Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down

Amy Falls Down Willett paperbackLately I’ve been reading new novels in order to relax and reconnect with 21st century culture.

The book that will go on my Best Books Sidebar is Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down.

If you haven’t heard of Willett, you’re not alone.  I hadn’t heard of Willett.  And then about a year ago I read a review of Amy Falls Down, and it was supposed to be very  funny.  I recently picked up the paperback.

This  gentle satire of the publishing industry made me laugh aloud.

Amy, a 62-year-old writer, is carrying a Norfolk pine to her raised garden when she sprains her ankle, falls down, and hits her head on a birdbath.  It takes her an hour to crawl inside, because she doesn’t want to call to her neighbors.  The next thing she knows, the local writer who was scheduled to interview her for a newspaper  is pulling out of the driveway, and Amy has no memory of their meeting.  The bizarre interview attracts national attention.  Suddenly Amy is famous, though she hasn’t published a book in 30 years.

Willett’s prose is graceful, witty, and sharp, but I laugh hardest because of Amy’s attitudes.  She doesn’t go to doctors:  she wants death to surprise her. It is only with reluctance, after googling “concussion,”  that she finally goes to the emergency room.

Amy is also fat, and has no real problem with this.

Amy had enjoyed good health throughout her life without effort, eating and drinking as she pleased, exercising only when there was a point to it.  She was in terrible shape now, overweight and sedentary, but still she rarely even got a cold.  Living like a hermit protected her from germs.  Until today she had never injured herself significantly, while all around her slim, gusto-grabbing women keeled over dead during marathons, fainted from salt-deprivation in the checkout lines of Jimbo’s, crippled themselves with shin splints, got gnawed on by mountain lions and medavaced from wilderness areas, and generally drove up health insurance rates for the chain-smoking obese who had the good sense to stay still.  When they weren’t endangering themselves, these medically pious types got whole-body scans and BMI reports and knew their cholesterol and blood pressure numbers by heart.  How they must love their doctor visits!

amy-falls-down WillettAre you laughing yet?

Her old agent gets in touch with her, sets up several speaking engagements and interviews, and before you know it, she is charming audiences with her outspokenness.

She keeps a blog called Go Away, which is ignored until her interviews go viral.

At a “Whither Publishing” panel discussion, which her agent bullies her into attending, a Norman Mailer-like writer named Davy Goonan charms the audience by  “inveighing against tweets, apps, blogs, book trailers, book launches, and the very notion that writing and marketing should be accomplished by the same person.” Then he takes it too far. The hilarious  Q&A session afterwards is done by tweets, and C-Span decides to show all the tweets at the bottom of the screen.  Amy finds it hilarious when she sees the video:

Under a snoozing Davy Goonan, electronic ticker-tape read Magugah OOH MY OOH MY OOH MY>>>TEEN SEX CHAT VIDS.  As Jenny Marzen gamely attempted to address an incoherent tweet about the need for a “Very Young Adult Niche,” all too coherent messages crawled beneath her earnest, animated face, HORNDOGGIE1998 HEY HOTTIE MCHOOTIE CHECK OUT MY #GARDEN WEASEL…

Amy isn’t a caricature:  she has had her share of sadness.  Her gay husband, Max, her best friend, died 30 years ago of AIDS.  At her writers’ workshop, she also survived trauma after her most talented student took out a gun  and shot two of the students.  (Willett does make this funny, though.)  She keeps her distance from people, astonished that her former workshop students are so fond of her. (But no wonder they’ve bonded.)  She  prefers teaching online.

The novel is in the tradition of  ther satires about writers, among them Anthony Burgess’s riotous Enderby quartet and Howard Jacobson’s  hysterically funny novel, Zoo Time.  I’m not quite sure I altogether approve of Amy’s growth into a more likable person–I liked her acerbity–but it is one of my favorite books of the year.  I can’t think of many women’s novels about writers:  is this male turf?  Let me know.

Is this a future Virago?  Maybe.

D. J. Taylor Wins the Sidewise Award for Alternate History

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic, is one of our best 21st-century writers.   His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, and his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003.

Now his elegant novel, The Windsor Faction, has won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History.

