Novel Thoughts: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman’s novel is composed of short stories that relate the history of a town, Blackwell, in Massachusetts. In the book, the town binds the characters together across history; it is the only consistent element, even though Hoffman doesn’t specifically divulge the way the town itself changes, only the people in it.

Employment of magical realism helps in this book to detract from the sometimes selfish nature of the characters that inhabit its pages. The author uses colors (specifically red, green, and blue) to suggest the proper emotion for the reader without being too forceful. Readers will also notice the Garden of Eden imagery or rather the fall of the Garden of Eden. The characters in the book are related in such a way that their humanity is inescapable, raw, in need of some sort of direction which the townspeople seem to derive from nature.

Throughout the novel, a bear operates as a constant source of guidance, survival, fear, omnipotence. He transcends the generations and can always be felt lurking underneath the surface of the story and, it turns out, the surface of the garden. The insinuation, we eventually come to realize, is that we are not as far removed from nature as we like to think we are. Over the course of the novel, the people of Blackwell, the women in particular, are prone to abandon the lives they know in favor of the unknown, in favor of the mountain, of the bear. They abandon that which they have always known because it doesn’t seem to fit them. The mountain offers them a truer existence.

In its entirety, the novel is a tightly woven family narrative that spans generations and branches of the family tree. While a visual diagram of the family tree itself would have helped the reader to avoid confusion, overall the novel leaves us with an unexplainable sense of belonging and a gnawing sense of our own humanity.


How Old Is Young?

My mom always says,”You’re only as old as you feel.” Which means that today I can feel fourteen, petulant, moody, disgruntled, while tomorrow I can feel eighty-two, nostalgic, perhaps frustrated, perhaps content. There’s something to the idea of age being arbitrary, more a feeling than a definite marker on a timeline. But this has me wondering: at what point does age become inescapable?

Parents, friends, family all look the same, no matter how much time has passed. We look the same to ourselves despite the inevitably of birthdays. We see these people on a regular basis, and (without getting into the physics of aging) we seem to age as a unit, frozen in time, destined to be twenty-three, thirty-two, fifty-one forever. At what point do we realize that while we may feel young at heart, the lines on our faces and the creaks in our joints, our newly established inability to consume the massive quantities of cheap beer and somehow stay awake long enough to watch the sun come up, tell another story? At what point do we realize that we can no longer run from the years and instead should embrace them?

For some of us, this is an everyday realization. We wake up aching with the thought of another day, another wrinkle. For some of us, the idea rarely, if ever, crosses our minds. For some of us, the thought means nothing. It is what it is: a fact of life. Regardless of how we internalize the phenomenon that is age, we all (at least those of us old enough to drink and pay for our own hotel rooms) would probably agree that certain experiences have a solidly sobering effect on us with regards to our current placement on the aging timeline.

Take, for example, the college football game. For those of us who are on the far side of Jack Daniels and the near side of the big three-oh, the residue of college still lingers, and every now and then we find ourselves trying to recapture the glory days. We drink too much, tell stupid jokes, and wake up the next morning realizing that we can’t quite party like we used to. But we can come close.

So we go to these football games feeling the way we did when meal plans were a necessary evil and eight o’clock classes were a ruse designed by the devil for our ultimate demise. We have always seen those who are older than we at these events, but for the first time, we begin to notice that there are younger folks as well. Surely, we think, they do not belong here. Surely they are here with their parents, and isn’t that quaint? At this point they become unavoidable. They are here in droves because students get free tickets, while you, the old fogey, have to pay for yours. They don’t even let you sit in the same section anymore. The realization of how much time has actually passed in the last ten years hurls itself into the forefront of your mind.

You watch the amateurs for awhile, noting their mistakes and hoping you never made the same ones. Then you smile to yourself. Finish the second beer you’ve had that night. Enjoy the game. Sleep comfortably in a nice hotel (if it’s an away game), instead of passed out on the floor of a friend’s studio apartment. And wake up the next morning sans hangover. As you sit down to a breakfast consisting of more than pop tarts and skittles, you realize that life at this point is pretty good. Things are different, but change is a good thing. Lines on the face are still few and far between, but they don’t really matter anyway.

Maybe age isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe each generation needs the one both before it and after to realize just how amazing life is.

*Note to reader: These are my views at this current time. Ask me again in four years, and you may get an entirely different story.

Fiction Friday: Making the Call

Mike slammed the car door, turned the key, and headed for the turnpike. He was running late already. He would miss the dinner. But they couldn’t have the surprise without him. No, the surprise was his deal. Too bad he wasn’t looking forward to it.

He slammed on the brakes. “Hey moron! Ya tryin’ to get us all killed? What the hell’s your problem? D’you getcha license from a cracker jack box?” Generally Mike was pretty good at weaving in and out of traffic. Sure, he might cut someone off occasionally, but when they saw his hulking form looming over the steering wheel, they knew better than to mouth off.

