Woolgathering/Just Kids

Woolgathering By Patti Smith

A New Directions Book  1992

The Woolgatherers

“And the image of the woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, as a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind” (12).

Just Kids

By Patti Smith

HarperCollinsPublishers  2010  New York

I read this book in tandem with Patricia Morrisroe’s biography of Robert Mapplethorpe. I was interested to see if any of the stories collided. They were obviously different works with Patti writing from first person and Mapplethorpe being a biography. Patti focuses her work, Just Kids, on the friendship between Mapplethorpe and herself, mythologizing along the way about both of their personas. I often felt like Patti was working to appear stranger and more quirky than perhaps was actually her true self. Morrisroe’s Mapplethorpe biography did not focus on the friendship, for its target is Robert himself. Whereas the Mapplethorpe biography (to be summarized in a separate piece) does not shy away from the decadent details of sexual exploration pre-and-inside the AIDS epidemic, Smith engages in very little discussion of Mapplethorpe’s twisted sexual proclivities. It feels as if she wanted his focus to remain on her as muse rather than face the harsh reality that she was simply another stepping-stone to Mapplethorpe’s promotion of his outsized ego. 

Monday’s Children

“On one such day, limping back to the home front beneath the anvil of the su, I was accosted by my mother.

“‘Patricia,’ my mother scolded, ‘put a shirt one!’

“‘It’s too hot,’ I moaned. ‘No one else has one on.’

“‘Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.’ I protested vehemently and announced that I was never going to become anything but myself, that I was of the clan of Peter Pan and we did not grow up” (10).

“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not” (11).

Of Mapplethorpe she writes: “The light fell upon the pages of his coloring book, across his child’s hands. Coloring excited him, not the act of filling in space, but choosing colors that no one else would select. In the green of the hills he saw red. Purple snow, green skin, silver sun. He liked the effect it had on others, that it distrurbed his siblings. He discovered he had a talent for sketching. He was a natural draftsman and secretly he twisted and abstracted his images, feeling his growing powers. He was an artist, and he knew it. It was not a childish notion. He merely acknowledged what was his” (13).

“No one expected me. Everything awaited me” (25).

“We piled the best leaves on the bread and happily ate.

“‘A real prison breakfast,’ I said.

“‘Yeah, but we are free.’

“And that summed it up” (28).

“When it got really rough, I would go back to Pratt, occasionally bumping into someone I knew who would let me shower and sleep a night. Or else I would sleep in the hall near a familiar door. That wasn’t much fun, but I had my mantra, ‘I’m free, I’m free.’ Although after several days, my other mantra, ‘I’m hungry, I’m hungry,’ seemed to be in the forefront. I wasn’t worried, though. I just needed a break and I wasn’t going to give up. I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop, trying not to wear out my unwelcome.

“It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of ‘Crystal Ship.’ Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life” (31).  She meets Robert Mapplethorpe.

Just Kids

“But Robert, wishing to shed his Catholic yoke, delved into another side of the spirit, reigned over by the Angel of Light. The image of Lucifer, the fallen angel, came to eclipse the saints he used in his collages and varnished onto boxes. On one small wooden box, he applied the face of Christ; inside, a Mother and Child with a tiny white rose; and in the inner lid, I was surprised to find the face of the Devil, with his extended tongue.

“I would return home to find Robert in brown monk’s cloth, a Jesuit robe he had found in a thrift store, poring over pamphlets on alchemy and magic. He asked me to bring him books slanted toward the occult. At first he didn’t read these books so much as utilize their pentagrams and satanic images, deconstructing and refiguring them. He was not evil, though as darker elements infused his work, he became more silent.

“He grew interested in creating visual spells, which might serve to call up Satan, like one would a genie. He imagined if he could make a pact that accessed Satan’s purest self, the self of the light, he would recognize a kindred soul, and that Satan would grant him fame and fortune. He did not have to ask for greatness, for the ability to be an artist, because he believed he already had that” (62-3).

“Robert was cutting out sideshow freaks from an oversized paperback on Tod Browning. Hermaphrodites, pinheads, and Siamese twins were scattered everywhere. It threw me, for I couldn’t see a connection between these images and Robert’s recent preoccupation with magic and religion” (67).

“It was in that spirit that we would go to Coney Island to visit the sideshows. We had looked for Hubert’s on Forty-second Street, which had featured Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus, but it had closed in 1965. We did find a small museum that had body parts and human embryos in specimen jars, and Robert got fixated on the idea to use something of that sort in an assemblage. He asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island.”

“We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass.

“We all had to agree that Robert would most likely make great use of it. He clutched the precious find on the journey home. Even in his silence, I could feel his excitement and anticipation, imagining how he could make it work as art” (68).

“In early June, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol” (69).

“In response I made a collage drawing for him called My Hustler, where I used one of his letters as a component. Even as he reassured me that I had nothing to worry about, he seemed to be moving deeper into the sexual underworld that he was portraying in his art. He seemed to be attracted to S&M imagery–’I’m not sure what that all means–just know it’s good’–and described to me works titled Tight Fucking Pants, and drawings in which he lacerated S&M characters with a matte knife. ‘I have a hook coming out of where his prick should be, where I’m gonna hang that chain with dice and skulls from it.’ He spoke of using bloody bandages and starred patches of gauze.

“He wasn’t merely jerking off. He was filtering this world through his own aesthetic, criticizing a movie called Male Magazine as ‘nothing more than an exploitation film using an all male cast.’ When he visited the Tool Box, and S&M bar, he felt it was ‘just a bunch of big chains and shit on the wall, nothing really exciting,’ and wished he could design a place like that.

“As the weeks went on, I worried that he wasn’t doing well. It wasn’t like him to complain about his physical condition. ‘My mouth is sick,’ he wrote, ‘my gums are white and achy.’ He sometimes didn’t have enough money to eat.

“His P.S. was still filled with Robert bravado. ‘I’ve been accused of dressing like a hustler, having the mind of a hustler and the body of one” (84). [Well…if it looks, sounds and walks like a duck…]

Hotel Chelsea

“I’m in Mike Hammer mode, puffing on Kools reading cheap detective novels sitting in the lobby waiting for William Burroughs. He comes in dressed to the nines in a dark gabardine overcoat, gray suit, and tie. I sit for a few hours at my post scribbling poems. He comes stumbling out of the El Quixote a bit drunk and disheveled. I straighten his tie and hail him a cab. It’s our unspoken routine.

“In between I clock the action. Eyeing the traffic circulating the lobby hung with bad art. Big invasive stuff unloaded on Stanley Bard in exchange for rent. The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.

“The elevator is slowgoing. I get off at the seventh floor to see if Harry Smith is around. I place my hand on the doorknob, sensing nothing but silence. The yellow walls have an institutional feel like a middle school prison. I use the stairs and return to our room. I take a piss in the hall bathroom we share with unknown inmates. I unlock our door. No sign of Robert save a note on the mirror. Went to big 42nd street. Love you. Blue. I see he straightened his stuff. Men’s magazines neatly piled. The chicken wire rolled and tied and the spray cans lined in a row under the sink.

“I fire up the hot plate. Get some water from the tap. You got to let it run for a while as it comes out brown. It’s just minerals and rust, so Harry says. My stuff is in the bottom drawer. Tarot cards, silk ribbons, a jar of Nescafe, and my own cup–a childhood relic with the likeness of Uncle Wiggly, rabbit gentleman. I drag my Remington from under the bed, adjust the ribbon, and insert a fresh sheet of foolscap. There’s a lot to report” (91).

Stanley Bard is the hotel manager. They have Room 1017 for 55 dollars a week to live at the Chelsea Hotel.

“Twenty-third Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues still had a postwar feel” (96).

The Manson murders occur.

“A week or two later I waltzed into the El Quixote looking for Harry and Peggy. It was a bar-restaurant adjacent to the hotel, connected to the lobby by its own door, which made it feel like our bar, as it had been for decades. Dylan Thomas, Terry Southern, Eugene O’Neill, and Thomas Wolfe were among those who had raised one too many a glass there.

“I was wearing a long rayon navy dress with white polka dots and a straw hat, my East of Eden outfit. At the table to my left, Janis Joplin was holding court with her band. To my far right were Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, along with members of Country Joe and the Fish. At the last table facing the door was Jimi Hendrix, his head lowered, eating with his hat on, across from a blonde. There were musicians everywhere, sitting before tables laid with mounds of shrimp with green sauce, paella, pitchers of sangria, and bottles of tequila” (105).

“The Chelsea was like a doll’s house in the Twilight Zone, with a hundred rooms, each a small universe. I wandered the halls seeking its spirits, dead or alive. My adventures were mildly mischievous, tapping open a door slightly ajar and getting a glimpse of Virgil Thomson’s grand piano, or loitering before the nameplate of Arthur C. Clarke, hoping he might suddenly emerge. Occasionally I would bump into Gert Schiff, the German scholar, armed with volumes on Picasso, or Viva in Eau Sauvage. Everyone had something to offer and nobody appeared to have much money. Even the successful seemed to have just enough to live like extravagant bums. 

“I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively. There were rumors of Oscar Wilde’s trunks languishing in the hull of the oft-flooded basement. Here Dylan Thomas, submerged in poetry and alcohol, spent his last hours. Thomas Wolfe plowed through hundreds of pages of manuscript that formed You Can’t Go Home Again. Bob Dylan composed ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ on our floor, and a speeding Edie Sedgwick was said to have set her room on fire while gluing on her thick false eyelashes by candlelight.

“So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms. So many skirts had swished these worn marble stairs. So many transient souls had espoused, made a mark, and succumbed here. I sniffed out their spirits as I silently scurried from floor to floor, longing for discourse with a gone procession of smoking caterpillars” (112-3).

“This mission led us to the city’s Bermuda Triangle: Brownie’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Factory had moved from its original location on Forty-seventh Street to 33 Union Square. Brownie’s was a health food restaurant around the corner where the Warhol people ate lunch, and Max’s where they spent their nights.”

“Max’s Kansas City was on Eighteenth Street and Park Avenue South. It was supposedly a restaurant, though few of us actually had the money to eat there. The owner, Mickey Ruskin, was notoriously artist-friendly, even offering a free cocktail-hour buffet for those with the price of a drink. It was said that this buffet, which included Buffalo wings, kept a lot of struggling artists and drag queens alive. I never frequented it as I was working and Robert, who didn’t drink, was too proud to go.

“There was a big black-and-white awning flanked by a bigger sign announcing that you were about to enter Max’s Kansas City. It was casual and sparse, adorned with large abstract pieces of art given to Mickey by artists who ran up supernatural bar tabs. Everything, save the white walls, was red: booths, tablecloths, napkins. Even their signature chickpeas were served in little red bowls. The big draw was surf and turf: steak and lobster. The back room, bathed in red light, was Robert’s objective, and the definitive target was the legendary round table that still harbored the rose-colored aura of the absent silver king.

“On our first visit we only made it as far as the front section. We sat in a booth and split a salad and ate the inedible chickpeas. Robert and Sandy ordered Cokes. I had a coffee.The place was fairly dead. Sandy had experienced Max’s at the time when it was the social hub of the subterranean universe, when Andy Warhol passively reigned over the round table with his charismatic ermine queen, Edie Sedgwick. The ladies-in-waiting were beautiful, and the circulating knights were the likes of Ondine, Donald Lyons, Rauschenberg, Dali, Billy Name, Lichtenstein, Gerard Malanga, and John Chamberlain. In recent memory the round table had seated such royalty as Bob Dylan, Bob Neuwirth, Nico, Tim Buckley, Janis Joplin, Viva, and the Velvet underground. It was as darkly glamorous as one could wish for. But running through the primary artery, the thing that ultimately accelerated their world and then took them down, was speed. Amphetamine magnified their paranoia, robbed some of their innate powers, drained their confidence, and ravaged their beauty” (116-7).

“We drew on everything from Butterfield 8 to the French New Wave. She shot the stills from our imagined movies. Although I didn’t smoke, I would pocket a few of Robert’s Kools to achieve a certain look. For our Blaise Cendrars shots we needed thick smoke, for our Jeanne Moreau a black slip and a cigarette.

“When I showed him Judy’s prints, Robert was amused by my personas. ‘Patti, you don’t smoke,’ he’d say, tickling me. ‘Are you stealing my cigarettes?’ I thought he would be annoyed, since cigarettes were expensive, but the next time I went to Judy’s, he surprised me with the last couple from his battered pack.

“‘I know I’m a fake smoker,’ I would say, ‘but I’m not hurting anybody and besides I gotta enhance my image.’ It was all for Jeanne Moreau” (125).

“I looked around at everyone bathed in the blood light of the back room. Dan Flavin had conceived his installation in response to the mounting death toll of the war in Vietnam. No one in the back room was slated to die in Vietnam, though few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation” (127).

Gregory made lists of books for me to read, told me the best dictionary to own, encouraged and challenged me. Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were all my teachers, each one passing through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, my new university” (138).

“‘I don’t want to sing. I just want to write songs for him. I want to be a poet, not a singer’” (142).

“Memento mori. It means ‘Remember we are mortal’” (155).

I call my granddaughter LouLou, so this next passage stood out to me: “I liked Loulou, a charismatic redhead who was the celebrated muse of Yves Saint Laurent, the daughter of a Schiaparelli model and a French count. She wore a heavy African bracelet, and when she unclasped it, there was a red string tied around her tiny wrist, placed there, she said, by Brian Jones” (156).

“Michael Pollard was usually by her side. They were like adoring twins, both with the same speech patterns, punctuating each sentence with man. I sat on the floor as Kris Kristofferson sang her ‘Me and Bobby McGee,’ Janis joining in the chorus. I was there for these moments, but so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments” (159).

“It was an infamous address, having housed the Film Guild Cinema in the twenties, and a raucous country-western club hosted by Rudy Vallee in the thirties. The great abstract expressionist artist and teacher Hans Hoffman had a small school on the third floor through the forties and fifties, preaching to the likes of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning. In the sixties it housed the Generation Club, where Jimi Hendrix used to hang out, and when it closed he took over the space and built a state-of-the-art studio in the bowels of 52 Eighth Street” (168).

“I was excited to go. I put on my straw hat and walked downtown, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to go in. By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and ginned. He had to catch a plane to London to do the Isle of Wight Festival. When I told him I was too chicken to go in, he laughed solely and said that contrary to what people might think, he was shy, and parties made him nervous. He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play. It didn’t matter what key or tempo or what melody, they would keep on playing through their discordance until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio.

“‘The language of peace. You dig?’ I did.

“I can’t remember if I actually went into the studio, but Jimi never accomplished his dream. In September I went with my sister and Annie to Paris. Sandy Daley had an airline connection and helped us get cheap tickets. Paris had already changed ina year, as had I. It seemed as if the whole of the world was slowly being stripped of innocence. Or maybe I was seeing a little too clearly.

“As we walked down the boulevard Montparnasse I saw a headline that filled me with sorrow: Jimi Hendrix est mort. 27 ans. I knew what the words meant” (169).

“But the next night we would meet in Johnny’s room to console one another again. I wrote but two words in my diary: Janis Joplin. For she had died of an overdose in room 105 of the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles, twenty-seven years old” (170).

Holy Modal Rounders

“It was like being at an Arabian hoedown with a band of psychedelic hillbillies. I fixed on the drummer, who seemed as if he was on the lam and had slid behind the drums while the cops looked elsewhere. Toward the end of their set he sang a song called ‘Blind Rage,’ and as he slammed the drums, I thought, This guy truly embodies the heart and soul of rock and roll. He had beauty, energy, animal magnetism” (171). That man turned out to be Sam Shepard “the biggest playwright off-Broadway. He had a play at Lincoln Center. He won five Obies!”

“I was also writing more pieces for rock magazines–Crawdaddy, Circus, Rolling Stone. This was a time when the vocation of a music journalist could be an elevated pursuit. Paul Williams, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, and Sandy Pearlman were some of the writers I held in esteem. I modeled myself after Baudelaire, who wrote some of the great idiosyncratic critiques of nineteenth-century art and literature” (178).

“I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll” (180).

…”but then I remembered Lenny Kaye had said he played electric guitar. I went to see him.”

“With a nod to Brecht, I decided to open the reading singing ‘Mack the Knife.’ Lenny played along” (181).

“We finished with ‘Ballad of a Bad Boy’ accompanied by Lenny’s strong rhythmic chords and electric feedback. It was the first time an electric guitar had been played in St. Mark’s Church, provoking cheers and jeers. As this was hallowed ground for poetry, some objected, but Gregory was jubilant.”


“I was bombarded with offers stemming from my poetry reading. Creem magazine agreed to publish a suite of my poems; there were proposed readings in London and Philadelphia; a chapbook of poems for Middle Earth Books; and a possible record contract with Steve Paul’s Blue Sky Records. At first this was flattering, and then seemed embarrassing. It was a more extreme reaction than had greeted my haircut” (182).

“I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated. He tattoos lightning bolts on the ears of his horses so the sight of them will remind him of this as he rides. I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine” (183).

“When we got to the part where we had to improvise an argument in a poetic language, I got cold feet. ‘I can’t do this,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to say.’

