I found to be quite unconvincing and strained. The author is Alice Sebold, and the name of the book is The Almost Moon. I’m sure lots of you have read Sebold’s previous best seller, The Lovely Bones. That book, allegedly penned by a dead girl who was the victim of a horrible kidnapping and rape, strained the suspension of disbelief so important when reading fiction, but in the end I was willing to bend a long way as a reader, especially since I had reason to believe that autobiographical events in Sebold’s life had prompted her to write the book. Even in that book, however, the events became more and more fantastical, finally to the point of being downright goofy as the dead girl witnessed and in some ways even guided the investigation of her own disappearance. Sebold’s new bestseller, The Almost Moon, strains the reader’s credulity almost from the beginning. Again, the theme is an important one: How does one deal humanely, compassionately, with a parent who is suffering from dementia? How much must one cease living one’s own life in order to care for a parent who is in almost all ways no longer really there? Sebold certainly does manage to present a vivid picture of the sorts of sacrifices and heartbreak involved in such care, but I have to say that I have had many friends who have been in situations as daunting (even more daunting) and who have done a much better job of coping. However, it is not the success or failure of the daughter, Helen, to cope with her mother that makes this book so unconvincing, it is simply the sequence of events described. My conviction is that Sebold could have presented the same dilemmas, raised the same sorts of issues about just how much of one’s life must be sacrificed to others, and yet not forced the reader to believe such an unlikely sequence of events. In the end, I felt that reading the book gave me a somewhat better understanding of the nearly impossible demands some of my friends have experienced in dealing with relatives, but I became increasing frustrated with both Sebold’s lead character and with Sebold herself. One reviewer calls the book “compulsively readable,” but I felt mostly relief when I turned the final page.

The second book, Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad, is also the story of a woman who is quite rapidly losing her sense of a continuous self due to Alzheimer’s. However, unlike Sebold’s book, this one is utterly believable and told with a tenderness and compassion that carries the reader along, or, more precisely, carries the reader back and forth between a girlhood in Leningrad, with the German army poised on the outskirts, and an adult woman at a family gathering with husband and children hovering around her, trying desperately to believe that she is the woman she has always been. In fact, in her own words: “It is as though she has been transported into a two-dimensional world, a book perhaps, and she exists only on this page. When the page turns, whatever was on the previous page disappears from her view.
The young woman in Leningrad is involved in a hurried and desperate attempt to save, hide, and store the artwork in a large museum before the German’s steal or destroy all of it, including the Madonnas for whom the book is named. Now, although a grown women with children and grandchildren, she sees herself as that girl wandering the halls of that museum, memorizing for some future time the positions of pieces of art that are being packed and stowed away. She, Marina, is more often there in Leningrad than in her home in America. While we all in some sense live in the past, present, and future all at once, Marina is, as it were, taken in by each new scene, really living it, and jarred back to a present that is in most ways less real than the past she has just left. This story is told with such wonderful detail and in such fluid prose that it is hard to believe this is a first novel. Although I read it some months ago, it remains vivid and fresh for me, and I mean to read whatever else this woman writes.

Finally, let me say just a few words about a not new novel by Elizabeth Berg; although I love her writing and read up her novels as soon as I find them, this 2000 novel somehow escaped my attention until now. The title of the book is Open House, and it deserves a review all its own. It is only because I have talked to you so often (and so recently) about Berg’s other novels that I choose only to give passing mention to this one.

Samantha, Sam to most, is almost surprised when her husband, David, announces one morning that he no longer wants to live with her and their eleven year old son. Shocked, stunned, and yet also simply hearing what she already knows: “You know before you know, of course. You are bending over the dryer, pulling out the still-warm sheets, and the knowledge walks up your backbone. You stare at the man you love and you are staring at nothing: he is gone before he is gone.”

At least for this reader, Berg writes always from a position of knowledge. She describes what she has seen, what she has experienced, what she has understood, and with a prose as witty and refreshing as any writer I can think of. This is clearly a feminist piece, and yet obviously told through the eyes of a woman who loves men and who understands them. As always, she writes of real relationships, real hardships, real life, and yet the reader is carried along effortlessly, eagerly. She instructs as well as entertains, and this book is simply another reminder that I want to read her up.

And there it is, an excellent book, a good one, and a hot best-seller that is not so good.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Great Man by Kate Christensen

The novel I’m going to review today should really have been called Four Women or perhaps Six Women, and it should be obvious enough to any attentive reader within the first few pages that the actual title is meant to be ironic. The novel is Kate Christensen’s The Great Man. The alleged great man is an artist, a painter of female nudes, who has recently died and is now about to be immortalized by two male biographers, both of whom (in the end) think much more highly of him than the women in his life do, but then, of course, the men didn’t know the ‘great man,’ the women did.

Although there are many amusing insights in this book about the art world and about how arbitrary and fleeting fame in that world can be, it is really a book about aging women and cultural stereotypes of aging that so woefully miss the mark. Oscar Feldman is the painter whose life and work is so passionately loved by the two biographers, Henry and Ralph—the former a middle-aged, probably unhappily married man with a young child, the latter a younger, still closeted gay black man who hopes his biography will propel him into graduate school and eventually a professorship in art history. The rough sketches Christensen provides the reader of these two characters are often humorous and perceptive, but they remain simply sketches, shadow-characters compared to the wife, mistress, and sister. The fourth main character, Lila, is the lifelong friend of the mistress, Teddy.

The reader is introduced first to Teddy who, within the first dozen pages begins to set the record straight about the great man. She is being interviewed by Henry, who she can see has a starry-eyed view of Oscar.

‘You’re a romantic,’ she said. ‘Aren’t you? You love artists; you think they’re better than the rest of humanity. Like modern day saints……Oscar was the furthest thing from a genius I ever knew. He was a very good painter with a shtick and a way with women. He knew how to stir up a scene, how to create a buzz before anyone every heard of buzz. But you should go back to his paintings and really look at them. Really look. What you see through all those moths’ wings is a slapdash crudeness in his brush strokes, a boyish swagger in his adulterous success.’
This is not a bitter assessment through the eyes of an abused mistress; it is, she insists, simply the truth. She loved Oscar, still does, and misses him terribly. But she misses who he was, not the great artist others see him as.

