Thirty-three Attempts at a Book Review

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Camono Island, last days of summer. 2021.

Normally, this time of year I’d have some stories to tell about Mom’s annual birthday trek to Seattle, how much I love fall, how I dragged Z to an orchard though he doesn’t understand the appeal since you can buy cider at the grocery, big plans for Z’s birthday, etc. But like last year, Mom had to give the trip a miss because of COVID threats and because her offspring (that’d be me) may or may not have immunity to the virus after receiving a second try at getting vaccinated. I’ve been nowhere except to get said vaccines and I’ve only seen Z in the flesh and everyone else via Zoom since mid-August. This was Zs second boring Pandemic Birthday, where we stayed in, watched TV, and he washed his new birthday socks. Woo hoo.

Also, I’m avoiding the news because it’s rarely good, so unless you’d like to hear me talk about Squid Game, the Great British Bake-Off, and whether Noodle the TikTok pug is having a Bones or No Bones day, what you’ll be getting this month are random thoughts and questions I’m wrestling with at the moment.

1.

Z and I have trash bags full of our freshly laundered clothes layered with lavender-scented dryer sheets because I read moths don’t like lavender.  We’ve been dealing with a moth infestation for months, which wasn’t so strange at our old place with windows that didn’t close tightly and that seemed like they had been in the apartment longer than we had, maybe even since 1923 when the place was built. But it is very odd here at Oh La La because we’re basically living in a non-spherical biosphere. 

We’ve made our apartment as hostile an environment for them as possible, short of installing the moth-equivalent of those non-roosting bird spikes that I hate to see on eaves around the city. Those seem so mean-spirited, but apparently if pigeons moved into our apartment, I’d be installing spikes everywhere because my compassion doesn’t extend as far as holes (or pigeon crap) in my woolen Irish acquisitions: two woolen blankets, an Aran sweater, my favorite winter coat, and a pair of forest green cashmere gloves that I bought in Waterford in 2006 and wear so rarely that they are still like new but just knowing I have a pair of cashmere gloves makes me feel like a grown-up (even if I got them on a clearance table at the history museum there). No. There I draw the line.

Trash? Moving? Moths?

2.

I’m reading Colum McCann’s novel Apeirogon wherein he tells the true but partially fictionalized story of two grieving fathers—one Israeli, one Palestinian—who are friends and working towards peace. The format he uses is with numbered cantos (sort of like this) that add up to 1,001, as in The Thousand and One Nights. Some of the sections are meaty narrative. Others are a single sentence. Some are just photos. Some are all about the main story of the two fathers and their dead daughters and their conviction that with communication and recognition of the Other as human, peace can be attained. Some cantos talk about birds or slingshots or François Mitterrand. I like miscellany and McCann’s style, so for the most part the structure works for me.

At other times I wonder if all the numbers and pauses and details don’t get in the way of the story. Also, the beauty at the heart of the story doesn’t have anything to do with McCann and so much more to do with these two men, Rami Elhanana andBassam Aramin, and the stories that conflict forced onto their families. So, I go back and forth on this issue about whether it’s a great book that everyone should read or if I’d be as moved had I read an article about the men. I have no idea where I’m going to land on this once I’ve finished the book.

A thousand-and-one numbered sections seems like a lot. Is it genius? Is it arrogance? Is it something in between?

Also, I’m beginning to question why I believe I must land on one or the other.

3.

The summer JFK Jr.’s plane went missing on a trip to Hyannis Port for his cousin Rory’s wedding, I got asthmatic bronchitis. Going upstairs to my bed was overwhelming because I had so little breath and even less energy.  Once I made it up to my bedroom, I’d climb in bed for a nap and thought I wouldn’t ever go downstairs again because of how awful it was to gasp for breath trying to do something I’d been able to do just fine a few days before as if there would always be plenty of air to breathe.

I spent a lot of time thinking about these mythical creatures—the Kennedys—while I convalesced. I had learned about them as a child in the same way I learned about Snow White, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, my great-great grandmother, Amelia Earhart, and Jesus. They were all equally cartoon-y and real to me and people whose stories were worth studying.