“‘Say anything,’ he said. ‘You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.’

“‘What if I mess it up> What if I screw up the rhythm?’

“‘You can’t,’ he said. ‘It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.’

“In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life” (185).

“An important new presence entered Robert’s life. David had introduced Robert to the curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. John McKendry was married to Maxime de la Falaise, a leading figure in New York’s high society. John and Maxime provided Robert with an entrance into a world that was as glamorous as he could have wished for. Maxime was an accomplished cook and hosted elaborate dinner parties where she served obscure dishes taken from her knowledge of centuries of English cooking. For every sophisticated course presented, there was equally well-spiced repartee served up by her guests. Those typically seated at her table: Bianca Jagger, Marisa and Berry Berenson, Tony Perkins, George Plimpton, Henry Geldzahler, Diane and Prince Egon von Furstenberg” (189).

“Being allowed to lift the tissues from these photographs, actually touch them and get a sense of the paper and the hand of the artist, made an enormous impact on Robert. He studied them intently–the paper, the process, the composition, and the intensity of the blacks. ‘It’s really all about light,’ he said” (190).

“I never anticipated Robert’s complete surrender to its powers. I had encouraged him to take photographs to integrate into his collages and installation, hoping to see him assume the mantle of Duchamp. But Robert had shifted his focus. The photograph was not a means to an end, but the object itself. Hovering over all of this was Warhol, who seemed to both excite and paralyze him.

“Robert was determined to do something Andy had not yet done. He had defaced Catholic images of the Madonna and Christ; he had introduced physical freaks and S&M imagery into his collages. But where Andy had seen himself as a passive observer, Robert would eventually insert himself into the action. He would participate in and document that which he had previously only been able to approximate through magazine imagery.

“He began to branch out, photographing those he met through his complex social life, the infamous and the famous, from Marianne Faithfull to a young tattooed hustler. But he always returned to his muse. I no longer felt that I was the right model for him, but he would wave my objections away. He saw in me more than I could see in myself. Whenever he peeled the image from the Polaroid negative, he would say, ‘With you I can’t miss’” (192).

Separate Ways Together

“It seemed like Allen was always on the road with Blue Oyster Cult…”(213).

Todd Rundgren and Bebe Buell  [We now know what this coupling produced]

Holding Hands With God

Pictures From an Institution

A Comedy

By Randall Jarrell

This book has been on my shelf for years. The paper cover is pretty battered and the colors are drab and boring. From the title and the cover, I assumed Jarrell had taken notes on various patients in a mental institution, perhaps in the 1950s or ‘60s. None of those things could be further from the hilarity that is this story. If I would have known it was about professors at a small girls college I would have read it a decade ago! The writing style is so lyrical and poetic that I had to look up Randall Jarrell. It all came to make sense when I found out he was a real-life poet! As you know, I like to share “the best bits” by transcribing the most beautiful, touching, joyous or heartbreaking lines, but the language in this book is so off-the-charts that I would have had to mark every line. I had to stop. If you are a professor, a lover of poetry, comedy or spot-on scathing character sketches, you must read this book!

Meridian Fiction  New York  1960

Randall Jarrell was born on May 6, 1914, in Nashville, Tennessee. He was educated at Vanderbilt University and has distinguished himself as poet, critic, novelist, and teacher. He has taught at various colleges, including Princeton, and has been poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Jarrell has published five volumes of poetry; a book of criticism, and edited an anthology of short stories.

  1. The President Mrs., and Derik Robbins

It is Constance Morgan’s last day as assistant to the secretary. 

“…her features, as far as one could distinguish them, were undistinguished” (5).

Gertrude had been teaching at the college. Constance listens to Gertrude and President Robbins as they say goodbye.

“Gertrude and the President’s Friendship at First Sight had lasted only until they took a second look at each other. After this look Gertrude no longer felt as if she had just taken a drink, but felt as if she had a long time ago taken a great many: that look awoke both of them from their amicable slumbers.

“What a pity it was that that party had ever been given! –the party that brought with it their first terrible quarrel, a quarrel that ended their friendship after eleven days. Without the party, they both felt bitterly, it might have lasted for weeks. One could not help blaming Gertrude a little more than one blamed the President; the President, like most people, behaved in a different way after he had a great deal to drink, but Gertrude, knowing no other, behaved as she always behaved. But the drinks at the party, the almost unavoidable intimacies at the party, what they had said and what Mrs. Robbins had said and what people had said they all of them had said at the party–these, the memory of these, made Gertrude and the President look narrowly at each other, and their eyes widened at what they saw. George looked at the dragon and thought, Why, that woman’s a dragon; and the dragon looked at George and thought, That’s no man, that’s an institution” (7).

A very fun description of the novelist, Gertrude Johnson, who is leaving.

Who could explain President Robbin’s marriage?

“People did not like Mrs. Robbins, Mrs. Robbins did not like people; and neither was sorry.”

“Often, when you have met a true Englishwoman–the false ones are sometimes delightful–you feel that God himself could go no further, that way. Mrs. Robbins existed to show what he could do if he tried” (11).

“To hear her was to be beginning to despair” (13).

Mrs. Robbins’s horrid personality. Later in the book I began to realize that most of the text is description of character. Not much actually happens; therefore, chapter summaries became less and less frequent.

President Robbins has illusions about himself. There is the thought that only some people are very important. Derek is the president’s son and he is kind of odd.

President Benton is a slick orator, good at raising funds, and different than us.

“Not to have given him what he asked, they felt, would have been to mine the bridge that bears the train that carries the supply of this year’s Norman Rockwell Boy Scout Calendars. They felt this; it seems far-fetched to me” (27).

Did Gertrude go on to write lies about President Robbins in her next novel?

  1. The Whittakers and Gertrude

Couples attend a party at Gertrude’s house.

“People say that conversation is a lost art: how often I have wished it were” (41)!

“Gertrude didn’t want conversation, she wanted an audience” at the dinner party.

“…she was so thin you could have recognized her skeleton. Sometimes it seemed to you that she was not a person, not a thing, but an idea, and a mistaken one at that. A badly mistaken one: she always said not the wrong but the wrongest, the most wrongest thing–language won’t express it” (44).

“When well-dressed woman met Flo they looked at her as though they couldn’t believe it. She looked as if she had waked up and found herself dressed–as if her clothes had come together by chance and involved her, an innocent onlooker, in the accident. If a dress had made her look better than she really did, she would have felt guilty; but she had never had such a dress” (45).

“In the classroom, where Dr. Whittaker was almost as much at home as in his study, this would not have happened; there each sentence lived its appointed term, died mourned by its people, and was succeeded by a legitimate heir” (50).

There are hilarious descriptions of Flo and others and a dinner party at which no one ate. Gertrude disparages the South from which she still keeps an accent. How Gertrude feels about the music teacher. We meet Gertrude’s devoted husband, Sidney.

  1. Miss Batterson and Benton

Miss Batterson was an earlier creative writing teacher.

The teaching philosophy and life at Benton.

“Benton was, all in all, a surprisingly contented place. The people who weren’t contented got jobs elsewhere–as did, usually, any very exceptional people–and the others stayed. They didn’t need to be exceptional: they were at Benton. One felt that they felt that all they had to do was say, “I’m at Benton,’ and their hearer would say, raising his hand: ‘Enough!’” (105).

We learn why Benton is the subject of Gertrude’s novel. Miss Batterson got a better job but soon died. There is a funeral.

How the Rosenbaums live; very European. The narrator recalls a story told by Miss Batterson about her father.

  1. Constance and The Rosenbaums

Gertrude looks at life as fodder for her novels.

Dr. Rosenbaum’s wife and Constance’s friendship with the Rosenbaums.

“Old faces are forbidding or beautiful for what is expressed in them; in a face that is young enough almost everything but the youth is hidden, so that it is beautiful both for what is there and what cannot yet be there. Constance’s face was a question mark that you looked at and did not want to find an answer for” (146).

Constance and her music. Colleagues talking about home with the Rosenbaums. Irene singing. Constance is upset about the portrayal of the Rosenbaums in Gertrude’s story. The Rosenbaums’ personalities are described.

“…it is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life” (173).

How Americans are different from Europeans. Irene and her personality.

  1. Gertrude and Sidney

Gertrude was filled with anger she couldn’t understand. The narrator is dropping some work from a student at Gertrude’s. Gertrude takes care of her sick husband.

“But now that she saw she could not possibly get along without Sidney, her trust was shaken. When Sidney found out that she was in his power–if he found out, her heart substituted hastily–what would he do? How could you trust anyone with such power” (206)?

“…if Sidney had come home from work some evening and had said to her, ‘I’m not interested in you any more, Gertrude,’ she would have thought this a disastrous but perfectly reasonable, perfectly predictable thing for him to say–he would simply have come to his senses” (207).

“…she was like a magic sword that is content only as it comes shining from the scabbard” (209).

Gertrude can do without all others, except Sidney.

  1. Art Night

Gertrude is drunk as they head to Art Night.

“Mr. Daudier had a queer look on his face, as if he were a box of mixed nuts, but mostly peanuts…” (242).

  1. They All Go

If you are a teacher and/or love lines that run like crazy poetry, please read this book!

Mama Day

By Gloria Naylor

Vintage Books 1993  312 pages

Naylor was born in New York City in 1950. She is the author of The Women of Brewster Place and Bailey’s Cafe among other works. Pay special attention to the ever-changing narrator; people take turns telling this story. A tip: once you figure out who is speaking, jot their name at the top of the section. 

Sapphira Wade, a true conjure woman, who in 1823, “smothered Bascombe Wade in his very bed and lived to tell the story…”. Had seven sons. “…ain’t Miss Abigail and Mama Day the granddaughters of that seventh boy” (3).

[Legends of the original matriarch: a slave.]

“…18 & 23 at all–was really 81 & 32, which just so happened to be the lines of longitude and latitude marking off where Willow Springs sits on the map. And we were just so damned dumb that we turned the whole thing around” (8).

“Cocoa is like her very own, Mama Day tells him, since she never had no children” (9).

[Section one opens with a chapter about Cocoa.] She is in New York City. [The narrator is the office man, George, telling about his childhood.] 

“It only takes time for a man to grow older, but how many of them grow up” (27)?

[George Andrews and Ophelia (Cocoa) meet at a job interview.] Cocoa tells George that after her cousin and family were lost that she is the only grandchild left. The Linden Hills Christmas fire had claimed cousin Willa, her husband and her son.

[In this chapter we are joined by a third narrator: Great Aunt Miranda, or Mama Day. She describes when Peace died.] “She will see Peace breathing too, at the bottom of the open well, long after her daddy carves the box and they wrap her in white flannel” (36).

“But coming on down to them, it was just her, Abigail, and Peace. And out of them just another three girls, and out of them, two. Three generations of nothing but girls, and only one left alive in this last generation to keep the Days going–the child of Grace” (39).

[A theme emerges of things falling apart.]

“Dr. Buzzard’s pickup truck is missing both fenders and the wheels wobble inward on loose axles; there are so many dents along its side, it’s hard to tell that it was blue at one time. He’s sitting alone behind the wheel, but he’s wearing his beyond-the-bridge clothes…” (46).

“‘Buzzard, I oughta kill you.’ Abigail hugs her granddaughter. ‘My heart almost stopped’” (47).

“Home. It’s being new and old all rolled into one. Measuring your new against old friends, old ways, old places. Knowing that as long as the old survives, you can keep changing as much as you want without the nightmare of waking up to a total stranger” (49).

“‘No, you didn’t have to, but it speaks right well of you that you did. You the only one Abigail’s got left now, with Hope’s child gone’” (50).

[Cocoa loves coming home. She catches up on gossip and Momma Day mixes her up some herbal remedies. For this next scene we have to wonder if George is just a dick:]

“I worked especially late that night, never allowing myself to think about the rationale for any of this. There wasn’t any. I hadn’t done you a favor. I hadn’t felt sorry for a black woman out there up against it looking for a job. I hadn’t thought you the best person for the position. I hadn’t thought at all, not even two weeks later when I sent the roses” (56).

“Well, so much for you, buddy, and your call-me-George. Now, I’m managing the accounts of the man you’re working for. Life goes ‘round, doesn’t it” (57)?

[Mama Day hates to be wrong and doesn’t believe in cuddling. Between grandma and aunt, Cocoa describes the perfect mother.]

“I couldn’t imagine how an evening alone with you and that twelfth rose could be anything but a total downer. I was never in that camp of a night out with someone is better than a night alone. I was someone, and there was always something to do with me” (58).

“It was like when a kid labors over a package–the wrapping paper is poorly glued, the ribbon is half tied–and all of his attention is directed toward that space between the hands that offer and the hands poised to receive. It’s the gesture that holds the heart of the child” (59).

[Wow. That one brings a tear.]

[George and Cocoa’s first date goes horribly, but he asks her out again anyway.]

[The following reminds me of me:]

“‘More than one way to skin a cat. We wouldn’t have to be trying to figure all this out if you’d let her call more often.’

“‘Daddy always said no news is good news. My heart would be pounding every time that phone rang, so I’d rather have her write, if nothing important’s happening.’ Abigail continues her letter” (67).

“‘I guess you qualify as a widow, even though you murdered your first husband.’

“‘Ruby did no such thing.’

“‘She did.’

“The man drowned, Miranda.’

“‘You would, too, if someone hit you in the head with a two-by-four and pushed you off your boat. She told him she was gonna kill him if he kept messing with that little loose gal of Reema’s” (69).

“Miranda kinda blooms when the evening air hits her skin. She stands for a moment watching what the last of the sunlight does to the sky down by The Sound. They say every blessing hides a curse, and every curse a blessing. And with all of the aggravation belonging to a slow fall, it’ll give you a sunset to stop your breath, no matter how long you been on the island. It seems like God reached way down into his box of paints, found the purest reds, the deepest purples, and a dab of midnight blue, then just kinda trailed His fingers along the curve of the horizon and let ‘em all bleed down. And when them streaks of color hit the hush-a-by green of the marsh grass with the blue of The Sound behind ‘em, you ain’t never had to set foot in a church to know you looking at a living prayer” (78).

[This next quote reminds me of my father]

“A bramble scratches her on the face, and a few feet on she trips over a creeper from a sweet bay. No point in cussing, she hears her daddy’s voice. Little Mama, these woods been here before you and me, so why should they get out your way–learn to move around ‘em” (78). [Yes, this is why I keep Kleenex on my desk. Shut up.]

“Daddy, you said live on, didn’t you? Just live on” (88).

[Mama Day never had children, but she has delivered everyone else’s. Frances and Ruby fight over Junior Lee.]

“‘A man don’t leave you unless he wants to go, Frances. And if he’s made up his mind to go, there ain’t nothing you, me, or anybody else can do about that’” (90).

“‘I raised me some decent, Christian children.’

“‘Miracles do happen,’ Miranda says, turning her back. She walks off before Pearl has the chance to take another deep breath; she can keep talking half an hour on just three lungfuls” (94).

Abigail and Miranda are talking when in Miranda’s mind she thinks “She’s thinking of the child she gave to Mother. But I begged her not to do it. She couldn’t put her own guilt to rest by naming her first baby Peace. Peace was gone, I told her. And now Peace is gone again. She only lost one of her babies to Mother, I lost them all. She’s got much less to forgive than me” (95).

Cocoa thinks “I had seen Mama Day do a lot of things out at the other place, and when I told the kids at school they called me a liar” (97).

[Cocoa seems confused by platonic friendship. She learns that George has a girlfriend. George tells Cocoa they are going to renew their commitment (at the same time George and Cocoa are falling in love).]

[The fake world of dating is discussed from a man’s point of view on pages 104-5]

[George and Cocoa seal the deal.]

[The “other place” is mentioned again when Mama Day tells Abigail she should start storing her gifts there.]

[Remembrances of Dad, below:]

“And Miranda says that her daddy, John-Paul, said that in his time Candle Walk was different still. Said people kinda worshipped his grandmother, a slave woman who took her freedom in 1823. Left behind seven sons and a dead master as she walked down the main road, candle held high to light her way to the east bluff over the ocean. Folks in John-Paul’s time would line the main road with candles, food, and slivers of ginger to help her spirit along…And even the youngsters who’ve begun complaining about having no Christmas instead of this ‘old 18 & 23 night’ don’t upset Miranda. It’ll take generations, she says, for Willow Springs to stop doing it at all” (111).

[A friend brings Mama Day a rocking chair that she says is destined for the “other place.” Maranda’s dad and his six brothers are buried on their own land. Her grandfather and his six brothers are there. Peace, Grace, Hope and Peace again. They never found Maranda’s mother’s body.]

[Speaking of the “other place”:]

“Where do folks get things in their head? It’s an old house with a big garden, that’s all. Me and Abigail and Peace was born there. My daddy and his brothers as well. And it’s where my mama sat, rocking herself to death. Folks can get the craziest things in their head. But then again there was the other place, where she was gonna bring Bernice in the spring. Will she see just an old house with a big garden” (118)?

