Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Summer Reading

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Before reading I knew this much – On Chesil Beach tells a brief story of one difficult wedding night between an inexperienced British couple in the 1950’s.

(And this: The library’s waiting list had 100 people! Who can wait that long? And who adds their name after number, say, TWENTY?)

And this: Ian McEwan is a master.

After Atonement’s hot sex scene in the library – a scene so well realized that it supports the entire surrounding story, after the patient attention to minute and telling detail of Saturday, I had great confidence in McEwan and great hope for his newest book.

Expectations confirmed.

A frightened bride and her over-eager new husband, two children really, who cannot break through their own shells of need to enter the mystery, work, sacrifice and imperfect joy of marriage. Deeply, deeply sad.

Half way into the fascinating back-stories of Florence and Edward, I had to stop and ask that age-old reader’s question: how does he do it? I started examining sentences, looking for verbs. The description is lovely, yes, but it must be the action words that propel our reading.

First, a passage about Florence’s distance:

“She turned back to him. ‘I was curious about you.’

“But it was even more than that. At the time it did not even occur to her to satisfy her curiosity. She did not think they were about to meet, or that there was anything she should do to make that possible. . . . Had it taken her this long to discover that she lacked some simple mental trick that everyone else had, a mechanism so ordinary that no one ever mentioned it, an immediate sensual connection to people and events, and to her own needs and desires? All those years she had lived in isolation within herself and, strangely, from herself, never wanting or daring to look back.”

Look, nothing spectacular by itself. The verbs, commonplace. But in context, everything. Piercing understanding.

Now Edward:

“A sudden space began to open out, not only between Edward and his mother, but also between himself and his immediate circumstances, and he felt his own being, the buried core of it he had never attended to before, come to sudden, hard-edged existence, a glowing pinpoint that he wanted no one else to know about. She was brain-damaged and he was not. He was not his mother, nor was he his family, and one day he would leave, and would return only as a visitor.”

Do you see it? Feel it? The syntax alone, only a tool, does not matter – it is the way McEwan wields it on my history, yours too? Does the passage bring you back to this moment of separation, probably in your teen years, a moment of terrifying freedom and possibility and sadness at what you were deliberately leaving behind?

The Bitch in The House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer

A collection of essays with the common denominator of anger doesn’t sound like a great read for someone seeking peace and balance. But The Bitch in the House has a lot to offer for enlightenment, especially for mothers who are battling the image (self-imposed or cultural) of the serene queen of the home with the frustrating realities of work, child care, and partner relations.

The collection opens with mostly younger voices. I didn’t relate much to these briefer essays. The women here write of expectations of marriage or relationships that seem as close to me as Venus. I did not picture myself setting up house with a man; I rarely pictured myself as a bride. Those fantasies seemed too conventional, too Barbie, too uncomfortable. (Nascent feminist stirrings? Misapprehension of the nature of marriage? Some self-esteem issue? I’ll work that out with my therapist.)

Anyboo, once I got to the second section “For Better and Worse,” about the meat and heat of permanent partnerships, I became more engaged. Catherine Newman, with her typical humor and candor, argues against marriage to the father of her two children. Finding out she identified as lesbian for years before finding her Michael feels like sharing a confidence with an old friend.

By the time we work up to mother anger and the fear of its power in the central section, “Mommy Maddest,” I felt at home. Here, in Kristin van Ogtrop’s “Attila the Honey I’m Home” and Elissa Schappel’s “Crossing the Line in the Sand: How Mad Can Mother Get?” is what I have been searching for, true and familiar stories of frustration beyond control. Here I find the fury that is missing from Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, with its mild tone and maddening calm. (Edelman does let loose a little more in her contribution here.) I almost weep at finding sisters who share their struggles with nearly unbounded outrage and overwhelming guilt over the worst crime of all –collateral damage to our children.

These essays made me wonder how many of the frustrations that vex mothers today are ancient and how many emerged with our recent gains earned in the workplace and society. Do stay at home mothers today feel more isolated than ever? Do working moms feel new stresses of competition, as well as the pressure to make their house a home? Without ever wanting to return to that time, do we miss the imagined community and collectivism of another generation, when Mom at home always knew women like her were right next door?

The established and experienced voices of Ellen Gilchrist and Vivian Gornick wrap up this collection best with wisdom and lovely prose. Gilchrist, a mother and grandmother, and Vivian Gornick, single and without children, offer contrasting but hopeful portraits of women thick in the continuing fight for personal independence, maturity and balance.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

“That’s a white cabbage butterfly!” called Mia, fresh from her Creepy Critters camp at the Botanical Garden. I’m proud and pleased. My friend Christina says West Nile has destroyed many of birds that serve as the butterflies’ natural predators. Seen many crows lately? No, come to think of it.

Here in our neck of the woods it’s been a summer of animal encounters. Cicadas, butterflies, chipmunks and bunnies have all invaded our yard. The “tip-mokes”, as Nora calls them, even made it into our kitchen.

One twilight this July we watched three mature rabbits feed in our backyard. They chased each other, and one leaped startlingly high in the air. A tiny baby rabbit hopped close by, his head barely higher than the blades of shorn grass. Did this sight inspire me to pick up Watership Down AGAIN?

It must have been my fourth reading – I loved this as a kid. And once again, it delivered. A barn burner, a page turner, a great old-fashioned adventure story, whose main characters happen to be rabbits. Fiver, Bigwig and company set out to escape a vision of disaster for their old tribe and establish a safe warren of their own. The band of bunnies on the march reminded me of nothing so much as Saving Private Ryan, with its own engaging heroes, comedians, strategists and tired foot soldiers.

There are hair-raising raids and escapes, funny folk tales, fascinating passages of bunny lore and culture. The thrilling climax is written with tension-building cross-cutting worthy of Griffith. And the story brings up larger issues about the environment and our place within it.

“Bluebell had been saying that he knew the men hated us for raiding their crops and gardens, and Toadflax answered, ‘That wasn’t why they destroyed the warren. It was just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves.’”

There’s a mother metaphor here. Perhaps one mother’s pest is another mother’s bunny. Perhaps there’s a story here about a tired and distracted mother who can sometimes become Farmer Magregor, thinking only of protecting her own harvest, forgetting how natural is the playfulness and mischievousness in her own backyard creatures.

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