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Screen Shot 2013-05-07 at 8.56.58 AMLit is Mary Karr’s third memoir, following The Liar’s Club and Cherry.  Anyone who loves language will appreciate Karr’s soulful, acidic, blunt Texan voice, and if you are familiar with The Liars’ Club, you know that Karr’s childhood is unlikely and traumatic enough to merit a memoir in several volumes, no excessive navel gazing needed.

The last volume in the series, Lit, explores Karr’s writerly ambition and her initiation into higher education. The pain of her childhood is still palpable — in her emotionally disconnected marriage, her struggle with alcoholism, and in her exploration of the writing life.

If You Haven’t Read The Liars’ Club

Mary Karr grew up in a small, swampy, industrial town in Texas. Her father, J.P., worked in an oil refinery and her mother, Charlie was an aspiring painter who suffered from manic depression. Mary and her sister, Lecia were their anxious, obscenity-armed girls. The title refers to the colorful conversations between J.P. and his friends, swapping stories after a long shift. Karr takes a cue from her father, writing with charming swagger.

“The Bog Queen”

A large portion of Lit is dedicated to Karr’s battle with alcoholism and her subsequent conversion to Christianity. Compared to the vividly documented emotional abuse in The Liars’ Club, these struggles are more familiar. At the end of Lit, Karr moves her mother out of the family’s Texas home and into an assisted living facility.  The chapter opens with the line, “The house I grew up in sat in a bog, and in the middle of the house sat my mother, well into her dotage.”

A few weeks prior, Karr embarked on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, involving, among other things, classes, meetings with a spiritual director, journaling, and hours of prayer. She met with a Franciscan nun named Sister Margaret, “patiently going blind behind fish-tank glasses.” Sister Margaret listened patiently to Karr’s spinster fears, then gently suggested, “let’s eat a cookie and pray for each other’s disordered attachments. Mine involves pride and cookies.”

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Driving home, Karr feels confident about her spiritual exercises and a little smug about fulfilling her daughterly duties. When the Texas humidity and post-move exhaustion prompt an angry outburst from her mother, Karr lashes out, unleashing old wounds. This exchange leads to a search for her mother’s Bible, dated 1932. When she finds it, each of Sister Margaret’s suggested passages have been underlined by her mother in blue chalk. Taken aback, Karr writes that “this is not the parting of the Red Sea… [but] I know how specifically we [she and her mother] are designed for each other. I feel in a bone-deep way the degree to which I am watched over…”

It seems fitting that Karr’s conversion, and her writing, guides her back to the “Texas sinkhole” she wanted to escape. It is fitting that she experiences God’s grace within the confines of her challenging, highly imperfect, muddled relationship with her mother. Here are the last few sentences of Lit, ending the chapter called “My Sinfulness in All Its Ugliness”:

 “Every now and then we enter the presence of the numinous and deduce for an instant how we’re formed, in what detail the force that infuses every petal might specifically run through us, wishing only to lure us into our full potential. Usually, the closest we get is when we love, or when some beloved beams back, which can galvanize you like steel and make resilient what had heretofore only been soft flesh… It can start you singing as the lion pads over to you, its jaws hinging open, its hot breath on you. Even unto death.”

[Photos: “Pen and Paper,”qisur’s photostreamjacdupree’s photostream]

Victorian Novels + Hearing The Grass Grow

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 1.24.41 PMI have always liked nineteenth century Victorian novels. I find them only too true. They have a keen way of getting at the heart of things, you know. (I just finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Please pardon me if I can’t quite shake his roundabout, flared-nostril rhythms.)

When asked to describe my favorite books — George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – it can be awkward to enthusiastically endorse white male authors who wrote about aristocrats. (Okay, George Eliot was a white female writing under a pseudonym.) However, like a hipster with her Indie musician, I take reverse pride in my appreciation for these thoroughly vetted classics.