[A bit about ghosts:]

“She tries to listen under the wind. The sound of a long wool skirt passing. Then the tread of heavy leather boots, heading straight for the main road, heading on toward the east bluff over the ocean. It couldn’t be Mother, she died in The Sound. Miranda’s head feels like it’s gonna burst. The candles, food, and slivers of ginger, lining the main road. A long wool skirt passing. Heavy leather boots. And the humming–humming of some lost and ancient song. Quiet tears start rolling down Miranda’s face. Oh, precious Jesus, the light wasn’t for her–it was for him. The tombstone out by Chevy’s Pass. How long did he search for her? Up and down this path. What had daddy said his daddy said about Candle Walk? She was trying too hard, she couldn’t remember. But she’d bring out the rocking chair. Maybe move back here herself after spring. Lord knows, she’d be back in that garden enough come then. And summer, it’d be real pleasant. Listen to the wind from The Sound. Maybe it would come to her. Yes–it just might come to her. Up and down this path, somehow, a man dies from a broken heart” (118).

[Cocoa:]

“George, I was frightened. Can you understand that? Things were going so well between us that I dreaded the day when it would be over. Grown women aren’t supposed to believe in Prince Charmings and happily-ever-afters. Real life isn’t about that–so bring on the clouds. And each day that it was exhilarating and wonderful; each time you’d call unexpectedly just to say, I was thinking about you; each little funny card in the mail or moment in a restaurant when you’d reach over for no reason and squeeze my hand–each of those times, George, I’d feel this underlying panic: when will it end? And it was worse when we were in bed. You’d take me in your arms with such a hunger and tenderness, demanding only that I be pleased, that I’d feel a melting away of places in my body I hadn’t realized were frozen voids. Your touch was slowly making new and alive openings within me and I would lie there warm and weak, listening to you sleep, thinking, What will I do when he’s not here? How will I handle all this space he’s creating without him to fill it?

“And you–you would be so cheerful the mornings after you slept over. Running down to the deli to get us fresh rolls and orange juice. Circling some announcement in the paper for a show we could catch that weekend. Never understanding that it was three whole days until the weekend and my seeing you again. Three days was time enough to settle into what my girlfriends were saying: ‘He sounds too good to be true.’ I’d look around that empty apartment and yes, it had to be that–untrue. You were only part of some vision, or at best a temporary visitor in my life. Too good to be true. Too good to last” (119).

George discusses how easy it is to make a woman think he cares for her. Come over when she calls. Send random Hallmark cards. Cocoa discusses real sharing; personal things she has shared that meant a lot. George gives Cocoa a speech on the difference between being a son of a whore and a son of a bitch. He was the son of a whore who abandoned him and was found washed near a pier near Bailey’s Cafe (131).

“Small places live on small talk, but sometimes the happenings can be too lean for everybody to get enough fat out of it to chew over” (132).

“Trunks and boxes from the other place gave up enough for twenty quilts: corduroy from her uncles, broadcloth from her great-uncles” (137).

Mama Day performs a hoodoo ritual on Bernice so she will become pregnant. “But she wasn’t changing the natural course of nothing, she couldn’t if she tried. Just using what’s there. And couldn’t be nothing wrong in helping Bernice to believe that there’s something more than there is. It’s an old house with a big garden, and it done seen its share of pain. And I’m just an old woman who’ll be waiting in a rocking chair…” [like her mother] (139).

“There’s a lesson in gratitude floating around here somewhere, but it looks like it’s gonna be a while before it settles” (149).

Mama Day refuses to let Cocoa go out and party with her male friends.

There is a wonderful soliloquy on the passing of time on page 158. Four years later, George and Cocoa are still married.

“When you raise a god instead of a child, you’re bound to be serving him for the rest of your days” (162).

“A sow takes better care of her young. And don’t be sitting there whining about a no-good daddy–if he ain’t never here, it means he ain’t stopped you from cleaning this house. And he ain’t the cause of you stuffing this child with white bread and sugar lard to keep him quiet while you’re watching them soap operas. That’s right, cry, you oughta cry. And while you at it, use them tears to water the truck garden you’re gonna start growing with a dollar’s worth of seeds and a little work. Chickens will eat anything you won’t eat–even their own mess–and give you eggs for breakfast to boot. God don’t like ugly” (193-4).

Mama Day and George make a fishing date.

“I know I ain’t giving her credit. Maranda laughs. She done mellowed plenty since this marriage. Soft around the edges without getting too soft at the center. You fear that sometimes for women, that they would just fold up and melt away. She’d seen it happen so much in her time, too much for her to head on into it without thinking. Yes, that one time when she was way, way young. But after that, looking at all the beating, the badgering, the shriveling away from a lack of true touching was enough to give her pause. Not that she mighta hooked up with one of those. And not that any man–even if he tried–coulda ever soaked up the best in her. But who needed to wake up each morning cussing the day just to be sure you still had your voice? A woman shouldn’t have to fight her man to be what she was; he should be fighting that battle for her. It weren’t so in her time, though, and from what these young women tell her, it’s rare to find it now. So a lot of ‘em is waking up like me, except they’re waking up young and alone” (203).

Here’s a bit of brilliance:

“But you wouldn’t have believed me because they never said a word as they sat at that kitchen table chatting away with you retching in the background. But I knew them: idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and you had come home reeking with his brew. There was a soul in that bathroom to be saved with hard work. They were going to demand practically every minute of your day while you would think you were volunteering your butt off. When she puts her mind to it, no one can beat a southern woman at manipulating a man. And these women had been around long enough to take it to the level of art.

“They were much too skilled to honey, sweetheart, or sugar you into anything. On the contrary, you would be told to run off, to rest, to leave them alone with their work. But context would be their masterstroke and versatility their finishing touch. So Grandma starts out talking about her age. This will probably be the last year she’d fool with that garden. Her appetite is hardly what it used to be–why worry about growing beans? More there than she’ll ever use and even too many to give away. A long, long sigh. She’ll just go on up to the store and buy a few old frozen packages of something. She’s a lot better off than them other old people she reads about in the newspapers having to eat cat food. You see, then she totally drops that subject. Goes on to something else, and finally with another long, long sigh, she says that since these beans are already growing, she’ll go through the last hurrah and get out there and tie them up. To grab at her back when she stands up would be a bit too much, so she just shuffles slowly toward the rear porch. And, of course, you volunteer. That’s gentle pity. 

“Mama Day jumps in by the afternoon and uses fierce pride. She waits until she spies you on the porch before dragging that heavy rag rug out to the clothesline. She lets it rail along the ground, stopping several times to hoist it up in her arms. That gives you the time to get across the road with an offer of help that’s flatly and emphatically refused as she struggles unsuccessfully–much too unsuccessfully–to swing it over the line. You get begrudging thanks for insisting that you do it and finally several pointers on the most effective way to beat out the dust. But she’ll keep you supplied with lemonade for your dry throat–at least she ain’t too old and decrepit to squeeze a few lemons. They exchange tactics on the second day and by the third, none are needed. You’ve been allowed to overhear the quiet whispers about how marvelous you are, to witness glimpses of melting awe at the strength of your back, your arms. Yeah, they could lie back now, your ego would take over.

“I guess if I’d really taken those lessons to heart, we could have gotten along better. They had you under their heels and you were purring. But I found treating a grown man like a five-year-old a little nauseating. If they had just come out and said, We want you to help around the house, you would have. As a matter of fact, you would have done it for the remainder of your vacation and not have resented it. That was more my style: Hey, look, keep your tail here and help me. But like I said, they were artists. And they wove the illusion that you were doing more than helping, you were in charge. You wanted to do all those chores. You even thought of things to be done that hadn’t crossed their minds. The fact that you weren’t in charge had absolutely nothing to do with the results: Grandma’s roof got painted, the garden got weeded, Mama Day’s rugs were spotless. And you were too tired to go anywhere. If you only knew, I thought, watching you laughing and talking with them on the porch at night. Grandma shelling boiled peanuts for you, Mama Day rubbing liniment into your sore shoulders. And maybe you did know, but it was what you believed that counted” (216-7).

In the woods Cocoa hears the whispers of ghosts that George can’t hear. They say she is going to break his heart. We learn some more history of the other place. 224-5

“Well, the Scriptures do say it: man was the last thing the Lord made.”

“He shoulda quit while He was ahead.”

“Just letting things crumble apart, ‘cause everybody wants to be right in a world where they ain’t no right or wrong to be found. My side. He don’t listen to my side. She don’t listen to my side. Just like that chicken coop, everything got four sides: his side, her side, an outside, and an inside. All of it is the truth. But that takes a lot of work and young folks ain’t about working heard no more. When getting at the truth starts to hurt, it’s easier to turn away” (230).

Junior Lee puts the moves on Cocoa and Ruby sees him.

“Miranda shakes her head and takes a final look around her garden before she turns her face to the sky. Gray. The color you’d get from blending a bridal dress and a funeral veil” (243).

Little Caesar dies. The poison Ruby plants in Cocoa has begun to take effect.

“There’ll be no redemption for that. She ain’t gotta worry about going on to hell. Hell was right now. Daddy always said that folks misread the Bible. Couldn’t be no punishment worse than having to live here on ear, he said” (261).

Lightning hits Ruby’s house twice and it explodes after Mama Day had turned some hoodoo on her.

“And if you’re worried about us, you can stop. We’re going to be fine because I believe in myself.”

“That’s where folks start, boy–not where they finish up. Yes, I said boy. ‘Cause a man would have grown enough to know that really believing in himself means that he ain’t gotta be afraid to admit there’s some things he just can’t do alone.”

Read the book to find out all the twists and turns!

This is Where I Leave You

by

Jonathan Tropper

New York Times bestseller A Plume Book 2010 339 pages

This novel had me hooked and in stitches from page one. How rare is that? The novel opens by describing the personality of the narrator’s family and how they deal with life. I could immediately relate to the crass, harsh, hilarious and real way the Foxman family does family. The patriarch has died which becomes a framing device for the story. While Dad was sick he requested the family come together and sit Shiva for seven whole days. For years they have actively avoided bonding family time and none of the four grown children are looking forward to all this togetherness. Each sibling has a lot going on including spouses and assorted lovers. We get to peek inside each life, but we are always in the head of Judd, the narrator, whose life is completely upside down. Even though the situations are not obviously funny, Tropper gives Judd such a twisted sense of humor that somehow you laugh even when you are not supposed to. On the other hand, Tropper can be very nostalgic and heart-felt when discussing family, sometimes even waxing poetic. The story is told in the present tense and is counted by the time on the clock so that, in effect, you are also sitting Shiva with the Foxmans. This novel is full of belly-laughs that will make you want to read out loud to your friends. What follows are my favorite bits (I like to call “the best bits”) and chapter summaries.

1 “If we sound like a couple of callous assholes, it’s because that’s how we were raised” (2).

“Dad didn’t believe in God, but he was a life-long member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can” (3).

[Story being told by Judd who has an older sister (Wendy), older brother (Paul) and younger brother, Phillip. Their dad has finally died after a long battle with stomach cancer. They will gather for the funeral. Judd has been having a tough time even aside from his father’s death.]

2 “…trying to look like someone trying not to look bored” (10).

“You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone” (11).

[Judd and Jen are divorcing. They had met in college. Jen is sleeping with Judd’s boss and is pregnant. Judd and Jen were pregnant once. Still birth. You can tell Judd still loves her and is very hurt.]

3 “Because the thing of it is, no matter how much you enjoy sex, there’s something jolting and strangely disturbing about witnessing the sex of others. Nature has taken great pains to lay out the fundamentals of copulation so that it’s impossible to get a particularly good view of the sex you’re having. Because when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty, often grotesque business to behold: the hairs; the abraded, dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping, and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes along and devours us” (16-17).

[Margin note: No romanticizing here! Thank you for telling it like it is.]

“Naked men shouldn’t run” (24).

[Judd goes into gross, horrible and hilarious detail about the day he caught his wife and boss together in HIS bed. Now he lives in a cheap basement room and is somehow still spiraling downward.]

4 “…even as his ridiculous raincoat makes him stand out like a bloodstain against a sky the color of a dead tooth” (33).

[Father’s funeral.]

5 [After the funeral the extended family gather around the dinner table. Chaos ensues.]

6 [Judd recalling the first time he met Jen.]

7 “And as the room starts to fill with the first somber-faced neighbors coming to pay their respects, it becomes clear to me that the reason for filling the shiva house with visitors is most likely to prevent the mourners from tearing each other limb from limb” (63).

[In high school Judd and Alice lost their virginity to each other. Alice later married Paul and the brothers have had a rocky relationship ever since.]

8 [Judd escapes shiva for a short drive to pick Horry up from the store and take him home. Judd learns an old flame also works at the store. His interest is peaked.]

9 [First day of shiva finally ends. Judd listens to voicemails from pregnant Jen who wants to hurry along divorce proceedings.]

10 “There is nothing more pathetically optimistic than the morning erection. I am depressed, unemployed, unloved, basement-dwelling, and bereaved, but there it is, every morning like clockwork, rising up to greet the day, poking out of my fly cocksure and conspicuously useless. And every morning, I face the same choice: masturbate or urinate. It’s the one time of the day where I feel like I have options” (84).

[Judd’s relationship with his mother.]

11 [All the kids are giving Mom a “Dad” story but Judd can’t recall a time he had his dad’s undivided attention.]

12 [Mr. Applebaum is already scoping out the widow.]

13 [Judd is lonely and every woman in society has his attention.]

14 [Judd re-lives quitting his job when Wade was his manager.]

15 [Tracy is now competing with old school chums of Phillip’s. Judd puts in a good word for Horry’s independence.]

16 [Judd sees Penny who he had a thing with in college. They made a pact to marry by age 40 if they were both still single. Horry cannot live alone even though he desires independence.]

17 [Horry brought back a memory of a dog attack that Judd and Paul experienced as kids. Now Judd is dreaming about it.]

18 [Paul and Phillip finally go to blows and Jen appears out of nowhere. Will Phillip join the family business? Will Paul let him?]

19 [Judd sums up what sex is like after you’ve been married for years.]

20 “‘Please,’ she says. ‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’

“It’s an absurd request. Our minds, unedited by guilt or shame, are selfish and unkind, and the majority of our thoughts, at any given time, are not for public consumption, because they would either be hurtful or else just make us look like the selfish and unkind bastards we are. We don’t share our thoughts, we share carefully sanitized, watered-down versions of them, Hollywood adaptations of those thoughts dumbed down for the PG-13 crowd” (137).

[Jen comes to tell Judd that she is carrying HIS baby!]

21 [Judd recalling when he and Jen learned they had lost their first (and only) child. It led to the demise of their marriage.]

22 [Mom gives her input on her kids’ relationships then Paul decks Phillip to return the favor from the day before. Phillip drops the bomb about Jen being pregnant.]

23 [Judd visits Penny and they have a short skate holding hands. Phillip is cheating on Tracy. Dad’s death is starting to sink in.]

25 [Horry still has a thing for Wendy. Does she still think of him too?]

26 [Paul and his wife are trying to conceive and everyone knows it.]

27 [After a make out session with Penny in the pool, Judd calls Jen. Wade answers and doesn’t appreciate this late night call.]

28 [The crazy party in high school where Alice and Judd were going to make out but instead Judd gets kicked in the balls. Paul comes back to revenge his little brother, but Paul ends up being attacked by a guard dog owned by Judd’s attacker. The two brothers’ relationship has never been the same.]

29 “You can sit up here, feeling above it all while knowing you’re not, coming to the lonely conclusion that the only thing you can ever really know about anyone is that you don’t know anything about them at all” (188).

[Judd is accidentally electrocuted which brings forward a dad memory. He mourns with his mother.]

30 [The brothers sneak off during church service to smoke dad’s last joint. They accidentally set off the fire alarm.]

31 “Back when I lived with Jen, I had some friends. In the aftermath of our separation, Allan and Mike had met me for drinks and we’d all raised our glasses in agreement that Jen was a cheating bitch and I was the good guy here. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was actually my good-bye party. Jen would retain custody of our friends and I’d be wordlessly discarded. A few weeks later, as I circled the multiplex parking lot, I saw Allan and Mike with their wives, leaving the theater along with Jen and Wade, all walking in standard formation, talking and laughing in the cinematic afterglow, like it had always been just so. I tried to tell myself it was simply a chance encounter, but it was clear from their body language that they were all together, and probably not for the first time. It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are. Friendship in the suburbs is wife-driven, and my friends were essentially those husbands of Jen’s friends that I could most tolerate. Now that I’d been sidelined, Wade had stepped in for me like an understudy, a small note was inserted into the program, and the show went on without missing a beat” (214-215).

[Jen wants to talk but Judd is having none of it. He makes mischief in his old house when no one is there. He is practically raped by his sister-in-law Alice who has been trying for 2 years to get pregnant with Paul. Later, Judd goes on a date with Penny and for the second time says nothing about Jen being pregnant.]

32 [Judd dreams a sweet dream of his father who heals him.]

33 [Wendy and Judd talk about life. Why did Linda (Mom’s lifelong friend) stay the night?]

34 [Old high school friends come to visit during shiva. Their lives have all turned out pretty mediocre.]

35 [Visiting high school friends prompt an impromptu batting round in the side yard where Paul hurts his ravaged shoulder and Boner gets hit in the face with a ball. Have mother and Linda been lovers for years?]

