Friday, December 20, 2013

Fiction | How Olive Sees It

I picked up another one that’s been on my shelf a while… (Are you sensing a trend? There is a reason; more later) …Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer winner Oliver Kitteridge. Despite the notoriety of this book, I really didn’t have much idea of what it was about. All I knew was that my mother-in-law “couldn’t get into it,” which probably contributed to why it sat on my shelf unread for so long.

Olive Kitteridge is more of a collection of stories that are tied together by, yes, a woman named Olive Kitteridge. The setting is a small town in rural Maine, the kind of town where everyone not only knows each other but knows each other’s business. While some of the stories focus on Olive and her life with husband Henry and grown son Chris, many of them feature other members of the town, and Olive is just a small background character.

The first is Denise, a meek sort of plain-Jane assistant at Henry’s pharmacy. He’s taken with her in a protective sort of way, but Olive just finds her insufferably naive and boring. Another is Angie O’Meara, an alcoholic lounge performer who seems trapped by her past relationships. Then there’s Harmon, the owner of the hardware store who is having an affair with a woman that accompanies Henry Kitteridge to church (because his wife refuses), because his own wife Bonnie has gotten rather cold and indifferent in the marriage.

These stories introduce you to a number of characters, and that’s what these people are—characters. It’s a wonderful look at the overlapping lives of neighbors and the intimate details probably unseen by one another. Olive is the stand-out character—if that wasn’t going to be apparently with the title—and she’s an odd one. She’s prickly and a little ornery and very set in her ways, but she’s also got this sympathetic side that is revealed through her interactions with others, mostly her son Chris. You realize she can read other people well but is lost when it comes to herself, like one of those people that can’t seem to take their own good advice.

This isn’t a plot-driven book, but it’s also not too “literary” to feel intimidating. Mostly, it feels honest. And if nothing else, it’s got that Pulitzer Prize stamp on the cover, so you can participate and contribute to culturally astute literary conversation once you’ve read it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fiction | Surviving, One Ghost at a Time

“The First Woman made the sun and moon out of quartz,” he said, “but after they were set in the sky, she noticed all the sparkling bits left over. So she decided the dust could be made into extra lights for the night sky. But before she sent the new stars into the sky forever, she said, ‘These are what I will use to write the laws for people for all time. Only what’s written in the stars can be remembered forever. Such things can’t be written on the water, because water is always shifting, and they can’t be written in the sand because the wind will blow them away. You can’t write the truth in the earth—it’s always changing its shape.'”

I read Gin Phillips’ The Well and the Mine ages ago, and though I don’t really remember much about it now, I know I really liked it at the time. Therefore, I was excited to grab her (at the time) newest, Come In and Cover Me, at a library conference last year. Despite it sitting on my shelf for over a year and a half, though, I really had no idea what it was about when I recently picked it up to read. And to be honest, I alllllmost gave up on it about 30 pages in.

I am glad I didn’t.

[And this right here is why I always feel the biggest apprehension at not finishing books. What if it turns out to be great???]

The main character, Ren, is an archaeologist that’s been hunting a specific 12th-century pottery artist in the southwest since her grad school days. She’s been summoned to a remote part of New Mexico by another archaeologist, Silas, who thinks he’s found more evidence of her artist.

The story starts off slow. There’s a lot of surface conversation and plot, and it takes a while before we really get to know our characters, particularly Ren. We see hints that she kind of isolates herself. She gets sucked into her work and doesn’t seem to have much of a deep and meaningful personal life. And eventually we learn that Ren is unique because of something from her past; ever since her brother died in a car accident when she was a young tween, Ren has seen ghosts. Yes, ghosts. And this is what has drawn her into her profession—and why she’s so good at it. She sees people and places from times past, leading her to what physical evidence remains. To her, it’s the story behind the objects that matter. The lives of people who touched these tools or bowls or figurines and left them behind.

There isn’t really any one thing easy to identify as to why I ended up enjoying this book. The story is part supernatural; it’s part mystery/thriller (albeit not a very fast-paced or intense one); it’s part historical fiction as we explore the lost Mimbres community. All these things contribute to an alluring story, but its main focus is, ultimately, our main character—her past, her pains, her relationships, and how she takes hold of her life that’s been on autopilot.

And also, it’s got some great quotable passages.

This was the thing she realized. That it was a staggering, unfathomable thing to want no one other than the one she had. To mentally scan the whole endless world, considering all its potentially brilliant, beautiful, perfectly unexplored loves, and to know that even their imaginary possibility fell short of this man sleeping under the curve of her elbow and knee, breathing against the weight of her fingertips.