Mom had a book of photos of JFK’s life, and I would study the ones of him with his arm around his daughter, playing with his kids in the Oval Office, some fuzzy images from the Zapruder film, and that iconic photo of his toddler son saluting his casket. 

It was hard to believe that that toddler was now missing at the prime of his life. Because I loved Arthurian Legends, there was part of me that had always believed JFK Jr. was the Boy Who Would Be King, never mind his main political overture had been starting a magazine about politics for people who didn’t know much (or care) about politics.  

I also felt weirdly mournful for Rory too, and how her wedding day had been wrecked and how it’s not the kind of thing a bride can complain about without seeming like a selfish whiner: that one time my cousin ruined my wedding by going missing. At the time, I knew nothing about her, but with my new computer, I asked Jeeves to tell me all about her, and discovered she was the youngest of RFK’s children, a year younger than I was, and so young, in fact, that she had never met her own father because he was assassinated six months before she was born.

I didn’t believe in things like curses though the tabloids were regularly talking about the “Kennedy curse” whenever a Kennedy died in a tragic way. But when you added up all the sadness that one family had it seemed unlikely that they’d find John John’s plane parked in a hangar somewhere while he, his wife, and his sister-in-law were grabbing a lobster roll at a roadside stand on a whim.

4.

On my last outing into the world, Providence, Hudge, Z and I went to Camano Island for a picnic. We sat under tall pines, listened to Puget Sound licking the shore, annoyed occasionally by the noise of a boat or seaplane that passed, and we rejoiced that at last we could all be together, have our masks off, and share a meal. It was such a magical day that I even had a rare Scottie dog sighting when an older man walked his pup near us. A friend refers to those heady days this past summer when it felt briefly like COVID was behind us as “Hot Vax Summer.” This day had all those hallmarks: it was beautiful and so nice to be reminded of all the things I love about the Pacific Northwest and have seen so little of for the last year and a half. 

5.

Is it worth noting that I am reading Apeirogon with my eyes on my iPad and listening to it on my phone simultaneously, which may be why the book works for me? McCann’s Irish accent and use of the pause makes it sound more like poetry than it might if I were only reading it on the iPad and hearing the words with my eyes. In fact, I wonder if I had the book in my hands if I’d be annoyed by the structure and the weight of so much extra.

6.

There’s a new puppy across the street who has his own little patio-kingdom to explore. When he first arrived, I thought he was a Lab. Then his hair got longer and he seemed more like a Golden Retriever. Then the fur got curlier and Z and I speculated that it was some make or model of a Doodle. Now that I can see his paws, I’m wondering if he’s going to be a Pyrenees. It feels like all of those possibilities still exist in him though—the different breeds, the different personalities. He is adorable no matter what he turns into.

Unless you are the calico cat who lives with him.

7.

We are still ordering groceries and having them delivered. Z is a good husband. He really wants to get back to QFC in person so he can squeeze mangos and check eggs for cracks before he puts them in the cart, but he wants to keep me safe until we find out what my antibody status is.

When the groceries arrive it’s always a bit like opening a grab bag to see if you “won” something good or if you got a dud item. Yesterday, the guac got replaced and we were sad, but then when he pulled it out of the bag, we discovered it had been replaced with a bigger tub of guac, which felt like a win. Other items feeling less like a win: the sale grapes ($2.99) being replaced with grapes that must be magic because they cost $9.99. Somehow, we ended up with three loaves of bread. And the mystery we can’t quite solve is why we ended up with a huge brick of cheese (HUGE) when cheese hadn’t been on the order at all.  Maybe the shopper thought gobs of real cheese was a great replacement for the fake cheese I have to eat that the store rarely has, or maybe he thought since we had almost ten-dollars-worth of grapes, we needed cheese as an accompaniment.

8.

You can plan all you want, but you never really know what you are going to get in this life.

9.

I had a mild reaction to the second vaccine that left my nose dripping, my head aching, and me sleepy. One night I fell asleep listening to Colum McCann narrate Apeirogon and I dreamed I was having an intense conversation with a handsome man I was trying to woo (Z did not exist in this dream—forgive me Z) as he stocked shelves and racks at a high-end men’s store. It was the kind of store I never go into and he was the kind of small-boned man with overly gel-ed hair- that I never had interest in. In the dream I realized why. He wouldn’t quit flitting and he wouldn’t quit talking. My sense was that he was always this way, but on this occasion of me following him from display to display and trying to get a word in edgewise, he wouldn’t shut up about the tensions between Israel and Palestine. I’d try to ask a question or add my own thoughts on the matter, and he kept droning on and on as if I weren’t there.

