The Right Book at the Right Time

There’s a theory that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to know.  They may be people we like or dislike and we may not always care for their lessons but the knowledge we gain from them helps move us through our lives.  I like that theory but I think it needs to be expanded to include books.  Along with entertainment and education, the right book at the right time can change a person’s future.  I’m still giving thanks for a book that came my way about twenty-five years ago.  I’ll always be indebted to Pat Conroy for writing The Prince of Tides.

If anyone missed the announcements, Mr. Conroy writes stories about the perennial outsider.  Whether the focus is on a Marine’s family readjusting to a new environment or the English Major in a military college, his people don’t think they fit in the orderly pattern that makes up their world.  Because they don’t fit, Outsiders tend to stay on the defensive. The first lesson in The Prince of Tides  is how defending yourself can cost you everything you care for in life.

Tom Wingo, the coach in The Prince of Tides has had good reason for living life in defense mode.  As a son, he suffered under a physically abusive father and an emotionally manipulative mother.  As a child of a poor family, he experienced the cold-hearted snobbery that exists in so many small towns. As an adult Southerner visiting New York, he now gets a lot of grief about his home.  In response, he’s learned to hide his feelings behind a wise-cracking persona.  The problem is, that persona has walled him away from his wife and the children he loves.  Tom is a miserable, isolated man, in danger of losing his family, when his sister’s psychiatrist asks for his help in understanding the childhood traumas he and his sister repressed.

Silence was part of the pattern of their dysfunctional family, making it hard to uncover the truth.  The silence their mother required meant no child could admit feeling pain or anger after being abused.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, kept her anger inside until she turned it against herself.  Tom’s anger simmers even in his humor, and it conflicts with his feelings of affection but that’s because he still has something to learn.

The biggest lesson in The Prince of Tides is the necessity of forgiveness as a way for letting the anger go.  If silence creates an emotional infection and honesty is the lance, then forgiveness is the medicine that allows an abscess to heal.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting some people are dangerous or giving them carte-blanche to cause more damage, but it does mean the victim is no longer a hostage to injuries or pain they endured long ago.  Forgiveness means living in the present and future by letting go of the sins in the past.

I haven’t spoken of the lyrical beauty in this book’s prose or the riveting plot and dialogue.  I should because I was swept away by these.  I haven’t spoken about the brilliance or “deep Southern magic” that’s present on every page.  I haven’t spoken about a great many things that make The Prince of Tides a wonderful book.  Instead, I’ll say that the book came along at just the right time for me.  For a year, The Prince of Tides became the book I needed until I started to absorb its lessons.  It was the book that helped me understand a conflicted past didn’t have to dictate the future.  That lesson changed my life for good.

The Past We Leave Behind

I remember a few things about my first trip to Disneyland.  I loved riding the flying elephants with my Dad and I screamed all the way through the Sleeping Beauty castle, terrified that Maleficent would appear.  I don’t recall much more of that day but memories are like overstuffed closets; if you pull out one or two items, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find underneath.
The hero in The Ocean at the End of the Lane  has similar holes in his memories.  He’s driving down roads he doesn’t remember to a childhood home destroyed long ago.  Some neighbor ladies remember him and, at his request, take him to a duckpond  behind their farmhouse.  He stands by the pond, remembers someone called it “an ocean” and the memories crash in like a wave.

Water’s important in this story, as is memory, and all the things we don’t know.  As a child, our hero knows he was lonely but he doesn’t know what makes loneliness bad.  So, other children play with each other while he stays inside and reads books.  What’s wrong with that?  His parents said they’ve lost their money but what he knows is they’ve rented out his bedroom; he’s not really aware of all the stress this puts on the family.  He knows the new babysitter is evil but his parents and sister can’t see that.  Only the neighbor ladies named Hempstock seem to understand everything.  How old these women really are or  or how they tend our fragile world is another unknown but our hero knows they’re the people he needs when he lets an “Other” into our world.  Only the Hempstocks can save him or the world and they’ll need their duck-pond ocean.
Part of the charm of this book comes from the idea that a child may have a truer vision than an adult.  Any adult worth their junior high science classes know there are very few inland oceans and none the size of a duck pond.  Yet, a seven year old has the imagination to see beyond the facts.  Who has the clearer vision, the adult whose memory has been drilled out and re-stuffed with knowledge or the youngster who sees the magic and potential all life conveys?  Does the adult forget because he’s seen so much or because he blocks out what he lost as a boy? 
Gaiman is one of those amazing authors that writes for multiple age groups and in different formats.   The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be read aloud to children but it’s story for adults, at least adults who like a bend in reality.  Read it and see what memories come out of your closet.

