The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda

(Dave here again. Kim will be back for the next two weeks.)

One of the main reasons I agreed when Kim came up with the idea to do this blog was to find books that I should have read and for whatever reason didn’t know about. Sometimes it’s just an excuse to reads books I’ve known about but never actually sat down to read, but often I come across something wonderful that I simply had never heard of. My reading is definitely better for doing this blog and The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda is definitely an example of that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Sandra Cisneros)

The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda centers on Natalia, a woman who starts as a young counter clerk in a pastry shop out the time just before the Spanish civil war. The back of the book describes her as naïve, but she didn’t strike me as that way. Almost more passive, accepting life as it comes along except when she occasionally breaks. She’s swept up by the handsome and impulsive furniture carpenter Quimet, who though well intended is somewhat of a childish bully. He even insists on calling her Colometa, his own pet name, despite her initial protests:

And he said by the end of the year I’d be his wife and I hadn’t even looked at him yet and I looked him over and then he said, “Don’t look at me like that or they’ll have to pick me up off the ground,” and when I told him he had eyes like a monkey he started laughing. The waistband was like a knife in my skin and the musicians “TararIrarrarI!” And I couldn’t see Julieta anywhere. She’d disappeared. And me with those eyes in front of me that wouldn’t go away, as if the whole world had become those eyes and there was no way to escape them. And the night moving forward with its chariots of stars and the festival going on and the fruitbasket and the girl with the fruitbasket, all in blue, whirling around….My mother in the Saint Gervasi Cemetery and me in the Placa del Diamant….”You sell sweet things? Honey and jam…” And the musicians, tired, putting things in their cases and taking them out again because someone had tipped them to play a waltz and everyone spinning around like tops. When the waltz ended people started to leave. I said I’d lost Julieta and he said he’d lost Cintet and that when we were alone and everyone shut up in their houses and the streets empty we’d dance a waltz on tiptoe in the Placa del Diamant…round and round…He called me Colometa, his little dove. I looked at him very annoyed and said my name was Natalia and when I said my name was Natalia he kept laughing and said I could have only one name: Colometa. That was when I started running with him behind me: “Don’t get scared…listen, you can’t walk through the streets all alone, you’ll get robbed….” and he grabbed my arm and stopped me. “Don’t you see you’ll get robbed, Colometa?” And my mother dead and me caught in my tracks and that waistband pinching, pinching, like I was tied with a wire to a bunch of asparagus.

She does marry him. They get an apartment he makes her help pay for and makes her do much of the work to prepare. This carries through the births of her children as he starts to keep doves, conning her into working herself to death caring for the children, minding the doves that even fill part of the house, and working again outside their home. He dreams childishly, and indulges in pretend sickness to sometimes get out of work himself.

But then the civil war comes. The doves all die or fly away (though even before the war she did snap at some point and start killing them in the eggs herself). Eventually Quimet is gone and Natalia is destitute with her starving children. Backed as far as she can go, she decides she has no choice but to kill herself and her children by pouring hydrochloric acid down all their throats….but then:

Someone called out to me and I turned around and it was the grocer and he came up behind me and when I turned around I thought of that woman who’d been changed to salt. And I thought the grocer was going to say he’d given me bleach instead of acid and I don’t know what I thought. He asked if I’d mind coming back with him to his store. That he was sorry to bother me but would I mind coming back with him to his store. And we went into the stores and there was no one there and he asked me if I’d like to keep house for him, that he’d known me for a while and that the woman who’d been working for him had stopped because she was too old and got tired….And then someone came in and he said, “I’ll be right with you,” and he was standing in front of me waiting for an answer. And since I didn’t say anything he asked me if I already had a job and couldn’t leave it and I shook my head and said I didn’t know what to do. He said if I didn’t have a job he had a nice little apartment and it wouldn’t be much work and he already knew I was reliable. I nodded my head and he said, “Start tomorrow,” and he went inside and got two cans of food and nervously stuck them in my basket along with a little bag of something. And he said I could start work tomorrow at nine. And without realizing what I was doing I took the bottle of acid out of my basket and carefully placed it on top of the counter. And I went out without a word. And when I got home, I—who’d always had a touch time crying—burst into tears like it was the simplest thing in the world.

I won’t say any more. I’ve probably said too much already.

There is a soft hardness about The Time of the Doves that I absolutely loved. The writing comes across with a pleasant simplicity, but it is really more elegant craftsmanship that makes nothing about its earthy beauty ornamented or bejeweled, because you can’t see the seams. The introduction to the book talks specifically about the stream of consciousness style, but though I can see that when I stop and look for it (as I’m sure you can if you go back to the bits above) it’s so plainly and seamlessly done that I honestly didn’t notice while reading. The story just flowed right along.

