Thursday 26 October 2023

The Hero of this Book


Elizabeth McCracken is a novelist, not a memoirist, but I found her firstly in 'An Exact Replica ...' nearly a decade ago, swiftly followed by 'The Giant's House'. 'The Hero of This Book' is a novelisation of her relationship with her extraordinary mother.  In the story the narrator retraces some of her final times spent with her mother, and navigates the grief of losing a much loved parent. There was so much to love about this book, so here come a bunch of quotes, because the story reflects thoughtfully on loss, parents and life in general. This first one I liked, because it makes a distinction about different kinds of loss:

"Condoling friends used the words grief and mourning. But neither was what I felt. All my life I'd heard people use those words to discuss the ordinary deaths of elderly people - or, worse, elderly animals - and (I am hard-hearted) I found them melodramatic. Those old people and dogs were never going to be immortal. Grief, as I understood it - grief and I were acquainted - is the kind of loss that sets you on fire as your struggle to put it out. My mother's death hadn't changed my mind. I just missed her. I hated to see her go. But she's had a sweet end, or so I kept telling people, though who was I to speak for my mother? She'd hate that, my opinion about her experience. It was sweet for her family, at home with hospice nurses and cats, and friends around the bed, at the time - 2018 -  when you couldn't count on a sweet end but it wasn't impossible." (p.5)

What her mother didn't approve of:

"I took her hand. I did this without permission. My mother was not a hand-holder. I sat by her bed. I said, 'I'm sorry this happened to you.' Without permission. I found her dear in her reduced state. I called her honey. I kissed her hello and goodbye. I can't imagine she approved of any of it.
Not this, either: typing sentences about her, calling her only my mother, as though that were her most important identity. 'I don't approve,' she said, of Barbie dolls, and certain flavors of bagels, and all bagels cut in half, and eating anything but the traditional pies on Thanksgiving; she disapproved of fiction written specifically for young adults (she believed they should be reading William Saroyan) and tutus on small girls. She enjoyed being a crank." (p.62-3)

This lovely interaction in a corner shop:

"I thought about buying cigarettes - I smoke sometimes when I travel - but they were kept behind doors, so you couldn't look at brands and then say casually 'Silk cut, please.' You had to be a serious smoker with a plan, and I wasn't. Years before I'd been a devotee of the English ten-pack; a lovely thing, to be able to buy just ten cigarettes at a time. Like my father before me, I fooled myself when it came to bad behaviour. I worried that the young woman behind the store counter wouldn't like me if I asked. For anything large, I don't worry about judgement. Only for the cigarettes, the 10:30am prosecco. Only going on a Ferris wheel by myself, alone and middle-aged. She had a pretty, lupine face.
I pretended I didn't speak the language, put my sandwich and brownie on the counter, and paid in coins, which I counted out as though I were unfamiliar with the notion of money. I tried to look worthy of kindness." (p.92)

And the trials of old age, to be resisted at all costs:

"But her and my mother knew: When you're old, safety is overrated. Safety is the bossy Irish lady, who is, after all, your employee, taking away your wineglass, saying, 'That's enough, that's enough now, that's enough now, darlin'.' Safety puts you in a nursing home and turns you over regularly so that you do not die in your sleep. You could be kept for years if you weren't careful , like a roped-off chair in a museum that nobody is allowed to sit in, which makes it only something shaped like a chair. Watch out for safety. It will make you no longer yourself, only an object shaped that way." (128-9)

The narrator has a lovely visit to London, relishing doing things alone. Relishing things she might not have done with her mother. Missing her mother, but enjoying her activities while thinking how she had loved doing them with her mother, recalling her mother's exuberant enjoyment of life.

It's a story, it's not a memoire about Elizabeth's mother, but I hope it nearly is. 

Stay safe. Be kind. Mum's are the best.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

October Flowers


I chopped down a load of stuff in the garden a week or so ago, and just left it in a huge heap hoping it might dry off or something. It is all still a mess. But I popped outside just now to see what has been going on and found all sorts of delights. Above, a sunflower in with the plum tree.
Below, the miniature rose decided it was warm enough to put out some fresh blooms:
The persicara flowers on and on since July:
The morning glory was a disappointment all summer, growing huge and attaching itself to the honeysuckle but no flowers ... and then suddenly a few weeks ago a fabulous display of bright blue ... delightful:
Some random borage self seeded in one of the pots, it remains one of my favourites:
Indoors: I had left a couple of basil plants on the outside kitchen window sill (just to see how they would do) and I had bought one inside to use recently and now it's decided to flower too:
And the lemon pips that Dunk saved for me have all sprouted and now I have 3 tiny lemon trees:
And I totally forgot to mention that when I chopped down the *outside* cucamelon plant I was astonished to find it had fruited ... a dozen cucamelons ... I call that a win.
Stay safe. Be kind. Get another compost bin because it's amazing how much waste 20 square metres of concrete can produce.

Sunday 1 October 2023

A Guest is a Gift from God

Is a month long enough to have a half written blog post waiting around? Probably. So I will also tag on the end a list of the others that have also been read in the last month since I went to Devon.