The Sidewise Award, which is given at the World Science Fiction Convention (LonCon this year, because it was in London), is not a prize one associates with Oxford-educated writers.  Yet it has gone to literary novels before:  in 2007, Michael Chabon won it for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,  in 2004 it went to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and in 1998 to Stephen Fry’s Making History.

And this year, in strange wrinkle in time, or do I mean in alternate histories, there was a tie between Taylor’s The Windsor Faction and Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies:  What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, a self-published novel written in the form of a book based on a tabloid magazine. (Fans and detractors of the Kennedys may very well find it interesting:  I wrote about it here.)  Perhaps it won’t surprise you that Taylor’s style is more to my taste, but I also find it fascinating that SF is open to self-published books. 

Windsor Faction d. j. taylorI have written about The Windsor Faction here and here, so I will only talk about it briefly.  Taylor’s suspenseful, unputdownable novel explores the question of what might have happened in World War II if King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne. In Taylor’s novel, the king’s mistress, the divorced Wallis Simpson, whom Edward married in real life, dies in 1936.  And because Edward had fascist sympathies, a powerful pro-Hitler group forms what they call  “The King’s Party” or “The Windsor Faction.”   Taylor creates the details of a vivid 1930s atmosphere, and describes weekend parties,  politics, and the workplace.  Beverley Nichols, a popular novelist and garden writer (have you read Merry Hall?), is one of the main characters. But by far my favorite character is Cynthia Kirkpatick, a bored young woman living in Colombo with her parents, who, on her return to England, works at a spy-ridden literary magazine.

Since I am known for abandoning contemporary fiction on p. 50 (a practice I encourage), it is quite unusual for me to read a number of books by living writers.  This year I have read five of Taylor’s. 

What makes me read a living writer?    I much prefer to read writers who are more brilliant than myself.  To take examples from the dead, I might in a pinch be able to write a low-rent D. E. Stevenson  (fans will diasgree!:)), but I could never possibly toss off a Barbara Pym or a Pamela Hansford Johsnon.

I’d much rather read books than write.

By the way, the Sidewise Award for Best Short Form Alternate History went to Vylar Kaftan for “The Weight of the Sunrise.”

You can read more about the Sidewise Awards here.

The New Haruki Murakami, Reviewers, & Rock Stars

murakamiI’m looking forward to reading the new Haruki Murakami, which, by the way, has a lovely design, but I have yet to finish the old new Murakami, 1Q84.  Presumably I’ll write about 1Q84 soon, but right now I’m enjoying it too much to think about it.  An old boyfriend, who claimed the whirring of my mind kept him awake at night, would have been thrilled.

On Sunday morning I yelled at my husband from the kitchen,  “Patti Smith reviewed the Haruki Murakami for The New York Times.”

My husband yelled back, “He’s overrated.”

1Q84 is the first Murakami I’ve read.  A few years ago, after a book buyer for a store in Seattle told The New York Times Book Review that Murakami’s  books are among the most stolen, I resolved to read Murakami.

And reading a rocker’s review strengthened my resolve to read the new book.   I don’t know why I found it exciting that a rock star has reviewed Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Rocker, writer? Not the same thing, right?  But increasingly they are the same thing.  There are so many rock memoirs on the market: Keith Richards, Morrissey, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Cyndi Lauper, Rick Springfield…most of them ghosted, I’m sure.

I’m not a big fan of Patti Smith.  In college, when art students listened to Patti, I much preferred Bonnie Raitt’s bluesy classics.  Although Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, won the National Book Award, her distinctive style is not to my taste.  She uses a lot of adjectives in short, poetic sentences.  Her prose is striking, but wordy.

But since the rock aspect of Murakami fascinates so many of us, he and Smith make a good pair.  In the first paragraph, she delves into the rock parallels of his popularity.

A devotional anticipation is generated by the announcement of a new Haruki Murakami book. Readers wait for his work the way past generations lined up at record stores for new albums by the Beatles or Bob Dylan. There is a happily frenzied collective expectancy — the effect of cultural voice, the Murakami effect. Within seven days of its midnight release, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” sold over one million copies in Japan.

This interesting but awkward review seems to me to be in need of some editing.  Of course if you edit too much the distinctive Smith voice isn’t there.  Even the first sentence, with its redundant adjective and strange choice of the passive voice of the verb,  is clumsy.