Love & Death in a New England Summer

There are stories that pass through your brain and leave, unnoticed and unmissed.  Others are  like summer romances that hold you until there’s a change in the weather.  And there are stories you find by chance that stay with you forever.  I’ve been rereading Bag of Bones for fifteen years now and I believe I’ve fallen in love to stay.  That’s good because love is a driving force in this book, along with death and in a New England summer.

Stephen King turned into a writer sometime while my back was turned.  A first, he was a commercial success and a critic’s nightmare come true.  I couldn’t stand his early prose, so I ignored him.  Then one August day I was combing the shelves, craving a good ghost story.  (Ghost stories and haunted houses are DOCs of mine.)  This book was on the shelf and I was desperate enough to try anything, even a book by Stephen King.  It hit like a tidal wave.

Mike and Joanna Noonan have the marriage we lesser mortals crave.  They like and understand each other and she knows when to deflate his ego.  Not that Mike needs much deflating.  He’s one of King’s Everymen, a decent, sensible guy who happens to write for a living.  These two likeable people should have given each other decades of joy and a couple of kids.  Bag of Bones could have been called, “Lives that Should have been.”

Because Joanna Noonan is dead on page one and Mike is left alone.  His ability to write packs up and leaves shortly after her funeral.  Now, Stephen King published thirty-three novels in the quarter century before Bag of Bones but somewhere along the way he learned about writer’s block.  It’s real and it’s hell and he captures that pain on the pages of this book. Without his wife or the ability to work, our hero is a man without focus.

Luckily, he still has a few things left to love, like his summer home “on the TR” and reading.  If anything, Bag of Bones is a book-lovers book.  It cites authors from Melville to McDonald and is tied, through multiple references to Rebecca (one of my all-time, hands-down, favorites)  After four years of grief, Mike returns to the summer home he and his wife loved so well.  That’s when the bad stuff really starts.

One issue pertains to the nice girl down the road and her toddler daughter, Kyra.  Mike gets caught in the cross-fire of a custody battle between the girl and  her terrible father-in-law.  That’s bad but Mike’s bigger problem are the people in his house.  You could say Mike’s not living alone, except he’s the only one in the house that’s alive.  These problems and others keep him on the place and in the bulls-eye of unending curse.  To survive and save someone he loves, Mike must unearth the secrets that holds the TR in its grip and he’ll find out which forces really survive death.

Lyrical in places and perfectly paced, Bag of Bones turned me into a fan.   If you pick it up now, you’ll read it at the height of the summer, the perfect time for this story.  Read it in the woods, or by the lake but don’t read it when you’re alone.  It’s too easy to believe in ghosts when you’re book-deep in a summer’s night.

Both Sides Now: What We Learn from Go Set A Watchman

Because Harper Lee’s “other” book, To Kill A Mockingbird has been read and loved by so many people over the last half century, the release of her Go Set A Watchman has received the hype and fever of a Harry Potter book release.  In a way, that’s appropriate.  One of the themes in J. K. Rowling’s series is how a person’s perception of  people and events changes as they receive more information.  Go Set a Watchman challenges everyone who thinks they know everything about To Kill a Mockingbird.  If you don’t like surprises, shut this page down now.  There are Spoilers Dead Ahead.

Watchman is the story of young adult reevaluating her past.  Jean Louise is Southern by birth but a New Yorker now by choice.   Like others who start adult life in a new location, she finds visiting home a bit difficult.  Still, she looks forward to spending time with Atticus, the father she’s worshiped all of her life.  Then Jean Louise hears the political opinions of her adored  father and falls into shock.  Atticus sees southern black people as a group without the sophistication and education necessary to handle the privileges of citizenship responsibly.  He fears their full enfranchisement and resents the actions of the Supreme Court rather than of admit that continuing injustice made the rulings necessary.  Jean Louise’s task in Watchman is to reconcile the justice loving father she recalls with the flawed, ill man she’s seeing now.

This reenactment of the Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about children loving their parents, then judging them and occasionally forgiving them has created the biggest brouhaha since Rowling announced Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Outraged devotees and twitter trolls are either denouncing Watchman as an imitation of Miss Lee’s work or announcing their intention to boycott the new publication.  The two novels, placed side by side prompt the question: Will the real Atticus Finch please stand up?

Jean Louise’s heartache in Watchman underscores that these two men are one and the same; she and the times have changed.  The Atticus of Depression-era Mockingbird is a member of the privileged minority with the right to hold office, sit on a jury and vote.  At the time, these activities were reserved for white males. From this powerful position he tried to help a vulnerable black man, and won the esteem of his children.  By the 1950’s, the Civil Rights Movement was picking up speed.  Instead of one black man needing Mr. Finch’s help, a entire population of black people are demanding respect and the power to help themselves.  They don’t accept Atticus as an authority and neither does his daughter.  Fear of a future he cannot control has turned a lawyer-saint to a flawed, resentful man. 