36 [Judd lets all the older women know he DOES NOT want to be set up with their daughters.]

37 “She is waiting in front of her building when we pull up, looking edible in a T-shirt, short shorts, and tennis shoes. She could be nineteen. She could be my girlfriend. We could be going out to the amusement park, where we’d kiss on the lines, hold hands on the rides, and share cotton candy. I’d win her one of those giant stuffed animals and we’d carry it around the park with us like a badge of honor. Afterward it would take up permanent residence on her pink bedspread, where she’s lie across ti while we spoke for hours on the phone” (252).

“A kid with a name tag and a digital camera asks us to pose for a picture with the cheesy plaster palace behind us. There are countless pictures of my family at various ages in just this spot. If we pulled them out of all the messy albums in the living room bookcases, you could probably track the steady growth of our family, like annual pencil marks on the wall to show how tall you’ve grown. Dad isn’t in any of the Wonderland pictures, because he was always the one taking them, with this old Yashica he’d bought when he first got married, because why the hell would he pay for a picture he could take better himself? As a matter of fact, you’d have to turn a lot of pages to find Dad in any of our albums. The inadvertent result of being the default photographer is that he was relegated to the role of a bit player in the actual recorded history of our family. There are entire years of our lives where he doesn’t appear at all” (253).

“Sometimes, contentment is a matter of will. You have to look at what you have right in front of you, at what it could be, and stop measuring it against what you’ve lost. I know this to be wise and true, just as I know that pretty much no one can do it” (255).

[The last date with Penny.]

38 [Judd is having a moment with Jen at the hospital listening to their baby’s heartbeat when Wade arrives. He ends up arguing with both Judd and Phillip who ends up decking him. A bit of vandalism meets Wade’s car before the brothers exit the parking lot.]

39 [All the brothers are feeling quite beat up by their wives. They need a night off.]

40 “He sinks his teeth into every word, and they come out chewed” (276).

[The brothers go out but it was not the bonding experience they had imagined.]

41 “Down in the basement, I wash some of Boner’s foam spray off the mirror to better study my reflection. My bottom lip is split and swollen, my eyes bleary, my cheeks pale and puffy. I look like a corpse pulled from the river a week after the suicide. It’s time for a gut check. I mean that literally. I pull off my shirt, which is caked with just enough blood and vomit to represent a much wilder night than the one I’ve had, and step back to study my torso. The overall effect does not match the image I cling to in my head. My belly is not yet what you’d call a gut, but you can see where the inevitable expansion will happen. I have no real chest to speak of; you’d miss it altogether if it weren’t for the two hairless nipples pressed on like decals. Broader shoulders would create the illusion of fitness, but I am sorely lacking in that department as well. The overall impression is lean but soft, and getting softer. This is the package, ladies. Come and get it.

“I lie down on the floor to do some sit-ups and promptly fall asleep” (285-5).

[Drunk Judd gets a punch and an apology from Wade who is leaving Jen. He just can’t do the step-father thing.]

42 [Another dream of Dad who is cradling Judd’s future baby.]

43 “The whites of his eyes are vaguely pink, like something ran in the wash” (295).

[Tracy knows it’s the end of the line with Phillip. Horry lays girls who don’t truly know him. Alice apologizes for raping Judd. Lina leaves after a heated argument.]

44 [Mom comes out of the closet.]

45 [The kids discuss their mom being bisexual.]

46 [Shiva is over. Judd drives home to a long talk with Jen. He is ready to work on forgiveness.]

47 [Mom and Linda get to tell their story. Mom was the one bringing them all together…not dad’s dying wish.]

48 [All the kids prepare to return to the lives.]

49 [Judd goes to apologize and say good-bye to Penny.]

50 [I never summarize the last chapter. That is a prompt to go read the book yourself!]

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

By

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Riverhead Books  New York  2009

262 pages excluding notes

I like the way Bartlett sets up the story. She speaks directly to her audience and first describes what made her interested in tracking a rare books thief. It sounds almost like she is setting up a master’s thesis; she first states her driving curiosity and why which sets us on a journey together. The language is straightforward yet sometimes repetitive. She narrows in on a notorious rare book thief named John Gilkey whom she interviews multiple times. She gets to know him and tries to figure out his motivations. I did not feel the need to summarize every chapter, but there were some quotes and reflections on the love of books themselves which I really enjoyed. What follows are the quotes and reflections Bartlett used that captured my attention. If you are a book fanatic, you will enjoy this read. Numbers at the beginning of an entry indicate the chapter followed by the chapter title. My own reflections I will place in brackets.

[Dude! You are not going to believe this!]:

From Anathema in a medieval manuscript from the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner…let him be struck with palsy, & all his members belated…Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

[So badass]

From A. S. W. Rosenback, twentieth-century book dealer:

I have known men to hazard their fortunes, go long journeys halfway about the world, forget friendships, even lie, cheat, and steal, all for the gain of a book.

[The book begins with a story of a borrowed book: the Krautterbuch. Referring to the book, Bartlett writes]:

My favorite remedy, though, is for low spirits. “Often we are missing the right kind of happiness, and if we don’t have any wine yet, we will be very content when we do get wine” (4).

[Prologue summary:

Introduction of the Krautterbuch, a book from the 1600s which was supposedly stolen from a library. The author speaks in first person and explains how this book set her on a journey.]

1  Like a Moth to a Flame

[This passage brought a tear to my eye because it so accurately describes the magic of becoming attached to a book.]

Walking by a booth with an impressive selection of dust jacket art, I heard a dealer say to a passerby, “don’t judge a book by its content!” I had read enough about book collectors before the fair to get the joke: Many collectors don’t actually read their books. At first, I was surprised, but having given it some thought, it’s not so shocking. After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books’ physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories–we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on.

For me, the most important book-as-object from my childhood is Charlotte’s Web, the first book I mail-ordered after joining a book club. I still remember my thrill at seeing the mailman show up with it at our front door on a sunny Saturday morning. It has a crisp paper jacket, unlike the plastic-covered library books I was used to, and the way the pages parted, I could tell I was the first to open it. For several days I lived in Wilbur’s world, and the only thing as sad as Charlotte’s death, maybe even sadder, was that I had come to the end of the book. I valued that half-dream state of being lost in a book so much that I limited the number of pages I let myself read each day in order to put off the inevitable end, my banishment from that world. I still do this. It doesn’t make sense, though, because the pleasure of that world does not really end for good. You can always start over on page one–and you can remember. Whenever I have spotted my old Charlotte’s Web (on my son’s shelf, then my daughter’s), I have recalled how it came to me. It’s a personal record of one chapter of my life, just as other chapters have other books I associate with them. The pattern continues; my daughter returned from camp last summer with her copy of Motherless Brooklyn in a state approaching ruin. She told me she’s dropped it into a creek, but couldn’t bear to leave it behind, even after she’d finished it. This book’s body is inextricably linked to her experience of reading it. I hope that she continues to hold on to it, because as long as she does, its wavy, expanded pages will remind her of the hot day she read it with her feet in the water–and of the fourteen-year-old she was at the time. A book is much more than a delivery vehicle for its contents, and from my perspective, this fair was a concentrated celebration of that fact.

[The author is most interested in the type of book thief that steals for the love of books. Gilkey is notorious. He says he will tell his story from prison.]

2  Half-truths

[The author’s first interview with Gilkey.]

3  Richie Rich

[Gilkey sees his book collection as a representation of himself. He wants to appear rich and cultured. He wants people to be impressed.]

4  A Gold Mine

5  Spider-Man

6  Happy New Year

7  Trilogy of Kens

In 1644, John Milton wrote: “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

8  Treasure Island

9  Brick Row

10  Not Giving Up

11  This Call May Be Recorded or Monitored

Of having taken their lives, he said, “Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved.”

12  What More Could I Ask?

13  And Look: More Books!

14  The Devil’s Walk

Afterword

From Warning written by medieval German scribe:

This book belongs to none but me

For there’s my name inside to see.

To steal this book, if you should try,

It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.

And ravens then will gather ‘bout

To find your eyes and pull them out.

And when you’re screaming

“Oh, Oh, Oh!”

Remember, you deserved this woe.

[Man, these medieval book lovers were not playing.]

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest Ballantine Books New York 1976

This is a classic and an easy read with short chapters. The writing is not flowery or dreamy although when someone is experiencing disordered thinking the writing reflects what that might look like with few punctuation marks and fragments of sentences. The story deals with difficult family issues. The story and emotions are realistic. There are no easy answers if there are any answers at all. We learn that parental love can come in many forms, but it can also not be shown at all. Accidents happen, emotions and behaviors become twisted, people lose their shit and those around them don’t know what to do with that lost shit. Trigger warning issues of accidental death, suicide and mental institutions.

What follows is a plot summary excluding the epilogue; that’s for you to get to. The numbers indicate the chapter.

1 We meet young Conrad Jarrett fresh out of the mental facility and having trouble starting his day.

2 Calvin Jarrett is the father. Being abandoned as a child makes it even more difficult for him to parent a teen with mental illness. (The chapters alternate between these two characters’ points of view. The novel is written, interestingly, in the present tense.)

3 We learn about Conrad’s school life. All his friends are seniors but due to his illness he is still a junior. He has trouble feeling normal although he is trying to get back to his old routine.

4 Calvin doesn’t think it wise to go on their annual Christmas vacation. He doesn’t want any trouble. We learn that another son, Jordan, (older brother to Conrad) is now deceased.

5 Conrad sees a crazy local psychiatrist who appears inept. Conrad says his older brother died in a boating accident.

6 Calvin, the dad, seems every bit as lost as his mentally ill son. He has no idea who he is or what he wants.

7 Conrad attempts an afternoon date with Karen, a girl from the mental facility. She doesn’t feel mentally safe and leaves quickly.

8 Calvin drinks quite a bit. The neighbors are curious about Conrad’s situation. Beth (Conrad’s mother/Calvin’s wife) doesn’t want to discuss the topic at parties (or generally in public). Calvin misses hearing both sons in the house. We learn Conrad has slit his wrists.

9 Conrad is actually getting something out of seeing this wacky psychiatrist, Dr. Berger.

10 Conrad quits the swim team; he doesn’t like those people. They are too mean and he is too sensitive; too raw.

11 Calvin thinking about his law partner’s life and marriage.

12 Conrad successfully visits with a cute girl. He recalls a ski trip with his brother.

13 Beth finds out Conrad quit the swim team from an outside source. He quit a month ago and his parents didn’t know. There is a big family freak out. Conrad feels his mother hates him.

14 Dr. Berger’s genius is slowly being revealed.

15 Instead of talking about their grief, Calvin and Beth simply fight.

16 Conrad gets his looks complimented. He is starting to gain positive momentum. His psychiatrist is very helpful.

17 Calvin is now the one seeking Dr. Berger’s help.

18 Bumbling through exams and asking out girls.

19 Calvin’s business partner is worried about him.

20 Conrad’s date goes well. They set up another for the following weekend.

21 Calvin evaluates his fears and how he is most motivated to be safe.

22 Conrad gets in a fist fight with an asshole in the school parking lot.

23 Conrad tells his dad about the fight. Mom doesn’t even notice Conrad is waiting up for Dad.

24 Conrad’s new girlfriend is experiencing family drama. His own parents are out of town and he has to stay with his grandparents. His grandmother is a ball buster. (You can see where his mom gets it.)

25 Calvin and Beth on vacation at her brother’s place in Texas.

26 Karen is a girl Conrad was in treatment with. She has killed herself. This sends Conrad into a tailspin thinking about his brother dying on the lake and about electric shock therapy in treatment. He calls his psychiatrist and is driving to see him.

27 Conrad has a bad night but he makes it through.

28 Calvin and Beth can’t get through a vacation without fighting. Beth feels her son cut his wrists to show HER how much he hates her.

29 Everyone seems relieved to be home again.

30 Conrad has a girlfriend and they can discuss important things.

31 Calvin and Conrad discuss Beth and her leaving them. There are no clear answers and they’ll just have to be okay with that.

Epilogue

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Marquez also wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude along with other works. This book, Love in the Time of Cholera, was a national best seller. Marquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. Penguin Books had this edition translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman. This book was published in 1988. Even though the cover of my copy appears intriguing, I hate the title; it actively makes me not want to read it. I committed to it because I’d heard such good things about the author. A movie was made based on this story. A personal note on the very first page reads “This book is incredible!” On the second page I wrote “With very little dialogue, this book reminds me of another one of my favorite authors, Dostoyevsky. We go deep into people’s hearts, souls and minds. What a splendored world is love. How long would you wait? How far would you go? Love has no age; no sell-by date. We do not stop loving when we age.” On the next page I wrote “This is another one of those books whose title does not reveal the humor and the love inside!”

As far as transcription, I usually just type the “best bits” that rise to the surface as outstanding writing. For this one I also included plot points (which I mark differently in the book). That was too much! I’m hoping that if you like the “best bits” you’ll feel inspired to read the entire story.

 

3  margin note: Saint Amour poisons himself

5  margin note: Dr. Juvenal Urbino is very old but still working. Memory and hearing slipping a bit.

9  “…the uproar of oil and motors from the bay whose exhaust fumes fluttered through the house on hot afternoons like an angel condemned to putrefaction.”

10  “‘The scalpel is the greatest proof of the failure of medicine.’ He thought that, in a strict sense, all medication was poison and that seventy percent of common foods hastened death.”

17  Branding (one of my literary interests discussed in my thesis) is mentioned

20  “He was a deplumed, maniacal parrot who did not speak when asked to but only when it was least expected, but when he did so with a clarity and rationality that were uncommon among human beings.”

31  “He was very glad that the instrument used by Divine Providence for that overwhelming revelation had been Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, whom he had always considered a saint unaware of his own state of grace. But when the letter revealed his true identity, his sinister past, his inconceivable powers of deception, he felt that something definitive and irrevocable had occurred in his life.”

32  “‘You don’t understand anything,’ he said. ‘What infuriates me is not what he was or what he did, but the deception he practiced on all of us for so many years.’”

37  “He remembered Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, on view at that hour in his coffin, in his bogus military uniform with his fake decoration, under the accusing eyes of the children in the portraits.”

49  Dr. Urbino is buried the day after Saint-Amour.

50  “‘Fermina,’ he said, ‘I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.’

“Fermina Daza would have thought she was facing a madman if she had not had reason to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Her first impulse was to curse him for profaning the house when the body of her husband was still warm in the grave. But the dignity of her fury held her back. ‘Get out of here,’ she said. ‘And don’t show your face again for the years of life that are left to you.’ She opened the street door, which she had begun to close, and concluded:

“‘And I hope there are very few of them.’”

51  “Only then did she realize that she had slept a long time without dying, sobbing in her sleep, and that while she slept, sobbing, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.”

Chapter endnotes:

Learn about Saint-Amour and what is revealed in his suicide note. Learn of Dr. Urbino (who dies next) and his wife, Fermina. She is visited by a man she met as a teen who says he has loved her all this time. This news did not come as a shock but she kicks him out. Even so…she thinks about him more than her dead husband all through the night.

 

53  “Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, had not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago.”

54  “…Florentino Ariza could play by ear like a professional. When he met Fermina Daza he was the most sought-after young man in his social circle…”

55  “The lesson was not interrupted, but the girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.”

57  “‘But above all,’ she said, ‘The first person you have to win over is not the girl but her aunt.’”

58  “…her aunt was convinced that all these meetings could not be casual. She said: ‘He is not going to all this trouble for me.’ For despite her austere conduct and penitential habit, Aunt Escolastica had an instinct for life and a vocation for complicity, which was her greatest virtues, and the mere idea that a man was interested in her niece awakened an irresistible emotion in her. Fermina Daza, however, was still safe from even simple curiosity about love, and the only feeling that Florentino Ariza inspired in her was a certain pity, because it seemed to her that he was sick. But her aunt told her that one had to live a long time to know a  man’s true nature, and she was convinced that the one who sat in the park to watch them walk by could only be sick with love.

“Four times a day, when they walked through the little Park of the Evangels, both hurried to look with a rapid glance at the thin, timid, unimpressive sentinel who was almost always dressed in black despite the heat and who pretended to read under the trees.”

59  “But her prayers were not answered. On the contrary. This occurred at the time that Florentino Ariza made his confession to his mother, who dissuaded him from handing Fermina Daza his seventy pages of compliments, so that she continued to wait for the rest of the year.”

62  But his examination revealed that he had no fever, no pain anywhere, and that his only concrete feeling was an urgent desire to die. All that was needed was shrewd questioning, first of the patient and then of his mother, to conclude once again that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

68  “It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them. Never in that delirious spring, or in the following year, did they have the opportunity to speak to each other. Moreover, from the moment they saw each other for the first time until he reiterated his determination a half century later, they never had the opportunity to be alone or to talk of their love. But during the first three months not one day went by that they did not write to each other, and for a time they wrote twice a day, until Aunt Escolastica became frightened by the intensity of the blaze that she herself had helped to ignite.”

69  “Sometimes he went to the office without having slept, his hair in an uproar of love after leaving the letter in the prearranged hiding place so that Fermina Daza would find it on her way to school.”