The more traditional reviews work better for me.  Marie Arana, a writer and the former editor of The Washington Post Book World, has written a much stronger work of criticism for The Washington Post. I appreciate her smooth, articulate explication of the Liszt and Goethe references.

Soon it is clear that Tsukuru’s “years of pilgrimage” are an echo of Franz Liszt’s masterwork for the piano, “Années de pèlerinage,” especially its elegiac solo “Le mal du pays” (or “homesickness”), a melody that worms its way into the heart of our hero and suffuses his story with an exquisite sadness. Add to its haunting strains Liszt’s inspiration for that music — Goethe’s groundbreaking 19th-century novel about disillusionment, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” — and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” becomes a virtual symphony of literary and musical referents. Murakami’s wizardry lies in his ability to pack all that cultural and spiritual resonance into a book that is as tightly wound as a Dashiell Hammett mystery.

So what am I trying to say?

I’m a “pop” blogger myself, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t like  too much pop mixed into professional book reviews.  One of the comforting things about the TLS, the only  book review publication I subscribe to, is that it’s “old school.” The TLS is unlikely to surprise me with a review by Patti Smith.  In fact,  TLS’s Patti Smith is Lydia Davis, whose name often pops up in the N.B. column at the back.  I think somebody has a little crush.

The TLS is holding the line with traditional criticism, while The New York Times Book Review is trawling for new readers.  Both publications need new readers, I suppose, but unless the NYTBR hires a rock band, how can they keep it up?

English Money & Iced Coffee

Woman shopping at grocery store“Oh, this will work.  English money,” I say sarcastically.

The barista smiles vaguely, not having the faintest idea what I’m on about.

I’m trying to pay with exact change, but my quarters are one pound coins.

I flew home from London with an envelope of English money.  I left a big tip for the maid–I’m sure she was happy–because I was too lazy to spend it.  Well, I wasn’t so much lazy, as unable to decode the coins without taking off my bifocals.  And when you pay with paper, you get change.

My husband thinks the money is cute.  “Thank you.”  He thinks it’s a gift.  He promised to go to London with me next year, but he is afraid of flying, so I’m now thinking, Lake Okoboji.

English one-pound coins are still clanking around in my billfold, Queen Elizabeth on one side, a dragon on the other.

And I’m thinking of that scene in Game of Thrones, you know, where Princess Daenerys hatches the dragon eggs that everyone had thought were dead.  Anyway, something like that happens.  Daenerys belongs to the “blood of the dragon.”

Does that tell you I know nothing about English history?

It just might!

Anyway, we don’t have dragons on our money here.

My late mother would consider my paying with paper or cards wasteful. She always paid with exact change. There would be a big line behind us and she’d carefully pick out all her quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies.  It drove me crazy.  As a result, I’m always in a hurry.  I get back a ton of change, and eventually take it to the bank and change it into dollars.  Magical!

My mother died last August, and after a year of talking to her ghost, I have adopted the exact change habit.   It’s kind of the same ritual Daenerys used to hatch the dragon eggs.  Now my mother is a happier ghost.

“Does that look about right?”  I say cheerfully when I present the coins.  God knows, I’m out of practice.

The barista and I have sorted the money, but now, as he goes to pour my iced coffee, he asks, “Do you want ice in that?”


A Lovely Summer Read: Susan Richards Shreve’s Plum & Jaggers

Plum & Jaggers Susan Richards ShreveI am not the only reader to discover the Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries series, published by Amazon.

But you know what?  I’ve read remarkably little about this series at blogs.

If you love reprints of great out-of-print novels, among them Virago and NYRB, you’ll want to check out this series of reissued forgotten novels.  Each is selected by Nancy Pearl, an award-winning librarian and writer, and each was originally published between 1960 and 2000.

Susan Richards Shreve is one of my favorite writers, but somehow I missed out in 2000 on  Plum & Jaggers, her fascinating novel about four children whose lives are shattered by terrorism.

Shreve is one of those wonderful writers whose style is deceptively simple.  It never gets in the way of her spellbinding storytelling.  Shreve, the co-chair of the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and  founder of the MFA program at George Mason University, has written both adult novels and children’s novels.  And because of her expertise at exploring both children’s and adults’ points of view, she writes a pitch-perfect tragicomedy about this disturbed  family.

