A Spool of Blue Thread

spool of blue thread

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. Originally published in 2015. 368 pages.

I suspect this is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever read that was written in within 20 years of the time I actually read it. I don’t like post-modern fiction, for the most part. I stumbled on this one completely by accident as we were in the book section of a local Target looking for a good book that our oldest daughter could read on an upcoming cross-country plane trip.

The cover caught my attention at first. When I read the synopsis on the inside cover and saw that this was a story about family, family relationships, and the way family members see themselves fitting within those relationships, I was intrigued just enough to put it back on the shelf, go to the library, and check out a copy. Nope, not enough to pay for it.

Red and Abby Whitshank are the head of a close knit family comprised of four grown children and 7 grandchildren.Their roots don’t go back any farther than Abby’s deceased parents, Red’s deceased parents, and Red’s younger sister. In their words, they are all they’ve got.

The gist is that behind the facade of perfection that outsiders see when they look at the Whitshank family, they are just a bunch of ordinary people with ordinary struggles and skeletons in their closet just like every other family. Abby’s realization of this truth, that her family isn’t particularly special, is a hard pill to swallow frankly. And she dies before it is fully digested.

I can relate to that feeling, that your family is special, and because of that I was able to become engrossed in a way I might not have otherwise. Despite Anne Tyler’s acclaim (she wrote The Accidental Tourist* and won the Pulitzer in 1988 for her novel Breathing Lessons*), this book sometimes felt as if it could have been better executed.

The uncertain flow wasn’t enough, however to dampen my interest in the story and I was able to follow it through to the end. The characters were engaging, and I rather enjoyed the fact that the family home functioned as a type of character itself.

One of my favorite moments in the book was when Abby, the family matriarch, died and  her husband Red contemplated where she ended up after departing this life. The Whitshanks were not particularly religious people. Despite the fact that Abby’s death was accidental and sudden, her pre-writen instructions for her home going had specified both the church and the minister she wanted to officiate. She also asked that the thing not be too overtly religious, and the minister so obliged. Afterward, it seemed to Red that something was missing. As he recalled the eulogy that had been offered for his late wife, he asked their daughter:

“Where did he say she went?”

“To a vast consciousness,” Amanda told him.

“Well that does sound like something your mother might do,” he said. “But I don’t know. I was hoping for someplace more concrete.”

Red was a master carpenter and home builder so the line did double duty in the book, while also giving me a hint of  expression for what I thought about this book. There were characters who were not quite concrete.

The beautiful, extremely devout daughter-in-law who said  little, but left you wondering hoe she ended up married into an irreligious family..Red’s sister, who typified much of the spirit of discontent that was part of the Whitshank family legacy, was another.

All that said, A Spool of Blue Thread was a story told well enough to keep the reader plugged in until the end. Especially if you enjoy family dramas with their mix of the mundane, the profound and the emotional ups and downs that all families experience. The stuff that makes life interesting.

Grade: B-

Content advisory: I don’t think an advisory is warranted because Tyler is very tasteful in her presentation, but the first generation of Whitshanks that we meet in the book are Red’s 26 year-old father who had a scandalous relationship with his mother when she was 13. I hate trigger warnings, but you know it is these days.

* This is the first novel I have read of Anne Tyler’s. I might in the future be inclined to read one of her two acclaimed works.

 

 

 

 

Iconic Characters: Lydia Bennett and Maria Bertram

Last night our older girls decided to put on the big box office adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. As I joined them about 1/4 way through the film I was again reminded of the honesty and candor with which Jane Austen treated her characters, but especially her female characters.

Mariabertram
BBC’s Maria Bertram

As we watched the the feral and impulsive Lydia Bennett, I was reminded of the equally unsavory Maria Bertram from one of Austen’s lesser acclaimed novels, Mansfield Park.  Maria was certainly the more offensive of the two, having married one man for security:

Being now in her twenty-first year, Maria Bertram was beginning to think matrimony a duty; and as a marriage with Mr. Rushworth would give her the enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s, as well as ensure her the house in town, which was now a prime object, it became, by the same rule of moral obligation, her evident duty to marry Mr. Rushworth if she could.

And later running off with another man -Henry Crawford- for lust. Simple propriety, not to mention social reprisals, should have dictated that Maria could never behave so shamelessly. She did however, and Austen set the stage earlier for what was to come:

When they came within the influence of Sotherton associations, it was better for Miss Bertram, who might be said to have two strings to her bow. She had Rushworth-feelings, and Crawford-feelings, and in the vicinity of Sotherton, the former had considerable effect.

Needless to say, Maria’s tale does not end well.

With Lydia Bennett, however, Austen writes a softer landing after she runs off with a handsome and caddish soldier who has no intention of making an honest woman of her. She however is wholly oblivious to this pertinent imformation:

You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed. I am going to Gretna Green, and if you cannot guess with who, I shall think you a simpleton, for there is but one man in the world I love, and he is an angel. I should never be happy without him, so think it no harm to be off. You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater when I write to them and sign my name Lydia Wickham.