I have never felt so unseen. I kept checking to make sure I wasn’t a ghost.

When I woke up, I realized it was just Colum McCann reading his own novel into my ear to put me to sleep, clueless that anyone was on the other side of his recording trying to have a conversation with him in her dreams. I turned off Colum and went back to a more peaceful slumber.

10.

The lifespan of a female moth is around 30 days.

11.

Because it was still technically summer when Providence, Hudge, Z and I went on the picnic, I wore sandals. I was imagining a beach with sand that we might walk on, but instead, when we headed to the water after lunch, I discovered the beach was covered in golf ball and baseball sized rocks that were nearly impossible for my shoes to manage. The three of them in their more sensible shoes moved up the wrack line, and I sat on a log and watched the waves of Puget Sound. To be “alone” in nature for a time was blissful. Spiritual even.

Though I was ecstatic inside, apparently my outsides weren’t satisfactorily expressing this, because a man who walked by with his wife jolted me out of my moment with a shout, “Smile! It’s not that bad!” I looked at him and he was so pleased with himself for having dumped a load of his brand of sunshine on my otherwise delightfully grey day.

Even though I’ve been a feminist since birth, when a stranger man—and it’s always been men because women never tell other women to smile—has commanded me thusly, I’ve felt that I was failing to present myself in a pleasing way, as if that were my job, though I am not a model nor am I in the hospitality industry. The line I hate the most is, “It can’t be that bad!” There are two reasons I hate this.

  1. I was born with a resting melancholic face, and I always look kind of the way I imagine Jane Eyre looked when she had to leave Thornfield Hall because the man she loved and nearly married had failed to mention his current wife’s existence in his attic.
  2. How does the speaker know the person hasn’t just had a terrible day or gotten devastating news? They never say, “Oh my goodness! You look so sad. Is there anything I can do to help? Would you like half of my Snickers?” No. They say, “Smile!” as if your face is theirs to shape to their liking.

And now, the Crone years are upon me and I long for a sword that I could brandish in the faces of the offending parties and tell them to move along and accost no frowning woman ever again or I will hunt them down and teach them what chivalry really is.

Camano Island, WA

12.

After searching our apartment thoroughly—opening drawers, flipping through our hanging clothes, carefully inspecting pillows and the underside of three wool rugs—I finally discovered that the moths had been living rent-free in the vacuum that we keep in the coat-closet-slash-“laundry room.” The very vacuum I’d just carefully run all over the rugs to suck up any moths keen to set up a homestead. Also, it turns out, after cleaning up our previous apartment last November before we turned in the keys, we brought this very vacuum to the new apartment and promptly forgot to change the sweeper bag. Or rather, I thought I changed it but did not. And then we got our loyal robovac, Angus, and kind of forgot about the old upright anyhow because we haven’t been so concerned about deep cleaning since we aren’t having guests in.

Basically, we let the moths gestate in the closet for nine months, and now we are reaping what we accidentally sowed.

13.

Given how addicted I am to the National Zoo’s current “Cheetah Cam” maybe I should ask if it’s possible to set up a Moth Cam

14.

The cat across the street periodically comes onto the patio and sniffs around, and inevitably, the puppy discovers the cat is not in the apartment and comes bounding out, searching for it, and then barks at it. The bark could be anything from a joyful attempt to get the cat to play to a territorial reminder that the patio is his. What I do know is the cat braces herself for the onslaught. She turns her back to the dog, even if it means she’s facing the brick wall, and her body—though it doesn’t move—appears to be in her best facsimile of a you-don’t-exist-to-me stance. I am mostly a dog person because I’m allergic to cats but I feel badly for her and think about how her life must have seemed ideal before the puppy arrived, took over her territory, tried to tell her how to behave. I keep hoping I’ll look out one day and they’ll be curled around each other in inter-species companionship.