Shreve unsentimentally yet movingly portrays the offbeat McWilliams children.  On a train to Rome in 1974, their parents,  hippie former Peace Corps volunteers and world travelers, leave Sam, Charlotte, Oliver, and Julia to go to the dining car to fetch lunch. A bomb goes off, and they are instantly killed.  The children survive, but, as you can imagine, there are severe psychological consequences.  Sam, age 7, the oldest, feels responsible for the others, wanting to keep them together and even insisting they live and work together e as adults.    He forms a comedy troupe called Plum & Jaggers after their parents’ nicknames.   As you can imagine, it is dark comedy.  And for a while it is a show on NBC.

The novel begins:

Sam McWilliams was the only member of Plum & Jaggers who remembered the afternoon of June 11 when the first two cars of the Expresso from Milan to Rome explode, killing everyone on board those cars except for a four-year-old French boy and a conductor.  Sam remembered exactly.  He was seven years old, eight in November.  Julia was too young for memory, sleeping in Sam’s arms, where their mother had put her when they left.

After the bomb goes off, Charlotte falls asleep, “a habit she would retain in emergencies for the rest of her life,” and Oliver crawls under the seat upside down.

Susan Richards Shreve

Susan Richards Shreve

The novel follows their lives from the ’70s through the ’90s. At first they live in Michigan with their beloved grandparents, until Sam is falsely accused of beating up a boy.  Then the family moves to Washington, D.C., ostensibly so Grandfather can pursue his freelance art career at the Smithsonian, but really to escape Sam’s bad reputatuon.  But trouble follows Sam: he is caught stealing a pipe and flashlight from a hardware store: he is building a bomb shelter under the garage.  Because of his previous record in Grand Rapids, Sam is put into a juvenile detention center.  Oddly enough, he has an excellent effect on the other boys.  He writes plays based on the boys’ family lives, and they discover their creative power by acting them out.

The younger McWilliams children are on the surface a little less troubled:  Charlotte can always escape into a book, Oliver is practical and also artistic, and Julia refuses to go to school (her grandmother homeschools her).

Sam, obsessed with the history of terrorism, begins to write dark comedies about their family.  Gradually they develop a following, and NBC picks up the show.   The set is always a dining room with two empty chairs at either end of the table for their missing parents and an unexploded bomb under the table.

But there is a price for fame, and Julia attracts a stalker.  When they gather at a small cafe, it is Olivier who points out that her extreme roles in the troupe are “a magnet for crazy people.”  Ironically, they are dealing with their family situation so honestly that it can attract negative attention.

“I worry about the line of safety we’re crossing,” Charlotte said.

Sam looked up from his notebooks.  “That’s the line we cross,” he said.  “That’s who we are.”

“We have to be careful, though,” Oliver said.  “This is television, not a small theater audience who will have come to see us because we’re Plum & Jaggers.”

“But we’ve hit a funny bone.”  Julia leaned against Oliver.  “I don’t think we should change the show completely.”

“We’re not changing it at all,” Sam said, getting up and putting on his coat.  “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

This small, perfect book actually gave me a chill of recognition, as though I perfectly understood the McWilliams family. I love these characters, and Shreve knows exactly when to distance us from them.  (She doesn’t want us to be a crying mess throughout the book.)   And so I will be searching for more of Shreve’s books.  And I will be rereading Plum & Jaggers  soonI’ve got the urge to reread it now, but have more or less promised to wait till next spring.  I can’t be too indulgent about reading the books I love over and over…

After the Caucus in 2008

At the Iowa caucus in 2008 my husband, an environmentalist, sat in the Richardson section.  We’re always in the wrong section,  meaning our guy never wins, so I don’t go anymore.  He said the Obama section was huge.  He recognized some guys who work at the neighborhood stores cheering for Obama.

I was backing nobody.  Why bother until the election?  I gave up caucuses after the Howard Dean fiasco in 2004.  He was predicted to win in Iowa, and he made third place by one vote, probably mine, and afterwards the media created the “Dean scream” debacle, which was a two-second sound-byte taken out of context.  In retrospect I wonder why I ever thought he could win.  Don’t presidents have to be extraordinarily attractive?  With the exception of George W. Bush, I think that’s a requirement.

