Well. I am clearly on top of things as always! I can’t believe how long it’s been since I posted, but I do have some news coming. I’ll be able to share soon, I hope (I thought it would be done by now, but I’m still in a holding pattern). In the meantime, I’m working on some book reviews that I should have up in a few days. Thanks for hanging in there!
Where They Found Her /Kimberly McCreight / HarperCollins / published 2015
Kimberly McCreight’s first novel, Reconstructing Amelia, was a bit of a phenom, sitting on the New York Times Best Seller list, being nominated for an Edgar and a couple others, obtained in 17 countries – it was a bit of a thing. I had picked it up at one point but life got in the way and I never got much past the beginning. My guilt over that compelled me to pick up her second novel a a couple of weeks ago.
In a nutshell, this is a thriller that tells multiple stories: one, a dead newborn found in the water and no clue as to her parentage; two, Molly, a woman struggling with a miscarriage and rebuilding her life with a new career; three, a teenage girl with a train wreck of a mother trying to survive her life; and four, the local sheriff, his brittle wife, their overachieving teenage daughter, and their falling-apart young son. Throw in a few side characters for atmosphere and shake. Life in a small town being what it is, the paths of all the players converge and separate and tangle up again as the novel moves toward an answer to the looming question: Whose baby is it, and how did she end up Where They Found Her?
Overall, I thought it was a good story, but I am not a fan of the writing style of this particular novel:
References are made to things that the reader is not yet privy to; once or twice, that’s intriguing, provocative. As often as it happens here, however, it’s frustrating.
Time shifts in odd ways; sometimes a conversation that seems to have just happened turns out to have happened weeks previous.
As Molly investigates the baby’s origins, she posts news items online as a companion to the pieces that appear in the printed paper. Her writing is… Well, every piece felt like something I would expect to see in a high school newspaper, not the town paper. The items definitely have a different “voice” than McCreight’s, but that voice doesn’t seem to fit Molly, either. The online blurbs seem to have been included solely so that the reader has access to the townsfolk’s comments that follow each piece. It felt gimmicky and unnecessary, even when a mini-mystery about those comments is also solved.
Overall, it’s not a bad story, but it felt a little simplistic while also feeling a little cluttered. A lot of characters are introduced at the outset that probably could have been handled with a bit more elegance. There were a few lightbulb moments that were fun as pieces clicked into place, but none of those pieces added up to the gut-punch I was hoping for.
I cannot take one more news item about a baby dying in a hot car because a parent forgot the baby was there. I am starting a Twitter campaign called #stepbackforbaby to try and help: When you put the baby in the car seat, take off one of your shoes and put it in the seat or the floor of the back of the car. When you get where you’re going, you will have to get your shoe from the back – and will not be able to avoid seeing the baby there.
Housebreaking / Dan Pope / Simon & Schuster / published May 2015
I received an advanced reader’s copy of Dan Pope’s second novel, Housebreaking, and finally started reading it a week ago. It’s a little hard to categorize this novel for me, other than to say it’s contemporary fiction. There’s a little bit of mystery, but it’s not a crime novel or a mystery novel. There is some romance, but it’s not a bodice-ripper: the sex is more about longing than lust. This is mostly a novel about family and silence, and the terrible consequences of staying hidden from one another. It’s about the evolving shape of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, the past and the present. It’s about fidelity and infidelity (marital and otherwise), and the weight of grief.
The first part of the book is told from the perspective of Benjamin Mandelbaum, who has moved back into his elderly father’s home after he’s kicked out of his own home by his wife. Soon after moving in, he notices that someone else has also moved onto the street – his high school crush, Audrey Martin. A not-so-chance encounter brings the two of them together and Benjamin discovers something about Audrey’s not-so-distant past that she doesn’t want him to know.
As the story counts down to Thanksgiving, the perspective of the second half of the book varies between Audrey, her husband, and her daughter. We see some of the same events play out again, but the more information we get the more we realize something else is looming, and it all centers around the upcoming holiday. The last act of the novel takes us through Thanksgiving and its aftermath, and the epilogue brings us full circle back to Benjamin.