He had to drive an hour out of his way to run this errand. By the time he wheeled into the parking lot, he was feeling less than cheerful. It had just started to rain, and the lights in the store window were warm and welcoming. At least they would have been to anyone but Mike. He slung the door open and sauntered in. The salesman who should have approached him found himself otherwise occupied with a tower of cords and cables. No one would look him in the eye.

Mike looked down. “Christ!” he mumbled, tearing the bloody apron from his neck and shoving it inside his coat.

“Can I help you?” came a voice from the back corner of the store.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “I want your basic package. Nothin’ too fancy, huh?”

“Are you shopping for yourself?” inquired the salesman. His pseudo-cheerfulness grated on Mike’s nerves.

“Hey look, if I wanted you to know the details, I’d’a give ’em to ya, huh? Just give me the basic package and the basic equipment.”

The salesman selected the merchandise, second-guessing himself twice, no, three times. He asked Mike for the name on the account, threw in the extra cords, cables, and cases with which the other salesman had so diligently busied himself. Mike turned to go.

“Have a nice night,” bleated the salesman. Mike threw up his hand and grunted.

All the way home Mike fretted over what was about to happen. He thought of best case scenarios. This could be a good thing, a learning experience. He thought of worst case scenarios. Maybe she’d be distracted. She wouldn’t see the end until it was too late. He generally liked to know the outcome of a situation before he went into it, so this uncertainty was maddening. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

“Here goes nothin'” he thought. And he entered the house.
“Damn it!” he growled as he sprawled, grasping for the countertop. He’d tripped over something small and pink. A ballet slipper.

“Sweetie, you’re home,” his wife said. She looked beautiful in her red sweater and pearls. He might have told her so if he hadn’t still been cursing the ballet slipper. “We waited for you as long as we could, but you know. We haven’t cut the cake yet though.”

Was this supposed to be his consolation?

He took off his coat and threw it and the bloody apron inside it to the back of the coat closet. He checked his hair, checked his face, and made his entrance.

When he walked into the dining room, the roar of conversation trickled to a mere murmur. Mike had that effect on people, if only briefly.

“Hey Mike, how are things down at The Butcher’s Block?” his neighbor Randy asked.

“Good, good,” Mike grumped. “People gotta eat, even in tough times, ya know?”

They shared a chuckle.

“It’s about time you got here,” said Aubrey Finnerman, another neighbor.

“I just had some last minute, uh, business to take care of,” he told them. “You know, somethin’ for the, uh, party her–”

“Daddy!” He turned in time to catch the whirling, twirling form of his fifteen (soon to be sixteen)-year-old daughter.

“Hey, short stack,” he said. “Happy birthday.”

“Where’ve you been? We’ve been waiting on you to cut the cake.” With that she grabbed his hand and led him to the front of the room where a cake in the shape of a Volkswagen Beetle was parked.

“Here you go, Daddy. You do the honors.” She handed him the knife. At that moment, somewhere in the back of the room someone started singing “Happy Birthday.” He searched the throng of faces and found his wife’s. She winked at him. She knew he’d been dreading.

When the Beetle had nothing left of a trunk or a backseat, Mike retrieved from the closet the bag he’d brought home.

“Now, uh, listen up, short stack,” he said. And she did.

“Your mother and I, well, we know you’re gonna be drivin’ soon, and listen, we want you to be careful,” he said. She nodded.

“We know you’re gonna go places and do things that, well, we’d rather you didn’t do,” he said. Everyone giggled.

“Look, I don’t like this, but, uh, your mother, well, she thinks it’s a good idea. So, uh, here,” he said and thrust the bag into her hand. “It’s only for emergencies.”

She reached in the bag, squealed with delight, and frantically sought the nearest outlet into which she plugged the charger for her new cell phone.

* * * *

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved

Novel Thoughts: The Imperfectionists

Media is always changing the game. We create new, inventive ways to tell the same kinds of stories we’ve always told. Tom Rachman approaches and exposes the idea of media evolution and how it effects those crucial to its livelihood in The Imperfectionists.

The book tells the history of an international newspaper from its conception to its demise. Each chapter is a short story, a vignette unveiling some crucial information about one member of the newsroom or another. Rachman’s style allows us to simultaneously chastise and sympathize with each person to whom we are introduced, revealing elements of human character both at its best and at its worst.

The characters in the book have only one thing in common: the paper. Each, in his or her own way, believes himself or herself to be absolutely crucial to the paper’s ability to function. Each has an elevated sense of self-importance when it comes to occupation. However, by the end of the novel we are able to see that inasmuch as the paper needs them, they too need the paper. It has become, for most of them, an integral part of who they are and how they see themselves in the world. Life, for both the paper and those who write it, is completely dependent.

Organization in this book is undeniable. It warrants attention because it is so structured. Rachman’s style allows readers to catch glimpses of the paper’s origins without bogging us down in unnecessary details. Each story is precisely as long as it needs to be and no longer. He leaves enough details to the reader’s imagination to alleviate the problem of the reader feeling compelled to do all the work; however, he omits enough for the reader to feel like an important part of the story’s construction.