She is rescued by none other than Mr. Darcy*, who pays Wickham to marry her, and the family is spared even greater embarrassment than they already endure.

LydiaBennett.jpg~c200
Lydia- 2005 Pride and Prejudice

Perhaps because she was much younger (15), more impressionable, and less well raised than the character in Mansfield Park, Lydia is spared the full brunt of the natural consequences of her deplorable stunt. Her mother was loud, ill-mannered, and nosy. He father, having awakened to the reality that the woman he married in his youth was foolish and insufferable beneath her beauty,  had largely retreated from the life of the family. Lydia was certainly her mother’s daughter.

Maria and Lydia as presented by Austen, are achingly familiar and in 2016, and all too common.  Austen, like several authors of her era, effectively exposes the motivations, nature, and moral crises of her characters, male and female alike, head on. No cover is given for “extenuating circumstances” or “childhood hurts”. When her female characters do horrid things it is because they are women of horrible character. Period.

Lydia and Maria remind us that despite the seeming proliferation of wanton behavior in this post modern era, there really is nothing new under the sun.

*I realize that Mr. Darcy is the most popular male lead of all Jane Austen’s male characters, but he is not mine. Far from it in fact, as I noted before.

 

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle

mrs piggle wiggle

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald, originally published in 1957. 128 pages.

I’d been meaning to get acquainted with Mrs. Piggle Wiggle for the past couple of years but she kept dropping off of my radar screen. In anticipation of a recent family road trip I ventured out to the library to find books on CD. There on the shelf, was Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.

Before I continue the review, a brief aside. Despite the fact that we are a house full of avid book lovers, our 9-year-old shows very little interest in reading. She occasionally runs across a book that holds her interest to the very end, but without some gentle prodding from one of us, rarely will she pick up a book for the pure pleasure of it.

It occurred to me that in addition to the books on CD, I should also check out hard copies of the books so that our youngest girls could read along while they listened to the books during the long road trip. We checked out several books and CD sets according to this plan.

In the car the girls decided to start out with The Whipping Boy, even though they’d read it before. They like the story and read their books while the CD played. It was such an enjoyable experience for our 9-year-old that she said it “didn’t even feel like I was reading.” Of course I filed this strategy into the mental Rolodex, and decided to pass it along to any readers who have a child who is a fine reader but just doesn’t particularly enjoy it as a pastime. While they read The Whipping Boy, I decided to preview Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a delightful woman who lives in an upside-down house, smells like fresh-baked sugar cookies, and welcomes all the children in the neighborhood into her home where they can play, be creative, and of course, have tea and cookies. She also knows what makes children tick, and because of this parents often call on her to provide fun and creative, if a bit wacky, solutions to the behavior problem they encounter in their children.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle reminded me of a cross between Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins, but without actually living with the children she helps, which means she could help lots more children and parents.

One of the interesting notes about the book were the way Betty MacDonald had the mothers of the children call on their friends to ask for suggestions to deal with their child’s sassiness, messiness, or selfishness. Of course after several phone calls someone always refers her to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, who is sure to have a fix for hat ails the child.

With tricks to cure everything from impudence (The Answer-Backer Cure) to sibling fighting (The Fighter-Quarrelers Cure, to messiness (The Wont-Pick-Up-Toys Cure), there is very little related to the proper care and training of children that Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t know about. This magical neighborhood nanny always gives instructions to the parents for them to execute, and with patient endurance and sticking to the plan, they always get results.

With plenty of humor that only an adult could appreciate, Betty MacDonald weaves a tale and creates a character in Mrs. Piggle Wiggle that is good fun for adults  as well as the children who are her target audience.

I would suggest that this book is appropriate for children ages 8-10.

Grade: B+

Content advisory: In Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, spanking is mentioned as a normal and perfectly legitimate for parent to use as a disciplinary measure. It didn’t bother me, but I thought I should offer this information for those who are reluctant to allow their children to read it for that reason.

Wise Blood

wise bloodWise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, published in 1952.

Anyone familiar with the works of Flannery O’Connor can appreciate it when I say that this is a peculiar book. In other words, it’s my kind of read.

Haze Motes is a man on mission. Like his father and his father’s father before him, it was always his intention to be a preacher and spread the good news of redemption in Jesus Christ. Somewhere along the way, during his service in the second World War, he became an raging atheist.

He was not just your average, run of the mill unbeliever however. Because he wrongly assumed just about every person he met in the Bible belt from which he hailed was a believer, he assaulted them with his anti-Jesus message in bizarre and inappropriate ways. Adding insult to injury, everyone who meets him takes in his attire and demeanor,  and automatically assumes he’s a preacher. So when he hails a taxi and gives the driver the address of a local whore as his drop off point, it’s the first of many times he has to convince someone that he is not in fact, a preacher:

Outside he got in a yellow taxi and told the driver where he wanted to go.

“You ain’t no friend of hers, are you?” the driver asked.