A rare moment when Cat is facing Puppy

15.

The neighbors probably think I’m spying on them, but it’s really all about their animals. They could be doing naked fire dances in their living rooms, and I’d only be interested in whether or not the dog’s tail was getting too close to the flame.

16.

That’s a lie. There are new human arrivals five floors up from the puppy and the cat. It’s a woman and man who have modern but stately furnishings, like real grown-ups and not people who picked a room at IKEA and re-created it in their own apartment. I have this feeling that it is a mother and son, even though that seems so unlikely. The son could be 16 or 26 and she could be 24 or 64 from my vantage, but her hair is nearly white or platinum blond and short and she’s always buzzing around cleaning things up while he stands eating over the sink. Usually, she has a phone crooked on her shoulder. Does anybody do that anymore who is Gen X or younger? Crook a phone? Talk on a phone? It doesn’t matter, but we so rarely see people our age or older in these buildings because they all headed for the suburbs years ago.

17.

In 2005 I was at a writer’s retreat at Kinnitty Castle in Ireland, and Colum McCann led a session on the work that goes into one of his novels, where story ideas come from, the writing life. At the time, he was telling us about the research he did with the unhoused population in a major city, how he spent some nights with them under a bridge, the conversations he had.

Women were swooning as if George Clooney were suddenly in our midst.

That night he danced in the castle pub with my friend Isabella who was in her 70s at the time, and I was charmed by their flirtation, by the way he treated her with respect and as if this dance was just as important as some dance he might have had in his youth when he was hoping to score. He was enchanted by her just as so many of those in our group were enchanted with him. I loved him a little for that because I too was enchanted with Isabella. She and I spent a lot of time together at the castle, and I invited her to go to Galway with me for a couple of days at the end of our week-long workshop.  At the time, I was feeling old and unwoo-able at 38, she told me—using her psychologist’s authority, her warmth as a new friend, and her New Yorker’s no nonsense—“If you lived in New York instead of Indiana, you’d just now be thinking about settling down, finding a partner, starting a family if you wanted. You’re young.” Then she proceeded to tell me about the man she’d most recently had a fling with. She’d always mourn her husband, she said, but there was a lot of marrow to be sucked from life yet for her and thus, by default, for me.

It doesn’t sound like much of a message, maybe, but I quit worrying about my age quite so much that day and when I think of the kind of older woman I want to be, Isabella is one of the people I think of.

Kinnitty Castle, Ireland

18.

I miss Isabella.

19.

Since the summer of asthmatic bronchitis and search and recovery missions, I’ve had pneumonia. I can’t really distinguish between the two conditions except to know that I hope to never get either again. Both of my grandmothers were on oxygen, one because of emphysema and the other because of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. My father and his brother died of lung cancer. I worry about lungs. My lungs. The lungs of people I love.

20.

Because my pulmonary system is related to people who have bad luck with their own, I’ve locked myself in my tower while I await the All-Clear signal from the CDC or the Fully- Vaccinated-with-Antibodies signal from my doctor.

21.

Around the time of my self-imposed quarantine, a two-person parole board in California recommended Sirhan Sirhan for parole. In a statement decrying this recommendation that was written by Rory Kennedy and five of her siblings, they address not just the loss of their father that shaped their family but the loss to America. My mother hadn’t had books about RFK’s life and assassination to fascinate me as a child, so I’d never considered how the country—the world—might have been had he lived. He inspired the daughter he never met to make documentaries about people marginalized for one reason or another. What else might he have inspired if he’d been given a chance?

What might anyone who has died unnaturally because of violence or their own or someone else’s bad choices have accomplished if only they’d been able to live their lives fully?

 22.

The busy woman in the modernly furnished apartment looks like she’d make a good pie. I worry that she’s lonely. Or has an unhealthy obsession with freshly washed windows.

23.

I imagine our neighbors peering into our apartment and feeling relieved that we appear to be moving with our many bags of clothes stacked in the living room. We are not a blinds-down people and sometimes in the morning we are not a pants-wearing people either. Sometimes our coffee table has books and papers and bowls of fruit stacked on it. Sometimes there are random things slung into the arm chair so we can never sit in it.  We watch a lot of TV in relaxi clothes and I imagine they don’t approve of our lifestyle.