Much more important than the interview is Christensen’s wonderfully perceptive and sympathetic portrait of the seductive sexuality of Teddy. Christensen is so well aware that at least in this culture, only young women are seen as sexual. Once the bloom of youth has faded, women are supposed to quietly take their place—as wives, mothers, grandmothers, support-people. But through the conversations between Teddy and her lifelong friend Lila, widowed for the second time, the reader is invited to see that these women, both in their sixties, are simply the sexual beings they have always been, and while they, too, are often surprised by what Simone de Beauvoir calls ‘the stranger in the mirror,’ their inner lives are a continuum, and their desires very much as they have always been.

Maxine, the sister of Oscar and also a painter of some repute, is in her seventies, ten years older than Teddy and Lila. And while Maxine, a lesbian, realizes that the younger women in her life suppose she is now sexless, admired only for her art, her sharp, cynical tongue, and her contempt for most men, she understands that whatever external changes have occurred, her inner self is very much what it has always been. She is careful not to offend her younger friends by coming onto them, more-or-less satisfied simply to admire and desire from afar, but she knows just how distorted their views of sex and aging are.

This novel is meant to be comedic but always with a sharp eye to the truth—about age, about the way ‘great’ men are coddled and forgiven, about the importance of friends who, unlike children and families, continue to see their lifelong friends for the ‘children’ they really are quite apart from the roles society places on them. Again I am reminded of Simone de Beauvoir remarking that adults are nothing but children puffed up with age.

I have not yet mentioned that Oscar managed to maintain two separate families, both of which are subsumed to his art, his life and lusts. With his wife, Abigail, he has an autistic son whom he barely knows and makes little effort to understand, and with his lifelong mistress, Teddy, he has twin daughters who long for his attention and resent his absences. It is the two daughters, Ruby and Samantha, who make up the remainder of the cast in this story about six women. Samantha wants to do right what she is sure her mother (and Oscar) did wrong, and so she devotes herself to her husband and child. Ruby, on the other hand, reacting to the same upbringing, chooses to have neither children nor a steady man. Both daughters are quite certain that they have learned from their parents both how not to live and how to get it right.

Christensen does a fair job of speaking through the mouths of all six women, each contributing to the view of Oscar, to the final canvas that emerges of the great man. It is the sister’s voice, Maxine’s, that emerges as the strongest and most convincing. The reader discovers ultimately that Maxine is a better painter than her brother, and has, indeed, painted one of the nudes attributed to him. But the wife, Abigail, and Lila (Teddy’s friend) are the most sympathetically drawn characters; the relationship that begins between the two is one of the most touching parts of the book. To this reader’s ear, all of the female voices sound too much the same; I was always aware of the author manipulating her characters from off stage. It is for this reason, among others, that I would not call this a great (or even a very good) book. I also sensed a vein of some sort of sexism in this novel, not because of its humorous (and all too often very accurate) view of men, but because of the ways in which the lesbian women are portrayed and because of the language Christensen uses. On the jacket cover, her writing is called clear-eyed and muscular, and I suppose it is that, but some of its muscle would seem simply like rather crude sexism coming from the mouth of a man. Does the fact that she is a woman writer forgive this? Perhaps, but I’m left feeling uneasy, in much the same way that I am by black writers who insist that they can use racist terms that white writers would be justifiably condemned for using.

At any rate, I think this book is perceptive enough and humorous enough to deserve a reading.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee

I want to talk to you today about a remarkable man, a remarkable writer, and a fictionalized account of his own childhood. As I read this little book, I took it to be straight autobiography, but others refer to it as fictionalized memoir of his very early years ending at age eleven. The writer is J.M. Coetzee, and the book is entitled Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life.

The prose in this book is as unadorned as the lives it describes, economical and sparse but with a kind of fierceness that rises up out of the simple words. As most of you probably know, Coetzee is a South African writer, and all of the events in this book take place in Worcester and Capetown South Africa. The boy grows up in what he calls a housing estate just outside the town of Worcester where all the houses are new and identical, set in large plots of red clay earth. Although he has an Afrikaans surname, his family speaks English, and his schoolteacher mother makes him wear shoes, speak English without an Afrikaans accent, and think of himself as special. Although his relationship with his mother is very close and he has little respect for his Afrikaans father, he also feels her love as confining, suffocating, creating expectations of him that he is bound to fail.

I can’t recall any autobiographical account written by a man where the relationship with the mother is so paramount, so meticulously described, and so boiling with contradictory feelings. Again and again the young boy in this story returns to the ambivalence of his relationship with his mother, one that swings between love and rage. He knows that she is the pivot point of his life, that she loves him totally, would sacrifice everything and anything for him.
His mother loves him, that he acknowledges; but that is the problem, that is what is wrong, not what is right, with her attitude towards him. Her love emerges about all in her watchfulness, her readiness to pounce and save him should he ever be in danger. Should he choose (but he would never do so), he could relax into her care and for the rest of his life be borne by her. It is because he is so sure of her care that he is on his guard with her, never relaxing, never allowing her a chance.

He yearns to be rid of her watchful attention. There may come a time when to achieve this he will have to assert himself, refuse her so brutally that with a shock she will have to step back and release him. Yet he has only to think of that moment, imagine her surprised look, feel her hurt, and he is overtaken with a rush of guilt. Then he will do anything to soften the blow: console her, promise her he is not going away.

Feeling her hurt, feeling it as intimately as if he were part of her, she part of him, he knows he is in a trap and cannot get out. Whose fault is it? He blames her, he is cross with her, but he is ashamed of his ingratitude too. Love: this is what love really is, this cage in which he rushes back and forth, back and forth, like a poor bewildered baboon.
All through this book, I was reminded of Nancy Chodorow’s excellent book, The Reproduction of Mothering. On the one hand, he sees her great strength, sees how she will stand up to her husband, to anyone, in order to protect her first-born son, but that very love and self-abnegation he also sees as a glaring weakness—she is a power in the home perhaps, but never a power in the world. Never, he thinks, will he give up his own life for another.
Her ant-like determination angers him to the point that he wants to strike her. It is clear what lies behind it. She wants to sacrifice herself for her children. Sacrifice without end: he is all too familiar with that spirit. But once she has sacrificed herself entirely, once she has sold the clothes off her back, sold her very shoes and is walking around on bloody feet, where will that leave him? It is a thought he cannot bear.
The boy realizes about himself that he is, already, an old man in a young boy’s body. He admires the Coloured children that he sees from a distance, admires their beautiful bodies, their smiles and carefree attitudes (though he knows full well that by the time they are his age, ten or eleven, they will be done with school and working, destined to lives of poverty and meaningless labor). In some ways, he even admires the crude Afrikaans children who are free of the high expectations of an exacting mother, though he is repulsed by their big bodies, their crude language, their constant bullying. He has looked up “childhood” in his Children’s Encyclopedia, read that it is supposed to be a time of innocent joy, full of meadows and bunny-rabbits and buttercups. “It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.”

