Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken

"Despite popular theories, I believe people fall in love based not on good looks or fate but on knowledge. Either they are amazed by something a beloved knows that they themselves do not know; or they discover common rare knowledge; or they can supply knowledge to someone who's lacking" (10). 

Robert Pershing Wadlow (ca. 1940), the tallest person in history, by Vedia via Flickr

And now for a book that was so much fun to read. McCracken's 1996 (gee, I'm on a roll; next thing, I'll be listening to this, or preferably, this) National Book Award Finalist (and her first novel), The Giant's House, has been on my shelf all year and was highly recommended. 

It was a perfect camping trip readthought-provoking, bittersweet, with an ending that's totally satisfying and doesn't feel like a cop-out. The plot skates along, merrily almost, which is surprising because it's a sad story on the surface. 

We know early that James Sweatt, the eponymous giant, has diedbut Peggy Cort, the librarian who tells the story, is so motivated by love that we never veer into the territory of unmitigated tragedy. Smart, acerbic, closed-off Peggy manages to find a life through her relationship with James and his quirky Cape Cod family, and the only way she can do justice to his memory is to keep on living. 

Peggy's voice is one of the best parts of the novel. She's got lots of gems like the one above. She starts the novel with an affront"I do not love mankind"and from that line forward, I want to know what she'll say next. Also, of course, how a grown woman could fall in love with a teenage giant. McCracken succeeds in developing Peggy's point-of-view so flawlessly though, that it's not creepy in the least. 

I loved that this novel felt like an easy read, but made me think about the nature of love, too. It was interesting to note that in terms of plot and structure, McCracken follows the rules (at least the ones I've heard) and they work beautifully. Major plot turn on page 90 of a 300 page novel: it happens here, at exactly page 90. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"A Day" by William Trevor

"On the mottled worktop in the kitchen the meat is where Mrs Lethwes left it, the fat partly cut away, the knife still separating it from one of the chops. The potatoes she scraped earlier in the day are in a saucepan of cold water, the peas she shelled in another."

Still Life with Ham by Philippe Rousseau via

It is hard for me not to include the final two sentences of Trevor's immaculate story, "A Day", the penultimate piece in his 1996 collection After Rain. The lines are truly heartbreaking, but only if you've woken with Mrs Lethwes first, traveled with her to market and coffee shop, watched her weed the garden, listened to her chat with the housekeeper and to her thoughts. She regrets her childlessness, tries to reconcile herself to her husband's affair. Her anxieties and suppositions assault her, deepen, become murkier, more complex and more urgent as the day turns to night and she prepares Mr Lethwes's dinner.

I first read the story leaning over the kitchen counter, absorbed completely by Mrs Lethwes's unease. At the last two lines I cried even though I didn't want to. It's as high a recommendation as I can give any story, and I won't try to explain the reaction away. 

But, for craft's sake, I think it's safe to say that my reaction to the end (and I know it's not unique) has to do with the completeness of our immersion in Mrs Lethwes's consciousness, the steady revelation of her regrets and hopes, and with the stunning point-of-view shift, the sudden, dramatic bloom at the very end.  

I feel so lucky to have witnessed it.

Powell's, Amazon, Google Books

P.S. Thanks to Sarah, Aaron, and Jane for introducing me to Trevor. 
P.P.S. Jhumpa Lahiri reads "A Day" for the New Yorker fiction podcast

Friday, July 13, 2012

"King Lear" by William Shakespeare

[...] Now, our joy,
Although our last and least; to whose young love
The vines of France and Milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interest; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Nothing, my lord.



Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less. (1.1, 84-95)

Head over to Fogged Clarity for the rest of this post.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Royal Beatings" by Alice Munro

"The person who spoke these words and the person who spoke to her as her father were not the same, though they seemed to occupy the same space. It would be the worst sort of taste to acknowledge the person who was not supposed to be there; it would not be forgiven. Just the same, she loitered and listened. The cloud-capped towers, she heard him say once. 'The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces.' That was like a hand clapped against Rose's chest, not to hurt, but astonish her, to take her breath away" (4). 

This is a favorite quote from a favorite story from a favorite collection, Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid. (The title comes from this legend and painting.) "Royal Beatings" especially is a story I return to again and again. Frankly, it deserves more than one post.

For today, I am enthralled by how accurately the story portrays our inability to fully know one another, and in particular, our great difficulty in knowing our parents, whose person-hoods are often eclipsed by roles. 
Rose senses role changes in her parents and other adults as a child and eloquently recalls her thoughts and feelings as an adult. 

Her father is a quiet man who repairs furniture and recites poems. He is also king of the royal beatings, "his face like his voice [...] quite out of character" (19). Her stepmother, Flo, is the woman who sets the royal beating in motion by goading her, and she is the woman who pleads with her husband not to whip so hard, the woman who rubs cream on Rose's back and brings her a special meal when everything is over. The neighbor, Becky Tyde, is an elegant yet physically mangled dwarf, a daily presence at Flo's store but also the subject of horrendous town rumors. 

In this story, everyone's a mystery. The mystery never redeems the violence, but it allows us to see how the characters co-exist with it, how they miraculously survive, manage love and joy. In a scene near the end, Flo does tricks with her double-jointed arms. The family looks at the stars. "The planet Venus!" Rose's father says, applauding Flo. "Ten thousand electric lights!" (24).

my 1982 Bantam mass-market copy

P.S. The line Rose's father recites is from Shakespeare's The Tempest

Propspero:              "The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
                                The solemn temples, the great globe itself. 
                                Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, 
                                And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
                                Leave not a wrack behind." (4.1)