“I never saw her before,” Haze said.

“Where’d you hear about her? She don’t usually have no preachers for company.” He did not disturb the position of the cigar when he spoke; he was able to speak on either side of it.

“I ain’t any preacher,” Haze said, frowning. “I only seen her name in the toilet.”

“You look like a preacher,” the driver said. “That hat looks like a preacher’s hat.”

“It ain’t,” Haze said, and leaned forward and gripped the back of the front seat. “It’s just a hat.”

They stopped in front of a small one-story house between a filling station and a vacant lot. Haze got out and paid his fare through the window.

“it ain’t only the hat,” the driver said. “It’s a look in your face somewheres.”

“Listen,” Haze said, tilting the hat over one eye, “I’m not a preacher.”

Eventually he runs into a street evangelist and decides to embrace his own destiny. He begins a competing street ministry which he names ‘The Church Without Christ”. Of course, he’s surly and has a religious chip on his shoulder the size of the Smoky Mountains, so it gains no traction.

The only person who pays him any mind at all is a lonely, slightly unhinged and voyeuristic 18-year-old misfit who believes that when you have “wise blood” it’s all the guidance you need and the degenerate 16-year-old daughter of the street preacher he encountered when he first enters town.

What’s worse is that another, more charismatic man “with a winning smile” sees Haze on the street and decides to help him make his message more palatable. He knows they can actually make some money if they are careful not to abandon Christ altogether, and he tries to change Haze’s “ministry name to the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ:

“now friends”, Onnie Jay said, “I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church- it’s based on the Bible. Yes sir! It’s based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible,  friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited. That’s right,” he said, “just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittar here,” he complained.

But Haze is principled, far more concerned with teaching the “truth” that there is no Jesus, and there’s no need for one. There was never a Fall, hence no need for Redemption, and certainly no need for Justification. He rejects Onnie Jay’s scheme, and much to Haze’s disgust, Onnie Jay accumulates his own “church” members willing to pay him a dollar to be a member.

In the end, like every character in the book, Haze goes even further off the deep end until he meets his end. There are lots of surprises in this book even, taking into account the spoilers I’ve offered describing the plot. Well if you’re used to Flannery O’Connor, they may not be surprising at all.

O’Connor had a taste for not only the morbid, but also for digging into the darkest recesses of the minds of her characters, revealing those things that make it quite easy for you to read the entire work without developing a fondness for any one of them.

It’s quite disconcerting, and uncomfortably real. How many people would any of us truly be able to tolerate if we could really see into them, what makes them tick? How many people would be able to tolerate us? That O’Connor doesn’t bother to offer up a hero, or even an anti-hero, is what makes her unique among women writers even in a time and place when people were more acquainted with the realities of life.

B+

Love in the Ruins

love in the ruinsLove in the Ruins, The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, by Walker Percy. Published in 1971, a very good year!

Dr. Thomas More lives in Paradise, Louisiana. He was a devout Catholic and psychiatrist whose wife left him and ran off with a hippie “prophet” to live on a commune some time after the death of their beloved and only child, a daughter.

A self-described “bad Catholic” and rightly so, More picks up what is left of his life, continued his much needed psychiatric practice, and found three equally appealing women with which he divides his time when he isn’t drinking or working:

“Why did God make women so beautiful and man with such a loving heart?”

America for the most part is a very fractured place. In fact it seems to be coming apart at the seams. Deep fissures abound every where you look: political, ethnic, religious, economic, and every other way you can imagine. Everyone seems particularly okay with this. A brief description of what has happened to More’s beloved Church paints a vivid picture:

“Our Catholic church here split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go. The American Catholic Church, which emphasizes property rights and the integrity of neighborhoods, retained the Latin mass and plays The Star-Spangled Banner at the elevation.”

In fact, More is the only one who seems to notice how screwed up everyone is, and he believes his invention can fix what’s left of the insane minds of those around him.  His work is primarily focused on a potentially Nobel prize winning invention which he believes will cure what ails the extremely sick culture in which he lives. He calls his invention an Ontological Lapsometer, and as it turns out, there is one other person who believes he’s on to something and is trying to acquire the machine for nefarious ends.

This book is not a classic literary masterpiece as such things are measured, but I love the book. The writing style is as fractured and scattered as the times in which Percy is describing, and it fits. It’s crazy while making the most perfect sense.

I shouldn’t even like the hero, seeing as he is a womanizing, alcohoilc Catholic and I’m a teetotalling Protestant. However, as the only person in the room who sees the insanity for what it is, you can’t help but root for him even as you know that what ails the people is far deeper than anything he can stimulate in their brains.

More than that, I appreciated the foresight Walker Percy showed for what happens to a people with no common sense of history or faith. His book reads like a foreboding. In the early 70’s the fact that our country was fractured was something many people could see. Now we accept it for just the way things are.

There is a lot more I could say about this book, not the least of which is the irony of the woman More ultimately ends up marrying given his track record, but if I do that, you might not read the book. And you should read this book.

A