Beloved by Toni Morrison

This is late. So very, very late. My apologies, I was trying to get through a different book and wasn’t able to finish in time. I switched to Beloved and read it as quickly as I could in order to talk to you guys about it.

I still have no clue where my Top Ten book walked off to this time.

I have not had a lot of sleep in two days so I feel a bit foggy right now, just an observational thing I felt you all needed to know.

I urge you to read Beloved if you have not already. I do not urge you to read Beloved if your stomach or mind are not equipped to deal with violence. Because in some things, Beloved is brutal. It is a story told over a decade after the Civil War. It is a story told about the present of former slaves as well as their past while still in slavery. Morrison drips description and metaphor alike from the page until you are as immersed in it as one of the characters is in an “emerald closet” (a bunch of shrubs that have formed a small hidden room) she uses as a play room and a dream escape as she grows older. So, when Morrison describes one of the characters telling about having an iron bit in his mouth, it’s not just “hm, ok, random detail to get over to get to the rest of the story”, you can taste the metal in your mouth and feel the skin at the corners of your mouth going tender and stretched out.

The story is about a house. A house that has a vengeful baby ghost in it, the toddler daughter of one of the main characters who died very young. A man from her past comes in the beginning of the book and chases the spirit off. The daughter that lived is upset about this, Denver. Her mother, Sethe, Denver and the man, Paul, they go to a carnival in town for Negroes. On the way home, Sethe sees their shadows with linked hands and takes it as an omen of good for the future the three of them can have. Upon arrival home, there is a young woman there, who is sick. Her name is Beloved. It comes about that Beloved appears to be the spirit that was chased from the house, but grown into a woman. Because this is a novel and because a spirit formed into a live human being just isn’t natural, of course things go horribly awry.

This is a book about slavery. This is a book about the power of hope and love and where that power can lead when that love and hope are warped beyond measure by something as ugly as being owned by another human. You can find hope in Beloved but it doesn’t jump from the page. Rather, it sneaks in the cracks and around the corners. The characters have it but squash it.

This is a book about memory. About how memories can entrap us, can impale us and can suffocate us. But it is also a book about how we can entrap ourselves by choice in a memory, while lying and saying we are free as birds.

This book is haunting. It lingers around you even after you’re done, and whispers to you even before you’re done.

Hope everyone has had a great weekend!

 

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Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

Ask the Dust by John Fante

Me again. No worries, Kim will be back for the next two weeks. Anyway, on to this week.

Like many Fante aficionados, I came to the works of John Fante by a winding route. I was obsessed with the beats for a while, leading someone to clue me into Charles Bukowski. An eventual obsession with Bukowski of course led me to Fante, one of the writers he looked up to most. In fact, I’m not sure anyone would be reading Fante now if Bukowski hadn’t worked so hard to rescue Fante’s work from obscurity. Bukowski himself seemed to think Fante’s work was superior, and his advocacy for continued attention to it was perhaps the purest thing Bukowski ever did. Regardless, that all led to Fante’s Ask the Dust.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Douglas Coupland, 9th for Heidi Julavits, and 4th for George Pelecanos.)

In Ask the Dust, Arturo Bandini is a young struggling writer living in a Los Angeles slum during the depression. He isn’t going anywhere fast, but neither is anyone else at that time.

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.

*****

“I just got a letter form my agent,” I told her. “My agent in New York. He says I sold another one; he doesn’t say where, but he says he’s got one sold. So don’t worry Mrs. Hargraves, don’t you fret, I’ll have it in a day or so.”

But she couldn’t believe a liar like me. It wasn’t really a lie; it was a wish, not a lie, and maybe it wasn’t even a wish, maybe it was a fact, and the only way to find out was watch the mailman, watch him closely, check his mail as he laid it on the desk in the lobby, ask him point blank if he had anything for Bandini. Bit I didn’t have to ask after six months at that hotel. He saw me coming and he always nodded yes or no before I asked: no, three million times; yes, once.