The Time of the Doves speaks softly for the most part, but I doubt a reader could mistake that for a lack of power. It has power in spades.

The Outward Room by Millen Brand

I end up reading a lot of books for this blog. Kim and I both do, obviously. Some really impress me, and some not so much. Sometimes I even feel that I’m impressed with a book merely because I’m supposed to be, having heard enough to regard it a certain way by preprogramming. The Outward Room by Millen Brand is a little different though. This book struck me as one of the better books I’ve read for this blog in a while, and I’d never heard of it before. It doesn’t seem like that many people have these days.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Peter Cameron.)

In The Outward Room, a young woman in the 1930’s has spent the last seven years in a mental hospital, having broken down when she witnessed her brother die in a car accident. Frankly, she regards herself as having died as well…and given how prison-like the hospital is she doesn’t seem entirely wrong. She’s pretty much alone, particularly since she regards her parents as responsible for her brother’s death as they were the ones who asked him to drive their deathtrap of a car. Her doctor is useless at best:

“Here it is, then. At the center of your dream, clearly, you became your mother, you were putting yourself in her place in relation to your father. The letters, the ‘better half,’ everything shows it. It’s just another proof of something I’ve told you, that almost all children go through a period when they fall in love with the parent, the one of the opposite sex. It’s an old story now, well-known. And being in love with one parent, children are jealous of the other—you were jealous of your mother. During the period of your childhood represented by this dream, you were in love with your father, but not as much as at first. Already your father seemed inferior to you. Later, you substituted your brother for him, who was stronger and took after your mother[.]”

I mean, regardless of whether or not Freud had an accurate idea of how people form, this doctor has been unable to do a damn thing for this woman and her condition resulting from her trauma. He hasn’t been able to make any impact on her mental health in seven years. Facing all of this, she escapes to New York to make a life for herself (under the name ‘Harriet Demuth’) in the middle of the depression with only $5 she gets by pawning a ring her brother gave her before he died.

Of course, it’s difficult for her. This is the depression we’re talking about…it’s hard for everybody, sane or not. Her money runs out. She has nowhere to stay, no food, and no money. Lacking any other option, she happens into an all nigh cafeteria and gets very lucky:

At a nearby table a man was sitting. She saw him and her eyes gradually cleared. He had on a gray workingman’s shirt, open at the collar; the shirt was not too clean. Sweat had given the shirt the shape of his shoulders which were strong-looking. From the open collar she could see how his neck began, thick, strong. The oval of his head was outlined by black hair and a two-day growth of dark beard. Through the beard, she could see the case of his features; they were hard, yet young. His eyes were kind; they seemed to have understanding. They looked at each other in silence, waiting. Then—

“Come on, get going.”

The man got up and came over.

“What’s the trouble?” he said.

A man, evidently the night manager of the cafeteria, said, “She isn’t buying anything.” “Let her alone,” he said. “I’ll get her something.” The manager hesitated and then walked away.

This is John, a machine-shop worker. He takes her in, offers her help when she wants it. Aided by John’s quiet kindness, Harriet begins to grow again. She works, makes friends, and falls in love. She gradually starts to emerge from her death-like condition. Extended a little humanity, she does for herself what her Freudian doctor could never do. She lives.

I love when a book can be this plain and this quiet while still being highly emotionally evocative. The Outward Room is masterful really. The book doesn’t ride only off the emotional force tied to the underlying subject matter, though that is there. It doesn’t pull cheap tricks either. The words are just set out there, plain. Somehow that all explodes inside the reader as the words are read.

The Outward Room might not be one of my most favorite books, but I was highly impressed. I’m really surprised I haven’t heard more people talking about it. It deserves to be talked about.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

It’s funny to me how you get ideas in your head based upon titles of well-known books. I know Dave has also made this observation. Sister Carrie always made me think of a nun, or some Puritan type if not a nun. That’s so not what this story is, though Sister Carrie does give the impression of someone good-hearted. That is about the only thing that remained the same about my perception of this book after reading it.

The following authors listed Sister Carrie among their top tens: Wally Lamb, Tom Perrotta, and Tom Wolfe.

I’ll list my points about Sister Carrie numerically. Apparently, my debate background is peeking through.