If you are a fan of the many excellent novels of Coetzee (who, among many other awards, has twice won the Booker Prize) and of his keen social commentary, I think you will find this little autobiography particularly enlightening, and you will see that, indeed, the child is the father of the man. Along with the sparse, simple prose there is also a deep humility that emerges. He certainly does not see himself as a grand person or one whose early life deserves more than a quick gloss.

While I came away from the book feeling that I had a new and deeper understanding of Coetzee’s fiction, I would not call this a great autobiography. The Times reviewer called the book “The best description of a childhood I have ever read.” That leaves me wondering whether this reviewer had read many autobiographies or autobiographical novels written by women writers. In my view, many women writers write with an emotional fluidity about their young lives that makes this tight-lipped, emotionally constipated account seem hopelessly brief and one-dimensional. Indeed, it seems that the writer is deeply suspicious of emotion, of great joy or even of great sadness. When I compare it to say Lynn Sharon Schwartz’ Leaving Brooklyn, or Jane Lazarre’s On Loving Men, both of which manifest an abundance of emotional honesty and intelligence that stuns me, I have to say that I know little more about the inner life and workings of this sad boy than I knew before reading the book. He seems to guard his inner life from his readers almost as fiercely as he guards it from his mother.

Nevertheless, I appreciate Coetzee’s willingness to write autobiographical memoir, and I intend to pick up the account of his later years. His honesty as a writer is remarkable. I leave you with a final sad line. “Always, it seems, there is something that goes wrong. Whatever he wants, whatever he likes, has sooner or later to be turned into a secret.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

Some authors are very good at describing action, or global political events; others shine when writing first person, in-depth psychological analysis, still others when writing as a kind of detached observer of the lives of others. I suppose I gravitate towards the writer of small events, ordinary lives, successful or failed relationships. Elizabeth Berg fits in this last category. Her characters are often ordinary to the point of being mundane, and one gets very little sense of the larger world or of political strife when reading her books. Instead, Berg is a writer of the heart, and especially of families and of all the joys and miseries that are to be found just below the surface of family life. Today I want to talk about one of her most recent novels, The Art of Mending, which, as the title suggests, is about the deep and long-lasting injuries that can come out of family life and the possibility of mending even the deepest of wounds.

Whether we like to believe it or not, there are some children who are not really liked by one or both of their parents, and who may be constant sources of (perhaps guilty) irritation to their siblings. Caroline, the youngest of three children in this little book, is just such a child. A beautiful child, in fact the only one of the three who rivals the striking beauty of their mother, but one who seems almost always unhappy, troubled and needy. When the three children return home because of health issues with their much loved father, Caroline, on the edge of a second divorce and launched into therapy, decides that it is finally time to reveal to her siblings the causes of her lifelong depression. Laura, the oldest of the three children, is the first to hear of some of the abuse that Caroline claims to have suffered at the hands of their mother. At first, so used to her little sister’s complaints, her unhappiness, she is suspicious of Caroline’s claims; they are, she decides, at least hyperbolic, and at worst downright fabrications. Steve, the brother and middle child who dislikes emotional excess in any form, simply scoffs at his sister. How could such events have happened with no one else noticing? And if they really happened, why did Caroline tell no one at the time?

Laura simply wants to return home to her happy family, her supportive husband, well adjusted children, and her tidy little business of making quilts. Still, she cannot quite simply write off Caroline’s stories; she begins to look carefully at old family snapshots, the grim face of young Caroline in even the happiest of family scenes. She realizes that her mother has always been somewhat cool physically towards her children, while their father has been the primary source of what might be called emotional nurturance. He has idealized their mother, nearly worshiped her, and it is always he who reaches out to touch his wife, rarely if ever the other way around. Yes, her mother is self-absorbed, certainly not a toucher, but an abuser?

I have no intention of revealing the plot of this novel other than to say that we can never really understand how deep and long-lasting the wounds of family strife can be, especially for young children so in need of love and reassurance. This is not a novel about sexual abuse, and in so many ways the events that are finally uncovered are not of the sensationalized sort we see in the movies or read about in daily papers. But whatever the actual events, even if they seem not so terrible, not so significant, the effects can be devastating.

Quite apart from Caroline’s story and the bit of mending that is done in this novel, Berg also tells us a lot about how and why some marriages succeed. While none of the characters in this book is wholly likeable, I find it interesting that it is two of the male characters who are most sympathetically portrayed. Laura’s husband, Pete, is both physically and emotionally accessible to his wife and children. Yes, he sometimes offers a bit too much advice when what is really needed is simply a listening and sympathetic ear, but the advice is usually good. And her father, while he may at times allow his adoration for his wife to occlude his vision concerning her treatment of the children, especially Caroline, is nonetheless a good partner, a warm and attentive father, and a simply good man.

I suppose one thing that troubles me about all of Berg’s novels is how insular her characters are. We hear nothing of the larger world; everyone is working, everyone has enough to eat, a home to live in, a car to drive. She does not pretend to be a political writer, but there are ways of writing novels about family life that reflect the larger world. Carol Shields and Alice Munro certainly manage to place their families in the context of a troubled and frightening world.

