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Posts Tagged ‘Kerry Hudson’

I’m having a hard time believing January is almost over and I’m finishing the February column. This month I’ve read books by two New Hampshire authors, UNH professor John D. Mayer‘s Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives and Kristin Waterfield Duisberg‘s novel After, as well as Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers) by Daniel Jones, editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times and western Massachusetts resident.

And I’m coming up on the end of my first month of full time librarianship, which  I reflect on over at The Nocturnal Librarian. On my lunch break I tend to try to read for work: books to review for the column or for the library. Come evening, my brain is pretty tired, there are chores to do, and we’re catching up together as a family. Reading time is limited.

And I spent a chunk of it on a book I didn’t enjoy. My neighbor invited me to her book club (which due to unforeseen circumstances neither of us made it to this month) and their selection was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I got the impression Kingsolver was working overtime to prove her country creds. Take this sentence: “She’d asked him to tidy things up, but men and barns were like a bucket of forks, tidy was no part of the equation.” Clink, clank, clunk. The fork part just made no sense to me (why would they be in a bucket?) and “tidy is no part of the equation” sounded awkwardly like the Dowager Countess of Grantham trying to speak to a farmhand, not a country girl, albeit a well-read one, thinking to herself.

Given her reputation, I imagine Kingsolver is under pressure to perform every time, but this book’s sprawling high-minded themes — faith and love and family and the environment — got tangled in the “poor girl pulling herself up by her bootstraps even though she had a child too young and never had an education” story. I kept hearing Kingsolver’s voice (which she wields in fine essays on some of the same topics she tackles in this novel) and seeing her maneuvering the plot, rather than hearing her characters and seeing their lives unfold. I couldn’t help comparing it to Kerry Hudson‘s searing debut, also about  a smart but poor heroine, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma. Which I highly recommend.

I also read Mary Oliver‘s A Thousand Mornings. A well-read friend recently told me she find’s Oliver’s work trite. I wouldn’t go that far but I found this volume, published in 2012, less inspiring than some of Oliver’s earlier work at first. On re-reading, the poems are not as simple as they seem.

I chose this book because of another big change in the bookconscious household: Teen the Younger decided to go to high school rather than continuing to learn at home. Her favorite class so far? English. They’ve been reading poems from A Thousand Mornings. During her first week I gave her “Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins lest she rope Oliver’s poems to a chair. I was pleased to hear that her teacher mentioned this favorite of mine in class today.

The first poem Teen the Younger mentioned working on in class is “An Old Story” and said that being teenagers, her group was quick to gravitate to the last lines: “My heart says: there, there, be a good student./My body says: let me up and out, I want to fondle/those soft white flowers, open in the night.” Oliver is writing about ” . . . the first fragrances of spring/which is coming, all by itself, no matter,” but I can see how her imagery might be considered sensual, and I’m impressed that such lines, written by an openly lesbian poet, are discussed in Catholic school.

Yesterday they read and discussed “Poem of the One World: This morning/the beautiful white heron/was floating along above the water/and then into the sky of this/the one world/we all belong to/where everything/sooner or later/is a part of everything else/which thought made me feel/for a little while/quite beautiful myself.” I think what I have always liked about Oliver is that her words are deceptively simple but koan-like. Upon first reading this poem seems ho-hum. A pretty bird in the sky, the oneness of the world, we’ve heard this all before. But the way Oliver breaks the lines (which you can see here) creates a rhythm, a sort of chant or plainsong quality, that is “quite beautiful” itself. And there is wisdom in the poet’s mindfulness.

Which is what I need more than ever these days, with the new shape of our days, with new responsibilities and old roughing it together this cold winter.

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Over Thanksgiving weekend I read an advance copy of Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (due out in the U.S. in February). It was a squirm-inducing read; Hudson’s own upbringing “in a succession of council estates, B&B’s, and trailer parks” informs her debut, which portrays the bleak, depressing life of a single mother and her daughters Janie Ryan (who narrates the book from birth) and Tiny as they bounce in and out of housing projects in Scotland and England. Tony Hogan of the title beats the girls’ mother. Drugs and alcohol abound.

The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it. I kept thinking how random it is that I grew up in such a different world, when I know there were kids in my town whose lives were not a lot different than the Janie’s.

So why did I keep reading a book that made me feel miserable? Believe it or not, this is a love story. Because despite the soul crushing poverty and attendant overwhelming pain, Janie and her family love each other. Hudson has written a novel that simultaneously repulses and taps the depths of human pathos. But by the end of the story readers sense that Janie is going to be ok, despite the absent father, the wreck of a mother, the system that sees her as nothing but trash with no future but to repeat the pattern. What might save her? At the risk of over-simplifying, unconditional love. (And, I am extremely pleased to report, regular visits to the library from a young age.)

Hudson’s talent lies in her ability to write a story no one wants to hear but readers can’t seem to put down. The book was a sensation in Britain, garnering critical praise and prize nominationsGibson’s Book Club this week got into a discussion about what deserves to be called a great book. One thing we agreed on was that good writing doesn’t stay on the page — it enters our hearts and minds and lingers.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I continue to think of Janie. A fictional walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how painful, can influence the way we see each other in the real world. Janie was with me when I read an article this week about fast food workers’ hopes for living wages. And her world also brought to mind the families caught in the cycle of poverty in the incredibly moving documentary on hunger in America the Computer Scientist and I saw a few months ago, A Place at the Table. 

 I’m fortunate that with the final page of this book I put away the misery Janie lived with and stepped back into my own very comfortable shoes. I read to the end for her, and for everyone like her. Not because I can save them, but because I believe reading — and understanding in even the tiniest way what other’s lives are like — can save us all.

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