He falls in love with a waitress named Camilla. Camilla is herself in love with a co-worker who can’t stand her. Bandini struggles to stay alive, struggles with himself, and struggle with his love for Camilla as she disintegrates. He tries to rescue her, but she continues following the co-worker who hates her. Eventually, the co-worker drives her away and she walks off into the empty desert.

I left him standing there and walked out a quarter of a mile to the top of the ridge. It was so cold I pulled my coat around my throat. Under my feet the earth was churning of course dark sand and little stones, the basin of some prehistoric sea. Beyond the ridge were other ridges like it, hundreds of them stretching infinitely away. The sandy earth revealed no footstep, no sign that it had ever been trod. I walked on, struggling through the miserable soil that gave slightly and then covered itself with crumbs of grey sand.

After what seemed like two miles, I sat on a round white stone and rested. I was perspiring, and yet it was bitterly cold. The moon was dipping toward the north. It must have been after three. I had been walking steadily but slowly in a rambling fashion, still the ridges and mounds continued, stretching away without end, with only cactus and sage and ugly plants I didn’t know marking it from the dark horizon.

Personally, Ask the Dust is one of my favorite works by John Fante. It’s gritty in a way that is very different from more testosterone focused male writers. Bandini is imperfect, but in a personal way rather than an admonishing way. The sentences are tight and clean, but there is a soulful beauty that seems most important. Life is hard, but people struggle anyway. One of the ever-present themes seems to suggest the title of one of Bukowski’s books of poetry, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. If I were ever able to choose a list of favorite books, one of Fante’s would almost have to make it. Ask the Dust might be that one.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times by Charles Dickens seems to me to be somewhat of a bleak and unhappy novel. Of course, I think it’s supposed to be. I’ve heard it mentioned recently as an example of what pure free market would result in, regardless of whether or not it would make the most sense economically. I suppose the main idea would be that whether or not a system would make the most sense economically, human life would be miserable if the only concern taken into account was economics.

I’m not taking any position on that either way, particularly since this is a book. I’m just getting that as what Dickens was asserting.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Thomas Mallon and 8th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mr. Gradgrind runs a school in Coketown devoted to facts only, training for only economic pursuits:

‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

*****

‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

His children are dissatisfied by their education, craving more from life. His son ends up robbing a bank and dying in America. His daughter marries a fraud of a mill owner (he claims to have been self made from horribly difficult origins, but it is revealed that he was well raised and made his mother stay away when he became successful so he could put forth his self-made image) 30 years her senior, both at her father’s urging and to try to save her brother. She is emotionally crushed and the mill owner humbug ends up tossing her over anyway. In short, Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy does not lead him, or those he cares about, to a good place:

‘Bitzer,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, ‘have you a heart?’

‘The circulation, sir,’ returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, ‘couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.’

‘Is it accessible,’ cried Mr. Gradgrind, ‘to any compassionate influence?’

‘It is accessible to Reason, sir,’ returned the excellent young man. ‘And to nothing else.’

They stood looking at each other; Mr. Gradgrind’s face as white as the pursuer’s.

‘What motive—even what motive in reason—can you have for preventing the escape of this wretched youth,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘and crushing his miserable father? See his sister here. Pity us!’

‘Sir,’ returned Bitzer, in a very business-like and logical manner, ‘since you ask me what motive I have in reason, for taking young Mr. Tom back to Coketown, it is only reasonable to let you know. I have suspected young Mr. Tom of this bank-robbery from the first. I had had my eye upon him before that time, for I knew his ways. I have kept my observations to myself, but I have made them; and I have got ample proofs against him now, besides his running away, and besides his own confession, which I was just in time to overhear. I had the pleasure of watching your house yesterday morning, and following you here. I am going to take young Mr. Tom back to Coketown, in order to deliver him over to Mr. Bounderby. Sir, I have no doubt whatever that Mr. Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr. Tom’s situation. And I wish to have his situation, sir, for it will be a rise to me, and will do me good.’

Few people end up well. The one or two who did had a hard enough road through the book, and often managed to find meaning in life through appreciation of imagination and beauty. With only beauty and imagination, one starves. However, Dickens seems pretty strong on the position that merely not starving without beauty and imagination is at least as bad a fate as starving amidst beauty and imagination.