71  “Their frenetic correspondence was almost two years old when Florentino Ariza, in a letter of only one paragraph, made a formal proposal of marriage to Fermina Daza. On several occasions during the preceding six months he had sent her a white camellia…”

“…torn from the margin of a school notebook, on which a one-line answer was written in pencil: Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.”

73  “In any case, the details of the engagement were settled in their letters during the weeks that followed. Fermina Daza, on the advice of her Aunt Escolastica, accepted both the two-year extension and the condition of absolute secrecy, and suggested that Florentino Ariza ask for her hand when she finished secondary school, during the Christmas vacation. When the time came they would decide on how the engagement was to be formalized, depending on the degree of approval she obtained from her father. In the meantime, they continued to write to each other with the same ardor and frequency, but free of the turmoil they had felt before, and their letters tended toward a domestic tone that seemed appropriate to husband and wife. Nothing disturbed their dreams.”

77  “She had two children, each by a different father, not because they were casual adventures but because she could never love any man who came back after the third visit.”

78  “The fact was that on the previous Saturday, Sister Franca de la Luz, Superior of the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, had come into the class on Ideas of Cosmogony with the stealth of a serpent, and spying on the students over their shoulders, she discovered that Fermina Daza was pretending to take notes in her notebook when in reality she was writing a love letter. According to the rules of the Academy, that error was reason for expulsion.”

79  “Certain that such an intricate relationship was understandable only with the complicity of his sister, he did not grant her the grace of an excuse or the right of appeal, but shipped her on the schooner to San Juan de la Cienaga. Fermina Daza never found relief from her last memory of her aunt on the afternoon when she said goodbye in the doorway…”

“Lorenzo Daza did not foresee the ferocity with which his daughter would react to the unjust punishment of her Aunt Escolastica, whom she had always identified with the mother she could barely remember. She locked herself in her room, refused to eat or drink, and when at last he persuaded her to open the door, first with threats and then with poorly dissimulated pleading, he found a wounded panther who would never be fifteen years old again.”

“But it was like talking to a corpse. Defeated, he at last lost his temper at lunch on Monday, and while he choked back insults and blasphemies and was about to explode, she put the meat knife to her throat, without dramatics but with a steady hand and eyes so aghast that he did not dare to challenge her. That was when he took the risk of talking for five minutes, man to man, with the accursed upstart whom he did not remember ever having seen, and who had come into his life to his great sorrow. By force of habit he picked up his revolver before he went out, but he was careful to hide it under his shirt.”

81  “Get out of our way.”

82  “‘Don’t force me to shoot you,’ he said.

“‘Shoot me,’ he said, with his hand on his chest. ‘There is no greater glory than to die for love.’”

Margin note: Father is taking her away. She leaves a letter in her hair braid.

86  “So the Forentino Ariza not only learned the complete itinerary but also established an extensive brotherhood of telegraph operators who would follow the trail of Fermina Daza to the last settlement in Cabo de la Vela. This allowed him to maintain intensive communications with her from the time of her arrival in Valledupar, where she stayed three months, until the end of her journey in Riohacha, a year and a half later, when Lorenzo Daza took it for granted that his daughter had at last forgotten and he decided to return home.”

88  “That was how the telegraphic correspondence with Florentino Ariza stopped being a concerto of intentions and illusory promises and became methodical and practical and more intense than ever. They set dates, established means, pledged their lives to their mutual determination to marry without consulting anyone, wherever and however they could, as soon as they were together again.”

Lorenzo Daza “never spoke to her about his plans for the arranged marriage.”

“It was at this time that Florentino Ariza decided to tell her in his letters of his determination to salvage the treasure of the sunken galleon for her.”

102 margin note: OH. NO.

103  “…opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine months and four days later, when he repeated his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love on her first night as a widow.”

Endnotes: Florentino and Fermina were in love all their teen/young years, but her father moved them away to break up the romance. They stayed in touch through letters. Three years later when Fermina returned to secretly marry Florentino, he caught her by surprise in the market. At just that moment, the X factor was extinguished. She saw Florentino in an entirely new light and abruptly broke off the engagement.

 

109  “To prevent anyone from drinking from the aluminum cup used to dip out the water, its edges were as jagged as the crown of a mock king.”

122 Dr. Urbino is now attempting to get close to Fermina.

“It was a brief and bitter visit. Sister Franca de la Luz, wasting no time on formalities, offered honorable reinstatement to Fermina Daza. The reason for her expulsion would be erased not only from the records but also from the memory of the Community, and this would allow her to finish her studies and receive her baccalaureate degree. Fermina Daza was perplexed and wanted to know why.

“‘It is the request of someone who deserves everything he desires and whose only sin is to make you happy,’ said the nun. ‘Do you know who that is?’

“Then she understood. She asked herself with what authority a woman who had made her life miserable because of an innocent letter served as the emissary of love, but she did not dare to speak of it. Instead she said yes, she knew that man, and by the same token she also knew that he had no right to interfere in her life.”

132  margin notes: Fermina is a homebody with no friends

“She herself had not realized that every step she took from her house to school, every spot in the city, every moment of her recent past, did not seem to exist except by the grace of Florentino Ariza. Hildebranda pointed this out to her, but she did not admit it because she never would have admitted that Florentino Ariza, for better or for worse, was the only thing that had ever happened to her in her life.”

136  margin note: Interesting how all these men are after Fermina when she herself does not seem interesting at all.

“…Doctor with a perfunctory handshake. Fermina did the same, but when she tried to withdraw her hand in its satin glove, Dr. Urbino squeezed her ring finger.

“‘I am waiting for your answer,’ he said.”

“Then Fermina pulled harder and her empty glove was left dangling in the Doctor’s hand, but she did not wait to retrieve it.”

137  “It was one of her typical letters, not a syllable too many or too few, in which she told the Doctor yes, he could speak to her father.”

138 margin note: Florentino plays one last waltz for Fermina before moving away.

142 margin note: Florintino loses his virginity to a stranger.

143  “…he could not believe, that he even refused to admit, which was that his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion.”

147  “…in the marasmus of the sedatives he had resolved once and for all that he did not give a damn about the brilliant future of the telegraph and that he would take this very same boat back to his old Street of Windows.

“Never again, because never again would he abandon the city of Fermina Daza.

149  “Florentino Ariza tried to help her unfasten her stays, but she anticipated him with a deft maneuver, for in five years of matrimonial devotion she learned to depend on herself in all phases of love, even the preliminary stages, with no help from anyone.”

Margin notes 152: Florentino begins keeping journals of his lovers

Margin notes 153: Florentina sees Fermina after her honeymoon. She is at church with her husband and pregnant.

“…which couples in the family still made love and which ones had stopped, and when, and why, even though they continued to live together.”

159  “He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.’

Margin notes 160  Fermina and Urbino have their first child

161  “But amid these and so many other memories, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had one that he always regretted not sharing with his wife, for it came from his days as a bachelor student in Paris. It was the memory of Victor Hugo, who enjoyed an impassioned fame here that had nothing to do with his books, because someone said that he had said, although no one actually heard him say it, that our Constitution was meant for a nation not of men but of angels. From that time on, special homage was paid to him, and most of our many compatriots who traveled to France went out of their way to see him. A half-dozen students, among them Juvenal Urbino, stood guard for a time outside his residence on Avenue Eylau, and at the cafes where it was said he came without fail and never came, and at last they sent a written request for a private audience in the name of the angels of the Constitution of Rionegro. They never received a re3ply. One day, when Juvenal Urbino happened to be passing the Luxembourg Gardens, he saw him come out of the Senate with a young woman on his arm. He seemed very old, he walked with difficulty, his beard and hair were less brilliant than in his pictures, and he wore an overcoat that seemed to belong to a larger man. He did not want to ruin the memory with an impertinent greeting: he was satisfied with the almost unreal vision that he would keep for the rest of his life. When he returned to Paris as a married man, in a position to see him under more formal circumstances, Victor Hugo had already died.”

End note: We learn what happens during Fermina and Florentino’s lives when Dr. Urbino comes on the scene.

 

A plan: “The day that Florentino Ariza saw Fermina Daza in the atrium of the Cathedral, in the sixth month of her pregnancy and in full command of her new condition as a woman of the world, he made a fierce decision to win fame and fortune in order to deserve her. He did not even stop to think about the obstacle of her being married, because at the same time he decided, as if it depended on himself alone, that Dr. Juvenal Urbino had to die. He did not know when or how, but he considered it an ineluctable event that he was resolved to wait for without impatience or violence, even till the end of time.

“…he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves” (166).

“Inside the shell of a soulless merchant was hidden a genial lunatic…” (165-6).

169  “In the other photograph, his father was with a group of soldiers in God knows which of so many wars, and he held the longest rifle, and his mustache had a gunpowder smell that wafted out of the picture.”

176-7  “As he spoke he sipped aguardiente without pause. He seemed to be made of reinforced concrete: he was enormous, with hair all over his body except on his head, a mustache like a housepainter’s brush, a voice like a capstan, which would have been his alone, and an exquisite courtesy. But not even his body could resist the way he drank. Before they sat down to the table he had finished half of the demijohn, and he fell forward onto the tray of glasses and bottles with a slow sound of demolition.”  OMG…that is SO GOOD!

178  here I wrote “Ausencia” : “…the first thing she did when he arrived was to take off his glasses instead of undressing him, so that she could kiss him with greater ease, and this was how Florentino Ariza learned that she had begun to love him.”

188  “‘No,’ she said to him. ‘I would feel as if I were going to bed with the son I never had.’

“Florentino Ariza was left with the nagging suspicion that this was not her last word. He believed that when a woman says no, she is waiting to be urged before making her final decision, but with her he could not risk making the same mistake twice. He withdrew without protest, and even with a certain grae, which was not easy for him. From that night on, any cloud there might have been between them was dissipated without bitterness, and Florentino Ariza understood at last that it is possible to be a woman’s friend and not go to bed with her.”

191  Florentino and Dr. Juvenal meet: “…it revealed to him that he and this man, whom he had always considered his personal enemy, were victims of the same fate and shared the hazards of a common passion; they were two animals yoked together.”

200 “‘By virtue of marrying a man she does not love for money,’ interrupted Sara Noriega. ‘That’s the lowest kind of whore.’”

203 “…loving without lies, sleeping without having to feign sleep in order to escape the indecency of official love, possessed at last of the right to an entire bed to themselves, where no one fought them for half of the sheet, half of the air they breathed, half of their night, until their bodies were satisfied with dreaming their own dreams, and they woke alone.

“He saw no reason why Fermina Daza should not be a widow like them, prepared by life to accept him just as he was, without fantasier of guilt because of her dead husband, resolved to discover with him the other happiness of being happy twice, with one love for everyday use which would become, more and more, a miracle of being alive, and the other love that belonged to her alone, the love immunized by death against all contagion.”

204  “…but no one could remember what he was like. It was then that Fermina Daza experienced the revelation of the unconscious motives that had kept her from loving him. She said: ‘It is as if he were not a person but only a shadow.’ That is what he was: the shadow of someone whom no one had ever known.”

205  “The truth is that Juvenal Urbino’s suit had never been undertaken in the name of love, and it was curious, to say the least, that a militant Catholic like him would offer her only worldly goods: security, order, happiness, contiguous numbers that, once they were added together, might resemble love, almost be love. But they were not love, and these doubts increased her confusion, because she was also not convinced that love was really what she most needed to live.”

206  “…Fermina Daza’s happy marriage lasted as long as the honeymoon…”

“…the man she had married was a hopeless weakling: a poor devil made bold by the social weight of his family names.”

211  “…he had won the power to turn his daughter into an exquisite lady. He left old and sick, but still he lived much longer than any of his victims might have desired. Fermina Daza could not repress a sigh of relief when she received the news of his death, and in order to avoid questions she did not wear mourning, but for several months she wept with mute fury without knowing why when she locked herself in the bathroom to smoke, and it was because she was crying for him.

“The most absurd element in their situation was that they never seemed so happy in public as during those years of misery. For this was the time of their greatest victories over the subterranean hostility of a milieu that resisted accepting them as they were: different and modern, and for that reason transgressors against the traditional order. That, however, had been the easy part for Fermina Daza. Life in the world, which had caused her so much uncertainty before she was familiar with it, was nothing more than a system of atavistic contracts, banal ceremonies, preordained words, with which people entertained each other in society in order not to commit murder. The dominant sign in that paradise of provincial frivolity was fear of the unknown. She had defined it in a simpler way: ‘The problem in public life is learning to overcome terror; the problem in married life is learning to overcome boredom.’ She had made this sudden discovery with the clarity of a revelation when, trailing her endless bridal train behind her, she had entered the vast  salon of the Social Club, where the air was thin with the mingled scent of so many flowers, the brilliance of the waltzes, the tumult of perspiring men and tremulous women who looked at her not knowing how they were going to exorcise the dazzling menace that had come to them from the outside world. She had just turned twenty-one and had done little more than leave her house to go to school, but with one look around her she understood that her adversaries were not convulsed with hatred but paralyzed by fear. Instead of frightening them even more, as she was already doing, she had the compassion to help them learn to know her. They were no different from what she wanted them to be…”

223  “Over the years they both reached the same wise conclusion by different paths: it was not possible to live together in any other way, or love in any other way, and nothing in this world was more difficult than love.”

End note: We learn about the individual lives and loves of Fermina and Florentino as they are apart and move forward through their lives. Florentino never married but knew many woman. Fermina was in a loveless but workable marriage and had 3 children.

The reader will enjoy a romantic interlude between pages 227-229

230  “The military man, prepared to introduce them, asked her if they did not know each other. She did not say yes and she did not say no, but she held out her hand to Florentino Ariza with a salon smile. The same thing had occurred twice in the past, and would occur again, and Florentino Ariza always accepted these occasions with a strength of character worthy of Fermina Daza. But that afternoon he asked himself, with his infinite capacity for illusion, if such pitiless indifference might not be a subterfuge for hiding the torments of love.

Margin note 233  He hears gossip that Fermina is sick

235  “At last she decided to leave, not even knowing why or to what purpose, out of sheer fury, and he, inhibited by his sense of guilt, had not been able to dissuade her.

“When she made her rash decision, she told her children that she was going to have a change of scene for three months or so with Aunt Hildebranda, but her determination was not to return. Dr. Juvenal Urbino knew the strength of her character very well, and he was so troubled that he accepted her decision with humility as God’s punishment for the gravity of his sins. But the lights on the boat had not yet been lost to view when they both repented of their weakness.”

Two years pass

237  “Beyond any shadow of a doubt there was an odor in each of the articles that had not been there in all their years of life together, an odor impossible to define because it was not the sent of flowers or of artificial essences but of something peculiar to human nature. She said nothing, and she did not notice the odor every day, but she now sniffed at her husband’s clothing not to decide if it was ready to launder but with an unbearable anxiety that gnawed at her innermost being.”

240  “In this way she realized not only that her husband was in a state of mortal sin but that he had resolved to persist in it, since he did not go to his confessor for help. She had never imagined that she could suffer so much for something that seemed to be the absolute opposite of love, but she was suffering, and she resolved that the only way she could keep from dying was to burn out the nest of vipers that was poisoning her soul.”

“…a great relief that what was bound to happen sooner or later had happened sooner rather than later: the ghost of Miss Barbara Lynch had entered his house at last.”

241  “Miss Barbara Lynch, Doctor of Theology, was the only child of the Reverend Jonathan B. Lynch…”

248  “the last thing Miss Lynch received from him was an emerald tiara in a little box wrapped in paper from the pharmacy, so that the coachman himself thought it was an emergency prescription and handed it to her with no comment, no message, nothing in writing. Dr. Urbino never saw her again, not even by accident, and God alone knows how much grief his heroic resolve cost him or how many bitter tears he had to shed behind the locked lavatory door in order to survive this private catastrophe. At five o’clock, instead of going to see her, he made a profound act of contrition before his confessor, and on the following Sunday he took Communion, his heart broken but his soul at peace.”

249  “…he ended the recital of his misery with a sigh as mournful as it was sincere: ‘I think I am going to die.’ She did not even blink when she replied.

‘That would be best,’ she said. ‘Then we could both have some peace.’”

“Something definitive had happened to her while he slept: the sediment that had accumulated at the bottom of her life over the course of so many years had been stirred up by the torment of her jealousy and had floated to the surface, and it had aged her all at once.”

250  “For her it was the end of everything. She was sure that her honor was the subject of gossip even before her husband had finished his penance, and the feeling of humiliation that this produced in her was much less tolerable than the shame and anger and injustice caused by his infidelity. And worst of all, damn it: with a black woman. He corrected her: ‘With a mulatta.’ But by then if was too late for accuracy: she had finished.

‘Just as bad,’ she said, ‘and only now I understand: it was the smell of a black woman.’

