Let’s talk about Elizabeth Strout. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing, but I’m more comfortable talking about anything rather than my own work. So let’s go talk some Strout.
Photo by Leonard Cendamo (source) – Have you ever seen a more open and inviting gaze in your freaking life than this?
I came to Elizabeth Strout a bit later than many readers. She had already published Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me before my book group read Olive Kitteridge. My daughter had loved Amy and Isabelle, but there was something keeping me away. Sometimes that’s nothing more than professional envy. Someone writes the kind of book I want to write, and she’s published and acclaimed and I peer at the title through a haze of spite and decide to sit this one out. Very often, the book in question turns out to be fantastic and completely worthy of all praises heaped upon it, like, for instance, Angela’s Ashes. At other times, (and my apologies to those of you who love it) it’s more like The English Patient, which I didn’t love when I finally read it.
Amy and Isabelle was everywhere, all bookstores, all my friends’ bookshelves, even at Fred Meyer and Target. I kept not reading it. I also didn’t read her second novel, Abide with Me, but this is okay because apparently no one else did, either.
And then came Olive, which is a collection of linked short stories that function as a novel, which seemed bold and daring and wonderful before everyone else started doing it. Everyone in my book group loved the book, everyone who read this book loved it, and we all recommended it to everyone we knew, and a big web of love for Olive Kitteridge spread across the country. It couldn’t have happened to a better book.
Things happen in the book–even some shocking stuff, heart-hammering events. There is a plot, but this is a novel of character, and that character is Olive. Olive in some ways reminds me of my mother–her largeness and her sensitivity, her love of flowers and her care with/masking of her own physical presence. It is difficult to be a large women, it’s something of an indignity, and my mother felt that quite strongly, as does Olive. In other ways, of course, she is nothing like my mother. Olive is not particularly likable or socially adept, and everyone loved my mother, who was a brilliant conversationalist. But they could both be so spiteful. I loved Olive’s spitefulness. That one passage where she is having a lie-down after her son’s wedding, and hears someone mocking her mother-of-the-groom dress, a dress Olive loves because she has this secret love of colors and flowers, and the dress has a lot of both–well, it just breaks my heart. I cheered her on as she took her small and spiteful revenge.
If you were wondering, I did watch the HBO series of Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it like I loved the book, because I felt Olive was miscast. Frances McDormand is brilliant–her performance in Three Billboards is magnificent–but Olive is an ocean liner of a woman, and FM is not. Size is such an integral part of who Olive is.
The Burgess Boys Lead to Amy and Isabelle
I wanted to love The Burgess Boys but I only liked it, and I don’t remember much about it. Since it was the follow-up to Olive, I was disappointed and had to go looking. That’s when I read Amy and Isabelle, and of course I loved it. If you were to ask me what I think Strout’s main underlying theme is, I would say it’s women trying to get out from under their mothers; trying to be someone besides your mother, trying to understand that your mother is a person, flawed, a mortal human failure. Ridiculous at times. Frustrated. But loveable. And you can hurt her deeply.
Mothers are still objects of puzzlement and resentment after they die. They never make sense, because, of course, they are just people. And people mess up. But of course, as children, we have no idea that our moms aren’t superhuman and infallible. As a child, I didn’t question my mother’s words or her choices. As a young woman, I decided with brutal finality that my mother had never taken my needs into account once while making those choices. But as a young mother, I understood that I’d be messing up every single day, myself, and I’d better forgive my mom, because one day I would have to humbly ask forgiveness of my own children. Those are the terms of endearment.
So when friend loaned me My Name is Lucy Barton, I read it swiftly. And I have to say that it’s such a slip of a book that I read it, then gave it back, then borrowed it again a year later and reread it, and was two chapters in before I remembered that I’d read it before. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the book; I think it’s the style of it. Lucy is so glancing, so evasive as a narrator. She is simply not going to say things out loud. She’s given slip to a past of poverty and humiliation and community scorn. Rather than being embittered, she finds her new life wonderful. She is a true innocent who Is determined to stay that way, and a lovely Candide quality colors all her perceptions. But you feel an undercurrent of tremendous darkness, and you are left needing more.