Indeed, in an afterward conversation with the author, Berg refers specifically to Alice Munro and tries to say just why she finds Munro to be such a fine writer.
I’m not even sure I can articulate this, but I’ll try. There is such unadorned confidence in her writing. She knows that what she’s talking about is interesting. It just is. It’s not an epic trip around the world. It’s not political, except in the domestic sense. But there is such a keen understanding of psychology in her stories and such sympathy and empathy. She is one of the few writers who get me right away and don’t let me go. There is a precision of language. There is a beauty, a great, great beauty in the language, but mostly I think it’s just that she understands people—their foibles, their humor, their sinfulness, their longing, their inabilities and their great abilities. She’s like a little god. She’s a literary aphrodisiac.
While I would never compare Elizabeth Berg to Alice Munro, I think what she says about Munro is true of Berg as well. Munro writes almost only short stories, Berg writes what I would call little novels. They are not great novels nor do they have grand themes, and yet there is a beauty to her writing and depth to her insights. I often save Berg novels that I pick up for one of those times when I’m having trouble getting into novels, fearing that novel-reading may finally have lost its grip on me, because, as she says of Munro, “she gets me right away and won’t let go.” And while I would not call her a little god among writers, I might put her in the highest rank of the angels.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

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I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing works of fiction in order to talk about an important (but not new) book about religion and religious extremism. The book is by the respected writer of mountain-climbing and outdoor adventure, Jon Krakauer, and is titled Under The Banner Of Heaven. It is not a happy book; indeed, it is sometimes grisly and depressing, and yet I think it is a book we should all read.

At least in my view, Krakauer is an even-handed and fair chronicler of the origins of Mormonism and of the contemporary fundamentalist offshoots grouped together under the title Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). There has been much in the news lately about the raid on one of these fundamentalist sects located in Texas, and I can think of no better way of getting some perspective on what is happening there than to read Krackauer’s excellent book.

Krackauer began researching for this book because of his interest in two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who claimed to receive a commandment from God to kill the wife and baby of a third brother. The Lafferty brothers were from a large and very well respected Mormon family which had long been active, fervent, and influential. The murders occurred in 1984 in a lazy small town just south of Salt Lake City and received national attention for sometime afterwards. As all of you probably know, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has for many years sought to distance itself from these splinter groups (which still actively practice polygamy), but it took very little research by Krakauer to discover that the practice of polygamy has deep roots within the main established church, and that these splinter offshoots, rather than bizarre anomalies, are actually the quite natural consequence of the beliefs and practices of the main church. Indeed, the scriptures of the main church and the splinter groups are identical, and those in the reform churches insist that they are simply returning to pivotal parts of the doctrine abandoned by the main church because of pressure from the federal government. The reformists insist that it was a matter of cowardice (rather than divine guidance) that led to these doctrinal changes, or a combination of cowardice and the desire to grab and hold power and exclusive claims to sanctity.

I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, and my staunchly Mormon mother insisted that her sons always proudly use their middle name of Smith to lay claim to what she insisted was a direct genealogical line to the originator of this wealthy and huge religion (the fastest growing church in the world), the alleged seer and prophet, Joseph Smith. The youngest of four sons, I was expected to do what my brothers had failed to do, namely, go on a Mormon mission to convert others to The Truth. That this prospect loomed in my future made me a particularly serious and inquiring young man who listened intently at testimony meetings to all those who claimed to know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the teachings of the Mormon church were the one and only truth, and that adherence to its doctrines was the only way to achieve the Celestial Kingdom, the highest degree of glory in the afterlife. I believed, but could not claim to know, and thus began the search that eventually led me away from the Church and its claim to exclusive truth.

From my earliest forays of curiosity regarding Mormonism and its claim to exclusive truth, I noticed that there seemed to be a cloud of secrecy concerning the actual history of the Mormons and its originator, and that historians who sought to pierce that cloud and/or to present a view of its history different from the almost Disney-world version presented by what we simply called The Church were dealt with harshly. Indeed, even devout Mormons who dared to reveal some of the shady behavior of the young Joseph (or the persecutions by early Mormons of non-Mormons traveling through Utah) were promptly excommunicated. I recall reading the excellent and mostly innocent history written by Fran Brodie, No Man Knows My History, and being warned by Mormon friends that even reading the book constituted grounds for expulsion.

Krakauer is hardly the first writer to point out that the Mormon Church has gone to extremes to suppress much of its actual history, even buying up and vaulting historical documents that contradict the official view (sometimes paying exorbitant sums for what turned out to be fraudulent documents). But the reaction to Krakauer’s book, like those of writers before him who dared to expose the philandering of Joseph Smith (long before the practice of polygamy became an official ‘revealed’ doctrine) or of historical inaccuracies in the church’s accepted account has been typical. Mormons are instructed, commanded is really a better choice of words, not to read the book, and Krakauer (like so many before him) has been vilified.

However, what I am asking you as readers to do is to read this book for yourselves. I think you will be (as I was) astounded by some of the documented history of not simply the so-called extremist offshoots of Mormonism but of the church itself, from its very inception. I think you will see the contempt Mormons (and so many other churches) have had towards secular authorities, and how little they really believe in the separation of church and state (except when it is convenient for their purposes to insist on such a separation). From the first, their arrogant conviction of standing in the Truth has led to a flaunting of civil law and to a dismissive disregard of all those outside the fold.

But I think you should read this book not simply as a way of seeing the dangers in Mormonism. If you look closely enough at the history of your own favorite religion, I think you will come to see quite quickly that claims of being specially chosen by God, of being in exclusive possession of The Truth, are central in religion, and that chosen-people mentality has been one of the most divisive forces in history. Furthermore, I think if you are open and fair in your examination of the histories of the various major religions, you will see that the current so-called evangelical atheists, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (among others) are not the intolerant and strident voices that many commentators have insisted, but instead brave folks who are warning us of the very real dangers of religious fundamentalism. It is not they, I would insist, who are the intolerant or fanatical voices.

In the final analysis, books like Krakauer’s may be even better than the more abstract and intellectual critiques of religion, because his book shows so clearly that the so called extremes are not accidents, not anomalies, but are born in the very crucible of religious fervor. It is religious views that must be scrutinized in the light of genuine, rational morality, and not the other way round (as so many religions seem to insist).

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

I want to talk to you today about one of the most brilliant writers ever to write, and since she is still alive, I would also say she is one of the two or three best writers writing today. Readers I know, especially those who are also writers, await each new work of hers with an eagerness bordering on avarice, and several I have known have confessed that upon discovering her, they have felt compelled to read up everything she has written in the space of a few days or weeks. Her name is Alice Munro, and what makes what I have said above even more incredible is that she is almost exclusively a writer of short fiction, short-stories so-called. And so many readers have told me how they avoid short stories, how they find them tempting but incomplete and disappointing. If you are one of those readers suspicious of short fiction, now is your chance to give up your suspicions. Each of Munro’s stories opens up such a universe, such emotional richness and complexity, that instead of seeming like short stories, they seem to be novels that have been reduced down to an astonishing essence. One commentator, after the usual comparison with Chekhov and other masters of short fiction, insists that Munro’s ability to capture so much so quickly makes novelists seem almost wasteful in needing so many words to say their piece.

