Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reading a lot lately...

I have been reading a lot lately. This stretch started with Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs; when I put it on hold at the library shortly after it came out last November, I was number 330 on the hold list. I was excited to read it—I like her writing, her themes, I love her sense of humor—but ugh. I think if someone else had written it, I wouldn’t have finished it. Also, if I hadn’t decided I wanted to write about it, I wouldn’t have finished it. Maybe twenty-five or thirty pages into it, I started reading like a writer—okay, I always read like a writer, I guess, but sometimes I get out of that headspace and more into the story. But I couldn’t get into this story so I was mostly paying attention to what Moore was doing, how she was telling her story, what I liked and what—mostly—felt like it was ringing false (can something ring false? or only true? If it can ring false, this one did.).

The main thing I hated was the narrative voice. This novel is the story of Tassie Keltjin, twenty years old, from “a small farm on the old Perryville Road” in rural Wisconsin, who is in her sophomore year of college in the relatively large, urbane college town of Troy (which is essentially Madison, basically Wisconsin’s only large, urbane college town, where Lorrie Moore has taught since 1984). Sometimes Tassie is very much the provincial young adult away from home for the first time: “Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir.” But Tassie’s cultural reference points range from those of a twenty-year-old college student to those of a fifty-something college professor/New Yorker writer, and end up not being very interesting or convincing because of this inconsistency. For example, on page 39, Tassie hears Glenn Gould for the first time, playing Bach in the car of the woman she’s nannying for; by page 190, she is describing the sounds of a party as “like the approaching music of Ravel’s Bolero, some new monotonous melody.” As Geoff Dyer said in The Guardian, "for someone claiming to be 'fresh from childhood,' [Tassie] seems to be lugging around an extra quarter-century of adult life. A couple of times, she remarks on the quirks of 'our generation' the way, for example, that 'everything either "sucked" or was "awesome"' but they're exactly the things that strike people of Moore's age."

But Tassie also doesn’t ring true because this isn’t actually her story. She is on the sidelines of the main—and more compelling and engaging—story of the book, that of Sarah Brink, who hires Tassie to care for her adopted child, Mary-Emma. The story should be Sarah’s but one gets the feeling that Lorrie Moore fought that the whole eleven years she was writing this book. Apparently Moore is the adoptive mother of a mixed-race son, and according to the New York Times, “eight years ago she divorced her husband (no, she doesn’t want to talk about it) and is now raising her son as a single mother.” But it seems to me that if this is the book Moore is writing, she should write it as the book it wants to be. Tassie actually observes that one of the things she learns in college is that "In literature-perhaps as in life-one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself." I could go on about that but it'll sound like I'm workshopping this novel: "Let the story tell itself, Lorrie!" etc. So enough.

Lorrie Moore’s personal life aside, I thought the child, Mary-Emma, was possibly the most engaging and compelling part of the story, or could have been. But the little girl is out of the book more than fifty pages before it ends, and I had stopped caring long before, though I tried to care. I wanted to understand the relationships Mary-Emma had with Tassie and with Sarah, but that’s hardly a part of the story, and when it is, those relationships are portrayed as very distant. I especially kept trying to figure out the reason for the distance Moore puts between Tassie and the little girl. The mom, Sarah, wouldn’t be a touchy-feely mom anyway, but why don’t Tassie and Mary-Emma have more of a bond? Especially as a former nanny, this baffled and annoyed me. There are moments of closeness between Tassie and Mary-Emma, but maybe they don't have more of a genuine relationship because the child isn’t allowed to be a full character. This could be because Mary-Emma is two years old… but every two-year-old I’ve ever known has been a full character and then some.

But I know that distance is also there because Tassie isn’t really a babysitter, she’s a narrative device to allow us into the lives of this family: distant, weird father; busy, obsessive mother; the biracial kid who was available for adoption, and they wanted a kid, so they took her. And, finally, the parents’ tragic secret. (Which I am not getting into here, for those of you worried about spoilers.)

So since she’s a narrative device, Tassie can conveniently show interest in the boring details she probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to if she was a real person. The most jarring examples of this are when she is babysitting at the weekly meetings for the parents of children “mostly ‘of color,’ as was said by all the adults downstairs, a range of shades from light to dark, though most of the parents downstairs, I noted, were white.” The oddest thing about this book, I thought, was the pages and pages of dialogue transcribed verbatim as supposedly overheard by Tassie at these Wednesday night meetings of the “transracial, biracial, multiracial families Sarah and Edward knew thus far in Troy.” Though Tassie professes interest in the activities of the children, the parents’ “remarks would waft up through two floors, out of interest and earshot for the kids, but if I strained I could hear.” Why would she strain to hear? She’s got awesome kids around, how and why does she sit there and listen to pages and pages of white people talking self-aggrandizing bullshit? She says, “I didn’t know what they were talking about most of the time.” And I still haven't figured out why the hell she would care.