“This happened on a Monday. On Friday at seven o’clock in the evening, Fermina Daza sailed away on the regular boat to San Juan de la Cienaga with only one trunk, in the company of her goddaughter, her face covered by a mantilla to avoid questions for herself and her husband. Dr. Juvenal Urbino was not at the dock, by mutual agreement, following an exhausting three-day discussion in which they decided that she should to Cousin Hildebranda Sanchez’s ranch in Flores de Maria for as long a time as she needed to think before coming to a final decision. Without knowing her reasons, the children understood it as  a trip she had often put off and that they themselves had wanted her to make for a long time. Dr. Urbino arranged matters so that no one in his perfidious circle could engage in malicious speculation, and he did it so well that if Florentino Ariza could find no clue to Fermina Daza’s disappearance it was because in fact there was none, not because he lacked the means to investigate. Her husband had no doubts that she would come home as soon as she got over her rage. But she lft certain that her rage would never end.”

254  “Dr. Juvenal Urbino made the decision to come for her after receiving a report from the Bishop…”

Fermina was so happy to see Juvenal

256 margin note: Florentino sees Fermina as she grows old

258  “As they talked, Florentino Ariza put his hand on her thigh, he began to caress her with the gentle touch of an experienced seducer, and she did not stop him, but she did not respond either, not even with a shudder for courtesy’s sake.”

“From that time on, she would say to anyone who would listen to her: ‘If you ever hear of a big, strong fellow who raped a poor black girl from the street on Drowned Men’s Jetty, one October fifteenth at about half-past eleven at night, tell him where he can find me.’ She said it out of habit, and she had said it to so many people that she no longer had any hope. Florentino Ariza had heard the story as many times as he had heard a boat sailing away in the night. By two o’clock in the morning they had each drunk three brandies and he knew, in truth, that he was not the man she was waiting for, and he was glad to know it.”

259  “It was the most fearful kind of presentiment, because it was based on reality. The years of immobilized waiting, of hoping for good luck, were behind him, but on the horizon he could see nothing more than the unfathomable sea of imaginary illnesses, the drop-by-drop urinations of sleepless nights, the daily death at twilight. He thought that all the moments in the day, which had once been his allies and sworn accomplices, were beginning to conspire against him. A few years before he had gone to a dangerous assignation, his heart heavy with terror of what might happen, and he had found the door unlocked and the hinges recently oiled so that he could come in without a sound, but he repented at the last moment for fear of causing a decent married woman irreparable harm by dying in her bed. So that it was reasonable to think that the woman he loved most on earth, the one he had waited for from one century to the next without a sigh of disenchantment, might not have the opportunity to lead him by the arm across a street full of lunar grave mounds and beds of windblown poppies in order to help him reach the other side of death in safety.

“It was a bad time for being young: there was a style of dress for each age, but the style of old age began soon after adolescence, and lasted until the grave.”

268  “Six months later, by unanimous agreement, Florentino Ariza was named President of the Board of Directors and General manager of the company.”

272 margin note: Pretty creepy, Florentino!

276  “…although it seemed absurd: the oldest and best-qualified doctor in the city, and one oof its illustrious men for many other meritorious reasons, had died of a broken spine, at the age of eighty-one, when he fell from the branch of a mango tree as he tried to catch a parrot.”

278  “…and on the wet envelope he recognized at once the imperious handwriting that so many changes in life had not changed, and he even thought he could detect the nocturnal perfume of withered gardenias, because after the initial shock, his heart told him everything: it was the letter he had been waiting for, without a moment’s respite, for over half a century.”

End note: Florentino’s later years and learning of Dr. Urbino’s death. He goes to tell Fermina he’ll be waiting. Three weeks later he finds a letter at his door.

 

279  “Fermina Daza could not have imagined that her letter, inspired by blind rage, would have been interpreted by Florentino Atiza as a love letter. She had put into it all the fury of which she was capable, her cruelest words, the most wounding, most unjust vilifications…

281  “At the end of the third week, in fact, she began to see the first light. But as it grew larger and brighter, she became aware that there was an evil phantom in her life who did not give her a moment’s peace. He was not the pitiable phantom who had haunted her in the Park of the Evangels and whom she had evoked with a certain tenderness after she had grown old, but the hateful phantom with his executioner’s frock coat and his hat held against his chest, whose thoughtless impertinence had disturbed her so much that she found it impossible not to think about him. Ever since her rejection of him at the age of eighteen, she had been convinced that she had left behind a seed of hatred in him that could only grow larger with time. She had always counted on that hatred, she had felt it in the air when the phantom was near, and the mere sight of him had upset and frightened her so that she never found a natural way to behave with him. On the night when he reiterated his love for her, while the flowers for her dead husband were still perfuming the house, she could not believe that his insolence wad not the first step in God knows what sinister plan for revenge.

“It was not easy for her to imagine Florentino Ariza as he had been then, much less to believe that the taciturn boy, so vulnerable in the rain, was the moth-eaten old wreck who had stood in front of her with no consideration for her situation, or the slightest respect for her grief, and had seared her soul with a flaming insult that still made it difficult for her to breathe.”

285  “Prudencia Pitre had not forgotten his scratching signal at the door, the one ha had used to identify himself when they thought they were still young although they no longer were, and she opened the door without any questions. The street was dark, he was barely visible in his black suit, his stiff hat, and his bat’s umbrella hanging over his arm, and her eyes were too weak to see him except in full light, but she recognized him by the gleam of the streetlamp on the metal frame of his eyeglasses. He looked like a merderer with blood still on his hands.

‘Sanctuary for a poor orphan,’ he said.”

302  “It seemed incredible, but as the first anniversary of her husband’s death approached, Fermina Daza felt herself entering a place that was shady, cool, quiet: the grove of the irremediable. She was not yet aware, and would not be for several months, of how much the written meditations of Florentino Ariza had helped her to recover her peace of mind. Applied to her own experiences, they were what allowed her to understand her own life and to await the designs of old age with serenity. Their meeting at the memorial Mass was a providential opportunity for her to let Florentino Ariza know that she, too, thanks to his letters of encouragement, was prepared to erase the past.”

305 margin note: they finally sit down to talk

“…enough time to look at each other with some serenity, and they had seen each other for what they were: two old people, ambushed by death, who had nothing in common except the memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer theirs but belonged to two young people who had vanished and who could have been their grandchildren. She thought that he would at last be convinced of the unreality of his dream, and that this would redeem his insolence.”

308  “She ignored his hidden intentions and returned the letter to him, saying: ‘It is a shame that I cannot read it, because the others have helped me a great deal.’”

“‘Come back whenever you like,’ she said. ‘I am almost always alone.’”

317  “Fermina Daza needed no more than three Tuesdays to realize how much she missed Florentino Ariza’s visits.”

“But for Fermina Daza no one could take the place of her calming afternoons with Florentino Ariza.”

323  “‘A century ago, life screwed that poor man and me because we were too young, and now they want to do the same thing because we are too old.’”

329  “Then he reached out with two icy fingers in the darkness, felt for the other hand in the darkness, and found it waiting for him. Both were lucid enough to realize, at the same fleeting instant, that the hands made of old bones were not the hands they had imagined before touching. In the next moment, however, they were. She began to speak of her dead husband in the present tense, as if he were alive, and Florentino Ariza knew then that for her, too, the time had come to ask herself with dignity, with majesty, with an irrepressible desire to live, what she should do with the love that had been left behind without a master.”

“‘…there is no God worth worrying about.’”

Margin note page 331 says there is a mention of environmental damage

331  “Seeing him like this, dressed just for her in so patent a manner, she could not hold back the fiery blush that rose to her face. She was embarrassed when she greeted him, and he was more embarrassed by her embarrassment. The knowledge that they were behaving as if they were sweethearts was even more embarrassing, and the knowledge that they were both embarrassed embarrassed them so much that Captain Samaritano noticed it with a tremor of compassion.”

A ghost is mentioned on page 332

338  “‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it,’ she said, ‘but let’s do it like grownups.’”

343  “At dusk in Puerto Nare they picked up a woman who was even taller and stouter than the Captain, asn uncommon beauty who needed only a beard to be hired by a circus.”

348  “Then he looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.”

Last end note: The wait is kind of reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo.

 

 

 

Summer Reading: Part 4 About a Boy by Nick Hornby

Ah…finally something fun, if not exactly “light.” I have always heard about the works of Nick Hornby. “Nick Hornby. Nick Hornby!” everybody said. I’d never gotten around to reading his work, but on my shelf “About a Boy” did linger. Can’t recall if I’ve seen the movie, but the book was a welcomed experience while also reading some deeper non-fiction.
Obvious by the title, the story is about a boy named Marcus. He lives with his mom in London where his mom (Fiona) is deeply depressed and never keeps boyfriends for long. These two loners have been through divorce and it seems Marcus, a middle schooler, is a bit more adaptable than his mother. The tone of the writing is light and funny. Reading from Marcus’s point of view is a delight. I found myself smiling as I read.
Then we meet the other loner in the story, an adult male named Will Freeman. While Will’s friends are beginning to marry and have kids, Will becomes increasingly aware that he doesn’t understand this motive to pair off and settle down. When friends ask him to be a godfather he turns them down. He doesn’t even want to parent by association. We find that Will has never had to work because he lives off the royalties of a Christmas tune written by his father; a song he can’t stand. He has all the free time in the world and cannot understand how people live and work at the same time. “In fact, he had reached a stage where he wondered how his friends could juggle life and a job. Life took up so much time, so how could one work and, say, take a bath on the same day? He suspected that one or two people he knew were making some pretty unsavory short cuts” (81).
Cross-generational friendships are examined here. Many find the growing relationship between Marcus and Will to be strange and possibly unsavory. It begs the question: why can’t people of any age cultivate friendships with other people of any age? Through getting to know the intricacies of each other’s lives, Will comes to recognize that he and Marcus have similar family issues.
Marcus is not fitting in well at his new school. Even his teacher joins in with the other kids when they make fun of him. Although everyone is required to go, he feels that school is just not “him.” Just as Marcus does not fit in at school, Will increasingly does not fit in with his age group who is moving into the world of family and permanent homes. He dates a woman with a child and finds a clever way of remaining on the periphery of grown-up-dom without actually buying a ticket. We are starting to see a theme emerge about groups: are you in or are you out? Do you want to be in? Do you want out? Are you on the edges or are you asked to leave? Marcus is asked to leave his little rag-tag group of outsiders at school because Marcus brings bullies into their sphere; they can’t risk being noticed. When Marcus reflects upon his role in the group he realizes “That’s what had happened with Nicky and Mark: he had made them visible, he had turned them into targets, and if he was any kind of a friend at all he’d take himself well away from them. It’s just that he had nowhere else to go” (34).
This also draws us into the realization that all of our characters are essentially not only alone, but lonely. Just like the narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Will joins a group with which he has no affiliation: a single parent’s support group. He’s there to meet women of course, but now he must fabricate half a family so he too can present as a single parent. This shows us the lengths we will go to in order to associate, to assimilate, to connect…even when we are not telling the truth.
There is another thread that weaves throughout the novel involving depression and mental illness. One reader of the novel remembers the story as being sad because someone dies. This is not the case, but it does show us that depression and a suicide attempt impressed that reader to a point where he incorrectly recreated part of the plot. Marcus’s mother becomes so depressed that she is unable to care for her son. Both mother and son are taken by surprise at this development; no one (in real life) ever pictures it getting that bad until it happens. This novel is built within the real world and the plot and emotions are relatable and messy…funny too, sometimes all at once, just like life. For anyone who has experienced depression, there is an apt description within Fiona’s suicide note on page 72 when she writes: “A big part of me knows that I’m doing a wrong, stupid, selfish, unkind thing. Most of me, in fact. The trouble is that it’s not the part that controls me anymore. That’s what’s so horrible about the sort of illness I’ve had for the last few months–it just doesn’t listen to anything or anybody else. It just wants to do its own thing. I hope you never get to find out what that’s like.” There are lots of fun ‘90’s references and Nirvana, especially Kurt Cobain, is peppered throughout. When Marcus and his cool friend Ellie learn about Cobain’s suicide attempt, Marcus shares his story about his mother, bonding him closer to Ellie in their mutual confusion and helplessness.
Both Marcus and Will get their own chapters in which to build their characters. I appreciate this pacing because it allows the reader to get to know the players and invest in them before they begin to interact. Getting to know Will is just as much fun as getting to know Marcus. “Will had been trying not to think about Christmas, but as it got nearer he was beginning to go off the idea of watching a few hundred videos and smoking a few thousand joints. It didn’t seem very festive, somehow, and even though festivities invariably entailed The Song somewhere along the line, he didn’t want to ignore them completely. It struck him that how you spent Christmas was a message to the world about where you were in life, some indication of how deep a hole you had managed to burrow for yourself, and therefore spending three days bombed out of your head on your own said things about you that you might not want saying” (174). Much later in the novel, we see Marcus analyzing a conversation, and his way of thinking draws us closer to this character. “Even though what they were talking about was miserable, Marcus was enjoying the conversation. It seemed big, as though you could walk round it and see different things, and that never happened when you talked to kids normally. ‘Did you see Top of the Pops last night?’ There wasn’t much to think about in that, was there? You said yes or no and it was over. He could see now why his mum chose friends, instead of just putting up with anyone she happened to bump into, or sticking with people who supported the same football team, or wore the same clothes, which was pretty much what happened at school; his mum must have conversations like this with Suzie, conversations that moved, conversations where each thing the other person said seemed to lead you on somewhere” (203). Allowing us inside each character’s mind independently sets up a friendship between the reader and both of the male lead roles.
Marcus and Will do not meet until chapter eight when they both attend a single parent’s meeting. It is NOT love at first sight. Will gets drawn into Fiona, Marcus and Fiona’s loyal friend Suzie’s world by way of a single parent’s picnic. Because Will is interested in Suzie, he is with her when Fiona is found after a suicide attempt. Now Will sees that Marcus does not have a true support system, although he definitely feels it is not his responsibility to provide one. Fiona is taken to the hospital and survives. Marcus stays with Suzie.
Another observance of Hornby’s deft hand with pacing is that he doesn’t have his characters change and evolve too quickly. Sometimes lessons have to be presented, ignored, presented, rejected, presented, observed, before the final lesson being learned. For example, near page 200 Will is still making the mistake of not being truthful with possible love interests. In chapter 24 he meets a new woman named Rachel at a New Year’s Eve party. They agree to meet for a date and Will allows her to assume that Marcus is his son. When is Will going to own who he is and be proud of how he runs his life? Even Marcus is drawn into this ruse and “plays” Will’s son when they go to Rachel’s house to hang out. It doesn’t turn out well as Rachel’s son appears to be a spawn of the devil. It is not until chapter 30 that Will examines life, friendship and depression more deeply. He and Rachel take the next step in their relationship which also involves caring more deeply: she wants to help Fiona with her depression.
We begin to see how families shift form and change over time. (Intertwined here is the idea that there not only is no ideal path…there is no path!) Sometimes your family is who steps forward; who volunteers at the time. Some people stay, some go; some are related, some are volunteers. Suzie is a volunteer mother although Will is not a volunteer father. He’s only willing to be a father to an imaginary son. Speaking of the created family Will muses, “So, there it was then: an enormous, happy, extended family. True, this happy family included an invisible two-year-old, a barmy twelve-year-old and his suicidal mother; but sod’s law dictated that this was just the sort of family you were bound to end up with when you didn’t like families in the first place” (83). Will extends a bit of pity and plans a day with Fiona and Marcus while Marcus begins to picture Will and his mother becoming closer. Marcus tries his hand at match making by prodding the nonexistent conversation between the adults who eventually loosen up, if just a little.
Related to families and created groups, we have to struggle with how much we want to care. Caring and loving involve commitment and effort, compromise and aggravation. The ability to NOT care can be a technique of survival as we see here with Will: “When he got home he put a Pet Shop Boys CD on, and watched Prisoner: Cell Block H with the sound down. He wanted to hear people who didn’t mean it, and he wanted to watch people he could laugh at. He got drunk, too; he filled a glass with ice and poured himself scotch after scotch. And as the drink began to take hold, he realized that people who meant it were much more likely to kill themselves than people who didn’t: he couldn’t recall having even the faintest urge to take his own life, and he found it hard to imagine that he ever would. When it came down to it, he just wasn’t that engaged. You had to be engaged to be a vegetarian; you had to be engaged to sing “Both Sides Now” with your eyes closed; when it came down to it, you had to be engaged to be a mother. He wasn’t much bothered either way about anything, and that, he knew, would guarantee him a long and depression-free life. He’d made a big mistake thinking that good works were a way forward for him. They weren’t. They drove you mad. Fiona did good works and they had driven her mad: she was vulnerable, messed-up, inadequate. Will had a system going here that was going to whizz him effortlessly to the grave. He didn’t want to fuck it up now” (102). This disengagement prompts Will to decide that Marcus and Fiona are not his cup of tea, but Marcus does not make this an easy break-up. He learns that Will has been lying about having a son. In a later discussion with Fiona, Will struggles to keep his standing in the circle of non-caring. “She was wrong, he was almost positive. You could shut life out. If you didn’t open the door to it, how was it going to get in” (149)? Hornby here seems to be saying that sometimes you do not have to open the door…the world (of emotions) will seep through the window. We see this idea come closer to fruition by page 234 when Will begins to fall in love with a woman named Rachel. This is complicated by the fact that she is discovering Will has been lying about Marcus being his son.
One way in which the plot progresses is that the wall of not caring must slowly and inevitably begin to transform. Marcus doesn’t know how to process his mother’s suicide attempt, so (wanted or not) Marcus arrives at Will’s doorstep every afternoon after school. Will keeps up his decision not to care. “Will could see how sad this was, but he could also see that it wasn’t his problem. No problem was his problem. Very few people were in a position to say they had no problems, but then, that wasn’t his problem either” (119). A crack is forming in Will’s defenses through the persistence of Marcus. Will, who is very cool and fashionable, feels that one reason Marcus is picked on so relentlessly at school is due to his nerdy non-fashion sense. He takes Marcus shopping and buys him cool tennis shoes (which are promptly stolen the next day at school). It is when Marcus reports the stolen shoes to the principal that he hears the same old story that all adults have given him all his life: fit in, change, engage, accept, blah, blah, blah. Fed up with adults who cannot understand a middle schooler’s angst, Marcus walks out of school. Through further conversation Will makes an important connection: Marcus has never really had a chance to be a kid. With his father having moved on to build another family, problems at school and at home, Marcus has been inundated with serious troubles. It hits Will that Marcus has been forced into a serious world. Wouldn’t it be helpful if Marcus could just be a kid? Who knows how to act like a kid? Will.
Will’s defenses are further eroded by being witness to a family Christmas party at which Marcus’s dad, Clive, is in attendance. As an excellent example of how deep the observational narrative can dig, let us examine what Will sees and feels: “Clive’s presents for Marcus were in themselves uncontroversial, computer games and sweatshirts and a baseball cap and the Mr. Blobby record and so on, but what made them seem pointed was their contrast with the joyless little pile that Fiona had given Marcus earlier in the day: a sweater that wouldn’t do him any favors at school (it was baggy and hairy and arty), a couple of books and some piano music–a gentle and very dull maternal reminder, it transpired, that Marcus had given up on his lessons some time ago. Marcus showed him this miserable haul with a pride and enthusiasm that almost broke Will’s heart…’And a really nice sweater, and these books look really interesting, and this music because one day when I…when I get a bit more time I’m going to really give it a go…’ Will had never properly given Marcus credit for being a good kid–up until now he’d only noticed his eccentric, troublesome side, probably because there hadn’t been much else to notice. But he was good, Will could see that now. Not good as in obedient and uncomplaining; it was more of a mindset kind of good, where you looked at something like a pile of crap presents and recognized that they were given with love and chosen with care, and that was enough. It wasn’t even that he was choosing to see the glass as half-full, either–Marcus’s glass was full to overflowing, and he would have been amazed and mystified if anyone had attempted to tell him there were kids who would have hurled the hairy sweater and the sheet music back in the parental face and demanded a Nintendo.
“Will knew he would never be good in that way. He would never look at a hairy sweater and work out why it was precisely right for him, and why he should wear it at all hours of the day and night. He would look at it and conclude that the person who bought it for him was a pillock. He did that all the time: he’d look at some twenty-five-year-old guy on roller skates, sashaying his way down Upper Street with his wraparound shades on, and he’d think one of three things: 1) What a prat; or 2) Who the fuck do you think you are?; or 3) How old are you? Fourteen?
“Everyone in England was like that, he reckoned. Nobody looked at a roller-skating bloke with wraparound shades on and thought, Hey, he looks cool, or, Wow, that looks like a fun way of getting some exercise. They just thought: wanker. But Marcus wouldn’t. Marcus would either fail to notice the guy at all, or he would stand there with his mouth open, lost in admiration and wonder. This wasn’t simply a function of being a child, because, as Marcus knew to his cost, all his classmates belonged to the what-a-prat school of thought; it was simply a function of being Marcus, son of Fiona. In twenty years’ time he’d be singing with his eyes closed and swallowing bottles of pills, probably, but at least he was gracious about his Christmas presents. It wasn’t much of a compensation for the long years ahead” (181-2). The deeper recognition of who Marcus is as a person fuels Will’s feelings for someone other than himself. Isn’t the writing beautiful?
By listening and getting outside of his own head, Will slowly begins to actually relate to other people, and to women outside the realm of sexual relations. Toward the end of the novel “he learnt a lot of things about Fiona. He learnt that she hadn’t really wanted to be a mother, and that sometimes she hated Marcus with a passion that worried her; he learnt that she worried about her inability to hold down a relationship (Will restrained a desire to leap in at this point and tell her that an inability to hold down a relationship was indicative of an undervalued kind of moral courage, that only cool people screwed up)…” (270). It is during this conversation that Will learns that one characteristic of friendship is not being required to solve problems, but just to listen. Being able to listen when someone needs to talk is one of those emotion things…we view Will evolving.
To be a part of Marcus’s inner world, traveling through the narrative in his mind, is a delight. Even though the topics may appear heavy, the writing is performed with such a deft hand that the reader is often having fun in the midst of real-life issues. We find that in many ways, this twelve-year-old is so much wiser than the the adults who surround him. We see him growing and struggling to become more autonomous. He begins to notice how much control his mother exerts over his life; how many choices are not left up to him. Marcus has to tell his mother that he wants more freedom to make his own decisions. One of the choices Marcus wants to make is to bring Will further into his life because he needs a father figure. We also see Marcus trying to navigate new friendships when he catches the eye of one of the “cool” trouble-makers at school. As It girl Ellie lies her way out of trouble again at school “Ellie caught his eye and smiled, and for a moment he really felt as if the three of them were a trio. Or maybe a triangle, with Ellie at the top and he and Zoe at the bottom” (170). Even though the girls choose Marcus, and these connections are questionable, they help make Marcus feel cool…a feeling he rarely gets to experience. Over the course of the novel these friendships deepen. Ellie and Marcus attend an adult party together and later they begin to hang out more. Zoe is the one on the outside of this relationship; she’s always tagging along on the fringes. These girls are helping Marcus’s image around school. Another way Marcus slowly takes control of his own choices is when his dad suffers an accident. When Clive breaks a bone he requests Marcus come visit. Marcus takes offense that his father only wants him there when his son can be of service. Unbeknownst to all the adults, Marcus invites Ellie along for the long train ride to dad’s in order to give him the old what for.
All the characters grapple with the truth and the boundaries of safety regarding with whom to share what. As we travel with the characters toward truth we root for them to gain comfort within themselves. We root for them to reach out to others. We root for them to stand tall in their truth and allow that to be enough.