Hard Times is a pretty simple story for Dickens. There is none of the amazing coincidences or fantastic happenings that characterize David Copperfield or such like that. It’s merely a very simple, moving story. Perhaps a bit predictable at points, but I have to remember that I’m viewing the story through a modern lens. Regardless, Hard Times is still an enjoyable book to read…unpleasant as it is.

Native Son by Richard Wright

For today, I read Native Son by Richard Wright. I think this is one that is part of some high school curriculums and possibly college, but I never ran into it as more than just knowing it was a book, that it was about a black man in the 1930s and that it was by Richard Wright. So, when I saw a deal for it for Kindle (1.99) I knew it would be my next book for the blog (contingent upon Dave not insisting he wanted to read it and us having to come to blows over the whole thing.)

Bebe Moore Campbell (which I’ve never noticed before has the same names as me, just reversed. No, I didn’t hyphenate, Campbell is now a middle name with the SSA office. Everyone asks) listed this in her top ten. Ken Kalfus did as well.

So, the main character of Native Son is Bigger Thomas. He’s a 20 year old man who is always seething in some way. He says at the beginning of the book that he feels something horrible is just waiting to happen to him. He runs around drinking, sleeping with a woman named Bessie and participating in petty thievery with her and a few of his friends. He lives in a tiny one room apartment with his brother, sister and mother. And for some reason, wordpress is putting a red underline now under everything I am typing as if I have done something wrong. It’s driving me nuts. Just a FYI.

His family has been receiving the “dole” (welfare in common terms) and have been told that Bigger must take a job that they find for him or they will remove the family from receiving it. Bigger doesn’t want a job. He doesn’t really know what he wants, he wants freedom, he wants a chance to explore the world, be a part of it. Not just be a part of a system designed to keep him down. But his mother convinces him to take a job offered to him.

A philanthropist millionaire needs a driver. His previous one has retired after ten years with the family. They paid for him to go to night school and encouraged him to get an education. Now, he wants to give another black kid the chance to do the same.

Bigger is intimidated by the way the family, which includes the millionaire, his wife and their 21 year old daughter treat him. The first time Mary, the daughter, meets him she gets in his face and wants to know if he’s in a labor union. That night, he is required as chauffeur to drive her to an event she is attending. However, the event doesn’t exist or if it did, Mary had no intention on going. She met up with Jan, a Communist and her boyfriend. She tells Bigger she wants to know what a Negro experiences, she wants to find out all about them, to see into their homes. Jan and Mary make Bigger take them to an all black restaurant on his side of town. They sit in the front with him, they make him eat at the same table as him. He is intensely uncomfortable with this. He resents them for it.

Later that night, while helping Mary into her room and into bed, he finds himself groping her. He later explains that he felt like white people expect all black men to want white women desperately. Then, her mother, who is blind comes into the room. In a panic, Bigger attempts to keep Mary quiet from her drunken mutterings, terrified her mother will find him. He kills her by accident.

The rest of the story is about what happens next.

I thought Native Son was compelling and beautiful in many places. I couldn’t tell how I felt about Bigger half the time. Some of the thoughts he has and some of his lack of feelings of guilt and remorse, and his feeling of freedom from having murdered makes me not like him. At other times though, my empathy for the struggle he was going through prior to the murder and then in the what happens next, made me like him a bit.

In a way, I don’t feel qualified to be writing an in depth analysis of Native Son. I feel like that’s akin to Mary sticking her face in Bigger’s and wanting to know all about the “Negro experience”.