Thus, the father remembered by the six-year old Scout is the same man who argues with his grown daughter, Jean Louis.  Her understanding of him expands as she incorporates this negative information.  This process is always difficult when it shows loved ones have serious flaws but it brings a fuller, subtler knowledge of the person and a test: how do we love and honor people who do and say things that we hate. To continue the relationship, we have to accept that we love imperfect people.

The fact is Watchman is as imperfect as the Atticus Finch. It has the same wry observations, the tendency to describe matters in legal terms as Mockingbird but it lacks the incisive storytelling and pitch-perfect prose.  Mockingbird’s phrases and paragraph are blocked out so anyone reading it aloud knows the exact moment to take each breath. Some of the sentences in Watchman don’t know when to stop, and at times, the plot meanders.  Comparing the books, side by side, is a rare insight into the arts of revision and editing.  Yes, Harper Lee’s editor changed the book completely by getting her to shift the focus.  However the result was a novel, adored for its transcendent beauties.

Still, it must have been difficult for the author, in the intervening years, to remember the story she sacrificed in crafting a classic.  The result was beautiful but it removed the author’s original statement about the real Atticus Finch.  For decades she endure paroxysms of praise for a man she knew to be flawed and, because the original manuscript was missing, she had to keep her mouth shut.  No wonder Miss Lee stipulated Watchman would only be published if no one asked her to rewrite it.  The story she really wanted to tell would be heard, for good or for ill.  And, as good as Mockingbird is, it reduced the story she wanted to write to a near allegory.

Perhaps Mockingbird‘s initial impact occurred because of the simplicity in its story.  In the middle of the 20th century, notions of segregation was so ingrained that people only revised their opinions when faced with an scenario that made the answer inescapable.  This kind of presentation is fine but it robs the key characters of the fallibility of real people. Tom Robinson and Atticus aren’t characters as much as martyr and saint.  The same complaint could be leveled Sidney Portier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  His John Prentice had to be the perfect prospective son-in-law in order to underscore the point: no one should be included or excluded based solely on the color of their skin.

So, as beautiful as it is, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of childlike simplicity, compared to the messier and uneven Go Set a Watchman.   That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to love the first book.  It just means, to grow up, we need to accept real people aren’t as simple as the characters in fairy tales.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the woman who has shown us both sides of her story and who was brave enough to let us glimpse the incredible work involved in creating a classic tale.  Maybe we’re finally grown up enough to appreciate her gift.

A Novel of Infinite Charm

Some stories are brave as warriors, holding their ideals high toward the sun.  “This is truth.” they say, challanging the status quo, and quiescent crowds.  I love those books.  I also love stories that are beautifully told with graceful sentences and sinuous prose.  I’m a sucker for graceful books.  I love many types of books but these days I rarely find one that captivates me with an idea.  That’s why I’m so enchanted with The Little Paris Bookshop.  It’s a novel of infinite charm.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a book-filled barge that’s steered up and down the Seine by its owner, Monsieur Perdu.  His name for the business is The Literary Apothecary and it’s a good description for the place because Monsieur Perdu prescribes books more than sells them.   He listens to his customers and finds the books that will treat their unfulfilled needs.  For example, the woman adrift in heartbreak doesn’t need Fifty Shades of Grey.  She’s still recovering  from a real relationship with a controlling, damaged man, she doesn’t need a fictional one to make her feel worse.  Instead, Monsieur prescribes a book to be read in small doses, one that creates serenity, especially if it taken in the company of a cat.  The woman recovers, a step at a time and lets go of her emotional pain.   Monsieur can find a book to help everyone except himself.

It’s a charming idea that books can be used as homeopathic cures and one I’m not prepared to throw away.  Not all books but some books have that effect on me.  When I ached with homesickness for my home-town in Kansas, O Pioneers brought me back to the prairie.  I would prescribe The Prince of Tides to those in turmoil from dysfunctional families and Out of Africa to anyone in need of perspective.  The author of The Little Paris Bookshop evidently agrees as the book contains a short list of “emergency reads” listing the complaints they treat and recognized side-effects (For example The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is effective for treating pathological optimism but leaves one with the tendency to wear a robe all day.)

No book can cure every ache as Monsieur Perdu would be the first to attest.   But can a book mend a broken heart?  Perhaps, if it’s the right book at the right time.   In the meantime, if you dream of  summer evenings and shadows or a barge trip down the Seine, go look for The Literary Apothecary and ask for Mr. Perdu.  You’ll find an absorbing trip of perception in a novel of infinite charm.

My gratitude to Blogging for Books for sending me a copy to review.