Sunday, October 28, 2012

The World without You

By Joshua Henkin
New York, Pantheon, 2012
336 pages     Fiction

I read an article recently about people who divorce in their later years. The Wall Street Journal called it “Grey Divorce.” The article said that the more than 600,000 people over the age of 50 divorce every year. For many there is the feeling that “I have to fulfill myself now or I never will.” One researcher calls the reason for grey divorces “complex marital biographies.”

Marilyn and David Frankel in the novel The World without You by Joshua Henkin are in their early 70s when Marilyn decides she wants a divorce. Their family is gathering for the Independence Day holiday and as the novel opens, the couple is trying to decide if they are going to tell their children that they are separating during their weekend together. The reason for the divorce seemingly is Marilyn’s restlessness but we soon discover that the deeper reason is that they had lost their son Leo the year before. Leo had been a journalist and was killed in the Iraq War. Marilyn has spent the year since she lost her son becoming a political activist, attending war protests, writing endless op eds, and hating George Bush. For her, the personal has become political. Marilyn feels that David has not faced his grief, and she is angry with him for being so passive about their son’s death. 

The family is gathering at the family cottage in Massachusetts for a private memorial service. The funeral the year before had been a media circus and they all felt the need to do something more intimate as they raise a gravestone in his memory. 

There are three remaining children Lily, Clarissa and Noelle. Each woman and their spouses have mourned the loss of their brother in their own ways; ways that become obvious as their histories unfold. They are extremely angry at their mother when she announces the separation on the very first evening of the gathering. It is immediately apparent to them that this is all her idea. 

Leo’s widow Thisbe and her young son have flown in from San Francisco for the memorial. Thisbe is feeling guilty because she is beginning to move on in her life after this first horrendous year as a widow, and she feels slightly estranged from her in-law family, although Lily has been one of her best friends. She is the character I identified with the most. Moving on after losing a spouse is a challenge with a lot of guilt attached.

The most interesting character is Noelle, the youngest sister. She had been a rebellious teenager who married a high school friend, and they became Orthodox Jews and moved to Jerusalem. The mother of 4 sons, she returns home to the old rivalries and parental estrangement that caused her to rebel in the first place. She may be the most fully realized of the Frankel sisters and without a doubt the sister who grows the most from the experience of burying her brother.

As the weekend stumbles forward, all the characters are revealed and the story unfolds. The reviewer in the Boston Globe says: “In three days of togetherness, including the memorial and unveiling service, members will harbor secrets, tell lies, and rediscover themselves and one another.”

A simple story? Yes. A story that’s been told before? Yes. But I am not at all sure that I have read a book where the story was told better than this one. I became thoroughly engaged with the story as the family struggles its way through this ghastly weekend—burying their brother and accepting their parent’s divorce at the same time. And for the most part they don’t respond in loving and accepting ways. Even though the narration never flags, the crux of story isn’t in the narration but in the characters.

The reviewer in Commentary magazine says that few authors are as good at characterization as Henkin. He says: “Henkin is not one of the Frankels; he has no stake in the outcome of their disagreements and dysfunction. He has only a good deal of affection for them, and a good deal of pity, and the confidence that his reader will come to feel about them much as he does.” 

In an interview in the Huffington Post, Henkin said that the book was an outgrowth of some thinking he had done about parents losing children. He came to realize that losing a child (no matter what age) was different from losing a spouse. The surviving spouse moves on but the parent never can. I saw that happen in my own life experience. My in-laws were never able to overcome the loss of their son. They became old right before my eyes and it took years off their lives. I, on the other hand, was able to move on and eventually find a new life for myself.

As the weekend ends and the daughters, spouses and children return to their homes, Marilyn and David look at each other and realize that they ultimately don’t want to leave each other; that their history has bound them together in ways that shouldn't be severed; that their love for each other has weathered another challenge, and they are at peace together. In the final scene, David is deciding to ride his bike, something he hasn’t done for a long time. Marilyn goes out to help him. “You have to keep pedaling,” she says. If you come to an obstacle you just steer out of the way.” And then she says, “I won’t let you fall.”

I highly recommend The World without You. It will be on my list of best books for the year.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Train Dreams

 By Denis Johnson
New York, Picador, 2002
116 pages     Novella

Once in a while a book affects you in profound ways. Such was my experience reading Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Written as a story for the Paris Review in 2002, when it won the O’Henry Award,  the story has just recently been printed as a hard copy novella, and it was shortlisted for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. If you will recall, no Pulitzer Prize was given for fiction this year. So, being shortlisted is just as good as winning.

Grainier is a man of the West in the early years of the 20th century. He works at all kinds of odd jobs, lives in the woods, and is, at heart, the loneliest of men. “Grainier had also once seen a wonder horse, and a wolf-boy, and he’d flown in the air in a biplane in 1927. He’d started his life story on a train ride he couldn’t remember, and ended up standing around outside a train with Elvis Presley in it.”

Grainier is a Christian man, a Methodist, in prohibition Idaho. He works on the railroad, chops wood, and does all sorts of other odd jobs all his life. When he is in his 30s, he builds a small cabin on a small piece of land and marries a young woman who soon bears him a daughter. Because he isn’t used to having people around, he leaves his wife and baby often, and in the pivotal experience in his life, the cabin and his family is consumed in a forest fire while he is away. 

