Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River in the Valley

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What Matters Most--A Good Story

Yes, it was a beach book, but I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Luanne Rice’s What Matters Most on tape. Nora chose the book, and I could tell she liked it, but she gave in to the chatter of it being a bit of fluff. I didn’t think it was that fluffy; I always take books at face value without the benefit of reviews and other peoples’ opinions, and that gives me an honest look at the book. Once again, I’m confronted by the genre thing, the what’s literature and what’s not thing, and I’m reluctant to cast a book as a certain type of book. The book had some good metaphor and a strong story line. The characters were believable and their stories rang true. There was lots of emotion, and I felt it. What did the writer intend to do? Did she achieve it? She intended to entertain and look into the human heart, and yes, she achieved what she set out to do. I suspect that’s why she has fans that are legion and why she’s written 24 books.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

Imperfect Birds is a heartbreaking account of one family’s struggle with their daughter’s addiction. The interesting thing about the story is that the parents had no idea the daughter had a drug problem and the girl lived a stellar productive life, for most of the book. We saw her dependency growing, and we were taken inside Rosie’s head and how she saw her drug use, and that was very real and believable. I had a problem understanding how mother Elizabeth didn’t really see it, but it was probably denial, and the blindness she had was drawn in a way that would make every parent look more closely at their child’s behavior. That was probably the point.

The conflicts are painful, as is the blindness. The reader knows all in this book in which we get into the heads of all the characters. We know the conflict inside Rosie’s head as she sometimes wonders why she’s behaving the way she does. We see the conflict between the parents and the child, and between parents. We see the enabling and control, the doubt and the sureness. We see the characters struggle out of the darkness they’ve chosen into the light of understanding. We feel the pain of parents who finally have to put their daughter into rehabilitation because they have to do something to save her. There are lots of parenting lessons here; James says, “Listen: Every time you draw the boundary way outside of what we’ve agreed on, she has to come back that much farther, to even meet us halfway.”

As the jacket cover says, “Slowly and painfully, Elizabeth and James are forced to confront the fact that Rosie has been lying to them—and that her deceptions have profound consequences for them all.” This is also accurate—“Imperfect Birds is Anne Lamott’s most honest and heartrending novel, exploring our human quest for connection and salvations it exposes the traps that life—and we—set for ourselves.”

There were many take-aways for me. I suspect others found they connected with the marital conflict, the parent-child issues, the struggle for self, the loss that comes from realizing life isn’t as good as we thought it was. But in the end, there was hope, and uncertainty, as Elizabeth and James left Rosie at the wilderness rehab lodge. “The doors slammed one by one, and the engine started up, but Elizabeth and James did not see the lights of the van up here, only the dim reading lamp by the bedside and the thin quartered light of the moon through the ox-eye window, and they listened to the van pull away in the night.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alice Hoffman, Making Connections Again and Again

Alice Hoffman is one writer whose books I always look for and always read. When I saw The Red Garden, I had to pick it up. This book was better than some of her more recent books, but not as good as her earlier ones. I agree with Entertainment Weekly—“She is a born storyteller.” Because she was a born storyteller, she’s published 29 works of fiction and her work has been translated into 20 languages. That’s impressive. Few fiction writers today achieve that.

As usual, the scene is a small town in New England. The book takes us through 300 years of time, moving chronologically from one person’s view to another’s, the tales intersecting in family lines and community connections. We read about “passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions.: We start with the town’s founder Hallie Brady, who slept with bears and the “mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look,” the place where the bear that Harry shot was buried, causing Hallie to run off and never be seen again. But I had trouble finding the common thread or understanding what Hoffman was doing, even though the writing was beautiful and we always had the sense of the mysterious and magical.

In “Eight Nights of Love, 1792,” John says to Minette, “’You have no idea what’s inside of you,’” and Minette realizes “There was some sort of spark between them that had to do with questions and answers. But there was also something more. Minette felt a if she were opening, as if what was bruised insider her was in his hands. She wondered if this is what an angel did to you.”

In “The Truth About My Mother, 1903,” we learn about a schoolteacher who arrived mysteriously to teach the children of Blackwell (originally called Bearsville), who created a tale about who she was. “When she first arrived, she would stand outside in the garden late at night, when everyone else was in bed. People thought they were hearing coyotes, or one of the dozens of panthers that remained in the woods, but it was my mother, standing in the yard, crying.”

“King of the Bees,” the last chapter, ends with bees chasing James and Arthur. “When he had no choice and the steep riverbank was before them, James leapt into the Eel River, the boy in his arms. They went into the cold water, then resurfaced, sputtering and safe from harm. James thought about the garden, with soil so red it seemed to have a bloody, beating heart. He thought about where it was people went when they died, and how when he squinted he oculd see Cody, racing back and forth, barking, how his father seemed to stand right there on the riverbank, turning back the bees, closer than he’d ever been before.”

We’re all connected and there’s more to know than what we see, and that bear buried in the garden is symbolic of need and love and loss. As Jodi Picoult said, “When it comes to blending magic and the mundane routines of life, there’s no finder writer than Alice Hoffman . . . [She] reminds us with every sentence that words have the power to transport us to alternate worlds, to heal a broken heart, and to tie us irrevocably to the people we love.”