Wednesday, November 16, 2016

61 Books: #60

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–59 can be found . . . below (especially April–October of this year).

60. Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016) (11/16/16)
This is a short book, and as I read I kept wondering if I liked it. Its prose is unadorned, very plain, making for a flat affect. The main character is similarly direct, though I liked her moments of wondering tone: she doesn't have all the answers, or really, many answers. She is not a sentimental woman, but you know she understands love, and longing.

The book begins many years ago when Lucy was hospitalized for nine weeks for a mysterious illness. For five days of that time, her long-estranged mother comes and sits with her in the hospital room. And they talk. About nothing in particular—mainly, marriages gone awry in the small Illinois town Lucy grew up in, and random memories from those days. Which in turn remind Lucy of other memories—of abject poverty, abuse, lack of acceptance.

There is, indeed, something random in the whole telling, as Lucy relates that long-ago visit, then tells bits of her life in New York both then and now: friends and colleagues who made a difference; experiences that left an indelible impact; how she changed.

In the end, the randomness knits itself into something almost haunting.

So yes, I liked it. The quiet acceptance of life's ineffability, of how distance and closeness can coexist as if they were one and the same, of becoming a whole person, despite it all.

Here are three passages I flagged:

"There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times, too—unexpected—when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can't possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are completely free from terror, I realize I don't know how others are. So much of life seems speculation."


"This is not the story of my marriage. I cannot tell that story: I cannot take hold of, or lay out for anyone, the many swamps and grasses and pockets of fresh air and dank air that have gone over us. But I can tell you this: My mother was right; I had trouble in my marriage. And when my girls were nineteen and twenty years old, I left their father, and we have both remarried. There are days when I feel I love him more than I did when I was married to him, but that is an easy thing to think—we are free of each other, and yet not, and never will be."


"Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise. But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can't even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine."

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