Thursday, March 24, 2011

A review of Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich's novel of love's dissolution

Since reading the first, tormented pages of her beautiful, emotionally riveting first novel, “Love Medicine,” I have been drawn to works by Louise Erdrich, who in many of her novels weaves the lives of contemporary Native Americans into the complexity of modern times. She does so with honest, compelling characters, drawn within saga-like stories of families coping with alcoholism, joblessness, discrimination, misdirected passion, and insecurity—joined, for better and worse, by the stone-hard love of family and shared history.
Her 14th novel, Shadow Tag, details the dissolution of a marriage between an artist and an academic, twisting from the dangling ties of guilt and memory, acting out the cruel moments of extending a failed marriage beyond its time. Irene America has lost trust in her artist-husband, Gil, upon discovering that he has been reading her diary; she uses his deception as a final excuse to stop pretending love remains between them. Both are alcoholics, and he is an abusive father as well. He both loves and resents the children. She begins two diaries—falsifying the one he is reading with affairs intended to provoke him into ending the marriage he is so insistent on preserving; the other is true, locked away from him in a safe deposit box.
Yet, Irene is elementally attached to Gil, a noted artist, both as the subject of his acclaimed series of work, and as a woman who struggles against his faith in her, finding it hard to deceive her husband in the face of his suffocating control over her. Gil’s possession of Irene’s body through his art is complex, complete, invasive and cruel.
Throughout the story, Irene’s revelations about the exploitative, callous treatment of Indian people and animals that symbolize the very soul of the West by artist George Catlin, her doctorial subject, provide a parallel to her own life with Gil, and his fierce attempt at possessing her nature and freedom.
Erdrich’s portrayal of their deteriorating relationship is wrought through weakening cords of love and hatred, strength and weakness, need and resentment—territory the author undoubtedly knows from her own troubled marriage to author Michael Dorris, who committed suicide in the wake of a family trauma. Irene wants to let Gil go, but not destroy him. It is that conflict which ultimately destroys them both.
The story unfolds through both of her diaries, and a third narrative which fills in the gaps between her journals and records the anger and confusion of their children, while examining the ways men and women use each other for love, inspiration, fame, punishment.
Throughout her writing career, Erdrich has intimately created lives of contemporary Native Americans with both wit and tragic insight. Her words burn into the heart, changing what we know of modern Indian life—always on display for historians, curious non-Indians, art collectors, but lost to the truth.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A fun read - and a late night

Just finished a book that isn't exactly what I'd choose for book club material, but I do recommend it for the fun you may have reading it.
Cecilia Ahern is an Irish writer whose first novel, "P.S. I Love You" became a movie with Hilary Swank in a starring role. Not a bad start, eh?
"The Book of Tomorrow," her seventh release, has a stylish cover that caught my eye from the Thayer Memorial Library shelf recently, so I picked it up - knowing I had other books to read first - and brought it home to simmer while I plunged through Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections." (Correct me if I'm wrong, but that book is dense. Well-written, to be sure, with rich, showy language, humor and style, but dense, baby, dense.)
Finally I picked Ahern's novel up and started carrying it with me to waiting rooms, passenger seats and the kitchen table. It starts slowly and builds, requiring patience, so some folks will put it down, which is too bad. Its narrator is a blunt, smart-mouthed 16-year-old whose life is about to change - and I began to enjoy her sassy shock-value retorts as I got to know her.
"The Book of Tomorrow" is a mystery with gothic undertones, a la Diane Setterfield's "The Thirteenth Tale." Set in rural Ireland, on the grounds of a decaying castle, it's the story of a mouthy, wealthy teenager from the Dublin area whose life changes after her father's suicide. She and her traumatized mother are forced to move in with her quiet brother, Arthur, and his tight-lipped, domineering wife, Rosaleen. Young Tamara dubs them "the Deliverance duo." They live in a cottage near the ruins of a castle once occupied by an impoverished Irish family, and it's Tamara's boredom with rural life that leads to her discovery of an old book. She finds it's a journal with a twist: its blank pages reveal her own handwriting, and much about her life as it will unfold tomorrow, disappearing as each day unfolds and a new one begins. It's not long before Tamara is immersed in fearful concern for her unresponsive mother, growing suspicions about Rosaleen's control over them all, and a desire to figure out all the puzzles the book raises--including the old woman living in a shed on the property, and the nun who becomes her friend, but won't reveal much about secrets she certainly knows.
The story's pace picks up about mid-way, and "The Book of Tomorrow" becomes a page-turner. Even better, for me: it's a mystery I couldn't figure out. Ahern springs it on the reader skillfully. There are many unknowns, well masked, and it's only as Tamara unravels them that I, too, learned about her life.
This book has a contemporary setting, made gothic by its setting and the events that unfold, but it also has much of the spirit, bravado and curiosity an adolescent girl possesses. It's as good a read for teens as it is for their mothers!
In her acknowledgments, the author records her respect for booksellers - something we should all remember if we value the industry supplying us with worlds in print. I couldn't put it better myself: "In "The Book of Tomorrow" I share my belief in the magic of books, how I believe books must contain some sort of homing device, which allows them to draw the correct reader to them. Books choose their readers, not the other way around. I believe that booksellers are the match-makers. Thank you."
Well said.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Beginnings ...