The collection I am talking about today, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, was published in 2001 and is one of the very best of the dozen books that comprise her life’s work. If this is the first Munro that you read, you will be one of the lucky ones who has a baker’s dozen left for the future. Space them out like dessert; savor them for times when you begin to doubt the power of fiction to capture and hold your attention. Or simply plunge in and read them all, prepared to be amazed, transported, enlightened.

As the title of this volume makes clear, Munro is at her very best when talking of relationships, and while it is the lives of girls and women she knows best, I think you will also find her depictions of sons and lovers, husbands and boyfriends to be both right on the mark and incredibly compassionate and forgiving. Although quite able to write about big-city life and the larger world, she is most at home when talking about ordinary people in small towns in Canada. There are only nine stories in this volume, and each could be a novel; indeed, each seems like a novel that simply leaves some parts to be filled in by the imagination of the reader.

Munro does not write about the rich or the beautiful or the famous; rarely do her characters have much power or influence in the world. But that is not to say that they do not have depth nor that the reader cannot learn a lot about relationships and the world by reading her. My task now will be to try in just a few words, a few quotes, to entice you into reading one of her stories; after that, the hook will be set.

While the male characters in Munro’s stories are often shadow figures, away at work when the women meet, or on the sidelines during illness and family crisis, Munro understands that their emotional reticence is as much a part of their upbringing as is the emotional intelligence of many of her female characters. Many of the stories in this volume are about death and illness and dying, but then so much of life is about such things. One story, “What is Remembered,” begins with preparations for a funeral—a youngish husband and his wife going to the funeral of a childhood friend of the husband. But the husband has said almost nothing about the death itself, or about the friend, their childhoods together. He talks only of the funeral and the preparations for it.

His suit to be cleaned, a white shirt obtained. It was Meriel who made the arrangements, and Pierre kept checking up on her in a husbandly way. She understood that he wished her to be controlled and matter-of-fact, as he was, and not to lay claim to any sorrow which—he would be sure—she could not really feel. She had asked him why he had said, ‘Suicide,’ and he had told her, ‘That’s just what came into my head.’ She felt his evasion to be some sort of warning or even a rebuke. As if he suspected her of deriving from this death—or from their proximity to this death—a feeling that was discreditable and self-centered. A morbid, preening excitement.
Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics, as well as about the jobs that had to maintain their families for the next quarter of a century. It was the women, then, who could slip back—during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of the children—into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn’t there.

In another of the stories, “Comfort,” we are told about a small town biology teacher who is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and about his lifelong struggle with school-boards and religiously conservative parents who want creationism taught as an alternative to evolution. The story actually begins with the suicide of the teacher, a suicide that his wife knows is coming and has to some extent prepared for, although he has not told her that he has chosen just this day and this time. I spent a good part of the last year reading what have been called the evangelical atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others, and I very much appreciate their bravery in writing their warnings about religious fundamentalism. But I have to say that Munro is able to point out many of the same dangers in a much more understated way, and one which somehow understands the allure of tidy, simplistic religious worldviews while also seeing the blindness and ignorance they perpetuate. I wish I could say just how and why this reader did take comfort in the simplicity and honesty of this rather sad story.

Munro is the master of ‘what if?’ stories. What if she had let the affair happen, had even run off with the other man? What if the child had not died? What if she had decided to leave this small town and go to college?

Maybe you didn’t find out so much, anyway. Maybe the same thing over and over—which might be some obvious but unsettling fact about yourself. In her case, the fact of prudence—or at least some economical sort of emotional management—had been her guiding light all along.

My suspicion is that readers who really dive into Munro’s world will learn a lot about themselves, a lot about relationships, about love and life and death.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler

Two girls named after birds, Phoebe and Avocet, the hope of their mother being that naming them after birds would allow them to fly over the crap and misery of the world. Avocet, shortened simply to Bird early on, is only six when we meet her; Phoebe is thirteen, but both have already suffered through the wars of a stormy marriage. Connie May Fowler’s third novel, Before Women Had Wings, is set in a small town in Florida in 1965, and it opens with Bird’s father walking into the rickety general store that he and his wife run, putting a gun to his head, telling his wife that “because of her harsh ways and his many sins he was going to blow his brains out.” He doesn’t quite follow through with his threat on that day, but not many months later, after hiring a friend to beat up his wife so that she will be less attractive to other men and more likely to stay at home where she belongs, he finally makes good on his threat, leaving wife and daughters to somehow scratch out a living for themselves.

What is so remarkable about this book is Fowler’s ability to consistently represent the world through the eyes of such a young girl, a girl who somehow perseveres despite poverty and the abuse from her much abused mother. Bird understands that there is, for some lucky little girls, another sort of world—one in which there are honey-tempered mothers who tell their little girls just what good girls they are. “My mama, she wasn’t capable of whispering such sweet words. For her, kind comments were nothing more than fireflies trapped in a jar: they were pretty for the short while they lasted. Then they died and you had to throw them out.” This is a mother who one moment, made sentimental from the whisky burning down her throat, will draw her daughters to her and tell them how much she loves them, how lucky they are to have her, and the next beat them senseless with a hairbrush, a belt, whatever weapon comes to hand.

Phoebe, having suffered the erratic and dangerous mood swings of her mother longer than Bird, has learned to lock away her heart—to present an unsmiling face and to keep her distance, waiting for the day when she will be able to make her escape. But Bird is still seduced by the moments of tenderness, still able to hope that her mother will be metamorphosed in a magic moment. She tries prayer, magic, promises to her only friend, the baby Jesus, all to no avail. The beatings continue; Bird sees the deep sadness and despair in her mother, understands on some level that her mother is doing what she can to save her family, provide for her daughters. While Phoebe’s mistrust seems set in stone, Bird is still hopeful. She listens as her mother explains: “We were poor, poor people, she explained, and worse than that, we were females. We would have to scratch and fight if we were going to succeed.”

I know this must sound unremittingly sad so far, may sound like a book just too sad to read. But there is light and hope that emerges from this novel. The portrait of the mother, although she administers drunken beatings to her daughters that have to be called savage, is in the end a sympathetic one. As Bird struggles to understand her mother and the world around her, she helps the reader to understand as well.