It’s like–living your entire life as a poem by Emily Dickinson. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I have a family member like this. She is the most oblique person I have ever known, other than my maternal grandmother, who was determined to see life as “lovely” even when there were horrors opening under her feet. But my grandmother’s denial kept her stepping so lightly that she never fell in. It was a complex balance of choosing where to look and where to step and what not to see. Life, to my grandmother, was a wonderful thing, and she simply chose not to deal with anything that contradicted this view. This can be supremely frustrating to the people around you, people with pain, questions and complaints, but for the most part we all choose what we deal with, and in the case of my grandmother and my unnamed female relative, they probably chose wisely.
So did Lucy. Elizabeth Strout wrote Lucy Barton with such luminous kindness that I read this book twice, and I still didn’t know the deepest, darkest truths of her life. And I think, in truth, Lucy didn’t know them either. But I was sitting around with my book group friends in June, and one of them had brought both Abide with Me and Anything is Possible to loan me, and she told me that Lucy’s story is revealed more in this book (yes, after reading Anything is Possible, Lucy and I are on a first-name basis, just like me and Olive).
Anything is Possible
I don’t want to ruin anything about the stories in Anything is Possible. Just–read Lucy Barton first, and then know that you’re going to get the skinny on all the people that Lucy and her mother gossip about while Lucy is recovering in the hospital. Lucy is present in many of the stories in Anything, as her memoir has hit the shelves in her home town’s bookstore, prompting reveries and regrets on the part of people who treated her with kindness, scorn, or as if she were invisible. She is not the main character, as some reviews have stated. The town is the main character. The book really lifts up a rock on its secrets, and you should be prepared for the exposure of a lot of squirming, grey, unattractive things. It is a FASCINATING look at small town living, and fills in the blanks of Lucy’s story in a heartbreaking chapter that left me cheering her on with however she chooses to deal with a past so ugly.
Abide With Me
So then, of course, I had to read Abide with Me. Which is wonderful, by the way. It’s set in 1959, and it also peels back the lid on a small town. The book didn’t do well, though it appears to be doing okay, now. Kirkus Reviews said,”most of the characters in this novel are fundamentally bewildered, and many of them are quite bitter as well. The narrator’s folksy tone does nothing to enliven this dispiriting story; the overall effect is rather like listening to a slightly cantankerous maiden aunt dispensing local gossip.” I fear this reviewer doesn’t see anything valiant, universal or worthy in the struggles of small town people. I do. I also love books about religious men, like Gilead (which sold a gajillion copies) and Leaving Ruin (which didn’t, but should have–it’s an older book, shoved over into the Christian section and it deserves a wider readership). Abide with Me is the story of a small town pastor, and it’s a big story about self-forgiveness and frustration. It’s moving and a nicely seamy between the religious ruminations.
Elizabeth Strout books connect–this innkeeper is Lucy Barton’s cousin, and this actress was probably molested by a character who shows up as a father-in-law in another book, and on and on in ways small and large that I wasn’t tracking in the first three titles I read. This is my absolute favorite thing for writers to do, this interconnectedness. I’d like to read Elizabeth Strout’s books from beginning to end in sequence and make a spreadsheet that links the who and where and what in each book, but that would take a lot of time and energy. I have other books to read and other books to write.
Also, here I go, urging you toward books not by me. So I will plug mine: RANDOM AND CLUMSY PLUG
Also, I could use some Amazon reviews if you can take the time!
Also, the next time I do this, it will probably be Haven Kimmel.
There’s a woman like this on every floor I’ve worked on in my current office: the woman who makes it her business to engage me in conversations about how I should be eating. There I am, innocently putting something in the microwave, and here she comes, ready to let me know how to do better. She has ideas! And tips! She has observations and explanations! She has ANSWERS!
If only she realized how demotivating her little talks are, and how pointless, because I don’t diet.
I. Don’t. Diet.
I used to diet endlessly. My weight loss odyssey started when I was seven years old and my mother put me on a strict 600-calories-per-day program that involved twice-daily shots of a hormone in my thigh. Now, please keep in mind that I wasn’t even a fat child. But Mom put me on diets all the time as I was growing up, until I was fifteen and moved out. By that time, all the dieting and a year on the Pill had made me nice and plump.
I did have a good run at Weight Watchers throughout my twenties, but it only served to get me thin before each pregnancy, during which I’d get fat again and have to do it all over again. After I turned thirty, I very rarely dieted. The last time was in 2007, not counting a desperate run at losing weight before a daughter’s wedding (took off 22, gained it all back on the plane home, I think).