Whether it’s true or not, I now say I’m a socialist.   The caucuses are to blame for this.  What a f—–g crazy system, everyone sitting in designated-politician-fan sections of a school auditorium and then a couple of volunteers doing a head count.  A primary makes more sense.

The day after the 2008 caucus, I met my cousin at Starbucks.   She was moderately excited that Senator Clinton (whom we refused then to call Hillary) was running for president, though of course Clinton was a centrist and my cousin, like me, was a socialist. But if Megan and I are leftists, why are we supporting the corporate chains?  But I no longer feel guilty about my penchant for Starbucks, Scooter’s, and Caribou. They are luxurious, with their plump comfortable chairs.  Yes, I’m supposed to support the independents, but I love Starbucks.

At this rate I’ll be voting Republican next. Or at least Democrat.

“Don’t even bother to root for Hillary.  There will be a gay Hispanic president before they elect a woman,” I said.

“No!  I tell you, Clinton’s going to do well.”

Hm.  I doubted it.  Many disliked Hillary.  I don’t know why, because she’s smart and attractive, but I can remember some women seething in the ’90s and saying that they hadn’t elected Hillary along with Bill.  This was because she involved herself in some First Lady issues other than reading books to children, I think.

Years later, after doing a spectacular job as Secretary of State (and why didn’t she win the Nobel?), she might have a shot at winning–who knows?  Perhaps times have changed.  Michiko Kakutani likes her latest book: better her than me, because I find these political memoirs dull and poorly written.  But when Hillary did the interview with Diane Sawyer, she seemed strong and self-assured, but she didn’t seem committed to running.

My mother hoped she would see a woman president in her lifetime, and one of her happiest moments was seeing Hillary and Bill speak on the Old Capitol lawn in Iowa City.

So who’s running next time?  I assume Hillary, but I haven’t the faintest otherwise.

In 2016 I’ll support the Democratic candidate, whoever it is.  (I may be socialist, but I’m not crazy:  I’m not letting the Republicans back in.)  And  I do think Obama has done a great job overall.   I support the health insurance program (which the insurance companies are fucking with, and the media have decided to trash, and, as usual, people uncritically believe the media attacks).

But politics is so not my thing.

Yes, the candidates will start roaming around the Midwest next year trying to get our votes for the 2016 caucus. Actually some are already roaming.

I won’t be at the front-porch talks.  (Well, maybe if there are cookies!)

I won’t be at the local pizza place shaking their hands.

I won’t be at the caucus. Well, not unless it seems like an emergency, because I never support the right person.

Wouldn’t it be better if they waited till the end of 2015 to start campaigning?

Yes, obviously I don’t understand how politics works.

And so I’ll go back to reading novels.

Robert Hellenga’s The Confessions of Frances Godwin

“I turned on my reading lamp and took out the Loeb Ovid from my backpack, but none of Ovid’s heroines spoke to me.  They offered warnings rather than invitations.  Why did things always go wrong for the women who were loved by the gods?”–Robert Hellenga’s The Confessions of Frances Godwin

confessions of Frances godwin Robert HellengaI am a Latin literature devotee.  I am also a former Latin teacher.

Of course I love Robert Hellenga’s new novel, The Confessions of Frances Godwin.

The heroine’s frequent references to Ovid, Virgil, Catullus, and Cicero would enchant me even if she weren’t a Latin teacher.  And frankly I, too, wonder why things go wrong for women loved by the gods.

The Confessions is one of those small, well-wrought, delightfully compelling novels that are hard to classify, not because they’re obscure, but because they’re so entertaining. Is it literary fiction, or is it pop fiction?  It is both.  This intelligent, witty, realistic novel with a soul-searching heroine reminds me of the straightforward but astute fiction of Gail Godwin. Hellenga, a professor emeritus at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, has written a contemporary woman’s version of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.  (Yes, she is God-win, and God talks to her sometimes.)