The Nine Fantasies that will Ruin Your Life

(and the eight realities that will save you)

By

Dr. Joy Browne

 

These are my personal notes from the book. You may find other chapters and notes helpful. Nonetheless, these notes give you a feel for the book and enough to learn whether or not you want to invest the time.

 

Chapter Two: Everybody’s perfect…except me

 

  • Perfection can’t change and to be alive means to change
  • The gnawing sense of imperfection can taint the simplest pleasure and the greatest triumph

In this fantasy, relationships must be perfect lest they reflect badly on us. So being critical of others is an integral part of maintaining the fantasy that you are perfect and others must strive to keep up with you. This who process of the best defense being a good offensive is tiresome and joyless, but obsessive, because to fail means to be unworthy of love.

    • Erroneous notion that there are only two groups: the blameworthy and blameless
    • In order to feel safer, we attempt to divert attention elsewhere before our flaws can be scrutinized
    • I criticize; therefore I’m above being criticized. So I’m safe. You just escalate your private war
    • Growing up insecure because we believe there is an ideal way to be.
    • Attracting someone is dependent on looking or smelling or tasting different than you do
    • We belittle our opponent as a way of deflecting attention from our own imperfection

 

  • Everybody feels that way. Whatever we are isn’t enough

 

  • Advertising can remind us seven days a week in the comfort of our living rooms that we don’t have the perfect Evian body or Jell-O child
  • Parents admonitions combined with those impossibly perfect images are so overwhelming that we’ve lost our ability to distinguish between the possible and the impossible. The price of failure has never seemed higher
  • When you combine an excruciatingly small chance of success and a fear of failing, you get people who are afraid to look at themselves honestly for fear of what they will discover. The flip side of this ugly coin is a willingness to aggressively find fault with others as a way to feel superior and safe
  • Teens develop independence and a clear sense of self by rebelling, talking back, and experimenting with music, clothes, and friends that drive you absolutely crazy. Ask what you can do to help. You’d like his opinion on what the problem is and what the solution might be
  • If we could shift from the perfection model of child rearing, where any minor deviation has to be instantly eradicated, to a kinder, gentler, more realistic style, we could catch kids doing good rather than bad. Instead of constantly communicating our disappointment, we could find behavior to praise
  • When you communicate disappointment you are sending out a message of shame. Shame makes people feel small. For humans to change, they must summon energy from somewhere. If they feel small and belittled, they are unlikely to have the energy or the courage to find that energy
  • When you ask people–adults or children–how they feel about a situation, instead of telling them how disappointed you are, you give them room to evaluate their own behavior and offer a solution that feels appropriate and possible to them rather than just dispensed by you. If you allow people to make their own choices, their conscience goes with them so you don’t have to constantly be there to remind them of what’s right. Your goodness as a human being or even as a parent has nothing to do with your son’s grades. Your willingness to listen to him and to help him reach his goals and understand the obstacles has everything to do with being a good mom and loving human being
  • Pointing out error implies 1) they don’t know any better 2) you do 3) you are morally superior to them 4) unless you constantly remind them, they will revert to their less moral ways
  • Anything that goes wrong has to be someone else’s fault. We set up a system of blame. Somebody has to pay
  • You’re not helping unless people want to hear what you have to say
  • When you correct someone, you take a position of intellectual and sometimes moral superiority
  • The job of being happy is your personal responsibility. Love is about feeling safe enough to be ourselves, even if that means scattering mispronunciations here and there
  • If your son thinks he’s letting you down, he may feel just as awful as you did. We have good days, slack-off days, play-it-safe days, and go-for-it-days. The notion that we should be at peak performance all the time is the Human Being as Robot Theory. None of us can do our best every day
  • What if we became willing to stifle the impulse to offer our opinion unless we were specifically asked for it?
  • If you stop regarding other people’s actions as personal affronts, you might allow yourself to enjoy your imperfect but lovely little self, and your shoulders may unhunch. Loving, Evolving, Respectful, and Reasonable

 

Chapter Three: Winning the lottery will free me

 

  • If money were the key to happiness, millionaires wouldn’t have ulcers. They do and it’s not
  • Lottery-fueled fantasies raise untold zillions of dollars in all fifty states
  • Getting something for nothing is the heart and soul of a country that seems to believe that dreams come true. We need to harness that ability to dream by focusing on our goals
  • We dream rather than problem solve
  • We buy into the completely fanciful notion that money is the fountain from which all goodness flows
  • The dream of getting something for nothing is as old as human history. A search for free wealth is pointless. The daydream of unearned wealth allows our heart to escape our day-to-day feeling of failure
  • Marriages are often more solid when there is little rather than a lot of money
  • Successful people seldom mention money as a primary motivation
  • Lottery winners are almost universally less happy after winning than before they won
  • Sudden wealth is actually slightly more stressful than sudden poverty.
  • Worrying eats up your time and energy without accomplishing squat, and it makes you feel victimized. Take action! The thing to do is figure out how much you need for what you want; the difference between need and want; and what you can do to stop worrying
  • The real seduction of the money-equals-happiness equation is that it diverts us from an analysis of the real problem
  • Money is only symbolic, so it can’t make you or anybody else happy. You’ve got to figure out what money represents to you. (For me it is safety and comfort.)
  • Money is often a taboo subject. When it comes to our feelings about money, we fall silent
  • Money has become a big green tug-of-war in your marriage, where you are consciously or unconsciously pitting your husband’s ability to take care of you against your parents’
  • Work out a budget. Get a job. Money is a by-product of this energy
  • When both men and women are able to support themselves, this will be a brave new world where all of us will be valued for something other than our credit rating
  • If women want to be treated as equals, they may have to assume more of the financial burdens of life
  • The point of a business is to get you to work for the least amount possible. Taking work personally is a major mistake
  • Access to money is access to traditional male bastions: status, control, and choice
  • Scope out what money specifically symbolized for you so you can figure out how to make your life richer without that winning lottery ticket. Ask yourself what you would do if you won the lottery. The answer is the meaning to your life
  • Anything you’d do if you had the money, you can likely do without the money if you put your mind to it and plan
  • Let yourself dream of what you thought he could give you and figure out how you can get it for yourself
  • Perhaps this isn’t really about money at all, but as long as both of you believe it is, you’re stuck
  • Being in the middle encourages people to aspire to have more while being aware of the danger of losing what they have
  • Figure out what your fears are about money, control, and feeling taken advantage of

 

Chapter Four: The Truth Will Set You Free

 

  • We each have to find our own truth
  • We all have to find our own truth, that truth is going to change, and that your personal truth won’t necessarily be shared by anyone else
  • Truth is personal. Give up the notion that you have to convince others that their truth is wrong and yours is right
  • Perhaps you two can relax and admit that there are different paths to follow and each of us has to find those paths on our own. This philosophy allows for more than one true path. If there can be multiple truths, there can be multiple paths and choices, all appropriate and right for the individual. When our truth doesn’t allow for anyone else’s vision, we can get into some nasty, unhappy conflicts
  • Often we don’t ask the question because we’re afraid to hear the answer, which may be part of what is going on in your marriage. The two of you are trying to ignore your fears. As much as we try to avoid it, discomfort is an inevitable and unavoidable part of life. We can sometimes be misled by our own wish to be comfortable
  • There are different paths to the truth. All of us need to have rules by which we guide our course, but they are personal and are not necessarily transferable to other people or other situations. Be willing to listen to ideas, not believe them, be willing to hold our own actions to a rigid standard and free everyone else to do likewise
  • Shame undermines people’s self-confidence, and in order to change, we have to feel that we can deal with the unknown. That comes from good feelings, not bad
  • Do something or refuse to do something because it makes sense to you, not because it’s valuable or important to someone else
  • When we explain a situation in terms of someone else’s behavior–”He made me do it…She’s really nasty…It wasn’t my fault”–we give away our power to someone we already view as dangerous, which makes no sense
  • Focusing on behavior rather than motive is a much easier way to do business. The only person it’s okay to ask why of is yourself

 

Chapter Five: Men and Women are from Different Planets

 

  • While there are obvious anatomical differences between men and women, quite simply, we were all born on earth
  • For most of human history, women were perceived as a sexual, anatomical, and economic threat
  • Fantasies that serve to divide, humiliate, and demean aren’t worth embracing. This difference has virtually nothing to do with biology and everything to do with economics
  • A search for similarities is much more profitable than labeling someone as foreign
  • If a man can comfortably view women as essentially different, then there is no need to treat women equally or faily
  • Why, then, would women accept this incredibly destructive fantasy that men and women have nothing in common?
  • Don’t allow a man to convince you that you cannot spend money on yourself
  • What if women accepted that they were going to support themselves for a large part, if not all, of their lives and therefore planned to do just that? NOt only would work be a priority for both sexes, but social ties would be based on genuine affection rather than economic necessity
  • Flaunt your degrees, not your derrieres
  • Differences between men and women are all about money. Power shifts are seldom comfortable. Don’t be daunted by a bit of resistance here and there

 

Chapter Six: Ignorance is Bliss  (Knowledge is Power)

 

  • Ignorance is the ultimate dependence. Opting to be taken care of means you’re giving up control of your own life and assuming that someone else has your best interests at heart
  • The problem about accepting responsibility is that the buck stops squarely with you, and what if you make the wrong choice?
  • By sharing information, we level the playing field, leave ourselves open to judgment, and force ourselves to be responsible.
  • Knowledge can free you to make decision
  • Slaves were kept enslaved by having no access to information, and kept ignorant by being prohibited from learning to read and write. What people are forbidden to learn has traditionally separated classes, castes, races, and sexes
  • Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know, but be challenged to learn what’s important to you. None of us can know everything, but we can decide what’s important to us and what’s important to the people who are important to us. Knowing doesn’t mean we have to have an opinion about it or be a world-class expert. Once we become defensive about what we don’t know, we become brittle and frightened and act as if we’re proud of our limitations. Being proud of ignorance is a costly attitude. Ignorance is blinding, isolating, and frightening
  • If you were being interviewed for a job and your prospective employer said, “Hey, you’re going to get paid the same amount of money and do the same thing every day with the same people for the next thirty years,” most people would run screaming to the hills. During an interview, we ask about opportunities for advancement, when the next raise is likely to occur, and what skills we need to acquire to reach the next level; yet in personal relationships we are offended by the idea that we may actually need to learn new things, work at it, or change. If we were as sloppy and unwilling to work at our jobs as we are reluctant to improve our relationships, unemployment would be at an all-time high
  • It’s your job to figure out who you are when you want. Then, sweetcakes, tell him
  • Ignorance is passivity at its most virulent and dangerous. Denial is just ignorance with attitude
  • “Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing” is the ultimate act of hostility toward a loved one

Chapter Seven: Stick to Your Guns: A ferocious commitment to being right is an expensive lifestyle choice. People are going to fight back.