“This is the mystery of love: forgiveness. It was a mystery that flitted all about my mama’s heart, sometimes resting there but mostly not. I believe she purely hated and loved my daddy, and while she would cry in the middle of a dark night and say into the still air, ‘I love you, Billy Jackson. Yes, I forgive you,’ hers was a forgiveness undermined by wrath…..Day by day, the bad things that Daddy had done tattooed themselves on her soul……One afternoon I heard her tell Mr. Ippolito, ‘It’s easy to forgive good people. But if you’re called on to forgive somebody who had a monster inside them, that’s a whole other ball game.”

And Bird, this little girl born into a swirl of anger and resentment, alcohol and fists, has set before her the task of understanding and forgiving her mother, who is one of those with a monster inside them, “Her temper would flare with the slightest wind.” Finally, with the help of a mysterious, wise old black woman named Zora, Bird begins to understand. “But maybe, just maybe, forgiveness exists not to excuse the sinner but to heal those who suffered. This idea seems true and honest to me for this reason: As Mama became less able to forgive my daddy, her anger grew like wildfire and began to burn us all.”

What I have not mentioned and don’t know quite how to convey is Bird’s love for and ability to commune with nature. She carries with her a box of treasures: feathers and tiny half-shells of birds, butterfly wings and dragon-flies. The box, itself, made especially for her treasures by her now dead father. On one of her excursions into nature, after having witnessed a particularly brutal beating of her older sister by her drunk and enraged mother, she discovers Zora, whom others see as a witch to be both feared and avoided. Zora, too, is a person who communes with nature, who prefers the company of non-human animals, having already learned the lessons of hate and violence. There is a touching and utterly believable alliance between the two, and through the friendship that springs up between them, a thread of hope begins to develop in this otherwise bleak and woeful story.

In the hands of a less skillful writer, the relationship between the old black woman and the little ‘white trash’ girl might devolve into simple sentimentality, a writer’s trick of false hope and deliverance. But, at least for this reader, Fowler seems able to weave a lovely and believable story of redemption and salvation.

During a desperate attempt to run away from her mother and the beatings that seem bound eventually to kill her, Bird finds herself at an estuary where there are avocets—the very birds she is named after. “I watched my avocets and heard their call. Weep! Weep! And I wondered how I was ever going to go home. How could I ever walk softly enough to please my mama? What act could I commit that would be so sweet it would wash away her sadness? What information did I need? What prayer wasn’t I praying? How would I turn Mama and me into good women? Who would help?”

I’m not about to reveal the answer to her questions, nor to tell you about what sort of deliverance might arrive. But I will tell you that there is sufficient hope and light in this novel to make it worth reading. Though I had to start this novel twice, the readings separated not by months but by years, the second attempt succeeded, and I can hardly believe now that I walked away from the book on my first attempt.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Four More Great Women Authors: Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, And Margaret Atwood

Last March, as my way of honoring this month of celebrating women’s history, I decided to forego the monthly book review in order to focus briefly on four great women writers of the past fifty years. Staggered with a range of choices, I decided to talk about great writers who seem not to be sufficiently recognized by American readers; I chose Nadine Gordimer, Penelope Lively, Edwidge Danticat, and Toni Cade Bambara. This year I want to recall for you Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.

As a person who reads in order to try to understand the world we live in, I have no doubt that women have authored the most important moral-social-political fiction of the past fifty years. To come to political consciousness via coming to understand the systematic oppression of women (among others) has almost always led also to a wider coming to consciousness of oppression. So it is not surprising that women writers, rather than writing adventure novels or stories about lonely, existential heroes, center in on social and political issues (not to mention attention to relationships and families).

Iris Murdoch was both a very good philosopher and a very good writer of fiction; that is a combination that is so rare. In the past hundred years as philosophy has been more and more influenced by science and scientific method, philosophers have looked more and more askance at using literature as a vehicle for doing philosophy. Perhaps this skepticism goes clear back to Plato and his warnings about how, in the mouths of poets, words become honeyed and mellifluous, thus diverting from their main task of discovering truth—language used not for truth-seeking, but perverted into mere entertainment. As much as Murdoch admired Plato, she insists that some parts of philosophy, especially ethics, cannot be completely disclosed without the use of metaphor and of art. Discursive essay that proceeds by lineal argument can go along way in laying out ethical theory, but it cannot complete the task at hand, which is literally to make us into morally better beings. Literature, novels, can bring moral truth out of concealment, reveal it to us, in a way that essay cannot. Literature can portray us human beings as we are, selfish by nature, viewing the world through the veil of our own cares and concerns, frightened of and fleeing from death, mistaking lust for love. But, while Murdoch’s characters reveal to the reader all the traits listed above, some of them also display the capability of really attending to others—piercing the veil and really seeing. Murdoch claims that both Continental philosophy (existentialism) and analytic philosophy have over-accentuated the will and the concept of duty—doing right as a kind of near heroic, willful acting on principle after cool reflection. In fact, she insists, morality is a matter of habit, of establishing habits of really looking, really attending to others. When the chips are down (as they always are), we will do what we are in the habit of doing, thus, morality, itself, is primarily nurturing habits of attention. Although Murdoch did not identify herself as a feminist, her ideas are consonant with those of Nell Nodding and other feminist ethicists in stressing care and personal relations as an at least overlooked and under-stressed feature of ethical theory. If you have tried Murdoch before and found her just too depressing or her stories too complicated, try reading her essay “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts.” Although a bit technical, the essay gives a quick statement of her view of the role of fiction in understanding morality, and my belief is that once one understands what Murdoch is up to her novels, they become both easier to read and more revelatory. You might find you want to read more than one.

Alice Munro is a Canadian writer not well known among Americans, but my reader friends who know of her wait anxiously for each new book, wishing she would give us more, that she would write long novels, talk us to sleep every night. She is a superb short-story writer, usually stories about small towns, families, ordinary people. Not long ago, I talked of her most recent collection of stories, Runaway, so today let me mention her 1971 novel, Lives of Girls and Women. It is autobiographical in form (though she insists not in fact), and describes the coming of age of a bright young girl with a very bright and unconventional mother—strong enough to be an atheist with socialist leanings in small-town Canada in the fifties. Most of us have to rebel away from our religious upbringings, the young girl in this story has to go to all churches as a way of standing up to her powerful, bright mother. Of course, already ‘tainted’ by an inquiring mind and a thirst for good reasons if not proof, she is disappointed in her search for God and her desire to deny the reality of death. Rebellion and attention to the world drive her back to the liberal views of her mother, but with a much greater understanding of poverty and classism. Dirt and bad grammar bother her mother to the point of being unable at times to deal with the very people she wants to ‘save.’ She was on the side of Negroes and Jews and Chinese and women, but she could not bear drunkenness, dirty language, haphazard lives, contented ignorance; and so she had to exclude the Flats Road people from the really oppressed and deprived people, the real poor whom she still loved. Munro is funny, wise, and a word-weaver of the highest order.

