New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, by Colm Tóibín

When I heard the title of this book mentioned during Tóibín's appearance at a local college last week, I knew I had to have it. I first encountered his work at a used tool and book sale in a small market town in the Midlands. Rows of long tables filled the town hall, stacked with old saber saws and wrenches, as well as piles of well-thumbed books. I picked up a copy of The Heather Blazing, intrigued by the title, and devoured it that night. I liked it so much that I made my book club read it, and they too thought it one of the best books we'd read. We're all Tóibín fans now and have gone on to read together The Master and Brooklyn.

I have heard Tóibín speak three times now, and each time been impressed by the gravity, thoughtfulness, and generosity that he brings to his art and craft. These qualities are apparent in the essays collected in this book, all of them previously published in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, and other journals and anthologies. As a long-time LRB subscriber, I recognised some of the essays, but within the context of this book found their significance changed slightly, becoming deeper and widening through association.

In the prologue “Jane Austen, Henry James, and the Death of the Mother”, Tóibín introduces the approach used in this collection. He refers to a book I found useful: Ruth Perry's Novel Relations, in one chapter of which she describes the curious lack of mothers in eighteenth-century novels and posits both literary expediency—a protagonist will not be interesting if rendered powerless and submissive by the protection of her mother—and “existential necessities”—the absence of the heroine's source leaving her disconnected and alone. I first came across this idea of motherless children in Adrienne Rich's essay “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman” in Ms in 1973; to my joy, the article is referenced by Perry. Tóibín says that “the novel is a form ripe for orphans . . . mothers get in the way in fiction.” It is the development of the individual that novels explore, “when the heroine is alone, with no one to protect her, no one to confide in, no one to advise her, and no possibility of this.” He goes on to explore Austen and James's novels in terms not only of separation from the birth family, but in later works, the struggle within a marriage.

From here Tóibín examines the family dynamics of a variety of authors. While the second half of the book focuses on writers from around the world, such as Mann, Borges, and Baldwin, the first half of the book concentrates on Irish writers, such as Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Roddy Doyle. This layering of the Irish experience brings in influences beyond the extended family of parents, aunts and uncles to include Irish political figures and the fatherland itself.

I'm currently reading a novel set in Ireland in which a man talks about growing up among the elderly veterans of the 1916 uprising and Civil War. He finds it hard to believe that these quiet men and women puttering among their roses once raised fierce and courageous arms to reclaim their country. The best novels help us comprehend these individual journeys. At the same time, novelists are driven by their own concerns, creating “a metaphor for what is essentially a private ache”, as Tóibín says of Sebastian Barry. Tóibín makes suggestions but draws no easy roadmap, cautioning that “all fiction comes from a direct source and makes its way indirectly to the page or the stage. It does so by finding metaphors, by building screens, by working on half truths, moulding them towards a form that is both pure and impure fabrication.”

When the title of this book was mentioned last week, the audience laughed uneasily, and Tóibín drily agreed that it was not the best marketing ploy. I, however, thinking immediately of Rich and Perry and my own struggles to wrench free of controlling parents, wanted to purchase it on the basis of the title alone. Luckily I enjoyed the entire book. For me, these essays accomplished the highest purposes of such writing: they made me want to reread authors whose work I know well; they pushed me to explore the work of authors new to me; and they gave me insights that I can use in my own work.

Playlist 2012

Songs are stories, too, even when there are no words. Thanks to my friends for all the great music and for all the sweet dances.

Moon River, Frank Sinatra
Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Edith Piaf
La Vie En Rose, Edith Piaf
Rose of Sharon, Jacqueline Schwab
My Wild Irish Rose, Keith Jarrett
Mcferrin: Stars, Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin
Morricone: The Mission – Gabriel's Oboe, Yo-Yo Ma,
Lately, Aengus Finnan
Black Is The Colour, Aengus Finnan
Mandalay, Jeff Warner
Botany Bay, Kate Rusby
Arthur's Rose, Walt Michael & Company
Helpless, Neil Young
Remember Me, Willie Nelson
Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain, Willie Nelson
Blue Moon With Heartache, Rosanne Cash
Across The Blue Mountains, Suzannah & Georgia Rose
The Collier's Daughter, Schwab/Risk
Mad Robin, Bare Necessities
Bonny Cuckoo, Bare Necessities
Urge for Going, Tom Rush
No Regrets, Tom Rush
A Love Before Time (Mandarin), Tan Dun & Yo-Yo Ma
Bach: Orchestral Suite #3 In D, BWV 1068 – Air, Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin
Adagio, Ludwig Spohr, Grande Duo Op. 11
Purcell: King Arthur Or The British Worthy, Wynton Marsalis

The Reserve, by Russell Banks

It was Atom Egoyan's film of The Sweet Hereafter that first brought me to Russell Banks. Those of his books that I've read capture that side of New England I came to know well when I lived in Worcester: the long winters, the gritty effort to get on. With this novel, we enter a different world. As it opens, wealthy Dr. Cole, his wife and adopted daughter Vanessa are celebrating the Fourth of July with their friends at the Cole's camp in the Adirondacks. The camp, of course, is a luxurious log home on a lake and is part of the Reserve, “a forty-thousand-acre privately owned wilderness” containing a number of such camps as well as the Tamarack Country Club.