What is so revelatory? George Eliot puts it this way, in her masterwork Middlemarch:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

It’s the nuanced narration of ordinary life that turned me on to Henry James when I read Portrait of a Lady, often cited as his best book and inconveniently for me, his first book I read, sending me down an ever-loyal slope of slightly more underwhelming reads from Daisy Miller to Wings of a Dove until I hit bottom with his last and most excessive book, The Golden Bowl.

Zadie Smith has an essay called “Middlemarch And Everybody,” which I discovered in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. She talks about James, Eliot, and a variety of other topics. I had always felt the similar strain of psychological complexity running through Eliot and James, but I was glad to find a kindred, more articulate spirit in Ms. Smith. As a successful writer of contemporary fiction and not inconsequentially, a person of color, she states with added authority and eloquence what the Victorian novel offers to our modernized sensibilities:

“Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so humane. We are moved that…[Eliot] is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence.”

She summarizes George Eliot’s unique style as poetic, in the language of one of Eliot’s characters:

“To be a poet is to have a soul…in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge…”

This discerning, feeling voice sounds a lot like Henry James’s “sympathetic narrator,” the stylistic gift that led me to suffer through all 1496 pages of The Golden Bowl. I have emerged less blinded by the light, and can provide a bottom-line analysis for anyone who is entertaining a first-time foray into James:

Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer is a young, single, recently orphaned American facing a precarious financial situation and possessing a strong will to live independently. We meet her on an estate in London, the home of her British aunt, Lydia Touchett, who has invited her to experience Europe. James paints a vivid profile of Isabel’s charms — her combination of naiveté, sincerity, pride, curiosity, and innate intelligence — capturing the reader’s sympathies and the affections of Isabel’s uncle, Daniel, several rejected suitors, and her sickly cousin, Ralph. When Daniel dies, Isabel inherits a vast portion of his estate.

Ironically, Isabel becomes less and less in control of her destiny after inheriting her uncle’s estate. Due to her own misjudgments, her seemingly charmed fate slowly deteriorates. After turning down several suitors, she accepts the proposal of a snobby American expat who objectifies her and cheats on her.

Isabel’s disappointments feel tragic because James so carefully establishes her competence, then carefully, sympathetically describes how she faces the task of living with her mistakes. Maybe it’s such a beloved classic because it’s an eloquent meditation on the simple fact that life isn’t fair. “Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived… Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand” — this is Zadie Smith’s succinct analysis.

As for The Golden Bowl? Yawn. It’s all this stuff about seeing through the glass darkly, being deceived, plus oppressive, repetitive symbolism (a golden bowl that shatters at the peak of the deception, really?) told through choppy, cloying syntax, separated by oh, so many commas. But I can’t say it was pure misery. It transports you to a different universe, and true to form, the seemingly naive protagonist turns out to be the most interesting and calculating character of them all. Feel free to read the plot summary below, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, the whole thing. I’ve finally had too much of a good thing and I’m ditching Henry James in favor of Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, with sentences like “my first therapist’s name was — I shit you not — Tom Sawyer.”

The Golden Bowl

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 6.49.45 PMMaggie Verver is the daughter of a rich American art collector. She and her father have an unusually intimate relationship, having served as each other’s primary companion for many years, traveling the world on behalf of his collection. The book opens as Maggie prepares to marry an Italian prince. He takes a patronizing view of his future wife, openly wedding her for financial gain. Meanwhile, Maggie has trouble cutting emotional ties with her father.

To assuage Maggie’s guilt and to escape the older women now vying for his attention, Mr. Verver eventually marries Charlotte, Maggie’s childhood friend, a poised, cosmopolitan young woman, less privileged than Maggie. However, Charlotte and the Italian Prince have a lingering romantic connection that is first established when Charlotte and the Prince go shopping for Maggie’s wedding present and come close to purchasing a golden bowl.

Charlotte gradually enters into an affair with the Prince, Maggie becomes increasingly suspicious, and her suspicions are confirmed when she visits the London antiques shop with the golden bowl. The shopkeeper shows her the bowl and she suddenly realizes the truth.