 

  • The ability to negotiate and empathize is valuable
  • Sticking to your guns means there will be dead bodies littering the landscape, some of which might belong to friends and potential allies. If differences can be understood and appreciated, nobody has to go to war over who’s right
  • Sometimes it’s not a matter of who’s right but of who’s left
  • Humans are the only creatures who are convinced that they know the true path, the right way, and will consistently ignore any evidence to the contrary
  • Larger goal sometimes is not to be right, but to be convincing, impressive, or charming
  • Be effective, moral, and caring, even if you’re not necessarily right. If you’re just looking for an effective joint solution you’ll have a chance to look for a path that pleases both of you
  • Minding someone else’s business is very, very risky and seldom appreciated. What at first glance looks like righteous behavior is often just judgmental or vindictive and is usually a diversion we create so we don’t have to take responsibility for what is going on in our own lives
  • Be aware of your motives
  • We get into trouble when we decide that our right is right for everybody
  • One of the fatal truth fantasies: that people will be grateful if you tell them the truth
  • We should keep our thoughts both private and flexible
  • “Ideas are for using, not believing.” Believing implies not only being right but being divinely right, which limits critical evaluation. Evaluating an idea based on its effectiveness allows field-testing and change without embarrassment. Belive what works for you and let everyone else do the same. Imagine the saved time and energy you can then apply to your own life. You can afford to be curious rather than judgmental about everyone else’s life
  • It’s unwise to assume that everyone will understand us all the time. It also is silly to assume that just because we’re “right,” reiterating the point will win us instant support
  • Asking other people to be grateful is asking for trouble
  • We only have to be right for ourselves and allow everyone else the same privilege and respect
  • The real test of character is not doing the right thing but doing the right thing even when it means that your enemy wins

 

Chapter Eight: Good Always Triumphs (Live isn’t fair. Get used to it. Do the best with what you’ve got. And no whining.)

 

Here are the false ideas discussed here:

Life is fair

Love is unconditional

Love is eternal

Easy is best

Effort is rewarded

Nothing changes

Luck is a reward

 

Chapter Nine: Somewhere I Have a Soul Mate (Believing you have a mirror image who will love you gives mirrors a bad name)

 

  • That other person then has a manageable task: to merely add pleasure to her already functional and meaningful life
  • Where is the little girl I married, and how do I get her back?
  • Joe, I’m not sure how little your “little girl” was when you married, but it takes a certain number of years to form an adult personality. Even if she was ninety-four when you married, you better believe that if love does last forever, it’s going to change form. This shape-shifting can confuse us. I am convinced that women choose men thinking they can change therm and men choose women assuming they will never change. How can we expect these relationships to work? First of all, they need a firm basis in reality that will allow for change without catastrophe. Fantasy is resistant to change.
  • Implicit in our fantasies about the eternal nature of true love are three heartfelt beliefs that: 1) nothing will ever change; 2) if there is change, both people will change in the same direction; 3) only the things you dislike will be changed.
  • As you may recall from high school biology, every cell in our bodies is replaced in a a seven-year cycle. If our bodies change that much, the likelihood of our feelings remaining constant is unlikely. Not only is the little girl you married all grown up, but so is the fresh-faced guy she married. You’ve both changed. I’m not saying people will fall out of love or stop loving, just that feelings, bodies, perspective, and expectations change. Sex may very well change a relationship, but sex isn’t love–even though in our charmingly benighted way, we pretend it is. Change is movement, and when you’re dealing with sex and expectation, movement is seldom predictable. While it is undoubtedly true that people change, the direction of that change is often hard to predict. The assumption that to people will change in the same direction is therefore even less likely, and the assumption that only the irritating stuff will change is definitely not logical. The reasons people change are often hard to ascertain, difficult to understand, and surprisingly personal. The behavior we are most likely to change is our own. The behavior we are most likely to want to change is someone else’s.

 

**  Expectation is the death of serenity. Expectations say a lot about you and nothing about the other person, which is a sure recipe for disappointment.

 

Realities: Chapter Four: We’re responsible for our behavior. Everybody has bad thoughts. It’s bad behavior that separates the good guys from the bad guys.

 

  • Regardless of how we were raised, we must be held responsible for our actions. Ignorance about our own behavior doesn’t mean we’re any less responsible.

 

Realities: Chapter 5: Romance is the poison of the Twentieth Century. Unrealistic expectations mean never being satisfied with what you’ve got, and romance is the ultimate unrealistic expectation.

 

Realities: Chapter Six: Go for Short-Term pain and Long-Term Gain. Get the icky stuff out of the way first, so you can enjoy everything else for a long time.

 

  • A saint without an audience would just be a masochist with no place to go.
  • A friend tells you what is going on with her; a Friend asks what’s going on with you.
  • A person who has seen you cry
  • A person who throws the party or comes early to help you cool
  • A person who knows you
  • A person who chats
  • A person who tolerates
  • A person who understands
  • A person who accepts
  • You BE that friend

 

Realities: Chapter Seven: People Do Things for Reasons. Even though it may not be obvious, there is always a reason for action.

  • When we look at someone else’s behavior and deem it nutty, we are simply unaware of the link between that person’s thoughts and actions, but a link does exist
  • View his behavior from his perspective
  • People do things for reasons
  • The reasons are knowable
  • There is a consistency of response

 

Realities: Chapter Eight: Attitude: Hey, Dude, It’s Everything. We can’t control what happens to us, but we’re in charge of how we respond

 

  • You are an active participant in your own happiness. You truly are the architect of your own well-being. The bad news is that this signals an abrupt end to the tendency to whine, complain and blame
  • Being negative may seem hip and trendy, but you’ll be totally miserable, and folks will avoid you like the plague, which will just make you lonelier. Bummer.
  • If you have a choice, there is no victimization, no one option, no destiny, and no whimpering

Iron Maiden: Run to the Hills: The Official Biography by Mick Wall

I have been a fan of Iron Maiden, especially the old stuff, for years, but never really knew anything about them. I’m not sure how this book came to my shelf, but it is a pretty hefty read at 348 pages. The book is not a critique; more like a love letter. We do get the true creation story from everyone’s point of view. First person conversations run throughout the book. Any time the music is mentioned it is always with glowing terms. In the foreword, Steve Harris, founding member of Iron Maiden, writes “This book was written by Mick Wall, someone respected enough by the band for us to want him to take on the task. A fan and friend of Maiden for many years, Mick decided to approach not just the current members but also past members of the band, plus management, agents, and past and present members of the crew for the material for this book. It makes interesting reading, even for me, because everybody has a different view of how things have happened over the years!” Here are some interesting bits and quotes.
“…Iron Maiden begins and ends with the dreams and ambitions of one man: Steve Harris [bassist, lead writer and head honcho]. He it was who can up with the name, came up with the songs, the idea, and the attitude…’Arry, as the band affectionately know him…” (16).
Harris is a huge soccer fan, especially of Ham United. Study some of their album covers closely and you may find soccer references.
“Steve came up with the name of the new band, Iron Maiden–a medieval torture device that could be described as a coffin lined with long, sharp spikes–simply, he says, because ‘it just sounded right for the music. I was sitting around at my mum’s place, talking about names for the band and that was the name that was bandied about, and I said, Yeah, that’s great. I like that. I don’t remember if I thought of it or my mum did, or someone else in my family, I can’t remember. But I do remember saying it to my mum and she went, Oh, that’s good. I think I had a short-list of four or five names and she said, Oh yeah, that’s the best one’” (29).
[Can you imagine being in high school, starting a heavy metal band, and your mom going “Iron Maiden…now, that’s a name!”]
Harris had been in cover bands, but he wanted his own band in order to perform the originals he’d been writing. “Even then, the Harris penchant for an unexpected time-change which would become the hallmark of all Iron Maiden’s most respected work, was already much in evidence” (32-3).
“But with the arrival of Wilcock came the news of a guitarist mate, of Den’s that, he said, would blow them away. His name was Dave Murray. I said, ‘Well, if he’s that good get him down here!’ recalls Steve. ‘So he did. And that’s when everything really changed…’” (34).
Maiden was seen as part of the “new British rock scene.” Sounds journalist Geoff Barton “had a name for it; he called it the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). The phrase New Wave Of British Heavy Metal was this slightly tongue-in-cheek thing that first cropped up in a sub-heading and we just expanded it a bit to give the feature some sort of slant” (94).
[I’ve included a large section on the creation of Iron Maiden’s mascot, Eddie, because I’ve always been fascinated with the image. I used to draw him in doodles during high school. I’ve named various objects “Edward” in homage to him across the course of my life, and he was even the inspiration for a teenage poem entitled “Spoon.” I’ll share it later if I can find it.]
“The other most striking feature of Maiden’s first single was the introduction into the scheme of things of one of the most important characters in the entire Maiden story–Eddie, the cartoon creation of self-styled English eccentric and former art-school drop-out, Derek Riggs” (142).
“…the one thing that never changes is the thrill that runs through an Iron Maiden audience the moment Eddie bursts forth onto the stage at the climax of every show. If you’ve never seen Iron Maiden live, you won’t know what is so palpably obvious to those of us who have been there to see it for ourselves: that Eddie is the immortal soul of Iron Maiden; the defining symbol of the eternally youthful, blissfully uncompromising spirit of the band’s music. No matter what your age (and after nearly three decades there are plenty of Maiden fans whose memories are now longer than our hair), Eddie stands for the part of us that will never stop loving loud, live, over the top rock music; that will never shrink or hide from adversity; and never give up hope that there are still better times to be had…somwhere. Which is why Eddie no longer belongs either to Derek Riggs, Rod Smallwood or Steve Hrris. He belongs to us all” (143).
Rod Smallwood explains that the band did not have a defining feature; “they didn’t have that one figure who utterly stamped his presence and image on the band in a way that was obvious enough to make a good album cover. There wasn’t anything extra to give the image that continuity. So I went looking for someone, something…an image, that would look good on the record sleeve and say something more about this band than just another photograph of them on stage.’
“Rod was in John Darnley’s office at EMI one afternoon when–of all things–a poster on the wall for trad-jazz star Max Middleton caught his eye. ‘It’s not like I’m a big Max Middleton fan or anything,’ he says, ‘but the artwork on this poster was just so striking, you couldn’t miss it. Your eyes just went to it as soon as you walked in the room. So I immediately asked John, ‘Who did that for you?’ And it was this guy I’d never heard of called Derek Riggs. I asked to meet him so he could show me some more of his work, and in the middle of a load of drawings for what he thought would be good sic-fi book covers, there was the first album sleeve! It was this sort of cartoon of this mad-looking sort of punk monster, but as soon as I saw it, I knew. That was it! The only change we asked Derek to make was to make the hair a bit longer, so it was less obviously like a punk. Derek had been round all the record companies trying to sell it for a punk band–album or single, she didn’t mind. But I saw that and thought, ‘No, that’s for us, that’s exactly what we need.’ I remember taking his portfolio around to show the band. I just threw it on the table and said, ‘See if you can pick out your album sleeve,’ and it was the first one they picked out! It was just obvious to everybody from the word go–there was Eddie! It was like he’d been done just for the band.’
“‘People always ask if Eddie was inspired by Maiden’t music but I’d never even heard of Iron Maiden when I drew the first Eddie,’ Derek admits. ‘I’ve never really been into heavy metal. In fact, when I’m drawing, instead of listening to whatever Maiden are up to, I’m much more likely to spend most of my time listening to Beethoven, Stravinsky or even The Spice Girls. In those days, though, I was quite fond of punk and originally that’s what Eddie was supposed to be–this sort of brain-damaged punk. I was very influenced by the punk idea of wasted youth, this whole generation that had just been thrown in the bin–no future and all that. Which is funny, because I then included it with some other stuff I’d been sending around to various sort of science-fiction book publishers, to see if they could use any of it on one of their book covers or whatever. I didn’t really know what else to do with it. I’ve never even really been into art, not in the conventional sense. Not since they threw me out of art college, in Coventry, when I was nineteen.’
“‘But no-one was interested–I was pretty crap at book covers, actually. I discovered I could paint city streets really well, but that wasn’t much help when it came to ski-fi. Then, out of nowhere, Rod and Maiden picked up on this particular image, only they wanted me to make it a bit less like a punk and more like them. So I redrew him with pretty much the same face, the same body and clothes and everything, just with longer hair. It was still spiky but now it was long and would shoot out in all directions.’
“‘I liked the idea because it gave you great visual continuity.’ says Rod, ‘and it made the Maiden sleeves just stick out a bit more than the average sort of ‘could-be-anything’ sort of sleeves most rock bands used then. And it became a very important part of Maiden’t image, in that way. We’ve never done a lot of television, we’ve never really been on the radio, but because Eddie struck such a chord with the Maiden fans, we didn’t need to be. Wearing an Eddie T-shirt became like a statement: fuck radio, fuck TV, we’re not into that crap, we’re into Iron Maiden. And, of course, we’ve had a lot of fun wit Eddie over the years, trying to find new and ever-more outrageous things for him to be and do. Sometimes the ideas come from Derek, although usually they either come from me or one of the band. But it can be anybody or anything that inspires us. Like with Number Of The Beast, where we had Eddie in hell with the Devil as his puppet, only the Devil’s got a puppet Eddie, too, and it was like, well, who’s the really evil one here? Who’s manipulating who? The concept was very simple, but the way Derek executed it was fantastic. Originally, he came up with it for the sleeve of the ‘Purgatory’ single, but we said, ‘No, that’s much too good,’ so we kept it for the album. We had the artwork months before we had the music.’
“The idea of turning the original Eddie the ‘Ead that had adorned the backdrop of every Maiden gig for the last three years into the more recognizable face of Riggs’ Eddie was a fairly obvious one. Smoke would still billow from its mouth during the usual ‘Iron Maiden’ finale, only now the ghastly, staring mask had acquired not just long spiky hair but a long spiky personality to match. But the real masterstroke was when they eventually hit on the idea of having a three-dimensional Eddie that didn’t just stare from the back of the stage, but actually ran about it terrorizing both the band and the astonished audience. Rod credits former EMI managing director in the Eighties, Rupert Perry, for the original suggestion that Eddie might become more than just a useful merchandising icon;that he might somehow become an active part of the show.
“‘Rupert was at a show with us one night,’ says Rod, ‘and he just said, ‘Smallwood, why don’t you get this guy on stage?’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s right, that would be great.’ At first, it was just me with an Eddie mask on. I’d just go bounding around the stage like a lunatic during the intro to get the audience worked up, and the place would go mad. So we started doing it every night. Once, in Detroit, a guy from the record company came up when I had the mask on and asked me if I’d seen Rod. I just growled! Then various tour managers did it. One tour manager we had, Tony Wiggins, absolutely refused to do it so he would always wear cord trousers to the show, because he knew we’d never let Eddie go on stage in cords! It had to be a leather jacket and jeans. So Tony never did Eddie.’”
“‘I can’t actually take all the credit,’ insists Rupert Perry. “It’s true that it was me who first said to Rod, ‘You know, what if the Eddie character could move?’ But I was thinking more along the lines of something that would happen at the start of the show, perhaps before the band even came on. But Rod, in his genius, took that and turned it into something much more exciting. And now, of course, Eddie is a very big and important part of every Iron Maiden show. It would be hard to imagine them without him. He’s become like the sixth member.’
“Originally, Eddie’s brief but blustery appearances took the form of a leather-jacketed man (as he admits, usually Rod, or one of their tour managers) in a specially-designed head-mask. But as the band’s international career took off around the world and the arenas they filled grew larger and larger, so, too, did Eddie. Bigger and more berserk with each new album that rolled around, by Powerslave, in 1984, he was over fourteen feet tall and able to launch thunderbolts with the wave of one giant, bandaged hand. Clearly, this was no mere man-in-a-fright-mask.
“Dave Lights remembers how the idea arose. ‘I had taken my family to see Jack And The Beanstalk in pantomime the previous Christmas,’ he says, ‘and I remember how impressed all the kids had been every time the giant walked on stage. It was basically a bloke on stilts but dressed up to look about ten feet tall. It was just such a simple, marvelous effect that I mentioned it to the band and said, ‘You know, maybe we could have Eddie as some sort of giant when he comes on stage.’ I think the first time we did it, on the Number Of The Beast world tour, the Eddie we had was about eight feet tall, but he ended up about fourteen feet in the end, I think. He just kept growing, getting bigger and more ridiculous with each tour we did. And it’s kind of become the best part of the show. It’s always right at the end, during ‘Iron Maiden’, and it’s just turned into this big, mad celebration. Just when you think you’ve seen all the effects there are, had all the best lights and heard all the best numbers, suddenly here comes Eddie and it just sends everybody right over the top.’”
“Dickie Bell, the band’s current tour manager, who has worked with Maiden since 1981, reckons, ‘The kids fucking love Eddie more than they love the band. And you can see why: it’s ‘cause he’s one of them. In their minds, he’s like the Maiden fan from hell! And when he gets up on stage, it’s like one of their own getting up there and doing it for them. It’s like Eddie is the ultimate headbanger” (144-147)! [End Eddie section.]
“With new Steve Harris-penned mini-epics like ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ (the dying note of a condemned man) and the track from which the album takes its title, ‘the Number Of The Beast’ (inspired by the film Omen II) Maiden had entered new creative territory.