The party is disrupted by the noise of a plane that appears over the lake, transgressing all the rules of the Reserve, and settles down on its pontoons at the Cole's dock. The pilot is famous artist Jordan Groves who has been invited by Dr. Cole to see his collection of paintings. Vanessa, famously beautiful but considered to be wild and quite spoiled, takes Jordan under her wing. Jordan too is wealthy, living on a three-hundred-acre spread not far away with his wife and two sons.

Circumstances change dramatically when Dr. Cole dies later that same evening, removing his flimsy constraints on Vanessa's behavior. The time is 1936, during the run-up to the Second World War. Jordan, a Hemingway-esque figure, loves to go adventuring to far corners of the world, but feels pressure to stay home with his family instead of joining the Air Force. The story circles around Jordan and Vanessa as they dance forward and away from each other, while suspicions grow about Dr. Cole's death and the country barrels towards war.

Interspersed with their story are short, italicised chapters relating events that initially seem to have nothing to do with the main story. Eventually, of course, all becomes clear. I'm generally not a fan of such mash-ups and loathe reading more than a paragraph of italicised text, so I was a little irritated by these chapters. However, I loved the descriptions of flying. I also enjoyed several of the minor characters, such as Hubert St. Germaine, a local guide, and Russell Kendall, the manager of the country club. I was far more interested in the lives of the locals than the shenanigans of the rich, but that probably says more about me than the book. I appreciated the parallels between the self-destructive course the main characters choose and the descent of the world into war.

I'd like to hear about other reactions to this book or to any of Russell Banks's novels.

A Silver Lining, by Elaine Benton

I have often said that I was born with “the happy gene”. Other than during adolescence, a difficult time for most everybody, I have generally maintained a cheerful outlook. When bad things happen to me, rather than cursing my luck or sinking into depression, I usually think first of practical ways to ameliorate the situation. If that proves impossible, I tend to start thinking of what I can learn from the experience. Of course, I get outraged by injustice or dishonesty and am saddened by the trials of others or the loss of friends. I can also be quite grumpy if I haven't gotten enough sleep. But overall I'm pretty even-tempered. This attitude isn't the result of any skill or effort on my part. As I say, I just seem to have been born happy.

So I was surprised near the end of Benton's memoir to come across the same diagnosis: she too says that she was born with “the happy gene”. Diagnosed at five with Gaucher's disease, a genetic disorder that affects the liver, spleen, lungs, and bone marrow, Benton's life has been one of great physical pain and increasing disability. At 44, she was also diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson's disease. Blows such as these seem like a recipe for bitterness and depression, but Benton decided at a young age that she would “make the best of a bad situation; put a smile on my face, be cheerful and in good spirits.” Judging from this book, her efforts have been successful.

Her illness plays a very small role in this memoir. Rather, it acts as a backdrop to a series of gentle, mostly humorous anecdotes about everyday life. For example, she tells the story of meeting her future husband when, having torn his trousers just before an important meeting, he happens to duck into her office in search of a sewing kit. Some years later at the beach when she and their daughter became caught in a rip tide, he dives in fully clothed to rescue them. A perhaps not-uncommon experience, but she relates the story and her other anecdotes in a warm and charming voice. Although her subject matter is different, the tone of the book reminds me of All Creatures Great and Small. Rather than the experiences of a country vet, Benton writes about a woman's experiences—a “magic laundry basket” that refills no matter how often it is emptied or puzzlement over “one size fits all” clothes—and life events that we can all relate to such as the birth of her daughter and the loss of her father.

I was especially taken with the combination of humor and sadness in the description of the descent of her once strong and capable mother into dementia. She tells of her mother trying to change television channels with the cordless phone and repeatedly bringing in loads of laundry and rehanging them outside. I think this chapter appealed to me because a dear friend is going through the same thing with her mother just now and not letting her sadness prevent her from laughing at the often absurd goings-on.

When Benton does mention her diseases, she generally uses a comic approach. For instance, she describes the many bizarre uses she finds for the IV stand on wheels that she has at home to deliver the medication for Gaucher disease: holding ironed shirts on their hangers, drying laundry, carrying strips of quilting fabric attached with clothespins. She parses the the papers that come with her prescriptions, wondering if the caution to avoid operating heavy machinery could be used to persuade someone else to do the family laundry. She also finds a peculiar warning, that the medication could cause “obsessive compulsive shopping tendencies”, and concludes that it constitutes an excuse for a new pair of shoes.

Benton's purpose in writing this book is to challenge the stigma of disability. Too often, people seeing her in a wheelchair speak in loud, overly enunciated voices as though she were deaf or mentally deficient. Sometimes they speak about her in the third person to her companion. There is also the assumption that she must be miserable or angry because of her physical disability. Just because she suffers great pain or needs crutches or a wheelchair, she is no less a person with the same joys and sorrows as anyone else. The truth of this statement is amply demonstrated by her pleasant book. It is a light read, but I enjoyed the time spent in her company.