I do think that the whites of this country delude ourselves into thinking racism doesn’t exist. I think it’s ridiculous how we do it. Yes, we no longer think black men can’t keep their hands off white women, we no longer lynch black men, we no longer refer to black people as “apes”, we no longer make them stop schooling at young ages. But, through my 30s I saw more and more evidence that racism is still alive and thriving in the United States. It’s in our general attitudes about welfare recipients, even in the face of statistics that show that just as many white people use benefits. Yet, politicians and people continue to bring up “welfare queens”. Which Reagan coined. Reagan also referred to “young bucks using welfare to buy themselves steaks”. On slave auction posters, young men were referred to as “young bucks”.Current politicians like to harp on single black mothers raising kids, and how they should really be coming from two parent households. It’s in white women drawing their purses closer to their bodies upon seeing a black man (this actually happened to fellow students of mine in Seward, NE). It’s in so many people refusing to believe that a black man could be President, he just has to be illegally so (no one said anything about Ted Cruz until Donald Trump challenged him, and he was not born in the United States, as Obama was. Bernie Sanders came from Polish immigrants to this country and no one has questioned his citizenship). It’s in the media calling a demonstration that is mostly peaceful, with just a few unruly members in Baltimore a riot. It’s in white people whining about reverse racism. A character in the book who is of the Communist party pegs it as fear. Which is true. I can speak to that as a white person and my observations, deep down whites exist in a state of guilt, shame and fear about what happens in this country. They react with anger. And I know some people will tell me “Nuh uh! I don’t. I just think Obama is a shit President, I believe that police have been in the right in every shooting they do. I think that as a white person I am always discriminated against.” You can feel that if you want, I won’t try to argue you out of it (so please, no need to comment on it, all inflammatory comments about the subject will be deleted and/or ignored). I can only speak from my own experiences and my own observations.

Richard Wright did a beautiful job drawing a reader into Bigger’s mind, into his soul. It brought me a little closer to understanding some things. But again, I feel in a way like Mary demanding to know more.

My one problem with the book is it is stated more than once in the book that Bigger had to stop school at the eighth grade. There’s no indication that he is an avid reader (though at the beginning of the book he is hungering to buy a magazine). Yet, he reads newspaper accounts of the murder and subsequent events with no problem at all. While it’s not completely out of the ordinary that he could read that well after 8th grade, it is a little odd for the most part.

Read this book. Stuff said in it still resonates and rings true today. And, it’s also important I think to really get a sense of what it was like in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s our history as a nation. Wright does an amazing job of bringing it to life.

Have a great weekend!

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part two Mr. Bridge

As I mentioned before, I was going to talk about Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell in two separate but sequential entries due to their odd connected yet disconnected relationship. Mrs. Bridge was last time. Now we get to Mr. Bridge.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mr. Bridge is written similarly to Mrs. Bridge. It’s got the similar small sections, covers the similar events of the same upper middle class white family in Kansas City in the early part of the twentieth century, and all that. The difference is now we see it all from Walter’s, Mr. Bridge’s, view.

A copy of the will was in the safe-deposit box, and though he knew every word of it he sometimes read it through, searching for possible points of contention. The logic and clarity of the will were pleasing to him; the measured cadence of the sentences he had composed was reassuring, as though the measure of his mind must be respected when it was read aloud at some future date. Often he read to himself particular passages from the will, imagining the delight and surprise with which it would be heard for the first time by his wife and by the children, not merely for the precision of the language but because they had no idea of the value of the investments.

Only once had he shown her the contents of the box. Then he had pointed out an envelope containing five one-hundred-dollar bills to be used in case of emergency, and had unfolded a few certificates and gone over them with her so they would seem familiar; but he had minimized the total worth of the documents in the box. Women tended to behave curiously where money was concerned. She was not extravagant, at least she had not been extravagant so far; if anything she was quite the opposite, worrying mildly about the cost of almost everything. Still, change was in the nature of women and no good could come from letting her know his exact worth.

It is interesting how different a perspective we get in this from two people who are still so closely related. It’s the same family, the same white respectability of the era of the World Wars, but minor differences can yield big shifts.

Mr. Bridge is somewhat of a role in Mrs. Bridge than a person. In Mr. Bridge he is a real person, one of a relentless provider. Any time his family is in need, he redoubles his efforts to provide for them…regardless of what they actually need. He clings to the only things he knows. Often what they need is him as a person, and his drive to provide for them in response makes things worse. He dramatically fails his family and the same time that he is a dramatic success in serving his family.

