notes

Archive for the ‘book group’ Category

Finding the right time for a story that hits home: ‘The Tender Bar’

In book group, lines worth underlining, reading on July 1, 2012 at 2:10 am

Years ago, a friend asked me to drive to Durham (NC) to see JR Moehringer do a reading at The Regulator bookshop during his Tender Bar book tour.

I knew nothing about the book going in, but Moehringer was funny and engaging, and the more I listened, the more I saw the broad strokes of my own childhood in his. Strong single mother carrying a heavy load. Absent father (his disappeared; mine died young) shrouded in mystery and fascination and frustration. An explosive relative in and out of our lives (I didn’t learn the term ‘verbally abusive’ until I was much older).

I bought the book, of course, and asked him to sign to my daughter and me, in honor of my mother.

At the time, I was in the middle of a book I needed to finish for my book group, but I put it aside that night and began reading The Tender Bar, recognizing myself over and over again in the first few chapters. When someone has written what seems to be a description of your own young fears and heartaches, it’s a bittersweet thing – on the one hand, relief (misery sort of loves company?); on the other, old sadnesses, drifting back up to the surface.

Soon, I had to stop reading and rush to finish my abandoned book club book. I put The Tender Bar on the ‘to read’ bookshelf, but years went by, and I didn’t finish. In my own single parenthood, I have a terrible track record of skipping around between books, finishing a half or three-quarters of many fine books, always swearing I will finish one day. With this one, it wasn’t a lack of interest that kept me from picking it up again; in fact, I can’t count all the times I recommended The Tender Bar to friends.

Now that I’m reading it again – I went back and started from the beginning in late May – I’ve thought about why it took so long. I can only guess that it had something to do with that familiarity I felt at the bookshop that night; I did see so much of my growing-up story in his beautiful but real and painful passages, and that story isn’t always easy to revisit.

And I was just beginning my own story as a single mother at the point that I tagged along to Moehringer’s reading; I was in the midst of divorcing and was sad to see history repeating itself for the third generation (my mother’s father died when she was only six, so my mother and her mother were on their own, too).

Maybe it was just a little too early; a little too much to take.

But right now, this summer, the story feels … well, I’m afraid all that’s coming to mind after a 105-degree heat wave day is Goldilocks, of all things, so I’ll go there, with apologies: The timing now feels ‘just right.’

***

Like nothing else, words organized my world, put order to chaos, divided things neatly into black and white. Words even helped me organize my parents. My mother was the printed word – tangible, present, real – while my father was the spoken word – invisible, ephemeral, instantly part of memory. There was something comforting about this rigid symmetry.

~The Tender Bar

Book lines: Susan Minot

In book group, lines worth underlining, reading on January 11, 2012 at 9:38 am

Lines from Evening, by Susan Minot 

I encountered this novel via my book club, and it has stayed with me more than most novels I’ve read in the past decade.  I was drawn in by the way that the book interspersed Ann Lord’s hazy deathbed reflections and hallucinations with scenes from one life-changing weekend (during which she fell deeply in love with an unavailable man) and the marriages and heartaches that followed.

After my best friend died at only 43 after a miserable disease made life not worth living, the passages in which Ann is looking back on her life took on new layers of meaning for me.

 
“She looked across the room to all the things which had come to her over the years and by now ought to give her some satisfaction. The inkwell nestled in a bronze bird’s nest, the primitive oil of a church she’d found in that junk shop, the French enamel saucers with the fly pattern … they would last and not she. Is this what she would leave behind? The things in the house were not herself. The children would be left and they had come from her but they were not herself either. Nothing was herself but what had happened to her and the only place that was registered was inside. And even that was kind of a vapor.”

***

“All her life she’d listened to talk, life was full of talk. People said things, true and interesting things and ridiculous things. Her father used to say they talked too much. There was much to say, she had said her share. How else was one to know a thing except by naming it? But words now fell so far from where life was. Words fell on a distant shore. It turned out there were other tracks on which life registered where things weren’t acknowledged with words or given attention to or commented on.”

***

“She was pulling a rope out of the water and knew it was coming to the end when the barnacles started to appear and they became more think and clustered. Then it was strangely peaceful and the sound was turned off. She stood at the bow of a ship. If only she could have stood this way above the water and really breathed and let the waves go by like pages being turned and watched everything more closely and chosen things more carefully then she might have been able to read the spirit within herself and would not have spent her life as if she were only halfway in it.

“For a moment she felt an astonishing brilliance and heat and light and all of herself flared up and the vibration after sixty-five years was not weakened by time but more dense then suddenly it was as if the flame had caught the flimsiest piece of paper for it flickered up and flew into the air then quickly sank down withered into a thin cinder of ash which blew off, inconsequential. Her life had not been long enough for her to know the whole of herself, it had not been long enough or wide.”

Off to a smashing start: 1-0.

In book group, reading on October 19, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Month 1 of the new book group season has come and gone, and I not only finished the book, I finished it with two days to spare. So far, so good.

The book, Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, was easy to finish – in the best sense. The characters were well-drawn, and you were swept along by what happened to them, even though what happened to them was horrifying. As several friends in my book group said, you thought about these women in between reading sessions.

The history behind the novel, the author’s first book, was surprising. I’ll borrow the background and the book description from the author’s web site:

“In 1851, a lawyer named Elias P. Drake purchased a plot of land near Xenia, Ohio with the intent to establish a summer vacation resort where the country’s elite could relax and enjoy the mineral springs in the area. At the time, it was believed that natural water could cure illnesses and bring about good health.  What made this resort unusual, however, was that it became a popular vacation destination for southern slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses.  Ultimately, these flagrantly open relationships offended the northern abolitionists who also frequented the resort.  After four years, the resort closed.

“This part of the story has been confirmed by historians.  I took this forgotten historical note and sketched in a fictional account of what it would have been like to be an enslaved woman traveling to this free state each summer.  Why wouldn’t the women try to escape? What kinds of emotional attachments did they have with these men?  Initially, I believed that it was entirely possible that they actually loved the men.  Ultimately, I discovered that it was much more complicated than that.

“Situated in the free state of Ohio, Tawawa House offers respite from the summer heat. A beautiful, inviting house surrounded by a dozen private cottages, the resort is favored by wealthy Southern white men who vacation there, accompanied by their enslaved mistresses.

“Regular visitors Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet have forged an enduring friendship. They look forward to their annual reunion and the opportunity it affords them to talk over the changes in their lives and their respective plantations. The subject of freedom is never spoken aloud until the red-maned, spirited Mawu arrives and voices her determination to escape. To run is to leave behind the friends and families trapped at home. For some, it also means tearing the strong emotional and psychological ties that bind them to their masters.

“When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet soon learn tragic lessons,that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the cruelest circumstances as they bear witness to the end of an era.”

3.5 stars

(Next month: The Great Gatsby.)

Aretha & Barry

In book group, reading on October 16, 2011 at 12:26 am

‎”If you think of the world without people it’s about the most perfect thing there ever is. It’s all balanced and s%#t. But then come the people, and they #@$% it up. It’s like you got Aretha Franklin in your bedroom and she’s just giving it her all, she’s singing just for you, she’s on fire … and then all of a sudden out pops Barry Manilow from behind the curtains.”

— Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (August book group pick)

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