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Archive for January, 2018

My book club chose Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett for our February meeting. I approached it with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. Curiosity because the book was nominated for and/or won several major awards, and because I enjoy the reading recommendations of my book club friends. Trepidation because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about the subject: the impact of mental illness on a father (John) and son (Michael) and on their family members (mother Margaret, siblings Celia and Alec). I spend a fair amount of my life energy thinking about mental illness already. It’s not something I want to do in my free time. Or that I felt entirely prepared to do. My instincts were right all the way around.

I was prepared to read Imagine Me Gone quickly and let it go until the book club meets. Like ripping off a bandaid, I told a friend. As I read, I lined up some things not to like about it: the first pages clearly give away what’s going to happen. There are alternating chapters told by different characters, which is not my favorite narrative structure, so I was ready to dislike that, or find it uneven. And there’s a verbal barrage of music information that struck me as a little show-offish.  Also Celia’s and Alec’s lives seem barely explored, and Margaret’s not much more.

But no matter how I tried not to like it, and no matter how raw and painful the story is, I couldn’t entirely dislike this book. It’s been several days since I finished reading Imagine Me Gone and I am still thinking about the characters almost every day. I concede that it’s probably for the best that Haslett hints at what’s coming as the novel opens. Hearing the points of view of the characters in turn definitely helps illuminate the wide ranging impact mental illness has on the family.  And all that detail about music and musicians is key to understanding the way Michael, the eldest son in the family, sees the world.

I still can’t say I enjoyed reading this book. It’s a hard book about painful topics, and it lays bare how much the mental health care system gets wrong in a way that I can’t quite fully deal with. I do think the alternating chapters were a little jumpy in places and that some of the characters didn’t seem to get enough attention — although that may have been a deliberate attempt to show them eclipsed by John’s and Michael’s mental illness. In particular, I alternately admired and felt frustrated with Margaret (as do her children) and while Haslett lets her finer qualities show a bit at the end, I found it hard to see her angry, unsupported and unsure of what to do for so long.

Do I recommend Imagine Me Gone? I think so. It’s about being human, just in a lot of really painful ways, and it is oozing that “big T” Truth that tells a reader things they always knew but never thought of in quite that way, both marks of good fiction. But if you are living close to the world of mental illness, consider yourself warned that you may feel sick by the end. I do look forward to discussing it, I think.

 

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The former “Teen the Younger”* gave me Queen of the Underworld for Christmas. I’d heard of but not read Gail Godwin. I seem to say that a good deal lately, don’t I? When this novel opens, Emma Gant is freshly graduated from University of North Carolina and is off on a train to her first job, as a reporter for the Miami Star. Her mother’s college friend, who Emma calls “Aunt Tess,” lives there, and helps Emma get settled into a hotel near the Star‘s offices, run by and full of Cuban exiles who have escaped Castro’s revolution. Her only other friend in Miami is actually her lover, the much older Paul Nightingale, who hired her as a waitress at his North Carolina inn the previous summer.

That backdrop sets the scene for Emma’s flowering life. Godwin infuses her heroine with the verve and hunger of an ambitious young writer hoping to make her mark, and fills her life with incredibly colorful characters — Paul and Tess both have interesting and complicated lives, and so do the many Cubans and fellow journalists Emma meets in her first ten days in Florida. And she meets the infamous titular character, a country girl from Georgia who was duped and set up as a madam by a young mobster.

Now known as Mrs. Brown, this former madam becomes Emma’s creative outlet, the story she can’t write for the paper but dreams of writing anyway. The setting of the novel is brief — covering under two months of Emma’s life — but gives us a view into her hopes for a novel, her visions of a future for herself, and the world in south Florida in 1959. It was a good read, interesting, educational (for me — I didn’t know much about the time and place, or the beginning of Castro’s rule), with a compelling heroine and no pat ending. In the afterword Godwin describes it as an “apprentice novel” and talks about other such works, and that essay alone is worth reading. The novel was a good escape into another uncertain and challenging time from our own. What a delight to receive a present like this!

*Longtime bookconscious readers know that for several years, I used to write about what my offspring, who I eventually called Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger in this space, and my spouse, The Computer Scientist, read as well as my own reading.

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Librarians read lots of reviews, so I’d heard about Jon McGregor. But it wasn’t until a friend in my book group recommended Reservoir 13 that I finally got around to reading his work. I order fiction for my library so I knew the book, but I didn’t think I’d want to read it because it was about a missing teen. Only it’s not, as my friend noted when she raved about it. It’s really about the people who live in an English village where a teen goes missing.

McGregor’s prose is meticulous — he doesn’t talk about bugs and birds and plants, but springtails (which I learned, when I looked them up, are technically “hexapods,” not bugs), fieldfares, and teasels. He notes the passing of seasons by things like when it’s lambing time, when the badgers mate, and when fox cubs leave their dens. And also in human terms like when it’s time for the well-dressing, when the allotments are planted or harvested and what grows when in them, and when it’s time for the annual cricket match against a neighboring village or the village pantomime.  All this detailed observation adds to the rich pattern of the writing.

And that writing is melodious, almost musical, with certain refrains repeating again and again through the passing years of the novel. For example, this description of the girl: “Her name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body-warmer.” And phrases, like, “At midnight when the year turned . . . .” And “Cathy knocked on Mr. Wilson’s door and asked whether Nelson needed a walk . . . .”

This repetition, along with the turning of the seasons and the years, creates a sense of the ebb and flow of village life. Challenges and joys come and go, but things go on, the people who remain manage, look after each other, keep things running. Characters rise and fall — the focus isn’t on one or two people with minor supporting characters but instead on bits of many villagers’ lives. Some remain throughout the book, some move on, or fade into the background.

If you like a strong narrative, clear answers, or a lot of action, this book won’t be for you, but if you want a meditative, thoughtful read about the basic decency and humanity of people with all their faults and foibles, and the way people survive the few among them who lack that basic decency, this is a beautiful read.

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