Monthly Archives: October 2013

#29: Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaI don’t know what I just read.  I didn’t hate it.  I just sort of… read it.

Dell’s parents rob a bank.  Then there are murders, but not until later.  Things happen to Dell and he watches.  He was fifteen when the bank robbery happened and he’s an adult now and here’s what happened to him.

It’s 1960.  Dell, his twin sister Berner, his mom Neeva and his dad Bev have moved to a small town in Montana.  They are an Air Force family and have moved from base to base.  But Bev is out of the Air Force now and Dell thinks things will be become permanent.  Perhaps this new place will be the first time something feels like “home”.

Bev is heartbreaking.  His entire life seems to be pieces and pieces of “almost, but not quite”.  He joined the Air Force in 1939, wanting to be a fighter pilot but he wasn’t good enough and had to settle for being a bombardier.  He’s tall and good looking with Southern charm and openness.  He knows everyone likes him because he likes everyone.  Years later while working on the base, he gets involved with a bit of illegal trading, but it’s a scam that’s been running for a while so everyone looks the other way.  Only some how Bev fucks it up just enough that the higher ups are forced to take notice and he no longer has a job on the base.  He takes a job selling new cars, but doesn’t have the knack for making sales.  A month later he switches to used car sales, knowing people will see he’s trustworthy and the guy to go to when it’s time to spend money.  Only people don’t come to him and he quits fairly soon.  He then decides to get into real estate, selling farms and ranch land.  He knows nothing about farms and ranch land, but insists that this is the one.  This is the thing that’s going to make money.  He’s convinced that because he’s a good person, good things will happen to him, and when they don’t, well, you simply jump to the next thing because clearly that’s where all the answers are.

It’s really depressing.

Bev honestly seems like a good guy.  You want him to succeed.  You want him to find something he’s good at, but at the same time, you know it’s not going to happen, even if you didn’t already know he robbed a bank, got caught, and is in jail.  He’s like someone’s little brother trying to play with the older boys.  He constantly gets shoved down, but he picks himself up and comes trotting back with a big smile.  It’s just so sad.

Neeva, on the other hand, knows life is shit and you might as well wallow in it.  She is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, well educated and with dreams for their daughter.  When she gets knocked up by a smiling, constantly talking Southerner, their dreams die, and so do hers.  She gave up everything to be with Bev and be the mother of his children and it’s obvious she regrets it.  Still, you don’t hate her.  She’s protecting herself and her children from the world.  She’s seen how fast things can change and wants Dell and Berner to be strong enough to face disappointments and fight back.  She reads and writes and has no business being in Montana with a Southern Air Force husband and twins.

It’s really depressing.

But this book is Dell’s story.  He’s the one telling it.  Right at the start we know his parents robbed a bank and we know that murder is coming.  He slowly reveals the story and puts major spoilers in along the way.  He’s describing a guy and then in the next sentence explaining what he looked like later when he was dead on the floor.

His voice is weird.  At times it was like he, or Dell in the future talking about his fifteen year old self, or Ford writing the book, couldn’t decide who he was.  He’d talk like a fifteen year old boy, but then when he added an aside about what he knew later, it was sort of like that part was coming from his future self, but at the same time sort of sounded like the main voice the whole time.  It didn’t read well for me.  I think a big part of it was that I never felt an emotional connection to Dell because I felt like he didn’t have emotions.

And that’s why I don’t know what I read.  Things happen in this book, but they happen to him and around him.  When he makes choices, he does it in a flatline way.  There are a few times when he is mad, but I didn’t feel mad.  There were a few times when I did feel scared when he felt scared, and I did feel his confusion, but overall it was like he was completely dissociated from the whole thing and trying to find empathy was impossible.  It was like he didn’t care, so why should I?

So, Bev and Neeva rob a bank, get caught and go to jail.  Bev again comes up with a brilliant plan to make money by selling stolen beef, only things go wrong and he ends up owing money to people who have no problem hurting him or the family.  The obvious solution is to rob a bank.

Yeah.

Neeva is of course against the idea, but then she gets caught up in the fantasy of having enough money to finally take the kids and leave.  The two of them make wild plans about what they’ll do with all this cash and how amazing it’ll be.

Bev walks out of the bank with $2500.  $2000 of it is going to the men who keep driving by the house.

The cops come and take them both, leaving the kids behind.  And then no one comes for them.

Berner, who takes after her mother when it comes to life being a huge disappointment, decides she’s going to do better on her own, so she gets the hell out.  Dell just sort of wanders around until a friend of his mom’s picks him up and takes him to Canada.  Neeva had made plans for both Berner and Dell so they’d be kept out of an orphanage or juvenile home so now Dell is in Canada with strangers.

Again, it’s told in this total disassociated way.  Dell has no control over his life and that’s what he seems to grab on to.  He doesn’t have much of a personality.  He does what he’s told, thinks about his parents, and things continue to happen to him.  I wondered what he would have done if nothing happened.  I could picture him just sitting in his shack, eating some food and then just sitting there some more, waiting for someone to tell him what he’s supposed to be doing.  I had no empathy or curiosity about him.  I didn’t really care, other than to hope he’d have some sort of good luck since everything that had happened to him up to this point was completely out of his control.

And then more things happen to him and around him and he watches and doesn’t react or respond.

And now he’s an adult telling his story and talking a little bit about what his life is like now.

I finished the book and thought to myself “Why did he tell this story?”  It wasn’t like he was guilty and wanted to get this secret out.  He already told his wife.  He wasn’t trying to blame his parents.  He didn’t seem to want to explain anything.  It was like he was saying “I was driving home yesterday and saw a guy walking two big dogs.”