“…institutionalized bigotry can subtly convince you of its rightness. With its absurdity removed, its evil can compel…”

“Of course homework is just a measure of the home! And so the kids of color will always fall behind…”

“I don’t believe in gay culture or white culture or female culture or any of that. It’s just so…”

“Vaughan takes 'Autumn Leaves' and turns it into Finnegans Wake.”*

(All ellipses are Moore’s. Remember, Tassie is eavesdropping from two floors up, and she’s in a room with a bunch of loud little kids. Which I find unbelievable. But yeah.)

I started skimming these conversations, because none of it was important or even relevant to the story, as far as I could tell, and because it was tedious. I don’t remember skimming like this except for The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, the book within the book in 1984. (And actually, the first time I read 1984, in sixth grade, I didn’t even skim it. I just skipped ahead to the end of the book within the book, back to the story.)

And then these parents lose the child, they give her up without a fight, when their tragic secret emerges. The mother makes excuses: “’Edward is not on board.’ . . . ‘Ideally, she should be with black parents.’” And just like that, the child disappears out of all of their lives. Weirdest of all to me, our narrator, Tassie, who has spent months with this child, does not appear to mourn her at all. After Mary-Emma goes away, “For a week I busied myself in a robotic way with tasks, half waiting for the phone to ring—to have it be Sarah or Reynaldo or even more hilariously Mary-Emma, as I missed her.” That’s as close as she comes. But after that week, “one spring day tumbled after another” and Tassie is “reduced. I was barely there.” But this is a kid who was central in her life and there are no specifics mourned? No places she has to avoid? None of those jarring horrible reminders that hit you when you are grieving, when you least expect it? She’s just missed for a week? What the hell is that? Not like this is a sparsely written book, either, spare with its details and metaphors and allusions and puns. No. Just somehow Tassie isn’t a real person, and Mary-Emma isn’t a real person, and so they don’t feel real person stuff about each other. I’ve nannied, and even just moving away from those children and losing them from my daily life, I mourned them for so long. I still think about them. I wanted to care about Tassie losing Mary-Emma, I tried so hard, I knew what it would have felt like-I do know what it feels like-but there wasn’t enough there.

So I finished that damn thing, and then I didn’t want to read anything for a while because it wasn’t fun, but I finally read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which has been on my list for months, and I’ve been feeling guilty because I had a copy from the library at the high school where I teach. I’ve had it too long and if I have it, then other people can’t be reading it. Plus I thought a young adult novel might be a nice way to recover from A Gate at the Stairs.

It was awesome. Exactly what I needed. The story of Katniss Everdeen, sixteen years old, and a sixteen that isn’t very far at all from Tassie’s twenty. She lives in District 12 in the nation of Panem, “the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America.” The official telling of their history “lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.” Panem followed, with its “shining Capitol” and the twelve districts, with laws to guarantee peace and, to avoid rebellion, the Hunger Games, in which each district yearly sends one boy and one girl, between twelve and seventeen years of age, to fight to the death. “The last tribute standing wins.” There is violence and intrigue, alliances formed and broken, family and love and tragedy and triumph. It’s awesome. Like I said. It’s also like a reality TV show; the Hunger Games are filmed and all residents are expected to watch the nightly broadcasts. I could go on and on but you should just read it. So engaging and well done, so much fun and so thoughtful, too.

Then I read Gender Blender, by Blake Nelson, which Sharon Levin brought up on the Child Lit listserv when someone asked for books about a girl getting her first period. (Here's a link to a review Levin wrote of it.) Well in Gender Blender, a sixth-grade girl switches bodies with a sixth-grade boy when they’re working on a project about gender differences for health class—and she gets her first period when he is occupying her body! So between that detail and the title, I had to add it to my list. I loved it, and read it in less than a day, ignoring other obligations so I could finish it. One of my favorite things about it is how Tom and Emma get to see the advantages and disadvantages of being a girl or a boy-the way middle school kids treat each other and relate to each other, the cruelties and the alliances among boys, and how those are similar and different to the cruelties and the alliances among girls. Having taught sixth grade for three years, and eighth grade for one, I was impressed by the details.

So then I thought maybe I was ready to tackle When Dad Killed Mom, by Julius Lester, which has also been on my list for a while. I admire Lester very much, and doing research for my own novel I’d asked for suggestions of books about children observing parental abuse, and this one came up. As I’d expected, it is so much about grieving the loss of a parent, which was part of what had kept me from reading it sooner (it was published in 2001). But—yeah, I cried through it, and I loved it so much.

