Thursday, October 29, 2009

Durable Goods

From Singles 2009

The packing boxes come. I like this part, seeing ordinary things get wrapped like presents, get taken from your sight until they reappear at the new place. You can count of some fragile things being broken; always when we moved, my mother cried a little when she found the shattered china cup, the arm off the porcelain ballerina. "Why do you keep buying that stuff?" my father would ask. "Buy durable goods; that's what's going to make it."

Remember Katie? from "Joy School"? This is the first of her stories. Her mother has died. She's living still in Texas with her dad, her sister Diane, and her best friend, Cherylanne. But, no one is as nice as you might hope for Katie or as nice as Katie seems to remember them in "Joy School". Her father is abusive both physically and verbally and Katie is always walking on egg shells trying to wear her face and modulate her voice absolutely correctly to avoid his wrath. She hides under her bed to avoid him and to commune with her mother. Diane is weeks away from graduating from high school, stealing away to be with Dickie, and she is finished with being controlled by her father. Cherylanne, while at times generous and warm, is largely self centered. There is no real oasis of acceptance and love in this book.

So, despite Katie's palpable pain and loss in "Joy Club", I wanted to whisper to her over and over, that things will get better. That move you resent and fear will surprise you.

Much to learn.

I hear the inviting rattle of glasses, smell the hamburger. And now there is my father's voice, his hand lightly touching my arm. "Hey, wake up," he is saying. "Everything is here."

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Bonesetter's Daughter

From Singles 2009

"...Speaking of it, there was an older girl at this party puking her guts out in the bathroom. A tenth-grader. She thought she was preggers from this boy who's in juvenile hall."

"Does she love him?"

"She called him a creep."

"Then she doesn't have to worry," Ruth said knowingly.

"What are you talking about?"

"It's the chemistry that gets you pregnant. Love is one of the ingredients," Ruth declared as scientifically as possible.

Wend stopped walking. Her mouth hung open. Then she whispered: "Don't you know anything?" And she explained what Ruth's mother, the lady in the movie, and the teacher had not talked about: that the ingredient came from the boy's penis. And, to ensure everything was perfectly clear to Ruth, Wendy spelled it out: "The boy pees inside the girl."

"That's not true!" Ruth hated Wendy for telling her this, for laughing hysterically. She was relieved when they reached the block where she and Wendy went in opposite directions.

The last two blocks home, the truth of Wendy's words bounced in Ruth's head like pinballs. It made terrible sense, the part about the pee. That was why boys and girls had separate bathrooms. That's why boys were supposed to lift the seat but they didn't just to be bad. And that was why her mother told her never to sit on the toilet seat in someone else's bathroom. What her mother had said about germs was really a warning about sperms. Why couldn't her mother learn to speak English right?

And then panic grabbed her. For now she remembered that three nights before she had sat on pee from the man she loved.

This was a re-read though I listened to an audio book this time. Amy Tan tells wonderful mother-daughter stories and this one features two - Grandmother, mother, daughter - though they are never together for Ruth's grandmother, Precious Auntie, died when LuLing was a young adolescent. Despite my choice of quotation (I laughed out loud), both Lu Ling and Precious Auntie have more interesting stories of far greater horrors. "The Bonesetter's Daughter" reminds us that when we learn the truth of another, we move quickly to forgiveness. When we put aside the pain, we are left with love.

They write stories of what things are but should not have been. They write about what could have been, what might still be. They write of a past that can be changed. After all, Bao Bomu says, what is the past but what we choose to remember?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Joy School

From Singles 2009

Nona was very religious, she used to be the president of the Santa Lucia Society. "She kept the banner in her room for a long time, " Cynthia said. "it had a picture of St Lucy with her eyes plucked out."

"Why?"I asked I couldn't believe it. Why would someone make a whole banner out of something like that. "Oh, Mrs. Whatever, your daughter has had her eyes plucked out!" "Oh no, well, let's make a banner out of it!" Cynthia said St. Lucy's eyes got plucked out because she was a virgin martyr. I have no idea what that means. Those Catholics have strange stories and they love those pictures that make you practically puke. Jesus with His heart all stuck out, for one. And nailed up on the cross, dribbles of blood running down so sickening you can hardly even feel sorry for Him. As if His mother, who was right there, wouldn't have wiped it off

I'm having something of a early adolescent period reading "Joy School" simultaneously with "The Bonesetter's Daughter". And, better yet, as I finished "Joy School" I learned there is a book that comes before and one that comes after. When will I return to Dave Robicheaux? (The next book has been ordered but it is only available as a CD! No hard copy, paper in the hand copy exists in Brisbane! And, this is "Purple Cane Road" which was the first Robicheaux novel I read and is, therefore, ultimately the cause of all this Burke frenzy.)

