THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE

Novelist Ann Packer writes strong characters. In the family saga THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE, an idealistic loner back from the Korean War falls in love with some California land- the homestead for his future family. Married to a woman whose dreams do not match his, he becomes a pediatrician. The couple decides to have three children …and then they are surprised by a fourth pregnancy.

The oldest son is a bright and serious worrier. The daughter is whip-smart and unemotionally practical. The younger son is an artistic and emotional dreamer. By the time the youngest son arrives, the children have become a team of caretakers for their mother, who wishes to escape family responsibilities and concentrate on her art. Her husband seems unperturbed by whatever happens and does not acknowledge her need for emotional support, although his emotional support for the children never wavers.

That fourth child shakes their world. He is a whirling dervish in constant motion (and trouble), challenging every status quo and hungry for love. He is the daily project of the three older children who care for and protect him. He is the daily burden to his mother who tries to avoid him. And he is the beloved and forgiven baby of his patient father.

As the children grow up, the parents grow apart. The characteristics of each child intensify as their adult lives unfold. The homestead- the family house- becomes a focus of contention, with the youngest son and his connections to each member of the family the catalyst for the story. His story is one of missing maternal love – a psychological analysis that works its way into the novel.

“The Children’s Crusade” is a project in which the children try to plan how to make their mother happy. It’s a task beyond their capabilities, yet it colors their childhood years with lasting impact.

 

 

BETWEEN YOU & ME

Are you a hardcore grammar nerd?  I confess that I am and I thoroughly enjoyed the grammar expertise, clever humor, and graceful writing of Mary Norris in BETWEEN YOU & ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN.  Norris is a veteran of The New Yorker’s copy department, a place rich with insider publishing and famous writer vs. copy editor anecdotes. Spelling, commas, hyphens, profanity, pencils…these and other chapters each lays out the rules, the puzzles, and struggles of working towards agreement, or at least accommodation, as the written words move towards publication.

Do you have a favorite writing implement? Norris loves her No. 1 pencils and there is much to learn about the production and care of pencils, including the variations in pencil-sharpening devices. She even visits an Ohio pencil-sharpener museum – home to 3441 sharpeners, each one unique! The collection was started by a minister, who made the collecting of pencil sharpeners his retirement hobby.

Norris introduces us to her co-workers; copy-editing seems to attract an opinionated, smart, and quirky group. It’s all fun (and informative) to read…and I am looking forward to Mary Norris in person, when she visits the Westport Library on July 9. Sure to be an interesting event!

 

 

Two by Sue

Recently Sue Miller visited the Westport, CT Library, where she was interviewed by fiction editor Sybil Steinberg. Miller has always been one of my favorite novelists. Her most recent book THE ARSONIST is just out in the paperback edition. Set in rural New Hampshire, the story centers on a woman in her forties who has been living and working in Africa. Her parents have recently retired to their summer home and her father is slipping into dementia. Her sister and brother-in-law are building a house nearby. There is a history with the townspeople and the summer people whose range of attitudes towards each other simmer and then boil over when the arsons start. Investigation into the fires is reported by the owner (who is also reporter and distributor) of the local newspaper. Like all of Miller’s novels, there is a plot with a touch of mystery, a study of family and other relationships, and a brave attempt to look at the possibilities and the realities of love.  Everyone is trying to come home. Home to that place of comfort, whether a house in the woods or an emotional cocoon…or the role in life that feels just right. Fires – actual or imagined, external or internal – impede the way.

While at the Library, Sue Miller talked about her only non-fiction book THE STORY OF MY FATHER. I had missed this older book and decided to read it. The memoir takes us through the deepening dementia and death of her father. She looks back to her family history, looks clearly at the confusing and frightening present, and looks with hesitation towards the unwanted and inevitable future. From generations of ordained ministers including her father, the author weaves her Biblical understanding and her religious experiences into the narration. This is thought-provoking stuff – nothing self-righteous here. Miller and her father were close and her portrait of him reveals a gentle man who had the ability to give his complete and sincere attention to the people around him. This ability was one of the gifts that faded as his disease progressed. Details of her father’s decline are reported with dignity and compassion.  Other members of her family and their roles are clearly drawn, as well as her own. This is beautifully written and deeply poignant…a realistic and eloquent tribute…a book to reflect on, to recommend, and to discuss.

The paperback edition of THE STORY OF MY FATHER includes a discussion guide and an interview with Sue Miller. The interviewer is Michelle Huneven, author of another of my favorite books, the novel JAMESLAND. Huneven and Miller are friends. Sue Miller is the author of eleven novels. Her first book THE GOOD MOTHER (1986) was a bestseller made into a film starring Diane Keaton.

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS *

“My mother was often asked to write eulogies, because she had a breezy style that was playful, good with details, and totally knife-in-the-heart devastating.”

So says the protagonist in Miriam Toews’ unusual book ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. Those eulogies are easy to imagine, after reading this breezy, detailed, and devastating novel.

The story is of two sisters whose love for each other is powerful. The kind of love in which thoughts often transcend words and nothing is off limits. Raised by quirky parents in a Mennonite community, the sisters have the intellectual curiosity that keeps their conversations and the story lively. One sister is a concert pianist, whose fondest and obsessive wish is to die and it’s her sister’s love that leads to the possibility of assisted suicide as the overarching theme of the book.

Each character is distinctive… from a gentle father who goes door-to-door to petition for a town library to the guitar-playing psych ward nurse. Here’s the sister returning to her mother’s home where a regular online Scrabble game is in process:

“I heard the trumpets sound the end of my mom’s game with Mankiller and the slap of her laptop computer closing. Then she was there, standing in the doorway. How are you, sweetheart? What have you been up to? Having unprotected sex with your mechanic and researching ways to kill your daughter, Not much, I said, got the stuff from the car. Doing some work.”

Near the end of the book, a very large Christmas tree has finally been secured in the living room.  Wine and relaxed conversation with mother, daughter, and granddaughter ensue… and then:

“Then my mother shouted and Nora and I turned around in slo-mo, Kanye got loud again, and we watched the tree fall. It fell slowly at first, discreetly, like it was having a heart attack in public and it didn’t want this to be happening but it was happening. Then it picked up speed and as it crashed to the floor it took things with it, a painting of two boys playing in puddles, the television, the books on top of the piano, a sculpture of a girl in a dress being shy, an almost empty coffee cup and a large plant. It finished falling and lay still on the floor.”

This is a book about falling and the people and things that get swept up in the fall. Not an easy topic, but written with grace and style. And lots of love.

*do you recognize the title quotation? the source is revealed in the book.