Mr. Bridge was too exasperated to go back to bed. He paced through the house examining the doors and windows again. He thought of how often he had told his son to make certain the house was locked. It had been a waste of time. He returned to the bedroom, reached under the mattress, and pulled out the pistol. He had planned to give it to Douglas on his twenty-first birthday, but now he decided not to. He shifted the gun from one hand to the other, weighing it in his palm and fondling the knurled grip and the icy barrel. Twice a year he cleaned and oiled the gun, and occasionally he lifted a corner of the mattress to see if it was where it belonged. There was always a chance Harriet would steal it. He did not like the fact she knew about the fun. If she did take it and sell it or give it to some Negro in the North End there could be a great deal of trouble. It could very well be used in a holdup. She had been warned never to touch it, and each time he looked he found the gun in the same place; yet he could not forget that when Douglas was a child she had shown it to him.

The clock in the hall struck three times. He was surprised. An hour had passed since he went down stairs. He shoved the gun into the holster and slid it beneath the mattress. He hung his robe in the closet, stepped out of his carpet slippers, and lay down in bed carefully so as not to disturb his wife.

Connell’s characterization is just as impressive in Mr. Bridge as in Mrs. Bridge. The tiny points that bring each of the characters so wonderfully to life are so carefully and sparingly placed. Although, I was already familiar with most of these characters from Mrs. Bridge, so Connell did not have to do as much for them. Frankly, I liked Mrs. Bridge better. I think there were a few points where Mr. Bridge himself seemed a little off in his reactions to things. Mrs. Bridge never did that.

Bottom line? One probably should read Mr. Bridge if one is going to read Mrs. Bridge. However, the latter is more moving than the former…at least for me.

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part one Mrs. Bridge

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books has a single entry for Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both by Evan S. Connell. They are highly related, even companion pieces. However, they are separate books. Should one discuss one without discussing the other? Mrs. Bridge had been part of my MFA curriculum, Mr. Bridge only being something I looked at later on my own. Obviously they were separate, but there was obviously enough connecting them that I was compelled to look at Mr. Bridge. I debated, and then decided to do both separately…but sequentially. Mrs. Bridge will be this week and Mr. Bridge on my next go. That seemed the best compromise to the situation.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mrs. Bridge is written in little episodes that depict an upper middle class white family in Kansas City, starting around 1920, from the perspective of India Bridge, Mrs. Bridge. Considering the conformity of class in that era? This is it. The characterization is marvelous. Mrs. Bridge strives, and frets endlessly for that. Her life is for the most part stolid, and we have to ask whether it is ultimately satisfying.

Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

Mrs. Bridge has a good life overall, but it feels so stifling. She actually works for that consciously, but there are times where I felt that this was a product of environment and she wouldn’t have if she’d known better. Glimpses seem to shine through to her, but then something happens and they are gone.

Somehow, despite it being pretty much a good life, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Mrs. Bridge. There was so much more that life could have been for her. I feel sorry despite having not a huge amount to feel sorry about, and I think Connell makes me feel it pretty deeply. In fact, though I hate to give away the ending,

I’m going to quote from the ending section to show this. It shouldn’t matter. This isn’t the sort of book you read to find out a result. You read to see what happens along the way. In this bit, Mrs. Bridge is trying to back her car out of the garage. Her husband, the good but distant provider, is long gone. Her kids are out in the world living their lives:

Thinking she might have flooded the engine, which was often true, Mrs. Bridge decided to wait a minute or so.

Presently she tried again, and again, and then again. Deeply disappointed, she opened the door to get out and discovered she had stopped in such a position that the car doors were prevented from opening more than a few inches on one side by the garage partition, and on the other side by the wall. Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained.

For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called out to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?”

But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.

Talk about a freight train impact of an ending.

Mrs. Bridge was recommended to me for the skill in the characterization, and I have to agree. Connell’s characters spring up three-dimensional from just a few well-placed details. The craft behind that is impressive. If I’ve managed to absorb any of how Connell manages that I’ll count myself lucky. I mean, the characters make this book. It centers around one of the most small-minded women I’ve ever heard of. It should be utterly vapid and uninteresting. It isn’t. Mrs. Bridge is absolutely fascinating.