1. This is a very accessible classic novel to read. I think I’ve spoken about this before. Some classic novels are so much easier to read, even written decades or centuries ago even, the author writes in plain language, or the characters shine through the difference in the English language as it was before and how it is now. Sister Carrie is the story of a young girl who moves to Chicago from a small rural town in Wisconsin. She moves in with her sister. On the way there though, she meets a man named Drouet, who introduces her to some of the finer things about living in a city (and not in a dirty way, minds out of the gutters people!). Carrie begins to long for it, but once with her sister and her sister’s honest, hardworking, immigrant husband, she finds herself too meek to find a good job. When she does bolster her courage up, she is rebuffed from the places she dreamed of working because of a lack of experience. She finally gets a job in a sweatshop but that doesn’t last long. She then moves out with Drouet and meets Hurstwood, a manager of a bar/club. Hurstwood falls in love with her, she with him. But, Hurstwood declines to inform her he is married. His wife finds out and Hurstwood flees Chicago for New York City, dragging an initially unwilling Carrie with him (she had found out about his marital status). Once in New York City, he finds a lesser position which slowly ends, and he then spirals downwards into unemployment and eventual begging. Due to this unemployment, Carrie finds a job acting and hits the big time on Broadway. Their fates are like counterweights, the more Carrie’s rises, the more Hurstwood’s falls.

2. Oddly, I was actually able to picture much of this book. I read so much, but I usually only have barebone sketches in my head of the people, places etc of the book. I think some people fully visualize the stories they read. Either that’s just not the way my brain works or I’m somehow lacking in imagination but usually I have a general idea what a place or person looks like. But, parts of Sister Carrie, I could actually see, as if I was watching an old movie about the time period and the characters. It was actually a pretty amazing experience.

3. Carrie is an interesting character. She is both enthralled and enticed by the “shallow” things, nice clothes, pretty belongings, nice living spaces. But, she also has a great sense of empathy, part of what allows her to act, and to do it so well.

4. Even Dreiser’s ending had a bit of cinematic feel to it (which is pretty amazing, considering the book was written in 1900). He segued between all the characters, showing them as to what they were doing at a particular moment in time. This is a device I’ve seen in more than one movie or show. As a plot reaches its climax, the camera will cut away to this character and their actions, then maybe across the country to this character. A great example of what I’m talking about would be the series finale for House.

5. For Sister Carrie, Dreiser definitely did not believe in a happy ending. See, there is this crazed serial killer out there, and somehow he manages to hunt down and find all of these characters in so many different places and murders them all! Sorry, that’s not the truth, but I won’t destroy the ending for you. Just read this, it’s easy and then if you’re not a common reader of classics, you can wow all your friends with how intelligent you are! (again…just teasing 🙂 )

Have a great weekend!

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

There are times when you don’t get into a book as a reader and you can say that you don’t think much of it. I would think this is most often the case. Sometimes you can recognize that the problems you had with a book are personal and that many others will find the book wonderful. Still, at least there are reasons.

I’m a little more stymied when I think great things about the various aspects of a book, but just don’t end up getting into it much for reasons I can’t pin down. This unfortunately was the case for my reading of The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Roxana Robinson and 1st for Anita Shreve.)

The Transit of Venus follows two sisters (Caroline and Grace Bell) who come to England from Australia to be raised by an older sister after their parents are killed in a boat accident. The book intimately follows their lives: jobs, lovers, marriages, adulteries, betrayals, and all that. From the nineteen fifties to the eighties.

And the story is rich, complex, and moving. Grace marries the son of a prominent old astronomer who becomes important in government. Caroline is loved by an up and coming young astronomer, but falls for a rising playwright who is marrying the daughter of a lord. Both men have secrets:

“In the war, I helped a prisoner get away. A German. It was in Wales, where I spent a couple of years at a school when I was sent on from that place you saw today. A few miles inland from us there was a camp for prisoners of war, and we heard that an offices—a general, of course, the story went—had got out. There was a long stiff walk to the coast that I took sometimes, when I was let, to be alone and see the sea. The sea had a sort of prohibition on it at the time, the beaches forbidden and the barbed wire piled in hops and the gun emplacements thick as bath-houses. The ocean beyond looked like freedom. You couldn’t think it led to Ireland or America—it was infinity, like the firmament. The open sea. I was sixteen, wanting solitude more than anything else and miserable enough when I got it—except on those walks to the coast. And having only the school in my present and the army in my future. We were hardly ever allowed out on our own, yet in a year or two would be in battle, possibly dead. In fact, eighteen months later I was sent for the radar training, at the very end of the war….”Well, that’s almost all of it. I gave him my sandwich, and pullover. And a flask of awful stuff we called beef tea. The police themselves would have done much the same. It’s the not turning him in that makes the public outrage, but I didn’t even think of turning him in.”