I’m just not doing it anymore.
This left me as the Floor’s Official Fat Person. Yes, that’s me, the current female record holder. And the Floor Fatty always attracts the attention of the Floor Food Warden. She’s there, concerned and watching, having lots of opinions and offering advice. I guess she thinks she’s helping.
When I worked on the second floor, a kind and nurturing woman was always watching what I ate for me. She had so many questions, a gentle daily interview about collard greens, or cheese grits, or egg salad, whatever exotic fat person dish I was eating that day. I suppose she wondered just how it was that I ended up this way, and wanted specifics so she could guard against joining me in the plus size section of life.
She was succeeded as Food Warden by a sharp and tiny woman who loved to bark at me about my yogurt choices (“You have to eat Greek yogurt!”). She would trumpet “That’s full of sodium! Don’t eat that!” whenever I opened a can (even when it was fruit and I don’t think canned fruit has much sodium in it but whatever). And another refrain was, “You need to go to yoga!” (yoga makes me seasick).
I actually adored this person. To be fair, she bossed everyone around about everything, so I forgave her. She’s retired and we all miss her. But not in the break room!
My Newest Food Friend
Currently, I work on Floor Three, where the Food Warden is quite elegant and fit, around my age, and has a charming accent. She maintains a somewhat birdlike interest in what I’m heating up, preparatory to stuffing it in my fat face, I guess. And she expresses gentle surprise and dismay that I am not obviously gorging myself to maintain my voluptuous frame.
At breakfast time, I eat the tiny bagels, the small yogurts, the clementines, satsumas and cara caras, just like everyone else. At lunch, I usually have leftovers, just a regular size portion of whatever was left over from a dinner. Stir fried chicken and rice, or spaghetti, or tortilla soup, or whatever my guy and I ate the week before. These foods are not spectacularly caloric. They are just dinners.
I haven’t found a special fatten-me-up-version of anything, at least, not so far. But she’s peering at whatever I pull from the microwave while she’s dressing her spinach salad, shaking out her tablespoon of bleu cheese crumbles, talking about how she only eats a third of a croissant at a time. Great. Awesome. Thanks.
I know already, okay?
Trust me, NO ONE knows more about how to eat, what to eat, how much to eat than a fat person. We know EVERYTHING. We’ve done it ALL. Including yoga, which she has also mentioned. Which makes me seasick, as I have mentioned. By the time we hit our fifties, most fat people have tried everything, and succeeded, as well, but it’s only temporary. By the time we’re done with whatever plan we’ve been working, we’ve done additional damage to our metabolisms, meaning we can eat even less. And though some people are able to start rigorous exercise plans mid-life, some of us have no interest in that. We’d rather just be fat.
I wish I didn’t care.
I really do. I wish I could just harden up and ignore it. And I do ignore it but I don’t seem to harden. I can’t tell you how wearying it is to have your food choices scrutinized by other people. It’s especially annoying because I realize that most of these people are motivated by concern and kindness. I’m sure my current food warden thinks I am a nice person, and she thinks nice people should be thin, like her. She is only trying to help, but of course she isn’t. She’s just making me tired.
And if you’re reading this and you get the idea to send me some helpful ideas, or statistics about obesity and heart disease, or any of that, please don’t. That will only make me more tired.
I am a little shocked by how meekly I endure this stuff, to be honest. Why don’t I shut it down? I hate confrontation, but I could do it with coldness, by answering, “Wow, cool,” in a flat and dismissive voice. But I wouldn’t dream of it. I am a woman, and women are culturally inculcated to accept a long-running commentary on our looks. That commentary can be positive or negative, but it is constant from birth to death. We don’t question it. We participate in it, we endure it, we wouldn’t know how to feel about ourselves without it. But wouldn’t it be nice to try?
Some Nice Thin People
You know who never pisses me off? My office neighbors. We only comment on each other’s food when something smells really good, and the delicious aroma wafts into a neighboring workspace. “Oh my god what IS that?” They each wear a size two. They are TEENY. One of them is a naturally thin person who has actually tried to gain weight over the years. Yes, such unicorns exist. I hear her eating snacks all the damn time. The other is a naturally thin cyclist who eats like a horse to fuel her commute.