I don’t get it.

Maybe something went over my head.  Maybe this isn’t my kind of writing.  Maybe I’m completely missing something.  I just don’t understand this book.  It wasn’t a coming of age story because Dell never has that big revelation.  There’s no personality shift.  He’s a static character throughout.

Again, I don’t hate this book, but I just don’t get it.  Clearly this one was not written for me.

#28: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of WondersIt’s 1666 and the plague has come to a Anna Frith’s village.  Until now, Anna’s life has been on a set path.  She grew up with a drunk and abusive father, then became the wife of a miner, then became a widow with two small children.  Had the plague not come, perhaps she would have remarried and had more children.  No surprises, no changes, nothing outside of the norm.

But when the plague does come, Anna finds herself having and wanting to change her life.  Working as a housemaid for the rector and his wife, she sees firsthand the spread of the plague and watches as more and more of the villagers die.  Soon her own house is touched and both her babies die.  No longer having anything to live for, perhaps she would have gone mad or let herself sink until the plague took her as well.  But serving Rector Mompellion and his wife Elinor, her help is needed to tend the villagers in this time of death.

Mr. Mompellion turns to the pulpit, leading his congregation in prayer, trying to find strength in God to see them through the early stages of sickness.  When it becomes impossible to ignore that this is the plague, he again calls up the power of God and tells his people that they can serve as a beacon and example to all men by secluding themselves from outsiders and stopping the spread of the disease to save their neighbors.  While they suffer losses, they will save lives.  The rich escape before the decision is made but those left behind grab on to the ideal that there is a greater good.  Plans are made for supplies to be left at a safe distance so no one will have to leave the boundaries of the village and neighboring areas are happy to keep them fed if it means their own people will be safe.

No one could know how long this self imposed isolation could last, how many people the plague would take, and what would happen to the minds of the survivors.  Anna sees it from many sides.  As a villager, these are her people.  She knows the dead and understand the reactions of the living.  Mr. Mompellion and Elinor are outsiders and can only understand that these people have souls, but can’t fully know who they are as a person.  At the same time, she does see what Mr. Mompellion wants for the village and that he is trying to keep people safe.  He rarely sleeps so he can spend time with the sick and dying.  He promises that no one will die alone and even though it’s making him weak, he travels from house to house tending his flock.  Elinor works in her own ways to help.  She learns more about healing and asks Anna to treat the sick with her.  Anna, knowing she could easily be branded a witch,  at first resists.  She is a servant and does not feel comfortable in Elinor’s company.  She’s also seen first hand what happens to healers when death is inevitable.  When panic and grief set in, friends become strangers and anger turns to madness.  Anna cannot take the chance that she will find herself on the outside.

Still, she respects Elinor and finds herself agreeing that they can help.  While Mr. Mompellion prays and tries to keep the spirit strong, Anna and Elinor do what they can to keep the body healthy.  Anna finds herself acting as midwife and confidant, returning to her cold and empty cottage at the end of the day.  No matter how tired, she doesn’t sleep well knowing that her man and her babies are gone.

As the year drags on, the people begin to lose the sense of community that led them to make the decision to shut their borders.  Neighbors turn on each other.  Men find ways to profit from death.  Ghosts begin whispering and windows, promising cures in exchange for money.  People are angry and scared and watch as the population gets smaller and smaller.

But there are moments of hope and happiness.  Anna and Elinor are able to secure a child’s future by fulfilling her claim on her family’s mine.  Babies are born and survive.  There are moments of peace and calm.  People become ill, but live.  Perhaps they have finally come to the beginning of the end of their exile.

And just as there starts to be glimmers of hope, madness nearly destroys everything.  Faith has grown thin.  In some places connections between villagers has become stronger as they carry the burden together.  In others, people draw inward and know they are the only ones who can save themselves.  People are distrustful.  Nothing makes sense.  Disaster comes to Mr. Mompellion and Elinor.  Anna almost doesn’t survive.

 

I read this book over a week or so, but it’s one I could have read straight through.  So many things happen that it could have become a bunch of tales told not that well, but Brooks is able to keep everything solidly around Anna and it works.  It’s realistic to look at all the places she would be and why so many things would happen.  She’s not just shut up in the rectory’s kitchen.  She’s not just at home alone.  She is tending the sick and trying to help those whose bodies are untouched.  Being Elinor’s servant and then friend, she has access to many different houses.  She sees madness and hope and having all the stories happening makes for a fulfilling book.

I especially liked the ending, although I have read that others did not.  As I said at the start, Anna’s life is not one of change.  She lives in a time where you die where you are born.  You marry young, have babies and work to keep them alive.  You remarry if your man dies and have more babies.  You milk your cow and go to church.  Your path is set.

In one moment, Anna has a chance for something different, and she grabs it.  She could stay who and where and what she is.  She could slip back into her old life.  She could stay in the village and wait for the next husband and the next baby.  But for Anna, she isn’t the same.  Her time in the year of wonders has changed her in too many ways.  She’s no longer a simple servant who falls back on social rules and norms.  She’s seen too much and recognizes her own worth.  She is given an opportunity and knows this is what she is meant to do.  Some would say that this doesn’t fit in with her personality at all and the sudden shift in story is jarring and doesn’t make sense, but that’s the point.  Nothing about the plague makes sense.  Anna knows that she can become something different, so she does.  She’s given a gift and makes it something even better.

There’s a lot in these pages, and I enjoyed the read.  Madness, despair, faith,  sex, murder, hope, agony…  It’s all extremes and it’s very satisfying.