Stories of sadness: Olive Kitteridge

There was a certain point in Olive Kitteridge when I was mentally adding it to my best-books-ever list. While it’s still a contender, it’s not quite lingering with me in the way those books do. But I don’t want to give the impression that Olive Kitteridge (henceforth OK) is disappointing or lacking in some way. It’s really brilliant, but also unrelentingly sad.

OK has an interesting construction. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Each chapter is a unique stand-alone story, but all the stories are about people in the same small Maine town. Olive herself appears in every story, but sometimes only as a mention. Other times, she is the main character of the chapter/story. To me the book reads more like a novel mainly because the stories begin in the past, but move forward in time. Also, there is progression and change in the characters, including Olive herself.

The first story introduces Olive through a story about her husband, Henry, and his unrequited love for one of his employees. By the end of the book, we have learned from various stories that Henry has had a stroke and has been left completely incapacitated in nursing home. Finally, in another story we learn that he has passed away. The book is a bit like being privy to all the best (and saddest) small town gossip. Continue reading

In the middle of Middlemarch

I’m keeping up with one of my 2017 reading resolutions — that is, to read one book of  Middlemarch a month. Today I finished Book IV: Three Love Problems, which puts my bookmark right in the middle.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought about how I might or might not want to comment here in my blog. I think with Middlemarch, as with many famous and classic novels, the world doesn’t really need any more reviews, so this is more a scattershot of some thoughts and impressions. And they might only make sense if you’ve read Middlemarch — or even a part of it.

I find reading Middlemarch that I have to give my utmost concentration to the writing. There are sections of dialogue and storytelling when I can read along with ease, but when the narrator steps in, as she so often does, I have to really slow down and parse the train of thought. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. It tempts me to describe the narrator’s style as turgid, but I think it’s really the opposite. Eliot’s use of language is so precise and dense with meaning that it often demands my full engagement to reckon the complexity of the idea she’s putting across — and/or it exceeds my ability. But when I do get it, most of the time, the narrator’s ideas seem to express human truth in a fresh way: Continue reading

A good Western gone south: News of the World

It’s been a great revelation to me that I love a good Western novel: The Big Sky, Lonesome Dove, The Son, Ride the Wind, Angle of Repose — dang howdy! And Paulette Jiles’s News of the World has a terrific premise for a Western.

Set in the 1870s, an elderly man agrees, for fifty dollars in gold, to escort an eleven-year-old former Kiowa captive girl back to her relatives in Texas, a long and dangerous journey of about 400 miles by horse and wagon. The man, Captain Kidd, is in his early 70s and makes his living by driving from town-to-town and reading the news, in town hall-like settings, to the locals who pay a dime each for the privilege. He’s a widow, father of two grown daughters, and a Civil War veteran, so he’s got both the parenting skills and mettle for the task. The girl, Johannah (her forgotten German name) or Cicada (her Kiowa name), has spent four years with the tribe after being captured in a raid where her parents were killed. She has lost the language and customs of her birth parents and has become Kiowa in every way. Understandably, she is frightened and defiant, but Captain Kidd is a patient and kind man who not only understands and tolerates her non-European ways, but also empathizes with her situation. As the journey progresses, they develop a bond. Continue reading

Two books from Nihon: one odd and one that should be but isn’t

When you read a great and particular book, such as Lincoln in the Bardo, it’s kind of hard to figure out what to read next. While it may seem strange to go from the 1860s American civil war era to modern Japanese short stories, I successfully followed up all the sad and confused voices in Saunders’s book with a series of linked short stories about sad and confused people in Into the Pool by Hideo Okuda.

Each of the five stories features a character who suffers from some sort of psychosomatic illness. One guy has terrible diarrhea and stomach pains from work stress. Another has an unflagging and embarrassing erection due to suppressed anger. A woman suffers from panic attacks imagining someone is following her. And so on. In each story, the character is referred to the neurology department located, oddly, in the basement of the local hospital, where they find the equally odd Dr. Irabu and his sexy, bored nurse/assistant. All the characters are unsettled by Dr. Irabu’s  unorthodox manner, his grotesque appearance, and his treatment suggestions. They can’t tell if he’s serious or joking. Yet all persist, and at every meeting they all agree to receive injections administered by the nurse (usually while baring her thigh) while Dr. Irabu seems to get off on watching the needle slide into their skin. Yes, it’s weird. Irabu becomes personally involved with characters, and despite his decidedly unprofessional manners and approach, his treatments work. All five stories are set up and resolved in a similar way. Continue reading

Lincoln in the Bardo

I’ve never read a book quite like Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It’s unique in both content and construction, so I’ll talk about them both, because I think one informs the other.

Content: Willie Lincoln, one of Abraham Lincoln’s four sons, died of typhoid fever at age 11 in 1862. By all accounts of the day and historical scholarship, his death was devastating to the president and Mrs. Lincoln. He died on a night when the president and Mrs. Lincoln were hosting a long-planned and politically important party at the White House, and during the early years of the Civil War. For several nights after Willie’s funeral, witnesses saw Mr. Lincoln visit the cemetery, enter the mausoleum where Willie was interred, and stay for a long time. This is all historical fact, and we learn about these facts and their historical implications and interpretations in chapters composed of quotes from history books, old letters, first person accounts, and so on, cited by Saunders. Continue reading

Silence is heavy

silenceI started reading Silence by Shūsaku Endō with a weird mix of reluctance and curiosity.  I’m not usually drawn to literature with strong Christian themes, and this book is all about  Christian missionaries to Japan in the 1600s, during the period that Japan was actively suppressing the teaching and spread of Christianity by deporting, torturing, and killing missionaries and converts. Just as I am horrified by such physical violence and cruelty, I have often felt that  missionary work, i.e., conversion, is a culturally violent practice in itself. It seemed like a lose-lose thesis for me, and I was ambivalent about reading it. But my family is from Kyushu, where the book is set, so I was curious as well.

At one point, there were thousands of Christian converts in Japan. The preface explained that the priests found the Japanese among the most receptive people to conversion that they’d ever encountered. Even powerful Japanese lords converted, and it seemed that Christianity had an unstoppable foothold until the Tokugawa shoguns centralized power. Fearing that the missionaries’ interest in Japan was more political than religious, the shogun issued a “no Christianity” edict and expelled all foreigners, slaughtered thousands of Japanese Christians, and captured/tortured/killed any priests found hiding or sneaking into the country. Continue reading

Foreign Affairs

foreign-affairsDo certain decades have a unique writing style? Certainly most readers have a sense of writing that feels dated in some way — like the demanding vocabulary (by contemporary standards) and expository narrator you might find a Victorian novel. Or writing that uses language that is highly charged for today’s reader, e.g., use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn or The Big Sky.

Alison Lurie’s writing in Foreign Affairs immediately slipped me into a late-70s, early-80s frame of mind. Her style is smooth and the pages slip by effortlessly. A bit like soft rock, novel-style. Pleasant, with a resonating groove under the surface. Easy, like Sunday morning. Continue reading