The last two authors I want to mention are so well known that I suspect I need to say little about them in order to remind you of their work. Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood quite obviously and self-consciously set out to do social criticism, to expose the oppression and injustice they saw in the world. I’m sure most of you have read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Morrison’s Beloved. So I will say just a few words about early novels of each that you may not have read. I think one of Atwood’s most humorous novels is a very early one entitled The Edible Woman in which a young woman is just becoming aware of the sexism in the world around her. While this little book is less shocking than Surfacing, the book that really catapulted her to fame, and less grim and frightening than The Handmaid’s Tale, it certainly showcased Atwood’s talent for social criticism.

The works of Toni Morrison that I want to call to your attention are her chilling little tale, The Bluest Eye, and her masterpiece, Song of Solomon. In The Bluest Eye Morrison shows us what it means for an oppressed class to take on the values of the oppressor. Unremittingly sad and painful to read, it is a book that brings to life Franz Fanon’s description of how oppressed people are inculcated with the very values that crush them. Song of Solomon, while equally cognizant of how economic exploitation exhibits itself in racism, is in the end a powerful, even joyful book about perseverance and courage and the possibilities of a better future.

There are so many books by these authors I might have mentioned, and so many other great women novelists of the past fifty years who deserve to be remembered and read.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Consequences by Penelope Lively

Can even a great writer sum up a life, a lifetime, in a single book. And even if one could, is it a wise thing to try? Penelope Lively, in her novel Consequences, is looking back to 1935, to World War II, and then panning forward—to the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis, and on to Viet Nam and beyond. I can feel her need to overview, to try to make some sense of the chaos and bloodshed and strife, to provide both critique and some form of hope for the future.

While I understand this urge to say it all, to cover all the events of the last hundred years, at least for me as a reader, I find that most really good novels cover relatively short periods of time and not too many characters. Of course, in describing a few days, a year or two, even a decade, one can with the lens of memory cover large expanses of time while still engaging the reader in a here-and-now tale. Lively’s masterpiece, Moon Tiger, does just that. An old woman lies dying in a rest-home, simply a wrinkled, unimportant figure to the bustling nurses and aids who call her ‘honey,’ and treat her as child. But she doesn’t care, for the present is no longer of any importance to her, only the past and the life she has lived, as a historian, a parent, a writer.

But in Consequences (her most recent and probably her last) novel, she tries to whirl us through almost a century, introducing a host of characters as she goes along. I have to admit that for at least the first hundred pages I was slightly irritated and lost. Why this skipping over of years, decades? Why introduce us to an infant only to begin the next chapter with that infant grown to adulthood? She seems simply to be trying to do too much, losing the intimacy she usually achieves by focusing down and in on a short time, a few characters, and through them back and out. Finally, when I stopped reading this novel piecemeal and decided I must live in for a day or two if I hoped to understand what this last effort is about, I began to see her genius as a writer, a recorder of history, emerge.

It seems in many ways a simple story, at least the pivot-point of the novel, a tale about an artist whose medium is woodcutting and his rather sudden and impulsive marriage to a girl from an upperclass and hopelessly snobby family. Shunned by her family, the two lovers escape from London and the girl’s stodgy, privileged life to the countryside and a deserted, tiny farm-laborer’s cottage. The two, much in love, restore the cottage and begin to raise a family, only to have that life ended abruptly by the war and the soldier death of the young husband.

And so begins a long journey of both places and characters—not only the life of the widowed woman, but of her children, and their children, and beyond. As is usual for Lively, she not only dances from character to character, but speaks through each of them—usually through the mouths of women characters, but even now and then a convincing male voice. Along the way, we get a view of Lively’s view of art, of book-printing, of poets and conferences of poets, of marriages both good and bad, and always with the reminder of how much our lives are determined by happenstance, chance, rather than by choice or grand life-plans. A chance encounter that leads to marriage, a fall on the ice or a traffic accident—chance so much more important than plans or purposes.

Time, the flow of time, the treachery of memory, the necessity to live in past, present, and future all at once—this fascination with time and its meanings is to be found in all of Lively’s work, and in this retrospective an attempt to sort and understand. In the past year or two I have read similar looking-back, summing up novels by some of my favorite authors. Carol Shields’ final novel Unless, Mary Gordon’s Pearl—both full of politics, of social criticism, and some attempt to point towards a better future. I see so clearly the desire of the authors both to do commentary on the wars and greed and bloodshed of the past century, and also to energize us towards action into the future. Yes, it has been an ugly century dominated by war and greed, but still we must look to the future, put our shoulders to the wheel, and do something for our children, for the children of the world.

I can’t hope to do justice to this novel that covers a lifetime or to the voice of Lively who speaks through it, and while I do not think (in the end) that it is a great novel (partly because it does try to do too much), I think it is a very good one, and one that readers with a social conscience should read. I won’t try to sum up her political views or her views on aesthetics, but I think she tries to do so through a few of her characters. For now, I will simply read you a longish quote, and hope that you will go to the novel yourselves. It is not a long novel (less than three hundred pages), but it is incredibly dense, both with characters and events.

The winter of discontent gave way to the spring and summer of A levels, cultural endeavor and Ms. Thatcher. Ruth worried about Wordsworth, the Tudors and Stuarts, and the roll of puppy fat around her midriff; Molly fielded a touring opera company in Orkney and the Shetlands, and a craft exhibition in Manchester, and fine-tuned the arrangements for the poetry festival. In the background, a woman with an iron coiffeur and awesome insistence began her long dominion of the nation’s affairs.
Molly voted Labour, naturally. Always; regardless. So did everyone she knew. It seemed surprising that there could be Conservative electoral victories when you yourself had barely ever heard of anyone voting Tory, and even more so in that, when you thought about it, you realized that there must be millions of working-class people who voted Tory, which seemed somehow like shooting yourself in the foot. Why ever did they do it? And now, just when you should be rejoicing at the first Woman Prime Minister, she came in the form of this dogmatic harridan with her handbags and her pussy-cat bows.
But if you looked beyond these shores, complaint seemed churlish. In the course of work, Molly had come across artists exiled from their homelands—people who had fled, or whose parents had fled, because circumstances were beyond tolerance, smoked out of Russia or Hungary or Czechoslovakia or wherever. Beside such histories, some local carping about the power of the trade unions or Mrs. Thatcher’s bossy persona became positively obscene……Those who live out their lives in a politically stable country, in peacetime, have not had history snapping at their heels.