The narrator, Frances, a Latin teacher in Galesburg, begins with A Note to the Reader.  She explains that her confessions are “really a kind of spiritual autobiography.”  When she adds that it isn’t likely the police will come knocking at her door, we think she’s being dramatic.

In the first chapter, set in 2006, Frances retires from her job, because Galesburg High School has decided to cut its Latin program.

I’d protested, organized demonstrations, clipped articles about the Latin Renaissance in the United States and articles about the successes or our program, which had strong enrollments and which was regarded as one of the best in Illinois.  But to no avail.  The state was more than a million dollars behind in its payments to the school district and cuts would have to be made.

When Frances loads up her possessions from  her classroom of 41 years, she strains her hernia lifting the Loeb editions of Greek and Latin literature.  It is after the surgery that she begins to write her confessions, deftly jumping back and forth in time to weave a skillful narrative:  she tells us about her seduction of Paul, a married English professor, at the annual Shakespeare’s birthday party in which they play the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet; her experiences at a spoken Latin program in Rome  and her reaction when Paul shows up out of the blue; their happy marriage; their worries about their daughter, Stella, a talented poet who drops out of the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City to live with a violent felon and become a truck driver; Paul’s cancer ;  Stella’s failure to show up until the memorial service; and the crime Frances is driven to commit and God’s insistence that she confess.

There is, of course, much more to this brilliant book.

I am thrilled by Frances’s translation of the poems of Catullus, which is published by a small press.

And I especially love her (Hellenga’s) rendition of  Catullus 61, his elegy for his brother.  (And, by the way, I will be reciting this in  Latin tomorrow to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of my mother.)

I have wandered through many countries sand crossed many seas, my brother, to say good-bye at your grave. Words cannot contain my grief, and your ashes cannot speak. Death has separated us, brother from brother, but take these old-fashioned offerings, wet with my tears. O my brother. Hail and farewell.

I also love what Frances has to say about translation.

After translating “Multas per gentes“–Catullus’s farewell to his brother–a hundred different ways, the magic of the poem seemed to fade into the light of common day, but then a new appreciation, a new kind of appreciation, grew up in its place.  The poem itself, like the notes, is not a sign pointing at another reality.  It is the reality.  It is what it is.  Just as the stars are what they are, and 3C 273 is what it is.  And Rembrandt’s Side of Beef, and first love, too. Even first love.

You don’t have to know any Latin to enjoy this. You will understand Frances as a woman, a teacher, and a Midwesterner.

By the way, Hellenga is the son of a Latin teacher and the husband of a Latin teacher.  It figures, doesn’t it?

Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life

Life After Life Jill McCorkleThis summer has been so hellish that I’ve declared August the Month of the Beach Book.

If only I could go to the beach for a month. I love the Eastern Shore and the boardwalk at Ocean City, but I wouldn’t necessarily even leave the cottage.  I would lounge around drinking iced tea and reading beach books.

What is a beach book? you may ask.

Anything you feel like reading is a beach book.

“I PREFER BEACH BOOKS” is the  t-shirt I am planning to wear.

I just finished Jill McCorkle’s stunning novel, Life After Life, a literary novel so engrossing it can double as a beach book.  This gorgeously-written novel by one of our best Southern writers has an ensemble cast of smart, eccentric, fascinating characters who live in or work at  Pine Haven Retirement Facility in Fulton, North Carolina.

McCorkle knows the end of life is important.  She says she began writing the book after her father died 20 years ago.

The exquisite prose reflects her attentiveness to detail.  This multi-layered novel starts and ends with Joanna, a hospice volunteer whose notebook entries about each patient frame the chapters.  Her notes are followed by lyrical vignettes from the point-of-view of the dead.

Joanna is not just a note-taker; she is also one of the main characters.

She is not afraid to tell the relatives they must tell their loved ones it is all right to let go.

McCorkle’s language is precise, lyrical, and quietly breathtaking.  Take the beginning:

Now Joanna is holding the hand of someone waiting for her daughter to arrive.  Only months ago, this woman–Lois Flowers–was one of the regulars in Pine Haven’s dining room where the residents often linger long after the meal for some form of entertainment or another.  She was a woman who kept her hair dyed black and never left her room without her hair and makeup done just right.  She had her color chart done in 1981 and kept the little swatches like paint chips in the zippered lining of her purse.  She told Joanna having her colors done was one of the best investments of her life.  “I’m a winter,” she said.  “It’s why turquoise looks so good on me.