I buy books, borrow books, trade books—and just plain “lift” them (not from stores)—out of pure love for them. I’m curious about the world they offer, or familiar with an author, or just like the promise of their liner notes. And, because I want to be a better writer, I read to learn my craft. About 20 percent of my library is dedicated to the writing profession.
I keep a good share of my books, and have a collection of about a thousand, ranging from history and biographies to novels, grammar and writers’ guides, the classics, short story and poetry collections, signed editions and best-sellers. I buy a lot of them, because I want to support authors and book stores—plain and simple. If too many of us cheap out, there may not be bookstores in the future. But that is a topic for another column.
I fell in love with reading as a child, spending summers with my grandparents at Chazy Lake, in the Adirondacks. Their camp (a rambling beauty with a Victorian roof, run-around porch and plenty of quiet nooks for reading) held shelves of books from a previous owner, a New York City family who proudly wrote their names on their summer reading selections—and generously left them there when they left. On my bed, in a chair, or on a porch step, I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books and Mars series; beautifully illustrated fairy tale collections from the early 1900s, now being republished for today’s children. I read “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Little Women,” “Robinson Crusoe”—book after book, day and night, until I was forced outside or to go to sleep. Fortunately, no one really cared how late I sat up in bed reading, the shutters banging in the wind and waves pounding against the shore. I found the Cherry Ames nursing series, written by two authors, and later wrote my own, original Nancy Drew mystery at 12 (receiving a D- for plagiarism, not realizing one couldn’t just do that. I guess only the Cherry Ames writers shared that privilege, along with all the nameless staff writers who today manufacture popular men’s thrillers for big-name writers whose name on the cover guarantees big sales).
Those summers, I was ignored as much as I wanted to be, left to read all I wanted, and this set the course of my life. I'm sure it's the same for many other readers. Quietly building a love of language, imagination, beautiful books and writing during those summers, I never left their worlds behind. I often imagined that city family, retiring to the woods for summers filled with reading.
Oddly enough, beyond “Dick and Jane,” I wasn't exposed to books at school until about I turned 12, and moved to a school that had a library. There, like a kid with bags and bags of Halloween candy, I worked my way through biographies and historical fiction for young readers. I fell in love with early American colonies and the Revolution, much later turning to histories, books and novels of the Civil War, early presidents, and current issues.
Rich with babysitting money, I joined the Book of the Month Club, turning to the historical fiction of Uris and Michener, DuMaurier and Mary Stewart, and the “Diary of Anne Frank,” which led to a lifelong interest in the Holocaust.
After high school, had I understood there were fields of study in creative writing, I might well have pursued it. Then again, perhaps not; I was hooked on newspapers at an early age, too, lying on the floor with the New York Times every Sunday morning. So I determined to be a journalist, and spent most of my working years in that field. I still work as a journalist, doing freelance business writing and editing for my main income; but my love is fiction, both in writing and reading.
What did it for you? Was there an Atticus Finch-like parent, reading to you before bed, or someone discussing characters or stories at dinnertime? Did you read with a family member or friend? Was it a teacher? One hopes these magical mentors are still around today, introducing our children and children’s children to a world they will otherwise fail to know and love—their lives much the poorer for it.