{truth}

I read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone a few months ago, and it’s stuck with me pretty solidly. Lamb doesn’t pull any punches with the s*** that goes down, but his characters are so real in their complete flawed effed-up-ness that it kept me page turning until the end. I decided to follow up with Lamb’s other famous novel, I Know This Much Is True.

IKTMIS is the story of identical twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. Thomas has paranoid schizophrenia and has been institutionalized for half of his life, almost twenty years. The story opens with Thomas entering a public library and cutting off his own right hand, believing his sacrifice has been commanded by God to stop the approaching Gulf War. Dominick, the narrator, searches through his relationship with his brother, recalling a childhood with a submissive mother and abusive stepfather and trying to come to terms with his existence as the mentally and physically “whole” twin.

I should’ve been prepared for Lamb coming out of SCU, but honestly, this was probably the most emotionally difficult book I have ever read. Each of the characters experiences a pain that is almost palpable in its intensity, and Dominick sits at the forefront of this. Bound to his brother for life by love, fear, and guilt, he is unable to move forward on his own or forge an identity for himself separate from that of Thomas’s protector. Dominick himself certainly isn’t a perfect protagonist: he’s often arrogant and aggressive. After growing up both scornful and jealous of his brother’s sensitivity, he martyrs himself in caring for Thomas, accepting that sole responsibility as his role in life.

The best thing you could do was cut your losses. . . Play defense. That was something I always understood and Thomas never did.

The second half of the book weakened a little for me, as Dominick is hospitalized after an accident, reads their grandfather’s memoirs, and searches for their father’s identity. But the first half— Man, the first half just ripped out my heartstrings. These identical twins, so close they can tell when the other one is hurt, and one spending his life watching the other be destroyed, unable to either help or leave. It’s a story of redemption, really, for Dominick, redeeming himself for failing to protect both Thomas and himself.

“. . . there are two young men lost in the woods. . . I may never find one of the young men,” [Dr. Patel] said. “He has been gone so long. The odds, I’m afraid, may be against it. But as for the other, I may have better luck. The other young man may be calling me.”

{going, going, gone}

For the very first time, my suggestion won the nomination for next month’s nostalgic English majors’ virtual book group—Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I managed to snag a library copy and realized yesterday that it was due today, which meant I had to speed-read it and must now take super copious notes to retain anything for next month’s discussion.

WYGB centers around eccentric and agoraphobic Bernadette Fox-Branch and her teenaged daughter, Bee. According to her husband, Elgin Branch, Bernadette is a genius; according to the Seattle private school community, she’s a menace. To Bee, she’s simply a best friend. After Bernadette disappears right before a family vacation to Antarctica, Bee compiles personal and professional emails, newsletters, and memos in an attempt to find her mother and discover why she ran.

Semple’s strength here is definitely her humor. As a past writer for Arrested Development (among other hilarities), she deftly skewers Seattle’s upper-middle class community, especially private-school parents and Microsoft, where Elgin works. Bernadette’s rants on the “bike-riding, Subaru-driving, Keen-wearing” people who surround her were both amusing and bittersweet with homesickness for the granola-filled PNW. (Although Seattle is definitely a different brand from Oregon—for starters, Seattleites have money.)

Sometimes these cars have Idaho plates. And I think, What the hell is a car from Idaho doing here? Then I remember, that’s right, we neighbor Idaho. . . And any life that might still be left in me kind of goes poof.

I must admit that as much as I enjoyed it, I’m a little hard-pressed to think of discussion topics for WYGB. Aside from the fact that I believe we all hail from the PNW (and certainly went to college there), I’m not sure what else there is for a handful of starving ex-English majors to really sink their teeth into. In itself a worthy academic challenge, I suppose. Really, though, I’m pretty sure we could spend the entire time calling out the hysterical Seattle stereotypes. As the NYT points out:

[Galer Street School] gives three grades: S for “Surpasses Excellence,” A for “Achieves Excellence” and W for “Working Towards Excellence.” So every kid is some kind of excellent.

BAHAHA. So funny because so true. God, I love the PNW.

{guilty pleasure madness}

As I’ve said several times before, I am actually an old woman. High on the list of my guilty pleasure reading material, then, is author Anne Rivers Siddons. I’ve previously written on my all-time fave book of hers, Colony, and I picked up Peachtree Road last weekend at the library book sale and immediately dove in.