Of course, the sisters end up with secrets of their own:

When Paul drove past the station and turned into the main road, Caro said nothing. Having Gathered himself for an effort of persuasion, he took his time before addressing new circumstances. In these moments, the girl’s stillness was such as to create, paradoxically, a bodily alteration.

“You knew I wasn’t going to London?”

She nodded.

“Wasn’t going to crop you off at your train?” He would not have exchanged for anything the suspense generated by her short nods. “And you knew why. When did you realize these things?”

“The night of the dinner.”

“You always know everything, then?”

She said, “I am inexperienced.”

“Something we must rectify.

As you can see from the above, there are some beautiful sentences in The Transit of Venus. It moves well emotionally and the storyline engages. I was well satisfied with the complexity and interactions in the storyline by the end. But still, I only got into the book so much. I’d read and think that’s nicely done, but that was about all.

I certainly can’t point to any defects. It’s a wonderfully written book. For whatever reason, The Transit of Venus just didn’t pull me that much. I hate to leave you with that…but it’s all I’ve got to give. I simply have no more.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how they absolutely adore The Transit of Venus. They seemed to freak out over it. I can understand respecting the fine writing inside, but I just didn’t freak out over it. Frankly, I’m a bit puzzled.

American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

I finally unpack my Top Ten book, and have it readily available.

So, in celebration of that, I go to Texas and forget it.  So, I’m unsure of who thought American Pastoral rocked their world enough to list it in their top ten.  But I do know that at least one author did.

I liked American Pastoral.  It’s the tale of an All American icon/idol.  The original narrator who then becomes the writer of the tale within the tale grew up in a small town where there was “The Swede”, the quintessential American, blonde, good looking, excelled at all the sports, had all the girls in love with him, even had specific cheers dedicated to him by the cheer squad.  And to the narrator, and all of his buddies? (except the Swede’s little brother, Jerry), the cherry on the top for them in their Jewish community?  The Swede was Jewish.  World War II is almost done when The Swede finishes high school and joins the Marines, determined to go over to the Pacific to finish it out.  While he is in boot camp, the war  ends and he ends up as a drill sergeant for the remainder of his time in the service.  He then marries a former Miss New Jersey, moves out into the picturesque boondocks of New Jersey, and takes over his father’s glove factory.  All through his life, into the 80s, the narrator imagines the Swede, and it’s like taking out the rookie card of your favorite ball player and idolizing what the rest of his life must have been like from that one card.  Then he runs into the Swede and has dinner with him, in which he (the narrator) comes to the conclusion that possibly the Swede is just this bland, boring, nice guy, that there  is no depth to him.

Then at the narrator’s high school reunion, the Swede’s brother Jerry shows up, because he is in town due to the Swede just having died.  And he lets loose that the Swede had a daughter from his first marriage, who in the late 60s, went a bit cuckoo and blew up a building.  And how The Swede’s life had been ruined by this “little bitch” (in the words of the brother).  So, the narrator, who is a writer imagines that time in the Swede’s life.

The story then becomes that of a man raised in one America, but then expected to live his life in a different America.  Roth takes the reader into a marriage that struggles to be what it should, parents that struggle to be who they should be.  In some ways, in parts of the book, you can see society struggling to be what it was raised to be.  But, it’s the late 60s and the entire world is changing.

Roth explores how families tie us.  How they define us, and how we often struggle our entire lives to break from those definitions.  Jerry, the Swede’s brother, and their dad are in constant conflict, Jerry rejecting and refusing the life that their dad wants.  Then there is the major conflict of Merry and The Swede, with her giving the ultimate rejection to the life she sees her family having forced her into.  And The Swede’s struggle with how he should be a parent in this new society and to this new stranger in his life.  This part sums it up.

“He had seen how improbable it is that we should come from one another and how improbable it is that we do come from one another.  Birth, succession, the generations, history–utterly improbable.

He had seen that we don’t come from one another, that it only appears that we come from one another.

He had seen the way that it is, seen out beyond the number four to all there is that cannot be bounded.  The order is minute.  He had thought most of it was order and only a little of it was disorder.  He’d had it backwards.  He had made his fantasy and Merry had unmade it for him.  It was not the specific war that she’d had in mind, but it was a war, nonetheless, that she brought home to America–home into her very own house.”

Happy New Year’s Everyone!