When Dad Killed Mom is told from the alternating points of view of the brother and sister whose mother is killed. Jeremy is in sixth grade, and Jenna is in seventh. He’s a mama’s boy, and she’s a daddy’s girl, and she’s also become a teenager who has started trying to manipulate her mother in some impressively creative and painful ways. When their mother dies, Jeremy and Jenna both have to deal with their grief, their regret, and their feelings towards their father. One thing that rang truest to me was their relationship with each other, so similar in many ways to my relationship with my sister, especially after our father killed himself. Jeremy keeps calling Jenna “turd face” and she keeps calling him “fart breath” because they have to keep doing that, have to keep their relationship casual or at least act like it is, have to take each other for granted, even though they never will again—because at the same time, they are learning to appreciate each other, be grateful for each other, never take the other one for granted. I'd argue that they probably learn to appreciate each other more than they ever would have otherwise, as children or as adults.

Their moments of grief are also painfully, beautifully written, and so accurate, so true. From a section early in the book, from Jeremy’s point of view:
“Mom?” I call out hesitantly, call out softly, not believing that she won’t answer, not believing that she will never answer, not ever again, and the tears hot as summer rush back into my eyes and spill down my face as I throw myself onto the soft cushions of the couch by the windows, and for the first time, I cry out loud, in sobs that make my chest hurt, cry until my throat feels raw, like it has been cut with a hundred knives.
Hard to read. So valuable.
“How are you, Jeremy?” Mrs. Worthing wants to know.
I wish people wouldn’t ask me that. What would they do if I said I hurt so much I feel like I want to die? “Okay,” I respond, because that’s what people want to hear.
Jenna makes friends with a boy whose father killed himself six months earlier, who seeks her out because he remembers how alone he felt after his dad died when no one understood. Gregory describes how he felt when he first went back to school and saw his classmates: “it was like I would never ever feel again what they were feeling and they wouldn’t know what I was feeling until one of their parents died, and that might not be for fifty years.”
Jenna says, “That’s just what it’s like. B.T. and A.T. Before Tuesday. After Tuesday. Two different lives almost.”
Gregory says, “And you’ll never be the person you were before last Tuesday and you have no clue who you are now.”
Thanks, Julius Lester. I wish I could have read this at nineteen, when the grief and the loss just felt awful and incoherent. Maybe it would’ve helped. It wouldn’t have helped very much, but yeah, that’s what it’s like. And I’m crying again. But it’s okay, because I’m crying for who I was then, and this girl I am now has made the grief a permanent and mostly manageable part of herself. Plus I have a sister, and reading When Dad Killed Mom reminded me again of how lucky I am for Emilyn, how lucky I’ve been this whole time to have someone else who remembers him and knows the hurt the whole way through.

We see Jenna and Jeremy experience so much of that first pain and grief and confusion, and it’s so perfectly and painfully drawn. It sounds like a more sensationalistic book than it is; I read it as a book about grief, a really moving book about loss that rings so true.

Jeremy also says, “I don’t know which is worse: the days I miss her a lot or the days I don’t miss her at all.”

Now I’m reading Side Effects, by Amy Goldman Koss, which our awesome high school librarian just bought. She was showing me, and it has such a great cover. It could be about so many things. But it’s about a fourteen-year-old girl, Izzy, who’s diagnosed with cancer and goes through chemo. She’s bald and cute and miserable and triumphant because she’s a survivor. It’s not a book about someone with cancer who suffers and dies; it’s about someone with cancer who suffers and moves forward. I’m still reading it, and happy about it, and looking forward to recommending it to people.

It’s always weird, the overlaps in stories. A Gate at the Stairs and When Dad Killed Mom have similar weird family secrets that are revealed in the course of the story and shift the plot hugely. I think it works better in When Dad Killed Mom, though I also think it’s one of the less successful parts of the story. Jeremy in When Dad Killed Mom and Side Effects’ Izzy are both artists, and their drawing keeps them sane when everything else is nuts. Izzy makes a great observation about how her art is private, making such a good point that I’d never really thought about. Her best friend says, “People think drawing is a communication thing. A conversation, not a secret.”
Izzy says, “Well, writing’s like that, too, but no one would lean over and read your journal and make comments! Or ask you to tear a page out and give it to them.”
“But drawing shows,” Kay explained. “Plus, everyone, myself included, is insanely jealous of how easy you make it look.”
“Well, everyone, yourself included, is a jerk-wad,” I grumbled.
“Which is why you’ve got to be patient with us,” Kay said.
And remember this is not a book about a girl who’s an artist. It’s a book about a girl with cancer. But she’s an artist too, and this absolutely belongs in there. She’s a whole person.

So yeah. Yay reading. And yay young adult literature; notice where the solid and significant and true moments are happening in my reading lately. Anybody who discounts YA lit in favor of adult lit is missing out on some amazing stuff.

*Weirdly, it was an excerpt from one of these guilty-white-parents conversations that Moore chose to read on NPR!