For a novel in which not a lot “happens,” a lot happens. Relationships form, are broken, are healed, are not. Lives are altered for better and worse and somewhere in between. People try to escape their pain in various ways, none of which works long-term. Characters who make the leap to change are the only ones who have any real peace. We see others beginning to make the same mistakes that got them where they were at the start.
I recommend this novel as one you can read for a while, put down, think about, and come back to. There aren’t a ton of characters, so it’s easy to get back into the story. It’s well written, and I found myself thinking about the characters at odd moments. There was a sense of reality to it that I appreciated: there were no perfect people, no fully bad people, no pat situations or resolutions. There was both hope and resignation, just like life.
Tons of people have now seen Gerald Rogers’ Facebook note regarding marriage rules from a newly-divorced guy, which first hit the social media site in 2013 but is making the rounds again. If you missed it, you can read it here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151735776813486&set=a.81166678485.79418.696628485&type=1&theater
I’ve been married for just under eight years, and with my husband for coming up on ten. We have a really solid, fun partnership that has had its challenges. We married later than a lot of people (I was 37, he was 34) and neither of us had ever intended to get married. It just wasn’t on the Bucket List for either of us. Something happened when we found each other, though, and neither of us could imagine not being together always. (Yes, it was just that sappy and Disney.) So here are my little bits of wisdom, drawing on what works for us and what didn’t, and what clearly doesn’t work in other relationships to which I’ve been a close witness. (I have sometimes used “men” or “women” below; please know it is just for convenience’ sake. If you’re in a same-sex partnership or you’re a husband, just switch gender/pronoun – hopefully the tips apply to both partners!)
For me, the most important part of Rogers’ advice is “What you focus on expands” – so if you focus on the flaws, those seem to get bigger, while if you focus on the loving/caretaking/funny things your partner does, you see those more. (I can attest that this works, even if you have some OCD issues.)
My biggest rule is, “Always act as if Spouse is standing beside you.” If what you’re saying would disrespect/hurt the feelings of/be a betrayal of Spouse, DON’T SAY IT. If someone oversteps boundaries with you, react as you would if spouse was there – by clearly and definitively letting them know they have overstepped and it will not happen again or you will no longer be friends/report them to HR/call the police/whatever is appropriate. Then tell your spouse. Do not badmouth your spouse to other people. You will (most likely) forgive them, and might even forget about it – the person you talked to, who is not around for the resolution, does not have the benefit of that and will carry those mistrustful feelings.
Ask yourself, “If Spouse was gone tomorrow – not on a business trip, not run off with a stripper, but no-longer-breathing-GONE, would the thing I’m so upset about right now matter, or would I regret the time I wasted being crazy over it?” So Spouse loads the dishwasher differently, and you know you do it better, and it’s just such a waste of space/water/electric that you want to scream – yeah, I get all that. Does it matter? (Hint: the answer is No.) Does Spouse drink too much under certain circumstances, or turn to drugs or shut you out when they’re having a hard time? THAT matters. That has to be dealt with, one way or another. Socks on the bedroom floor when the hamper is right there is not something to lose your mind over. Again, focus on the good, and the dishwasher and socks will start to become a little private joke with yourself.
Think about Spouse during your day; leave them dry-erase or sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, send them silly or sexy texts. (Don’t bombard, just now and then send a “You’re so sexy to me” note or “I’m so grateful for the hundred little ways you take care of our family” text or bury an “I love you because” card in their underwear drawer so when they find it, it will be a surprise for you both.) Everyone wants to feel special and important, and out-of-the-blue declarations of love – and the reasons for it – are an ego boost and help strengthen the bond between you. And reminding Spouse that they’re sexy also reminds YOU that they are, so you’re more likely to leave a note on the kitchen counter that says, “Kids are at Grandma’s until 7. I’m upstairs and naked.”