Joanna gets to know Lois’s daughter Katherine, and loves the fact that significant moments in the mother-daughter relationship occurred while shopping or over cherry cokes at the dimestore.  (So real, isn’t it?  Here in the Midwest as well as the South.)

Life After LIfe McCorkle paperbackJoanna has been married three times and had her heart broken.  In New Hampshire, where she attempted suicide, Luke, an AIDS patient, turned her life around by convincing her to be a hospice volunteer. She recently returned to her hometown, Fulton where rumor says she is wild and has been married seven times.

My favorite character is Sadie Randolph, a retired third-grade teacher who lives in the assisted living facility at Pine Haven.  She has started a creative business in her room: she cuts and pastes photos of fellow residents on backgrounds and  landscapes they wish they had visited.  Sadie “has always seen the sunnier side of life, and she’s not sure why that is, just that it is.”  She has taught generations of students, including Joanna, and tried to  inspire them with stories about how life should be.  We understand her frustration as standards changed in the classroom.  “She got tired of all the younger teachers coming through and saying how old-fashioned she was because she still believed in dictionaries and manners.”

Other Pine Haven residents include Rachel, a lawyer from Massachusetts who moved to Fulton because her most meaningful relationship was an affair in the ’70s with Joe, who lived and died here.  Stanley, also a retired lawyer, pretends to have dementia so he can avoid his son, a gym teacher who has done jail time for drunken driving.  Toby, a high school teacher who loved the classics but refused to put up with vampire novels, can quote Shakespeare and Melville but also can also make people laugh and find the good in Marge, a mean-spirited Bible-thumping socialite.

There are also a few young characters: Abby, a 12-year-od who spends hours at Pine Haven because her parents fight constantly and Sadie is the ideal parent figure; and C.J., the single mother who does hair and nails at Pine Haven, and who hopes for a brighter future for her son.

McCorkle is an expert storyteller, and captures the atmosphere of a good (and they are not all good) assisted living facility and retirement community.  She describes the early meals and the gossip, the friendships and rivalries.  There are people who grew up together, and then the Fulton newcomers, who came for the retirement home.

I even like the Readers’ Guide, which has a fascinating interview with McCorkle.

In the Author’s Note, McCorkle says,

I have always loved composite pieces, each character introduced like an instrument, their voices blending until there is a communal symphony of a particular place.  I greatly admire the novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for this reason, and for the way McCullers managed to highlight every walk of society and longing.  In the same way, I have long been inspired by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, especially its use of time and the way it five voice to the dead.  That’s all there is.

Summer, Tigger, and an Alternate History for My Mother

It is a lovely summer night, as cool as autumn, and I sat looking at the moon.

The 17-year locusts have come and gone. We heard them on the bike trail, but they didn’t make it to our neighborhood.  All summer it was silent, but now the cicadas are chirping.

I didn’t stay out too long, because it is very dark without a garage light.  Obviously there can’t be a garage light when there is no garage.

Tigger on the porch.

Tigger on the porch.

It has been a difficult summer.  A storm destroyed our garage, family members have been ill, and our lovely 18-year-old cat Tigger died.

I am trying to think of things to be thankful for.

We’re very lucky to live in a beautiful small city.  As I biked around doing errands today, I realized how fortunate we are to be able to bicycle everywhere.  The tree-lined streets and boulevards, Arts-and-Crafts houses in huge yards, stores within a few blocks of where we live, the garden, the fresh sweet corn at the markets, and our plants thriving in the humidity.

But it is also the anniversary of my mother’s death this week.  Anniversaries stir up emotions.  A few weeks ago I felt tired, stressed, and a bit angry that she wasn’t around.  Whom am I supposed to talk to?  I wondered.  Gone with the Wind, her favorite book and movie, provided answers to everything.

“Fight for him, Kat,” she said years back when I was having marital problems.  (That’s pure Scarlett, don’t you think?)  And she confided that she had not wanted the divorce from my dad.

Mom. the college graduate.

Mom. the college graduate.