But, all this talk is unfair to Katie.

"Joy School" was amazing. A funny and acutely observant child-woman lost and lonely in her new home in Missouri. She's lost her mother. Her older sister has left home. Katie and her dad have just moved from Texas and, so, Katie is without her girlfriend as well. The kids next door hate her. Her school is filled with the usual assortment of lame-ass teachers. ("Every gym teacher I've ever had has been mean, like she has a problem she is going to punish all of us for out on the courts. This gym teacher is named Miss Sweet. This would be what they call irony, I'll tell you that.")The girl that befriends her has a crazy mother. As winter falls and the the local pond ices up Katie goes skating - falls through the ice - and stumbles into the life of 23-year-old Jimmy who is working at the nearby service station. Jimmy. He will be the love of her life. He will be her "joy school".

Like "The Bonesetter's Daughter", "Joy School" is also an examination of the relationship between mothers and daughters. Katie's friend Cynthia, like Ruth and LuLing, are struggling to break away from their mothers with their (misunderstood) controlling and confining love. Katie was emancipated suddenly and prior to those adolescent mother-daughter conflicts. Katie's missing her mother's love and direction as she moves into this more adult realm created by Jimmy and seeks connection with Cynthia's grandmother, Nona, with the local priest, with her older, now pregnant sister, with Ginger the housekeeper. Katie, LuLing, and Ruthie remind me how much we take our loved ones for granted, only recognizing the extent of their importance to us and love for us once they're gone.

Oh, where is she? A stubborn part of me had thought this might be over sometime. But she is staying gone and staying gone and staying gone. She is not in the grave, though. No, she isn't. I have her out of the grave. And, right now I put her in a yellow flowered dress, a pale yellow apron over it. It has ruffles and the ruffles are eyelet. I don't know if there is such a thing, really. But now there is, and I am sitting at the kitchen table watching her shape the pie crust edges into their stand-up design. She is concentrating so hard her tongue sticks out a little. This really used to happen. Once I laughed and she said, What are you laughing about? and I told her her tongue was sticking out and she said, "it was not!" Well, there are things you can't see about yourself. I loved that she stuck her tongue out that way. It was cute, like when a kitten is done washing and his hair sticks up on top of his head. I never said anything about her doing that again. I wish I could have. I wish I could have gone through my long list of all the things I loved about her before she died. Right in front of her. I don't believe my memory would have failed me one, bit, even if I was crying the whole time, saying those things. Saying all those things that made her her.

There isn't anything really unexpected that happens. Whether it is my age or my experience with "story", I pretty much knew the trajectory. But, that didn't matter. "Joy School" was real in the way that first love is real: magical and sweet, expanding one's world while breaking one's heart.

I hear the low buzz of the fluorescent light above us. This could be the time when I should say something, make things move along. In my throat is the whole sentence, "I think I love you."

I look up at him and in his face is only a kind affection. Oh, he is twenty-three, he is twenty-three and I am stupid thirteen. His mother should have waited awhile to have him. I guess I will never get to meet his mother. I look down at the stone, close my hand around it. This is what I have.

"I had a date Friday night," I tell him. Make him jealous, I hear Cynthia saying.

"Hey! Good for you!"

Cynthia is an imbecile.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Banned Book Week

I just learned that this is (per the American Library Association) Banned Book Week - 2009. Had I known that a bit earlier I would have made a different choice for my next read...something a bit more "dangerous". As it is I had to content myself with perusing the list of 100 banned or challenged classics to check up on my level of perversity...or how far I might be descending into hell.

Twenty five.

The list is pretty surprising. Certainly there are a few authors who were obviously channeling the devil... J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather... And, I'm thinking that Beelzebub has a hotline to the United States: American authors - definitely over-represented.

Test yourself. Click here to see the list.