Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Ninth Hour by Alice Mcdermott

Alice McDermont has won the National Book Award, as well as a finalist for numerous other prizes.  She teaches at Johns Hopkins University.  The Ninth Hour is her eighth novel.  To quote the dust jacket, "On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas tape in his Brooklyn tenement.  He is determined to prove--to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering pregnant wife--that "the hours of his life belonged to him alone."  His suicide has repercussions among the neighbors, but the repercussions to his widow, Annie, and his unborn child have far greater impacts.   

A nun appears ready to help the unfortunate widow.  These nuns take over to a good bit of the work to overcome the result of the suicide.  McDermott writes, “In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.  Her own little Tammany, Sister Miriam called it. // She could get this woman’s husband buried in Calvary.  If it was all done quickly enough, she could manage it” (15).

The nuns clean, scrub, and even paint the apartment to rid it of the memories of Jim, the widow’s husband.  The nuns hire her to do the laundry for the convent, and even allow her to bring her newborn to the laundry while she works.  The nuns avoid talking about the incident, but outside the convent, there is enough chatter to alert the church about the suicide.  Alice writes, “She could tell herself that the illusion was purposeful: God showing her an image of the young man, the suicide, trapped in his bitter purgatory, but she refused the notion.  It was superstitious.  It was without mercy.  It was the devil himself who drew her eyes into that tangle, who tempted her toward despair.  That was the truth of it” (19).  The sisters cut corners, wheedled and cajoled to keep their charitable endeavors flowing so important to many of the parishioners. 

Sister Jeanne prays.  “She wanted him buried in Calvary to give comfort to his poor wife, true.  To get the girl what she’d paid for.  But she also wanted to prove herself something more than a beggar, to test the connections she’d forged in this neighborhood, forged over a life time.  She wanted him buried in Calvary because the power of the Church wanted him kept and she, who had spent her life in the Church’s service, wanted him in. // Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed.  We’ll sort it out when I see You” (30.

The child was born and grew up among the sisters.  The nuns believed the child, Sallie, was destined for a life in the convent.  McDermott writes, “It was Sister Jeanne who suggested Annie give her baby the nun’s name in baptism.  A formidable patroness for the child” (130).  They spoke to Annie about the miraculous occurrences when the old nun died.  Alice continues, “Annie didn’t doubt the report.  Sister Jeanne couldn’t tell a lie.  But Annie was inclined to reconcile such miracles with the sensible world.  Sister St. Savior died in July.  The windows were surely open—or, if they weren’t, Sister Jeanne, who held onto the old superstitions, would have opened one the moment the old nun passed.  Surely roses bloomed somewhere in the neighborhood” (130).

Alice McDermott’s latest novel, The Ninth Hour, is a sweet and loving story of a band of nuns who try and make life a little bit better for the poor of Brooklyn.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/7/18

Florida by Lauren Groff

 Lauren Groff made the long list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, but unfortunately, her newest novel, Florida, did not make the cut.  This interesting novel focuses on eleven people who live and work in and around Florida.  The stories are only loosely connected, but each is interesting in its own way.

I was particularly intrigued by “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.”  Groff writes, “Jude was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.  Few people lived in the center of Florida then.  Air-conditioning was for the rich, and the rest compensated with high ceilings, sleeping porches, attic fans.  Jude’s father was a herpetologist at the university, and if snakes hadn’t slipped their way into their hot house, his father would have filled it with them anyway.  Coils of rattlers sat in formaldehyde on the windowsills.  Writhing knots of reptiles lived in the coops out back, where his mother had once tried to raise chickens.  At an early age, Jude learned to keep a calm heart when touching fanged things.  He was barely walking when his mother came into the kitchen to find a coral snake chasing its red and yellow tale around his wrist (13).  When I was young, I had an interest in snakes, but my interest waned when I could find none in a brown stone row house in Philadelphia.

In “Eyewall,” an attempt to raise chickens had some odd results.  Groff writes, “It began with chickens.  They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks.  Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing.  Fine, you ungrateful turds!  I’d said before abandoning them to the storm.  I stood in the kitchen at the one window I left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west.  I felt the chickens’ rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers” (64).  Groff has a talent for bringing into sharp relief, the two- and four-legged, as well as those with no legs at all.

“Flower Hunters” ends on a peculiar note.  The unnamed narrator wants to call her friend Meg, but she remembers Meg wanted to “take a break” from their relationship.  Lauren writes, “Two weeks ago, she called Meg at eleven at night because she’d read an article about the coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico being covered with a mysterious whiteish slime that was killing them, and she knew enough to know that when a reef collapses, so do dependent populations, and when they go, the ocean goes” (167)

Snakes appear off and on, and here is another, “Snake Stories.”  She writes, “It is strange to me, and alien in this place, and ambivalent northerner, to see how my Florida sons takes snakes for granted.  My husband, digging out a peach tree that had died from climate change, brought into the house a shovel full of poisonous baby coral snakes, brightly enameled and writhing.  Cook! Said my little boys, but I woke from frantic sleep that night, slapping at my sheets, sure the light pressure on my body was twining of many snakes that had slipped from the shovel and searched until they found my warmth” (206).

Lauren Groff is a writer who can easily describe a character in her stories as well as calmly describing dangerous reptiles.  Florida is a story for readers who abhor snakes, as well as those who are fascinated by the scaly creatures.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 8/2/18

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I have a cast of friends who populate independent bookstores.  These are friends to guide me to obscure novels and open a whole new world of new adventures.  An Inkwood Bookshop in Tampa and her sister's shop in Haddonfield, New Jersey have been wonderful sources.  It was a trip to New Jersey that led me to Elena Ferrante and her masterpiece the four "Neapolitan Novels."  Book One is titles My Brilliant Friend.  I already have the next three books in the series, and I can't wait to get into the three remaining volumes, which are sprawling, insightful, and a fantastic read.

Elena is a peculiar writer.  She disdains meeting her followers, and she avoids conferences, signings, and most attempts to uncover her real name.  Recently, someone tried to reveal her real name.  When I started to read the essay, I put it away.  Her story is magnificent, and if she wishes to remain anonymous, I will not be one to reveal her secret.

The story begins with two friends, Elena and Lila.  Both live in Naples with families on the edge of poverty.  Lila appears to be the better student, but she opts into an early marriage giving up her studies.  Elena is envious of Lila, and she struggles to surpass her friend.  Book one of this story carries the tale to the girls’ 16th birthday.  The friendship of the two girls wavers back and forth.  When Lila decides to marry, she asks Elena for help, much to the consternation of the bride’s family.

Ferrante’s style is detailed and wonderfully adept at describing these characters.  Elena writes, “Lila knew how to read and write, and what I remember of that gray morning when the teacher revealed it to us was, above all, the sense of weakness the news left me with.  Right away, from the first day, school had seemed to me a much nicer place than home.  It was the place in the neighborhood where I felt safest, I went there with excitement.  I paid attention to the lessons, I carried out with the greatest diligence everything I was told to carry out, I learned.  But most of all I liked pleasing the teacher, I liked pleasing everyone.  At home I was my father’s favorite, and my brothers and sister, too, loved me.  The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course.  It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.  I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me.  Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking” (44-45).

Having to deal with the parents, friends, and family, while managing her friendship with Lila, was daunting.  Elena’s ability to handle all this requires an amazing array of characters and events.  She did all this while studying her lessons and achieving the highest scores in all her subjects.  A comprehensive set of family trees proved quite helpful, especially since there were a few similar names and nicknames.  A number of writers have labeled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend her masterpiece, and I am in complete agreement with that judgment.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 7/29/18