The Imperfectionists successfully portrays people the way they truly are. We aren’t always good; we aren’t always bad. We have our moments, but in the end, we’re only human. We interact with each other. We rely on each other. We fight with each other. We make up. And in the end that’s all we can really ask for.

A Moment of Truth

Lies come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re stories we make up to fill empty moments. Sometimes they’re tiny and insignificant, ways to avoid exposing elements of ourselves that are too vulnerable. Sometimes they are momentous; they change the way we perceive the world and ourselves in it. Sometimes they are devastating, life-altering. Cataclysmic.

Whatever the type of lie or its scope, we tell them mostly to ourselves. No one else has to be involved; no one else has to hear. We create diversions to make it through the day. Yes, I am going to have the grande salted caramel mocha latte, and it won’t be a skinny because I will get up extra early tomorrow to workout longer. Yeah. Right. If I get this pair of shoes I won’t get anything else for at least the next two paychecks; I’ll save instead. Uh-huh. Keep talking.

Some of these lies are innocuous. They aren’t going to do everlasting damage that will rear its deformed head at inopportune moments. But some of them go deeper. Some of them penetrate to the core of who we are, so much so that we allow ourselves to become the lies we tell. Again, these are the lies we tell ourselves, not the ones we tell other people.

These things we tell ourselves distort the truth of who we really are. We tell ourselves we aren’t smart enough, wealthy enough, attractive enough, talented enough. These contrivances become the truth because we allow ourselves to see nothing else. We are consumed with being enough. We start to focus on what we’re not, instead of what we are. Funny how the little lies grow.

What would happen if we allowed ourselves only to tell the stories and believe the stories in which we are the champions? In which we are the people we aspire to be? What would happen if the only truth we knew of ourselves, the only truth we ever told ourselves, is that we are always enough?

There’s More Than One Way to Peel a Banana

Necessity has always been the mother of invention (please pardon the cliche). And humans have always possessed the unique fortitude required to meet their current needs. Some of our solutions seem obvious today, practical even, the only way to remedy the problem at hand. It is indeed strange to think that there was once a time when no solution existed.

Then there are the solutions for which no problems are immediately apparent. Sure, we can assume that at some time far distant from us now a problem existed, a need crucial for survival. But we can only wonder what desperate circumstances would drive a person to this aforementioned solution.

We’ve all heard the unanswerable question, “Who was the first person to think of milking a cow?” Even if we could know such a thing, the poor schmuck whose idea it was would likely choose to remain anonymous. Who are we to judge?

In that vein (although slightly less akin to barnyard desperation), I can’t help wondering: who was the first person to think of eating a banana, and how long did it take said person to figure out that it tasted better if it was peeled? Did someone with an empty stomach and an eye for ingenuity spot an animal eating this fruit? Did the animal, in fact, teach this human that peeling the fruit would make it more delectable? What does this do to the relationship between humans and animals? And how did this person who stumbled upon this method of consumption explain his (or her) findings to his (or her) friends?

Perhaps I’m being obtuse here; it is highly possible, although perhaps not probable, that all of this is explained on wikipedia, in which case my lack of research will be painfully evident. To be honest, though, this was just a fleeting thought to which I managed to lay claim before it completely escaped. Maybe it’s been carefully documented. Or maybe it’s one of life’s unexplainable idiosyncrasies, whose sole purpose is to entertain our minds in the early mornings while we’re still jumpstarting ourselves with coffee. What do you think?

Novel Thoughts: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel

Biography is unwieldy. It requires of the writer a certain amount both of subjectivity and objectivity, and that balance can be difficult to strike. For a writer to successfully accomplish the feat that is relating someone else’s life story, he or she must possess a certain level of ardour and incredulity. In The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, Karen Karbo has masterfully managed to relate the story of one of the most sought-after and coveted fashion icons of all time while avoiding the pitfalls of incrimination and idolization.

As per the title, Karbo’s book relates not only the facts of Chanel’s life, her loves, her losses, her idiosyncrasies, but also her philosophies, her business practices, and her overall sense of self-entitlement. Karbo makes no attempt to portray Chanel as more endearing on the page than she was in real life. Chanel was Chanel, and we as readers are invited to take her or leave her. You’ll probably want to take her.

Karbo’s tone is conversational but removed. Her voice invites readers to be as frustrated with the subject as we want to be, while latently reminding us of Chanel’s importance. We may not agree with her life choices. We may be exasperated with the incongruous vignettes that are her life story. But in the end, fascination trumps indignation.

Every story, life or otherwise, is multifaceted, and Chanel’s is no different. Arguably she never told the same story of herself twice. At least not for long. Karbo confronts these inaccuracies head-on. She is careful to ensure that her readers understand the tenuous nature of the story of Chanel, as told both by her and other people. By using this voice and making herself seem just as suspicious of the story’s accuracy as her readers are, Karbo builds credibility for herself in the mind of the reader.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel is biography done well. It is the story of Chanel told creatively in a way that is entertaining and informative. Karbo relates the facts inasmuch as we can know them, but she does so with wit and humor, simultaneously exposing Chanel’s humanity and genius.