A Short History of a Small Place
Oh man, guys. This book was so fantastic. I started reading it, and the narrator in my head was speaking with my own accent.
Perhaps I am biased, as this book is set in small town North Carolina, round about where my father-in-law was born, in fact. But it's just good story-telling. There is the main story, about an old woman with a pet monkey who climbs the water tower and jumps off. In the course of telling this story, which continues with the aftermath of her suicide, then her funeral and estate sale (!), the narrator tangents off into dozens of tiny stories about the inhabitants of his little town. It is poignant, engrossing, and straight-up hilarious. This was a book that I was mad no one had told me about, particularly considering the proximity of the setting. So I'm telling you about it, whether you hail from 'round here or not.
A few years ago, I read Robinson's novel Gilead and was just blown away. Since then, I've gone ahead and picked up everything I find by her. When I picked out a book to read next, I at first grabbed Absence of Mind, which is about the tension between religion and science. I got about fifty pages in before I gave up, because she was talking at a higher level than I could manage. I could have done it, but I would've had to look up a word every paragraph or so. And by a word, I mean a whole philosophical concept (for example, Malthusian). I was not ready to commit to that, so I put it back on the shelf and went for some nice fiction instead.
Like Gilead, this is a quiet sort of book, set in the tiny railroad town of Fingerbone, Idaho. It focuses on two young girls who are passed from relative to relative. The housekeeping in the title refers more to the ways of creating a home, rather than things like sweeping the floor. Some of their guardians are better than others at those sorts of tidy jobs, but those are not necessarily the ones who provide the best "home."
Robinson writes beautifully. Josh says I read like a scientist, which means I read for plot, for the meat. That works for a lot of books, frankly, and so I passed years of English classes without ever knowing that I was missing things in books. You can still pick up things from the mood and tone, and you might even feel those things on some level as you read without noticing that they're even there.
It is not wrong to read this way, but it is limiting. You miss things, and there are whole books that you will not enjoy because not a dang thing happens. Like if you take a walk down the street you drive down every day and realize there are whole houses and yards that you'd never noticed before. Some books paint a picture, some tell a story, some do both.
Anyway, read Marilynne Robinson. She's good.
West into the Night
I remember buying this book a couple of years ago, when I was feeling frustrated with the recent streak of book club books about women married to famous men. I admit, I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to be married to some well-known man (usually an artist). In fact, I once spent an afternoon in the car discussing with my friend which of the musicians that came on the air we'd go out with (I was down for Bruce Springsteen, but thought Don Henley was probably not my type).
I looked at the back of this book, where my copy has an endorsement by Hemingway (sigh). But as I looked at it, I found out that it was about growing up in Africa, training race horses, and being a bush pilot. And I thought, this is the kind of book a woman's book club should be reading.
This right here is a telling of a fascinating life. Markham seems simply fearless. She writes about being attacked by a lion as a child, and going warthog hunting with some natives and a faithful bulldog. Once her father leaves, she takes up a career training race horses at the age of eighteen. The last bit deals with her flying career. She spent a few years scouting out elephants for big game hunters, and then became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west. The episodes are vivid and tense. A story about a horserace in particular had me on the edge of my seat for twenty minutes, when I suppose the race itself lasted ninety seconds.
She doesn't really talk about it, but many times, I was simply incredulous that she was allowed to do the things she did. Not that I think women shouldn't be allowed to do things or that they can't do things, but I was under the impression that people in 1930s Africa would have strong opinions about that. It's entirely possible that she was told she couldn't something or encountered barriers, but she just did it anyway and didn't think it was worth writing about. The only time this comes up at all is when she was talking about flying over a specific swampy area, and women had to have special permission from the British government to do so. She agreed that it was dangerous, but said she was unclear on why it would be more dangerous for a woman. She suspected the rule "had more to do with chivalry than reason." In any case, she got permission.
She seemed a pretty straight-forward gal, always striving but understanding the limits of humanity:
"We fly, but we have not conquered the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us the study and use of such of her forces as we may understand. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles and we rub the pain, staring upward, starled by our ignorance."
Sounds about right.
Lastly, I should mention that Markham was living in poverty and obscurity when some Hemingway scholar read through his letters and found where he was writing a friend about how fantastic this book was. This led to a reprint, and saved Markham from dying in poverty. So, alright, fine, good job, Ernest.
Let the Great World Spin
In 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit snuck into the as-yet-uncompleted World Trade Center and strung a wire up between the towers. The next morning, he walked on the wire for forty-five minutes, doing tricks, dancing, and even laying down on the wire while New Yorkers gawked below. This book is centered around that event, telling the stories of various people in the city, how their lives are connected, and what they were doing that August day.
For being about a funambulist, the book spends a lot of time with prostitutes. It starts with a radical priest who lives in the Bronx and takes his Gospel very seriously, spending his time with outcasts. And while the circle widens to include a judge and his wife on Park Avenue, some artists living upstate, and a kid riding the subway with his camera to catch the underground graffiti, it always comes back to the hookers. There are also a lot of mentions of computer projects that would later turn out to be the Internet, so I guess you could say connectivity and the universality of humanity were pretty big themes here.
This book was okay. The story-telling structure was interesting, switching as it did between characters, each of them telling their own part of the story. But it didn't really grab me. I did learn the word "funambulist," so there's that.