And you know what? Neither of them has ever given me a scrap of advice about my food, weight or health. But they have happily shared their snacks. And if there are donuts in the break room? The cyclist lets me know with happiness and glee, because we both love donuts.
I am so grateful for these women. They are younger than my concerned Food Wardens, and they give me hope that there’s been a generational shift away from that kind of monitoring.
Let’s hope, folks. Let’s just hope.
Photo by @macro_sighted
The Gentry books are here! Yes, that’s right, the first three volumes of the Gentry books are available for purchase (paperback) the e-books are delivering, and readers are checking in with positive, encouraging feedback.
What’s it all about, Karen?
The Gentry books are thinly disguised autobiographical novels about my life as a young male orphaned Catholic alcoholic school teacher on the Oregon coast. That’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s one I’ve told so many times that I have no idea whether or not it’s funny.
One of the main characters in this book, Gentry, is young, male, orphaned, alcoholic, and intensely religious. Most of my friends have noted that I am none of these. But that’s okay, because these are novels, not memoirs. Do you remember the golden age of the memoir? When the only books publishers were interested in were memoirs, or highly autobiographical novels? That’s how James Frey got into trouble. My adored Augusten Burroughs even caught some flack because apparently his therapist’s family didn’t have an electroshock machine hidden under their stairs (that was one of my favorite parts of Running With Scissors). I believe it was a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner.
My point, in so much as I ever have one, is that the Gentry books are not memoir in any way.
The Gentry books are fiction.
The ideas and characters for this story have been kicking around in my psyche for a long, long time. The first novel’s genesis was a vivid dream I had when I was nineteen. You’d be hard-pressed to see the similarities, aside from the coastal setting, between what my fevered mind spit out that night, and what’s between the covers of the Gentry books. Somewhere, the original dream is written down. Somewhere else, there’s a long, laugably awful short story, written out on lined notebook paper. My children must find and burn these upon my death, but I hope that first, they will have a long read and a good laugh before striking the match.
False starts, bad first drafts and endless edits later, the book is one I’m proud of. Gentry is not the only central character in the first book, The Tempation of Gentry. The book explores the relationships between a mother and her daughters, and the relationship between two sisters. I think those are fascinating and important relationships. They merit as many novels as can be written about them.
Not my mom, not my life.
Now, I did have a relationship with my mother, and I do have a relationship with my sister. But the relationships portrayed in my books are not those relationships. Everything I’ve ever experienced in my own life ends up in a book, in one way or another, but it’s put through a blender with all the other things I’ve observed. The result is quite a mixture.
Think of it in terms of the Big Bang. All the matter and energy in the universe was present at that moment, and will be present until the end of time. We are all just recombinations of it. That’s how I write fiction, with a big bang.
So someone is going to read about a hidden yellow doll in this book, and remember hiding her sister’s yellow doll. But the girl who owned that doll, and the girl who hid that doll? They are not the sisters in this book. There are houses in this book that are very like houses where I’ve spent time, but those are not the houses featured in this book. My book’s houses are fictional, as are my book’s characters.
Case in point? Bitter divorces!
I am a woman who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have a mother who was quite bitter after her divorce, and I have friends who were also quite bitter after their divorces. I know so many women who are some combination of bitter and divorced. But the divorced mother in this book is not any of those women, though of course she is the result of observing all of them.
My main question with Kathryn was, what would happen if you never got over your anger? I had a lot of bile drainage to accomplish after my divorce and it wasn’t a pretty process, but it was a necessary process. What would have happened if I’d never done it? I became a little obsessed with this question, and Kathryn is one of the results. What would it feel like and look like to devote your life to how you’ve been hurt? What shape would that twist your life into? Where does bitterness go if you don’t let it leave you? And what would make you want to do better?
Please go check them out.
The Gentry books can be found here: CLICK ME
These three books will make you laugh and they will make you cry–big snotty gasping sobs, I hope. I mean, isn’t that the dream, to reduce your reader to a fountain of tears? You have to have a goal in life, and I guess that’s mine. I HOPE YOU LOVE THEM.
When I was a newly single mother of three, for some reason I decided to take my kids to Disneyland. By myself. Because I’m nuts. But I did it, and boy was I relieved when it was over.