PR is full of Siddons’s favorite themes: the South, love, betrayal, madness, family loyalty, I could go on. Basically everything that (for me) makes a real cozy page-turner. Cousins Shep and Lucy could not be more different, but growing up together in 1940s’ Atlanta left them forever bound together in ways that brutally and even fatally cripple both of them. Shep is the rich heir of distant parents, plagued by his own sensitivity and sabotaging loyalty; Lucy is the unloved oldest daughter of a social-climbing mother who never recovers after being abandoned by her father at the age of six. The book follows them through their tumultuous adolescence all the way through middle age, as Lucy flits from husband to lover to husband and Shep retreats further and further into self-imposed isolation in the house he grew up in.

Colony remains my favorite Siddons work. While certainly dark, there’s a larger sense of beauty, mostly rooted in the New England coasts and Charleston swamps of its setting. PR is dark all the way through. Through its setting, some action from the civil rights movement is included, but this takes a back seat to the internal demons constantly plaguing the characters, primarily Lucy. The love between Shep and Lucy is twisted and warped, with little to no redeeming gladness. Certainly an interesting psychological study, but not necessarily the kind I look for in a guilty pleasure reading. Their Catherine-Heathcliff bond was a little too much for Siddons to tackle.

One of Siddons’s greatest strengths, I think, is her description of place, and PR did not disappoint. In an early speech from Shep that may very well have been taken from Scarlett O’Hara fifty years earlier, he explains why he never left Atlanta:

It’s passionless, calculating, self-satisfied, intolerant, insensitive, uncultivated, vulgar, even soulless . . . but it’s alive!

That’s what I keep coming back to Siddons for.

{quitter}

I have to admit it: I have now become a quitter. Specifically, I quit reading Will Self’s Umbrella only 40 pages in.

I have a condition by which if I begin a book, I must finish it. This is not a stance I can easily be shaken from, not one I can easily talk myself out of. Often, friends, family, or even myself ask, “You clearly don’t enjoy this book—why don’t you just stop?”

I don’t have a good answer to this question. It’s a reasonable one, I admit, yet not one that I seem willing to face reasonably. At least I’m consistent: I don’t really quit anything easily. I have a persistence, tenacity, and stubbornness that usually goes far beyond the rational and is often more of a hindrance than a help. I have been known to hold out for people, plans, etc., long after a sane person would’ve given up on them, and usually end up sabotaging myself in the process.

In the particular case of Umbrella, it just was not really my jam. In hindsight, I should’ve known better after unfortunately seeing it referred to as “unabashedly literary” and “[the injection of a] revivifying drug into the somnolent body of literary modernism” (yeesh). It was this month’s book selected for my nostalgic English majors’ book group (I completely failed to blog about our last meeting—short stories—but I have notes about it somewhere for the next time I get bored/inspired).

This isn’t so much an entry about Umbrella, though, since clearly I didn’t get anywhere near far enough into it to even begin to discuss it (and thus why I skipped the book group meeting—quitter, quitter, quitter). This entry is more dedicated to my own musings as to why I feel so guilty putting down a book unfinished.

I was the kid who should have never, ever watched any of the Toy Story franchise, because I was already so convinced that all inanimate objects had feelings that those movies sent me into a years-long shame spiral as a child. I would cry whenever I lost anything, not only I was sad I no longer had it, but also because all I could imagine was that object alone, friendless, and forgotten. So part of it, I think, hinges on that—I’ve somehow decided that not finishing a book equates abandonment.

The other half is completely self-centered and the primary reason I tried so hard with Umbrella. I have also somehow come to see not finishing a book as a personal failure, a sign that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough to complete what I had started. Even though most of my thoughts while reading Umbrella ran mostly along the lines of “I don’t understand this, this is miserable,” all I was able to hear was “I don’t understand this, I’m disappointing my teachers, my parents, and myself by not trying hard enough.” It’s not a fun realization, to be sure, but one I have a hard time letting go of.

So. I credit this weekend’s library book sale with helping me to let go of Umbrella—at least for now. But when you have five brand new (to you) books waiting on your desk, each easily surpassing 400 pages and selected with immense care from tables upon tables upon boxes of books, what’s a girl to do?