Speaking of naked, say yes to sex most of the time. And initiate. Even if you’re tired, even if you’re in the middle of a really good chapter, even if you’ve been waiting for two weeks to watch this episode. I don’t mean to have sex if you’re mad or ill or if you’re going to resent Spouse for interrupting you. I mean if the alternative is not that important in the long run – the chapter/show will be there tomorrow, and unless you’re already on a serious sleep deficit, you’re probably okay to take 15 or 20 minutes for some monkey love. A lot of times, “meh” turns into “well, alrightie then!” once you get going. It’s an important connection and one that sometimes does actually have to be scheduled. I know it doesn’t sound very romantic, but sometimes knowing that you’re going to have sex in ten hours builds its own anticipation. If Spouse is a little on the quick-draw side, make sure there’s foreplay, or that your needs are met first. If you take a long time to get warmed up, start things rolling on your own. (As a side benefit, an insane number of men are turned on by being present for their woman’s self-starting.) Try to be open to new things. Everyone has some things that are off limits, and that’s okay, but try not to balk at something because you feel fat or haven’t shaved your legs or the light in here is really unflattering or… Spouse thinks you’re sexy; you just need to trust that and revel in it.
Turn toward each other, always. Granted, both of you have to do this, and it takes work to get used to being that vulnerable, but deal with anything that comes up together. Don’t turn to a third person with your relationship woes unless it’s a therapist. You both have to be a soft place to land for each other, even when it’s scary to admit you’re scared/ashamed/hurt, and even when you’re both stressed to eleven. Therapy may be called for in many situations, even if you’re just feeling stressed about life in general and not anything Spouse has done – don’t worry about that, just get the help you need. If you need outside help working through something in the marriage, do that with a therapist, not your non-spouse best friend, and not that charming opposite-sex person at work who just happens to be single/having a rough time in their own marriage and who always seems to be so attentive and laughs at your jokes. That’s not real. That’s someone who has never seen you at your worst and does not deserve the information you should be giving to Spouse. That person is not qualified to help you with your marriage and Self issues. That person’s name is either Temptation or Doubt or Ease, but their last name is Fantasy.
Split the job. Is one of you better with money and budgeting? That job goes to that person. In return, the other does the laundry. Is one of you more patient with the kids right after dinner, while the other is better for whole days on the weekends? Split that up. If things start to feel unbalanced, then just like everything else, it’s time to renegotiate.
Marry your friend. I know, I know, most people say their spouse is their best friend. Think about it before you get married, though. Is future spouse treating you/speaking to you in a way you would allow from your best friend? Is future spouse the first person you want to share everything with, good and bad? On any given day, is future spouse the person you’d rather spend the day with? Are you that person for future spouse? There are some things we all would rather do with other friends because it’s not so fun for Spouse – taking mine for a pedicure would be absurd, for instance, and the resulting spasms from someone touching his ridiculously ticklish feet would most likely lead to injuries and a law suit – but for most things, Spouse should be the one you want to do things with or tell all about it later.
Listen to each other. Even if you don’t care about fishing or sewing or nuclear physics, listen anyway and ask questions. Be happy that Spouse has something that makes them relaxed/exuberant/curious. You don’t have to do the thing yourself or care at all about (or even understand) the thing. You just have to appreciate that it’s important to Spouse and be happy that they want to share it with you because of the happiness it makes them feel.
Take time for yourself, and for your other friends. Go to a concert with a buddy, go see a movie Spouse doesn’t care about, take a long drive just to drive. Take a class or go to the gym or paint. Whatever recharges you or feeds something that Spouse can’t, go do that. You’ll come home feeling better and you might have a funny story or insight or idea to share with Spouse. Allow them the same space. Mutual friends and shared interests are important, but it’s also important to have things each of you does without the other. It can help you stay connected to yourself, help your other friends not worry you’re in a cult because they haven’t seen you for seven months, and gives you something new to talk about at home.
Be honest. Even if it hurts, even if you’ve made a Really. Big. Mistake. Trying to cover it up or ignore it is a huge chip in the trust you’ve built. A hard conversation (or six, or fifty) is better than getting away with it even once, because it’s more tempting to do it again. And even if you don’t ever do it again, you know you’re keeping something from Spouse that, in their shoes, you would want to know. You’re cheating yourself and your partnership from a place of fear or regret.