This novel is a too quick ride through too much time, but with the brilliant Lively as tour-guide, it is a worthwhile read. I only wish I could say so much about so many topics over so many years.

Monday, January 07, 2008

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott

I spent quite a lot of time last year reading (and reviewing) what I have come to call quiet novels. All are quite intentionally about ‘ordinary’ people, and contain very little dramatic plot. No battles, no victories, no murders. Carol Shields and Alice Munro are masters of these quiet novels, and just this last year I (with my usual tardiness) discovered Alice McDermott and added her to the list of greats. I quickly read up everything of hers I could find. Today, I am going to talk about one of her early novels, published in ’92, entitled At Weddings and Wakes.

Most (though not all) great authors stick pretty closely to what they know, what they have lived, the people in the families and communities around them. For the most part, you can write convincingly only about what you know. Alice McDermott never even pretends to stray from the Irish-American-Catholic family-community she grew up in; indeed, she narrows even further to New York, Brooklyn, Long Island. Rarely is there much time that passes in the immediate tale—a wedding, a wake, a few days or months in the lives of a few closely connected people. But, of course, word-weaver that McDermott is, she manages to ripple back, and back, wider and wider as well as out into the wider world. The story of the wake or the wedding is the story of a life, of many lives.

The narration of this book is incredibly clever. We are told the story through the eyes of three children, two girls and a boy, but we are never really told which of the three is the center-vision, exactly who is telling the story. It might seem a too-clever device in some writers, but it seems natural, even inevitable as McDermott spins out this story. Except for “their father,” (as he is almost always referred to), and an older suitor of one of the aunts, this is a story about a family of women. Most of these women live together in a large New York flat. The matriarch, Momma, is actually an aunt to the other women who live there, but an aunt who ‘rescued’ them when their own mother died in childbirth (the child, Veronica, surviving). And who subsequently married their father, giving birth herself to one more child, a boy. The father, himself, dies soon after, suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving the women to care for themselves and for their new baby brother. It seems only natural to these children that the world is peopled mainly with women.

But, of course, it takes us a whole book to discover these things. McDermott writes with intense detail, unhurried description of a single event, and it is only in the close phenomenological description of (a perhaps) mundane experience that the strands of the story introduce themselves, only eventually to be woven into a whole. I find this way of writing so tantalizing, so engrossing. I won’t say much more about this now, but if you read her, you will quickly see what I am at getting regarding her attention to detail.

While this novel is, in fact, many stories, the story of Aunt May gives the book its focal point, its coherence and flow. Aunt May became a nun early in her life, and left her habit behind fifteen years later not because she did not like the life, but because she liked it too much. She understood that what her orders demanded was abnegation, negation of self, losing herself in the love of God. But she loved her life, loved the earth. Like Sisyphus, she chose earthly life to the promises of immortal glory. She loves the order of the life, loves the faces of the children she teaches, but understands her very love-of-life to be vanity.

Six years ago when she’d left the convent she had understood fully that it was not because she’d lost her vocation, only settled into it too perfectly. She understood it was because she had come to love too dearly the life she was leading, the early Masses and the simple meals and, in those years she taught, the small faces of her students. She’d loved her habit, the elegant long sleeves and the starched wimple, the skirts that brushed her heels and the great, extravagant pair of rosary beads that had swung from her belt. She’d loved her deep pockets and her small leather breviary and the way men on the street would touch their hats and call her Sister. She had entered the convent thinking she would give her life to God but found when she was there that her life grew more and more dear to her, that she had given it to no one but herself. She confessed this time and time again, and was finally advised to give up the teaching and request instead to train as a nurse, which she did. And then recognized in her patients, the old priests and nuns no less than the others, her own tenacious desire to live forever. She fasted and went without sleep and took on the household’s humblest tasks and still she knew she guarded her daily life, each of her own breaths and the very beat of her heart. Still she knew she no longer desired heaven, the sight of her dead parents or the face of the living God held no appeal, and even the torment this caused her, the hours of prayer and confession and counsel, seemed part of a rich and complex life; a life impossible to part with.

Since I am unashamedly an evangelical atheist, it always surprises me when I find someone who writes so well about lived-religious-lives, what gets called the phenomenology of religion. McDermott understands the bad things that Catholicism does to people, to women, to families, but she also understands the ways in which religious rituals bind together communities. In her books, Irish-Catholicism is more a backdrop than a set of beliefs; it is a kind of canvas on which lives get lived out. I find myself both surprised and oddly humbled by McDermott’s understanding of religious life.

Aunt May leaves the convent after fifteen years to return to Momma and her sisters, to live an ordered and somehow austere life. And then through some miracle of chance, she finds herself with a suitor. The mailman, whom she has seen and chatted with over much of a lifetime, suddenly sees her in a different light; he is transformed for her as well. And thus begins a sweet and simple and utterly believable courtship. Only once, again by happenstance, do the children catch a glimpse of Momma’s real reaction to her niece-daughter’s upcoming marriage, her sense of betrayal, even infidelity.

It takes McDermott fifteen pages to describe how “their mother,” the only one of the sisters who does not live with Momma, gathers together the three children for the walk, bus, subway trip into Brooklyn, where Momma and her sisters will gather first over tea, and only later over Manhattans. The children will be directed to play quietly, occupy themselves as they wait through interminable, imprisoned afternoons waiting for their father to rescue them. This event happens twice a week in every week of summer, save the last in July and the first in August when their father takes them all to Long Island, “… to the farthest, greenest reaches of the Island, to the very tip of the two long fingers that would seem to direct their eyes, as he himself would do each evening, to the wide expanse of the sea.”

Three children, three pairs of eyes, describing for us the lives of these women, and then backwards in time, outwards into a community. Such an extraordinary tale of such ordinary people.