Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book Review May We Be Forgiven

May We Be Forgiven has the capacity to haunt, and that is a point in the book's favor. However, I have many points against and several unanswered questions.

Harold Silver, a mediocre college professor with lumpen students, confronts a family crisis when his brother George kills two people in a car accident. Harold stays in his brother's house to comfort his wife, and ends up in his brother's bed, in his brother's wife. Brother George finds them when he somehow escapes the mental unit where he's been restrained; whereupon George murders his wife by slamming her over the head with a lamp. Harold feels guilty about this.

However, Harold readily moves in to George's house, wears his brother's clothes, assumes custody of his brother's children, and has full access to his brother's money. Therefore, it's not too terrible for Harold when he gets fired from his three-class-a-week "professor" job. He will just finish his 1300-page tome on Richard Nixon, with whom he is obsessed. While working on his manuscript, George next gets distracted with a couple of nutty sex buddies, one of whom abandons her parents into Harold's custody, and through the ensuing hi-jinx he manages personal growth.

Cheryl, the sex buddy who didn't abandon Harold, turns out to be a relative of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who makes arrangements for Harold to edit some recently discovered short fiction by Richard M. Nixon. Going up the elevator building where he does the editing, Harold encounters, if that is the word, an unidentifiable Nixon imitator who stands behind him and says mean things to him. What is this about? We will have to draw our own conclusions.

Meanwhile, George's kids do OK, and George and Harold's mother finds a new lease on life in the nursing home, so she can fake-marry her boyfriend in a moving ceremony. Harold visits her often, ditto his Aunt Lillian who serves him toll-house cookies out of a battered tin. These cookies, facsimilies thereof actually, figure in a wild adventure when George--the murderer brother, remember--gets transfered to a woodsman-survivor penal experiment and becomes friends with a bad guy terrorist. Harold is forced to help government spooks extract the bad guy. On the way out of the woods the spook who is driving Harold's (or is it George's?) car runs over something (or someone) that leaves the car a bloody wreck; and we will have to draw our own conlusions about that incident as well.

The adventures continue: Harold is bonding with the children and adopting the child of the two people George killed in the car accident; then he is flying a bunch of people over to South Africa for a bar mitzvah in 'Nateville," a village that George's 12-year-old son had visited in a Habitat kind of way. All kinds of fireworks ensue, including almost getting kidnapped by some bad guys on their way back to the airport to go home. Nobody gets hurt; Harold takes a medicine man's tea doses, and seemingly feels exorcised of his demons. Whatever they were; you'll draw your own conclusions.

The novel could be described as an upscale version of Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe (where the protagonist finds redemption through raising his dead brother's stepchildren) combined with the sensibilities and improbabilities of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. It also reminds me of Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time, a morality tale around the notion that if only people would behave and do the tasks set before them, life could be beautiful. In the end of May We Be Forgiven, Harold's family with all the old people (old and new) and children (old and new) enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving with just enough crabbiness to try for versimilitude. In the end, as a reader, I felt not resolved or entertained but manipulated. And as I said, I was also left with questions.

1) Why is story narrated in the first person? I thought Harold might be unreliable narrator but he turned out to be an unreliable unreliable narrator. The author keeps laying down hints that there aren't any tricks, there is no other shoe that is going to drop, that it really is a book about second chances. Yet I couldn't help hoping the whole thing would turn out that actually he, Harold, is the murderer in the mental hospital having a giant fantasy that he is living his brother George's life. No such luck.

2) Why does the story have to "jump the shark" so many times? What is the purpose? Did we have to have so much strain on our disbelief? Why so many twists and turns, some of which I've omitted in the review. Couldn't Homes make her point in a less ridiculous way? It's just plain irritating.

3) Why does money never have to be a problem? I was itching for the money to go poof so the narrator would have to open a boarding house. As it so happens, the people he takes in all have ample means of support (in addition to getting along perfectly).

In conclusion, the novel was a good read, but it got on my nerves. It's just all a little too ridiculous and a little too easy. It feels like pyrotechnics are trying to cover up a lack of real dramatic conflict. But as I said, I am just not sure I get it.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Margaret Kerrigan 1863-1937

Sorting through boxes I found Mom's letters from her grandmother, a correspondence from Mom's boarding school days. I never heard much about Margreth Kerrigan; so her letters to my mom charmed me with her daily life and longings.  And there's a voice here, a freshness coming through the old-fashioned occasionally blotted penmanship.

In the fall of 1931, my great-grandfather Frank hurt his arm, "and i miss him so much. he always visit to the store for me and all over brought up the cole. When I go the stairs my leg opens." They are in their late 60s, and winter was cold in Milwaukee. Margaret wrote that Jean (my mom) must be enjoying her nice warm school "you may be glad in your home it is so warm. We must make fire, we almost freeze here your old. cold. Grandmother...."