'Elena Knows' by Claudia Piñeiro is not a detective novel. I keep reading that she is known for this genre, and while a death occurs and police are involved that is not what this book is about at all. Unless, I suppose, it is an investigation into a mother/daughter relationship. It was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize last year, probably how it appeared on my radar. Elena and her daughter Rita seem to have developed ones of those bickery but can't imagine life without you kind of relationships. We jump into their lives in the moments after Rita is found hanging in the church belfry and Elena insists that she did not commit suicide. She can't get the police to take her seriously, despite her repeated pestering, though the local detective placates the grieving mother by continuing to meet her and listen to her growing list of suspects. The main problem is that Elena has Parkinson's disease, and is incapacitated to a significant extent, and so realises she is going to need help with her investigation. There is only one person she can ask, who she feels owes Rita something, and the book follows her struggle to get to this person.

"Mum, enough, she said and she stood up, walked over to the stove, turned the flame to maximum, and set the pamphlets on fire. When the flame was about to burn her hand she let them fall, the charred pages fluttered to the green tile floor, landing beside the uncooked pieces of pasta that her mother had spilled.
Rita stood motionless watching the paper as it blazed, cracked, and danced until it changed colour, melted away, turned to ashes, and finally, went to the place that fire goes when it burns out." 

She despises Roberto, Rita's boyfriend, and his mother Mimi; here she is, under protest, having some beauty treatment, because Rita is disgusted by her hairy chin.

"Mimi said, your feet are a disaster, how do you even wear sandals with those heels? I just put them on, she answered, or Rita does it for me when I can't. At least put some lotion on them at night, Elena, that helps with the roughness. And even though Elena showed no concern for the roughness of her heels, Mimi said, I'm going to send you some calendula cream with Roberto. It'll just go to waste, Elena thought, because she wasn't willing to add any more chores to the unending list of daily challenges: walking, eating, going to the bathroom, lying down, standing up, sitting in a chair, getting up from a chair, taking a pill that won't go down her throat because her head can't tip back, drinking from a straw, breathing. No, she definitely wasn't going to put calendula cream on her heels." (p.98-99)

The pain and struggle she goes through to find out what really happened tells you more about her relationship with Rita than all the bickering. I liked her, she was so lacking in self-pity.

'Resistance' by Anita Shreve was a typical Anita Shreve picked up at Claire's house. I went through a bit of an Anita Shreve phase some years ago and loved her small town america stories. This one is set during World War Two however and concerns a shot down airman rescued by the French resistance. Lovely, atmospheric, and without the predictable ending, which was nice.

'Hard by a Great Forest' by Leo Vardiashvili, was won in a Caboodle competition and is not actually published until next year. Written by a Georgian writer about the war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent exodus of the family concerned. It is a part of the world that I know little about and it was a real eye-opener. Forced to make hard choices and haunted by the people they left behind, many years after their departure Irakli returns to Tbilisi on unfinished business. When he vanishes both his sons follow in a desperate search to find the truth. Well worth looking out for.

Quote from near the end:
"But then I remember one night from my childhood. I was in a bed, all alone in an unfamiliar bedroom. We must have been visiting someone. Pools of darkness filled the corners of the room - perfect hiding places for some other family's monsters. I kept my eyes open owl-wide. There was no way I'd sleep.
Irakli appeared in the doorway, haloed by cigarette smoke and lamplight from the other room. He came and sat down, shifting the bed with his weight. He didn't say much, and what he did say I can't recall. Vague words of comfort. Faint smell of tobacco and wine on his breath.
He put a hand on my chest. And finally, I slept.
Laid out on the lumpy wet forest floor, I try to feel the weight of my father's hand on my chest." (p.216)

'Lonely Castle in the Mirror' by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel, was pressed on my by Monkey because she wanted someone to discuss it with. I was confused, because I thought it was going to have more fantasy element, but it turned out to be a bunch of lonely teenagers learning about real friendship via a magical mirror world. Not my usual kind of thing but we had some interesting chats about it anyway.

'Wild Things' by Laura Kay was a lovely comfort read for me. El decides to have a year of doing scary things. But then suddenly she and a bunch of friends buy a house together when one of them breaks up with a girlfriend and is going to abandon their plans. It's all very cosy about them getting to know the locals and making their house and garden into a home. The main character faces her fears and has some personal growth, that kind of sentimental stuff. Sappy and heartfelt. I like one of these occasionally.

Currently reading 'A Widow for a Year' by John Irving, and not sure how I feel about it. Life a little in flux at the moment and struggling to hold it together. Stay safe. Be kind.

Post script: 
'A Lost Lady' by Willa Cather, picked up in the charity shop on the basis of having enjoyed My Antonia, was a small story of a woman's vulnerability. A young boy watches and idolises a local beauty, watching as her life's fortunes change, feeling both protective and often angry at her poor choices. While it was interesting it was mostly as a study of patronising misogyny: Marian fails to live up to to Niel's idea of what a woman should be and how she should behave.