Your marriage should be your most precious thing. If you have kids, you should both be working to protect and nurture and love the kids, but that’s a lot easier when your partnership is strong and united. Kids who grow up seeing their parents happy with each other and able to work out conflicts in a healthy way are far more likely to demand more of their future partners and deal with their own problems better. Speaking of kids: Don’t fight behind closed doors – kids know you’re fighting and it scares them. They need to see that conflict doesn’t mean the end of a relationship, and that you can be mad at someone and still love them, still work out the problem in a way you’re both okay with and move forward.
Do not having screaming matches (with or without kids): always fight fair, which means the argument is about whatever immediate issue is on the table, not something that happened four years ago. If you’re resolving things as you go, this is a lot easier – do not tamp down or let things fester. When it’s resolved, let it go. (This is a hard one.) Do not call one another names. “You never listen to me!” is not helpful. “When you say you’re going to have this done by Saturday and then Saturday has come and gone without a glance, it makes me feel like you don’t care about what I want” is better. And say Thank You – and feel Thank You. Recognize that effort was made for you. It’s important for kids (and Spouse) to hear, “This was a delicious dinner; I’ll take care of the cleanup” or “Thank you for doing the laundry when it was my turn; you gave me a gift by letting me concentrate on what I was doing without having to stop to fold clothes.”
You’re in charge of your own happiness. It doesn’t come from things or other people, and it’s not Spouse’s job to make you happy or cater to your every whim or provide you with truckloads of cash to roll around in (although, you know, don’t turn that cash down if it’s an option). It’s Spouse’s job to share in your happiness, to try to make your life easier through partnership, to be supportive and encouraging of you, and to be your cheerleader. It’s perfectly natural to feel happier with Spouse around – brain chemistry and pheromones are beautiful things sometimes – but recognize that what you feel is coming from yourself in reaction to Spouse. Just like with your other friends, Spouse’s behavior and personality can affect your mood, but Happy is a thing of its own and you bring that from inside.
Books have marked me since I was first aware of language. They were so much a part of my life that I sort of learned to read by osmosis before I ever started school. My mother thought I had just memorized all my books until we were visiting friends and I started reading their kids’ books that I had never seen before. Spending time in the school library in elementary school was a gift; the occasional trip to the Big Library in Charleston was huge for me, and I have very vivid memories of sitting at the end of a stack with sunlight coming through the windows, fully engrossed.
Books have been a huge part of my life as far back as I have memory. They have always provided escape and education, and I truly believe they have helped me to be a more empathetic person than I would otherwise have been. In an American Fiction course recently, one of our first assignments was to write about why we still read the classics, and if we found ourselves in the material. For me, it’s the letting go of myself that holds the appeal: I don’t look for myself in fiction; I look for the Other, that chance to live lives and see worlds I never would otherwise. I love slipping into someone else’s life for a little while and taking a look around. And sharing books? Getting to make recommendations or give warnings to other folks looking for a good read? Terrific. To that end, I’m going to add a book review section to these pages. They will all be called Bookmarked, with the title of the book.
And so what about this lump?
Funny little kids’ word, lump.
Not so funny to find one in the shower.
What to do first?
Breathe first –
don’t panic –
don’t think of a hospital room
and a morphine drip,
a three a.m. phone call
with news that’s inevitable
but still a heart-rending,
Turn off the water.
Don’t spend too long
with your face in the warm towel:
too easy to collapse in tears.
Don’t look in the mirror:
the shock reflected will send you to the floor.
Do it quickly; don’t linger,
or your mind will drift
to a day in July
when the people of a small town
formed a line of love and loss
that went out the doors and down the block
and halfway around the next
just to say goodbye.
Go to the phone –
the number’s right there –
Don’t notice that your hands are shaking;
make an appointment.
Don’t let your voice tremble –
just a funny little word.
Such a long time;
so long to wait
before someone can say,
“You needn’t have worried,
it will be okay.”
So now all there is to do
is wait and not tell anyone
until you can say,
“Oh, I was concerned for a while,
but it turned out to be
Nothing at all.”
So don’t make anyone scared for you.
Just sit with your hands clasped
and watch the minutes tick past
and try not to think.