After that experience, he becomes one of those people who live on the fringe of society; one of those people who are just around. You know them but then, again, you don’t. Johnson says that Grainier was “a man of whom it might have been said, but nothing was ever said of him, that he had little to interest him.”

The reader of  Train Dreams knows him, and our hearts break for his loneliness, for his isolation, and for his loss. However, all is not heaviness with Grainier. He has an interesting perspective on the ways in which the West is changing; how he sees the changes is very different from the way we view those changes from our perspective nearly 100 years later. One of my favorite stories in the book is when he is operating a livery service and takes a man who had been shot by a dog (yes I wrote that right) to the hospital. His exchange with the wounded man is more than humorous, it is outright funny. Also very funny is the tale about the time he took a biplane ride.

The most magnificent part of Train Dreams is how concise it is. There is not a wasted word, and yet in its sparseness, it is profound.The reviewer in The New Yorker says: “Clean, American simplicity in prose is easy to mimic and hard to make. The New York Times reviewer says that is the beauty of the book. The paucity of the words makes it all the more dynamic. He also says: “The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.”

Train Dreams is a short one to two hour read, and as I thought about Grainier, I kept thinking, “I know this man.” Then I realized that I had been thinking about my Uncle Harry all the way through the book. Uncle Harry was a World War One veteran, a silent man who spent his life in Seattle working as a desk clerk in a men's hotel. I never met him until he retired and moved back to Minnesota to live with his sister, my Grandma. Did we ever get to know him? Probably not. For all the years he lived with my Grandma, all I ever knew about him was that he liked to watch wrestling on television, and he put sugar on everything, including tomatoes and macaroni and cheese. I would guess that he suffered from PTSD from the war, which was not diagnosable at that time, of course. Uncle Harry lived to be 100 and remains a mysterious figure in my life. 

Denis Johnson is one of America’s most prominent novelists, the winner of the National Book Award. He was a new author to me, and I want to read another one of his books

Monday, October 8, 2012

Does This Church Make Me Look Fat

By Rhoda Janzen
New York, Grand Central, 2012
253 pages     Spiritual Memoir

Memoirist Rhoda Janzen says, “What a relief it is that we don’t have to be good at religion in order to seek God! We don’t even have to have a strong sense of belief. All we need is the desire to believe.”

In her second memoir, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat, Janzen displays her desire to believe with marvelously funny stories about a topic that shouldn’t be funny, i.e. seriously dangerous breast cancer. Janzen is an English professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, about an hour from where I live. PhD educated at UCLA, she is an academic who abandoned her Mennonite faith as a teenager. Her first spiritual memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress tells the story of the horrendous time in her life when she returned to her Mennonite roots to heal following a divorce and a lot of broken bones from a car accident. The desire to believe came back to her then and continued after she returned to her academic life.

By this time, she is open to returning to religion, or in her words, with the desire for faith. She meets a “manly man,” who is a born-again Pentecostal, and starts attending church with him. Although they are as opposite as can be (his son says that they might be from different planets), they find they are perfect for each other. 

As fate would have it, shortly after she meets “Mitch,” she receives a diagnosis of breast cancer—a massive tumor in her breast. Fearing the worst, she offers to let Mitch off the hook, but he tells her that he is the right man for this challenge, and so they face the surgery, the radiation, and the chemo together. The chapter that details how she finds out about the cancer raises goose bumps, both spiritually and factually. Yet, the way in which she handles the diagnosis is nothing short of amazing. In her inner being, she seems to know that everything will be all right, and so, as the book evolves, Rhoda marries Mitch, the cancer goes into a complete remission, and Rhoda becomes a part of Mitch's faith community.

I could relate to Janzen’s cancer journey on many levels. I will never forget when my husband, who had been fighting lymphatic cancer for 6 years, came home from a doctor’s visit. He had not told me he was going, so when he came home I was fixing dinner in the kitchen. I was mixing meat loaf as I recall, and he walked in, gave me a peck on the cheek, and told me he had been to the doctor. “The doctor says it’s really bad this time,” he said, and I kept making the meatloaf. Rhoda received her diagnosis over the telephone while she was counseling a student. She finished the session with the student and then went off to teach a two hour class. Sometimes doing common things helps soften the blow.

Janzen really doesn’t linger on the cancer. Most of Does This Church… is a love story and a narrative concerning the nature of faith and its reappearance in her life. It is the story of affirming the present, seizing upon the opportunities that life offers, and restoring the rightful place of faith in God in life. Although her spiritual journey is different from mine, I grew as I read about her journey and about the gracious God that guides her. 

Besides all that, like Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, this book is laugh-out-loud funny. When life becomes absurd, you can either bemoan the hand you have been dealt, or you can laugh at the irony of it all. Personally, I love Janzen’s humor, her outlook on life, and the affirming way her husband, friends and family love and support her quirky take on it all. 

As the review on the BookReporter says: “This is the story of what it means to find joy in love, comfort in prayer, and--incredibly, surprisingly--faith in a big-hearted God.”

An interesting interview in the Austinist:
Rhoda Janzen’s book appeared on bookshelves on October 2. She is making several appearances  in Western Michigan in the next couple of weeks. I hope to see her when she is in Holland at the end of the month.