The remembrance of my mother’s pragmatism and the stress of Tigger’s death have changed my perspective. I need to learn acceptance.  Perhaps there is an afterlife.  Who am I to say there isn’t, though I have said that.   A little bit of religious philosophy wouldn’t hurt. I hope my mother and Tigger got to walk, or in Tigger’s case, race down the tunnel of white light before they passed on.  I love the idea of an afterlife where my mom and Tigger get to hang out.

Thinking of my mother’s love of her dogs, a Scottie, a poodle, and a Pekingese, also helped me out of my panic yesterday.  She grew up on a farm and understood the cycle of life.

The truth?  I lived with Tigger longer than I lived with my mother. Cats are people, too.

My mother compensated for her dogs’ deaths by putting little china figures of dogs all over her house.  I DO have some cat mugs.

Thinking of my mother as the anniversary of her death draws near, I wish her a happy afterlife, and I also wish I could give her an alternate life, as Doris Lessing gave her parents in the novel Alfred and Emily.

She told me many times that she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, but she stayed home and majored in political science because the education program was at another university.

I wish she had been a teacher.  She was a gifted woman, and I’m sure she would have been good in the classroom.  It would also have given her something to do after the divorce.   At the very least, it would have helped if my grandfather and uncle had given her a job in the family  business, but it never occurred to them.   She worked as a clerk in an office, and later, after health problems developed, got a small allowance from the family.

I think she was contented, but I wish she had not had to be alone so much.

She met Tigger and liked her, as well as a dog person can like a cat person.

A  link between Tigger and my mom:  Tigger liked to sit on a box of childhood memorabilia my mom gave me a few years ago.  I am going to put it away now that Tigger is gone.  In it  are my troll dolls, my Tammy and Pepper dolls (Tammy was a more wholesome Barbie, and Pepper her little sister), my first communion dress, a beaded purse I’ll never carry, a Barbie watch, and…)

Goodness, did a girl ever have so much!

How I wish I had brought home more of my mom’s things.  I have her yearbooks and some photographs, but perhaps I should have hung on to her china dogs.  These things become a little clearer as time goes on.

Tigger (1996-2014)


Tigger helping with the housework.

Tigger was a cat.

She was more than a cat.

She was our housemate for 18 years.

Tabbies are gentle, but Tigger was also fearless.  She was our most amiable cat.  She recently made friends with a contractor and a plumber. She strolled right up to them and seemed to say,  “Who are you?”  She was so tiny (four pounds at her biggest) that they thought she was a kitten.

As a kitten, she was a techno-cat.  She loved sitting on the computer.  Once she hopped on the keys and sent an email that was not quite ready to go.

Tigger, preparing to read Dostovesky.

Tigger lounging on a book mailer and preparing to read Dostoevsky.

Tigger also enjoyed faxing.  There’s nothing like waking up to the buzzing of a ’90s fax machine and finding your tiny cat on the dial.  What and where she faxed we didn’t know.

She ran faster than any of our cats, and she loved to be outdoors. She would run out the door, race around the house, or back and forth across the parking lot in our urban neighborhood.  “Tigger!”  Once I couldn’t catch her before I went to work.  The minute I returned, she came racing back from wherever she had been.  She definitely knew where she lived.

Tigger watched me read, and though she didn’t quite get it, she marked every book in the house.  Here she is preparing to read Crime and Punishment in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation.

She was known as Tigger, Miss Tigger, Mrs. Tigger, and Ms. Tigger.

Tigger’s favorite things:



1.  Snacks:  Tuna.

2.  Sitting on top of boxes.

3. Sitting on our screened-in porch.  She had a favorite spot on the couch.

4.  Sitting on her special cushion on her special chair beside the bed.

5.  Making funny little cat-whirring noises.

6.  Running and jumping.

7.  Watching “Dancing with the Stars.”

8.  Listening to birdsong recordings.

9.  Sitting on the windowsill.

10. Sleeping on my hip.

I am really at a loss. You know how it is.  We love our cats and dogs so much.  She got sick when I was away last spring, and I haven’t dared to travel since.  She died today.

We have never had a better friend than Tigger.

Yes, there may be other Tiggers, but she was as bouncy and curious as THE Tigger. She is the only Tigger, as far as we are concerned.