Margaret always reminds Jean how lucky she is that her "dere parents" send her to such a fine school.  Margaret wishes she could go to School "but i guess that would put me in the last bench do you think you think I would pass?

"...Be a good girl learn hard and some Day i hope to see you a great Laidy the joy of your Parents." The immigrant girl from Ireland's County Leitrim took pride in Jean as a scholar and recipient of high honors. "Learn all you can. Some day you will be glad and happy.... you must Studdy hard. and may be your self can teach better than the[y] can Some day. that would be nice...."

While Jean is studying in her warm school, Margaret is keeping track of the big family. Charles is out of work; Alexander "has visited for about 10 minutes and then he went home." She has 3 grandchildren for 2 weeks because their mother got sick; Grandfather is better but "did not stop Chuwen tobaco So what do [you] think about that." At Christmas "we hope to see all Our Childern again we have not such a big family Only 21 we wish it would be twice that much and think not to be so far away..."

In every letter Margaret reminds Jean to pray for her parents: "God. Bless. them all for a long life in this world and Happy in the next... God bless you wherever you go."

Have you heard the hymn, "Things are the way they are because our grandmothers prayed." Margaret prayed without ceasing, thanking God in every letter, in between complaining of bitter cold and a recipe for something called "Boxty" (some kind of cake) and comments on new babies and old aches and pains. Her love for her dear granddaughter and her love for God were spilling out with the black ink onto the lined stationery. What a treasure I found.


Picture of Margaret Kerrigan Winter (on the right) with husband Frank and their grandhildren. Jean is standing in a dark dress behind Grandpa, about 10 years old here I think (c. 1928).

Saturday, June 01, 2013

From an Old Writing Group

Simone Rat had found free government housing. Her nest behind the walls of the East Wing secreted a collection of toothpicks, a few bow ties, and her big prize from when the King of Yugoslavia had misplaced his crown. She made her nest in its cozy velvet and from that day on must always be called Queen.

Her life had begun as a baby (of course) rat in Texas, where she got boxed in with a bunch of dolls and fishing boots  of a president-elect's daughter. By the time she chewed her way through the box, Simone was able to nest in the aforementioned walls, invited by the native W.H. rats.

Needless to say they all had little ones; so every now and then an attempt was made with traps et cetera. (The White House housekeeping isn't so clean as you would assume.) One day a reporter spotted the pest control truck; and the questions at the daily briefing caused the Press Secretary to sweat;  you could see him gleaming in the hot lights.

Predictably enough, cartoons began to appear, and Jay Leno's monologue made fulsome use of ratting out, not giving a rat's ass, and other expressions unpopular in the actual rat world. A Congressional committee then called for more exterminators; but hysterical animal-rights activists obtained a restraining order.

The next news cycle leapt on a leak that Simone Queen Rat was actually white!--a former classroom pet that the president's daughter was supposed to take care of over Christmas break. The scientific community thereupon issued statements about Simone's importance in research. Op-ed columns appeared about My Rat Squeaky and so forth. "Point of View" guests wondered, Would there be a fuss if non-white rats were exterminated? And why, asked the Reverend, in his hoarse accents, was the white rat the Queen? A rainbow coalition picketed with signs reading, "rat-ial equality" and so forth.

The small brouhaha was enlarged by a political consultant for rat information management who for some reason opined that rats hadn't been mentioned in the Bible.  In addition, a cabinet member let slip into a live microphone the term "vermin," further annoying animal ethicists. The Bible remark meant the the animal rights ethicists and rainbow coalition were joined by the religious. The News Hour had on a Jain in a beard and a big turban along with a bald Buddhist nun who said these rodents might be reincarnation of the Teapot Dome crowd or the Truman administration. But a scientist on a screen hovered over them, claiming DNAshowed that some of the colony had been there since the Civil War: the famous "Lincoln Rats."

The political consultant recanted and said the rats were in the Bible, on Noah's ark in fact. The cabinet member apologized for the species -specific slur. The Press Secretary announced the extermination "plot" had tabled. A Congressional Committee began to investigate Simone's undocumented status, and the newspersons began interviewing each other about their feelings and opinions.

Simone tired of the limelight and opted for less conspicuous lifestyle, where she wasn't constantly asked to sell her story. (Well, she did sell it once; you saw the headline in the Inquirer, "Queen Rat Sings Like a Parrot.") When Simone and her friends and her comfy crown left in a laundry truck for Florida, the resulting jokes brought down the government.