The last, easy day
Now, the relief didn’t settle in until the last day we were there, when we got up in the morning and took the shuttle to the Happiest Place on Earth in order to shop. I was breaking out the charge card and making my kids’ dreams come true. I’d told them that they could each have one thing, whatever they wanted, I didn’t care what it was or what it cost, but we’d have to get it on the last day. They would each have to remember where the thing was.
Though I’m a little fuzzy on the wheres, I actually remember what each of them got! My oldest got a Milne-style big Pooh, and my middle girl got some kind of anniversary Mickey in a satin jacket, and my youngest got the imperious pug from Pocahontas–the one with the ruff. He was larger than life-size.
We boarded the shuttle back to the hotel, and I felt myself relaxing. I hadn’t given much thought to how vigilant I’d had to be, but I had wrangled the kids through Disneyland for 3+ days. No one had been snatched or lost or damaged in any way. They were all decently fed, moderately rested, not sunburned, and not asthmatic. Best of all, they each had an enormous animal to clutch on the way home, in order to impress to our fellow flyers with the fact that we had just been to Disneyland.
I had done it.
When moms relax
I felt moderately triumphant as we rode the shuttle to the hotel. Tension I’d been unaware of carrying started to unlock itself from my shoulders and neck. Once we’d retrieved our bags and boarded the shuttle to the airport, I could actually feel the stress rolling out of my body. I’d been a hyper-aware mother hawk for days on end. It was almost over. We reached John Wayne International, and then our gate. By then, I felt intoxicated by my relief. Once we buckled up for the flight home, I was a jelly-like blob of relaxed motherhood. I didn’t need a cocktail. I was drunk on relief.
I’ve thought about that over the last month or so.
Since November of 2016, I’ve been at a high level of vigilance and a near constant state of outrage. It’s hard to function like that. The last year-plus has been so politically chaotic. It’s easy to forget the earliest days, when Bannon was running the show and each appointment was more catastrophic than the last. Like a scab, he eventually dried up and fell off, leaving us with less orchestrated trolling and more sheer chaos. Chaos that has become entertaining. At some point, I actually started laughing about how hideous this all is, because I laugh about everything.
It’s still hideous.
I told my T about a month ago that something had changed. I wasn’t sure if I’d simply exhausted my capacity for outrage, and gone numb, or if there had been some shift in the atmosphere. I think it started, now that I consider it, with Roy Moore’s defeat. I wondered if I’d just normalized. This is how it’s going to be, I’d tell myself. There are rats in the basement and termites in the foundation, but we might be able to call in an exterminator at some point, if everything wasn’t ruined in the meantime.
I posted this on Facebook this morning:
A friend asked me, this morning, how I would write what’s going on in the head-spinning world of American politics. In my story, the appearance of Giuliani signals an exit strategy; that his wife has had enough, and is going to leave him unless he steps down and takes her back to Manhattan. So he brought in a trusted lawyer friend, and a more skilled lawyer to guard him legally, to help him navigate his way back to private life. But that’s what I would write if this were fiction. We are living in times so much stranger than fiction.
I realize now that I’m not numb. I’m calm. I feel a shift and a flicker of hope. I don’t exactly know what will happen next, to be honest. But something has changed, and the relief I feel is palpable. I’m not quite a blob–I’m still worried as hell–but there is some shift, something afoot.We’ll wait and see if I’m right.
It seems like I’ve been waiting for the clothes of the future for a long time. All my life, actually. And I’m getting impatient.
My idea of the clothes of the future was no doubt colored by my early watching of Star Trek. No, not the crew uniforms–those were absurd to me, even at age nine–but when the ship made a stop at the planet Vulcan when a tortured Spock went into season needed to go upstream and spawn or whatever? (Amok Time). I remembered those Vulcans were wearing the clothes of the future. However, having googled the clothes, they are not at all as I remember them–the clothes I’m thinking of came in the later movies.
So flowing. So easy. Long. Unisex. Caftanesque. Tastefully trimmed, carefully draped.
Wouldn’t we all, if given a chance, adopt these particular clothes of the future?
It turns out, probably not.
Friends weigh in
So imagine my surprise when I was out to lunch with three friends and I brought up this whole idea of futuristic clothing and what it would look like, and I got widely differing responses.