The golden bowl then becomes a metaphor for the pristine, perfect deception that all four parties have partaken in, living in close, claustrophobic proximity on a lavish London estate. Maggie observes it in restrained silence with increasing comprehension. When she eventually confronts the Prince, her restraint seems to alter his perception of both Maggie and Charlotte, to Maggie’s advantage.

In the end, Charlotte and Mr. Verver move back to America. Maggie triumphs, given a fresh start with the Prince and their son. Wah wah.

[Photos: “Henry James,” mr lynch’s photostream, under CC by NC SA 2.0, “Golden Bowls,” mararie’s photostream, CC by SA 2.0]

Why Poets Make The Best Cooks

alphabet soup kids pastaIn January, I set what I considered a very realistic goal of one blog post per week. I have been slacking in recent weeks, due to added work…

Like many, I picked the blog format for its aspect of community that encourages lots of active writing and reading, an exchange of ideas, a way for me to overcome the impulse to constantly revise and post something regularly. It’s also cool (and a little scary) that the blog format allows so much transparency about the writing process, allowing you to see your and others’ thought process unfold over time.

What I read about “how to blog” has to do with frequent posts of limited length, emphasizing the social nature of blogging. I know that all writing is a social endeavor. In teaching, the social aspect of publishing, reading, and peer editing is seen as highly effective way to motivate students. But if writing in the traditional sense is inherently social, the blogosphere is like a cocktail party full of highly caffeinated people. When I look at people’s “blogrolls” I think, wow, this is incredible! And my enthusiasm is tempered by a desire to shut off my computer and pluck an actual book off the shelf.

One such book is called Not For Bread Alone: Writers on Food, Wine, and the Art of Eating. I typically have lukewarm feelings at best toward “food writing.” Excuse me for sounding elitist, but it often seems like cheat writing. (Which may seem ironic, considering the culinary and literary emphasis of this blog, but to me they occupy separate camps.) Or at least I personally want to sink my teeth into something beautiful and cathartic if I’m going to read a book. Likewise, I’d rather experience food firsthand 🙂

In this book, Joyce Carol Oates writes a provocative and impressively unsentimental food essay called “Food Mysteries” in which she articulates food impressions and memories that point to the kind of sly, penetrating truths at the heart of her short stories and novels. One such “food mystery” is that

“For the writer, the writing offered to other people is a kind of food. Thus the writer’s peculiar vulnerability, risking rebuff, misunderstanding. What nourishment! some may exclaim. What garbage! others may exclaim.

Which is why, for sheer delight, writers turn to real food. Poets make the best cooks. Prose writers, the most appreciate friends of poets.”

Even for the half-hearted, trepid writer in me, real food has indeed been a source of sheer delight in these past few weeks of procrastination. In my preoccupation with other work, I’ve happily neglected writing to turn out herb baked eggs, sautéed kale flavored with mushrooms, onions, and cranberries, mini pies, a large, quickly consumed casserole dish of homemade mac and cheese…

However, I am resolutely abandoning my excuses, putting a hold on popping things out of the oven to recommit to that other kind of nourishment, the self-discovery and clarity of mind that comes from writing. I am still trying to figure out what I am writing about exactly, how to integrate writing into my life, whether it is worth doing… you get the idea.

In challenging myself to answer these questions, I’ve come to the conclusion that “doing what you love” is an overused, misunderstood phrase. Do I love cooking? Yes, given the amount of time I can spend making mini pies or chopping vegetables. Do I love writing? No. I wouldn’t call it love. But I feel compelled to do it, and this tells me that I need to stick with it. It’s a mysterious thing, figuring out what we want, questioning ourselves and managing our time accordingly. In “Food Mysteries,” Joyce Carol Oates writes that

“Appetite is a kind of passion… Borne along irresistibly by the momentum of both, we never question our destination, still less its mysterious source. Nor should we.”

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