24.

People are less interested in us than you think they are. Z says this with authority, as if it is a truth universally acknowledged. But that doesn’t explain why I care about the ages of my neighbors, why the dog barks at the cat, and why I believe that the across-the-alley neighbors put up curtains shortly after we arrived. There is disapproval and dislike in those curtains.

A judgmental neighbor perhaps.

25.

A word of advice: never ask someone who has just lost a family member to a lung ailment if that person was a smoker. The only purpose it serves is to make the speaker—almost always a nonsmoker—feel safe. At least I won’t die of a lung ailment because I’ve never smoked, they must think while the person they’ve asked is fighting the urge to growl in their general direction.

26.

What I didn’t admit and what shames me a bit is this: I smiled at the man on the beach when he commanded me to do so. Even now, I smiled.

27.

I found out Isabella died on her birthday when I went to check her page on Facebook to see what she was up to. We hadn’t had a real conversation in five years, just periodic check-ins over email, but I felt gutted and played that old, tiresome game with myself of self-blame about all the ways I take love and friendship for granted, as if it will always be there for me.

28.

In an effort to avoid any real controversy, my high school U.S. history class spent more time on Tammany Hall and the Teapot Dome Scandal than on anything that happened after the Great Depression. Thus, we avoided much of WWII, all of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate. So I didn’t learn anything useful about who Bobby Kennedy was or what he might have done or who killed him and why.

From my post-parole hearing “research” (thank you, Google), I learned that Sirhan’s mother believed he was traumatized in childhood by the Israeli-Arab conflict and by his brother’s death, which was caused when a military vehicle swerved to avoid gunfire, and that in 1989, the New York Times quoted Sirhan as having said his only connection to Robert Kennedy was Kennedy’s support of Israel to the physical detriment of Palestinians.

29.

Lately, when I want to ask if some recently dead-by-COVID person had gotten the vaccine, I try to fight the urge. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, but I am daily trying to remind myself to err on the side of compassion. People make bad choices. I have made plenty myself.

31­­­­.

Now, I’m slowly emptying the bags of clothes and reinstalling them in drawers that I sprayed so thoroughly with lavender oil that I coughed the rest of the day. I have no idea what moth lungs look or feel like, but if the hangers-on know what’s good for them, they’ll fly out the window or sit on the coffee table and watch Hulu with us instead of noshing on our fibers.

32.

I never know if there are real connections where I see them or if I just need to believe they exist to manage life.

33.

We were an odd band of writers at Kinnitty Castle. It wasn’t a group I should have felt comfortable with—a man who was on the Forbes 100, a Countess, various people with second homes, a woman who lived near me in the Midwest but was dismissive for reasons that had to do with either her recent MFA or the fact that she’d been born in Ireland—I knew instinctively that she was not going to warm to me.

Still, I fell in love with some of those people who were so different from me.

During one workshop (and days before Colum McCann showed up and danced with Isabella), there was a dust-up when a piece being discussed could be construed as anti-Semitic. Because I loathe discord, I can no longer remember specifically what it was or whose piece it was, but I do remember Isabella’s raised voice, the tears that welled in her eyes, as she pointed out the injustice of how the writer had characterized a Jewish character or the nonchalance with which the person had written about the Holocaust. She had lost family in the Holocaust. She herself had come to America as a refugee when she was a child. Later I would learn—because I hadn’t ever had to consider it before this because of the luck of my birth and place in history—how difficult it was to be a refugee in America. How difficult to be Jewish at a time when America hadn’t exactly put out the welcome mat for people who were attempting to escape the Nazis.

I was just an observer. It wasn’t my trauma. And yet, seeing how it affected Isabella all these years later—an ill-worded passage in someone’s novel manuscript . . . Even now, I have no words for the effect it had on me. But it made me wish I could always only see the humanity– the layers of sadness and joy and wisdom and wonder—in every person whose path I cross.

Amen.

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2 responses »

  1. I remember you talking about your time in Ireland during a summer class in Creative Writing–I hope all lands right side up in your world–I wish you health and no more moths.
    Loved reading this.

    Many Blessings,
    Rena

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