One friend said he thought the clothing of the future would be technical and responsive. If the weather changed, or you gained or lost weight, the clothing would simply adjust. This friend has lost weight this year and had to keep going “shopping” in his stored clothes to find things that fit him on the way down. So of course he liked the idea of something that would simply adjust itself to a slimmer frame.
Another friend loved the idea of reactive clothing, but he thought it would also be style-reactive. Which kind of blew my mind. I mean, here I am, imagining these lovely subdued flowy things, like Madame Gres with slightly less fabric, and and he’s imagining a world where we would easily sprout peacock feathers if we wanted to! And of COURSE people would want to. Not everyone wants to blend in with the walls. Garments would flame with embellishment and color as desired. Like we were all living in the Capitol.
All this gleeful frippery, these mods and makeups, not. I am not of the Capitol. I am a fan of the black and the charcoal and the neutral and the plain, enlivened by a shot of aubergine or teal now and then. On the day to day, I could wear black, grey and camel all the time and hardly miss colors at all. Which means I have a sort of a grimly dystopian idea of clothing of the future.
I remember being super impressed with Ripley’s Nostromo jumpsuit in Aliens.
At the time, it struck me as functional, customizable, unisex, practical. I was all over it. Now I’m wondering what all that lacing is for. Would we specifically want the fabric over our tummies to be tightened down, a la Scarlett O’Hara getting laced up before the ball? Would Spandex not work in outer space or something? And as functional as it seems, we always end up back at the primary question with jumpsuits–how do you go to the bathroom quickly? These are important questions, but man, did it ever seem “real” to me when that movie came out.
Plain and simple
I also liked the clothing in The Giver, believe it or not.
Isn’t that depressing? it’s like, the Amish wardrobe of the future. All homespun and indigo.
I could so go for this!
Another woman weighs in
The other woman at our lunch gathering had similar ideas to my original caftan ideas. Long, graceful, easy, and with hidden pockets. Weatherproof. Soil-proof. One and done, but she envisioned these garments as metallic. Metallic seems like a stretch for me. But I could do metallic if I needed to. If it were necessary. Especially if it looked like THIS.
I would so love that! That is a beautiful handling of color and metallic and style. But is it futuristic? Also, I wonder what would happen if I began sweeping around Portland dressed like this. People would probably think I was trying to start a religious cult.
If you had the opportunity to design a clothing sensibility for the future, what would it look like? Would it be implanted peacock feathers or unisex jumpsuits? I guess the mistake we make is that somehow, in the future, clothing will gather up under one unified umbrella and fashion will flow from a single source. I think the opposite will probably happen. We will all get to wear what we want.
It’s going to be fashion Babel.
Introverts seem to be having a moment lately.
We are posting memes about introversion, where showing us talking to a cat at a party will help the world to better understand how weird we are. Since so many writers are introverts, and introverts love the internet, we are writing listicles about introverts for Buzzfeed, and going into depth about our special introverted ways on Medium, and generally feeling misunderstood and special.
I think we’d probably better get over ourselves.
The reality of Introversion
My coworker heard a quick phone call between me and my daughter today. In it, I figured out how many people are coming over for Easter, so my daughter can appropriately size the Family Mac-n-Cheese® she’s bringing to dinner. My coworker sounded so sweetly excited when she called over the wall. “Karen! You’re having a big gathering! Are you excited?”
“No.” I said to her. “I’m never excited.”
I never want to go to anything. Ever. It all sounds terrible. Book group? Oh god no. Hosting my family for the holidays? Too many people. Dinner at a restaurant? Jesus Christ, you have to be kidding. A cruise to Bermuda? Just kill me now.
What do you do when your knee jerk reaction is to hide from all social contact? You do what I do. Which is, I dread everything, but I go to everything. Because I know I’m going to have a wonderful time. We are going to have the best discussion about the book I loved (or hated, sometimes the best discussions are about books I hate), and the food is going to be amazing and the company is going to be sparkling and Bermuda is going to be everything I ever dreamed of and more; pink sand, turquoise water, sunshine and mild ocean air. But my baseline expectation remains that I will hate ALL of it, even though experience should lead me to believe the exact opposite.
And so, I always go.
When I was younger, I would listen to my inner misanthrope. She was a grump. She insisted I keep clear of all merrymaking. She convinced me that no one wanted me there anyway, not really, so I’d just spare everyone the horror of my attendance. I stayed home a lot. Then I sat around and wondered why everyone was having a better life than I was.
I didn’t make the connection until I was in my thirties, at which point I learned to get up and go places, where I would have fun because I’m actually great at parties. As long as I can leave whenever I want to. I must be able to do the Irish Good-Bye in order to have fun. As long as I can bounce without a word at leave-taking, I tend to stay and have fun.
There are other strategies for dealing with the self-imposed isolation of introversion. One is to marry an extrovert. I have had relationships with extroverts, and survived them. I understand that some people find this marriage-of-opposites to be helpful because the extrovert (some guy) is always dragging the introvert (me) out and about. The rallying cry is always the same. “Come on, it’ll be fun!” This mindless insistence on activity paired with my mulish social withdrawal doesn’t sound fun at all to me. It reminds me of a cheerful child wearing a huge lead boot.
I am the lead boot.
I’m happiest with another introvert, like the man I’m with now. He might even be more introverted than I am. We always make plans, but we often have things we need to do first. Like, pay a bill online. Or take an antacid. Or move the laundry around. Or let the dogs out. If we are lucky, we can aggregate enough small, easily postpone-able activities to avoid the going-out plan altogether, in favor of just staying home and watching something on Netflix.
I wonder, sometimes, how we avoid spending our entire lives slumped on the couch, making fun of Flip or Flop VEGAS. But we don’t. We get out, and go to parties and plays and dinners with friends and a lot of movies. We go talk with people and smile, even if it kills us. We plan getaways and live (for the most part) like normal people. And then we come home and decompress, quietly recharging until we have to go out and do it again.
Because we’re introverts, don’t you know. And we’re special.
I’m busy as hell with preparations for the second Orcas book, getting ready for a literary festival in April, and working on another huge project that’s devouring hours of my time. But here’s a piece based on something “from the trunk”. It’s about grotesquerie; the worst part of any book.
Grotesquerie in rough draft
I’ve been handed some grotesque things to read in my life. A writer gave me a story about a couple who mutilated each other as part of their sex lives. He had the good sense to say, ”You might not want anything to do with me after you read this.” After forty pages of necrophilia, torture, self-mutilation, incest, matricide and so forth, I understood why he was worried. I believe he’d scared himself. That one was eventually published.
Years ago, someone I met in a writer’s group sent out 76 copies of his manuscript to various members, hoping for response. And I after I started reading it, I knew I’d never give him a response he’d enjoy hearing. The writing was endless ”telling” from a great height, the narrator looking down and pontificating madly on the chaos of the story. There wasn’t a shred of likeability or humanity in most of the characters, and the rare few who displayed any humanity were punished in one sadistic twist after another. After a point I set aside the red pencil, realizing that since no publisher in the world would ever want to publish this, there was no need to offer editorial advice.
The author wrote me, saying he was disappointed that only three or four people seemed to have finished it. I didn’t tell him that a mutual friend had told me she’d ”set it aside and gone to throw up and take a shower.” I decided stunned silence was a merciful thing. If people had told him what they really thought, he might have gone on a homicidal rampage and acted out some of the more vicious tableaux in this book.
Grotesquerie in print
There are plenty of published books that contain cannibalism, which is where I draw the line. I can’t read about it. A few books that contain it have made it past my censors–John Dollar by Wiggins, Shallows by Tim Winton, and Ahab’s Wife by…somebody, which was an incredible disappointment because the first third of the book, before they stepped on that whaling ship, was so damn good. Actually, these were all good books that I wish I’d never read. I’m sure these writers are making a big fat metaphorical point, I just can’t stomach their metaphor, so the point is always lost on me. I wish all books that contain cannibalism had a big red warning ”C” on the cover.
Maybe even worse
The same thing with animal abuse. A friend loaned me two books that contained animal abuse. Like, just handed them to me casually with a “You’ll like these,” no warning, nothing. Thanks, Friend! The books were The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, and Wide Open by Nicola Barker. The first title is disturbing and extremely well-written. I had a glimpse of the hidden shocker, but only a glimpse. I’m good at figuring out the mysteries in the Gothic, but this time, the ending did surprise me. It all fit together beautifully. Wide Open was next. I liked it and wished I’d had the opportunity to discuss it, because beneath the plot shocks, sick humor and odd characters, there is a metaphysical twist that I haven’t quite figured out.
Because of the grotesque subject matter, I would never just hand these books off to a friend without a warning. Can you easily recommend a book that’s strength is its ability to illuminate the mindset of a character committing unthinkable, unforgivable acts, and to stir you to a horrified sympathy with that character? You have to loan these books carefully, but I have given Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, to more than one friend, and it’s one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. I think it’s completely worth it.
Which brings us to me
This all brings me to my own experience with writing something unforgivably grotesque. Apparently, when describing some of the itchy ailments suffered by Asa Strug in Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park, I use the phrase “butt rust.” And my friend Alex was horrified by this. She said, “I can’t believe you made me read the words butt rust, Karen!” She was upset and disgusted. I didn’t even remember putting that in the book, to be honest. So I had to go find it.
IT WAS THURSDAY morning, and the most contented man in the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park was no longer content. He itched from head to toe. His hands rummaged through his locks as if they were sorting snakes, as if his torment could be shaken free like the louse that fell by the cracked nail of his largest toe.
“Lord, send relief.”
His hands moved to scratch at his bitten, scabby neck. He tore at the skin, tears in his eyes, his teeth grinding with frustration.
“I am bedeviled.”
He stood and reached for his back, his privates, his stomach. It was more than bugs. Years of not bathing had left him with crotch rot, butt rust, and between-the-toe fungus that made his toes appear webbed. His body was nothing more than a collection of maddening itches. He dug and writhed and came dangerously close to taking the name of the Lord in vain.
“Lord! I need vinegar!”
Yes, I really wrote that
Look, that is really gross. I wrote it, and I own it. I had no choice but to submit to Alex’s disgust, because upon rereading, that passage is sick. Sick, but necessary, as Asa is trapped in a body as tormented as his mind.
So after Alex chastised me for a bit more, she asked me to read a book she loved. It was Cruddy, by Lynda Barry. I love Lynda Barry, I’ve met her and I’m a fan of her person and her work; but have you read this book? It’s good and tragic and funny, and it contains so much gross stuff, scabs and flakes and itches that are exponentially worse than the phrase “butt rust.” Cruddy even needs to have that big reg “C” on the cover, for cannibalism.
Alex had no trouble with anything in Cruddy. But she couldn’t handle “butt rust.”
Consider this a pledge: You will never read a book that contains cannibalism written by me. But I just might break out “butt rust” again. So be prepared.
The sequel to Orcas Intrigue is here, with ORCAS INTRUDER.
AVAILABLE FOR YOUR KINDLE AND IN PAPERBACK , ORCAS INTRUDER continues the Chameleon Chronicles.
CAMILLE TATE always tells herself to calm down, but her instincts always warn her to disappear.
After the fright of her first weeks on Orcas Island, Cam wants a quiet Thanksgiving with her family and a few friends. She’s hoping that time with her foster parents will help her recover from the horror of witnessing a shooting and being kidnapped.
But her employers, the Brixtons, are arriving, along with a few unexpected visitors from Cam’s past. Her peaceful holiday is nowhere to be found. When her neighbor’s home is burglarized and ransacked, Cam’s world is threatened, too. As mysterious intruders haunt her island life, Cam realizes that the intrigue is far from over.
Here’s the link for preorder:
This is another fun one, taking place over the long holiday weekend. Go get it!
SO MANY valentines reference hotdogs that I hardly know where to start. I have left off the examples that have people carrying around hotdogs, leaving those in the strange meat valentine category. These are hotdogs without people. Just hotdog after hotdog. Self-slicing hotdogs. Amorous hotdogs. Married hotdogs. And there are the lonely hotdogs, and the pairs of hotdogs, and the hotdogs seeking buns. Hmm. There seem to be so many plays on the word “relish,” which has fallen out of favor these days except as a condiment, and on the word “frank,” which is likewise not used much anymore.
Why are there so many of these? I have no idea.
Today, I bring you everyone’s symbol of love and romance…GUNS.
At least this little skunk is killing himself for love, and not the object of his skunkish affections. But this next one is worse. It appears to have instructions for how to do away with yourself (and a happy ending, thank goodness).
I really have to wonder about the level of frustration in the lives of designers of vintage valentines. I’m getting a little weirded out.