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Posts from the ‘Mary’s List’ Category

Olive Kitteridge: New parental understanding

There will be plenty of reviews to tell you why Olive Kitteridge is a fantastic book. For starters, it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a SF Chronicle best book of the year–so some discerning folks love it.

But boy did I resist this one for a long, long time.
Maybe because I saw one annoying woman reading it in the pool while asking kids to stop splashing?

More likely, I skipped it because I thought it was short stories.
And  it’s just hard for me to get excited about short stories.

But this book is decidedly not a collection of stories.

It’s a book that tells one very important story–about Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher in Crosby, Maine–through 13 views by her husband, son, neighbors, and former students. Olive is central to some stories and anecdotal in others. But you get a strong sense of her. Olive is complicated, irascible and yet admirable at the same time. She is tough–in a sometimes good and sometimes watching-a-train-wreck kind of way.

But if I loved Olive the character, I loved even more the notion of Olive. The notion of Olive as a mother and a wife and a community member. You come to experience Olive as a woman in the sunset years of her life–but one that has the same longings, dream, desires and disappointments as someone a fraction her age. Through her and the stories around her, we learn about how delicate, but resilient our hearts are.

And then a light bulb.

Don’t we all think of our Mom and Dad as parents first and people second? How strange to think of them as people with depth, with real emotions. Olive Kitteridge gives us a new look on elder life. On the last page:

What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know what lumpy, aged, wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or did not choose it. And if her plater had been full of the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked the crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.”

And yet here we are in our (relative!) middle age and the cycle repeats itself–I am a real mom, with real emotions and real questions about how to live my life….and yet my daughter does not yet know that complexity. (phewwww-thankfully.) But we also-thank god- have a long time ahead of us before we feel we have ‘squandered’ our days. While the book is a thoughtful meditation for the old–it’s a bold call to action for the young.

The stories around Olive can be dramatic–I am all for portraying the insanity of a small town, but wow, Crosby has more than it’s fair share of nut cases–but the central thread is the same:

“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed.”

Olive Kitteridge is exceptionally well written and great fiction. But stepping back….this is a time in our lives to more deeply understand the humans who raised us before they are gone. The bigger door this book opens adds a different dimension to life.

That’s a big promise. ; )


Tracy Kidder: Non-fiction Rock Star

Oh, the terrible disappointment when you pick up a second book from an author who astounded you with the first one. It so rarely measures up.

But then there is Tracy Kidder–slowly working himself to rock star status.
(A long way behind Philip Roth, of course, but impressive.)
Boy, do I have a non-fiction two-fer for you.

Tracy Kidder blew me away, with Mountains Beyond Mountains. mountains-beyond-mountains-754158
It was my Mom’s recommendation–and she simply described it was about an amazing Harvard Doctor treating infectious diseases in Haiti.

Sounded dry.
It was anything but.

Tracy Kidder interviewed, followed, and travelled with the inspiring and unsatisfied Paul Farmer as he single handedly tried to tackle the inequality of health in Haiti. How does Farmer do it? “He works nonstop, hardly sleeps, sees his wife and child for a day or so every few months, inspires an uncommon degree of devotion and enthusiasm among collaborators and potential donors, and tolerates planes and airports for days on end.”

Now Kidder brings us The Strength in What Remains, sharing the life of Deogratis, a young man from Burundi in Africa. (Think9781400066216 neighbor to Rwanda, think genocide, think Tutsi). There is a small link with Mountains, as Kidder met Deo while following Farmer–and Farmer gave Deo a job at his Partners in Health organization. But the connection is acknowledged and fleeting. 

The story takes us quickly through the 6-8 months that Deo is trying desperately to escape Burundi and the ethnic madness that ensues there. He is a third year medical student in his home country, intelligent and likable, but when we meet him in New York City, he has $200, a $12/day job, he sleeps in Central Park and doesn’t speak the language. Kidder asks: “How would one survive?”

Survive he does–from luck, perseverance and the charity of others. Attends Columbia University and Dartmouth Medical School. Journeys back to Burundi to establish a medical presence much in the spirit of Paul Farmer. And while he is there, Kidder helps us to relive the terror Deo endured in his country. He is just one story in the historic recounting Kidder gives us of what transpired in Rwanda and Burundi. 

As Kurt said in this post about What is the What (a story which is first, excellent and second, shares a tremendous amount with the books described here): “life is not fair, so those of us who have it easy should take on the hard problems.” The Strength in What Remains reminds us of how good we have it, how gratitude is something we should show more of every day and how resilient and remarkable is the human spirit to survive. It’s humbling. 

Read this book.
The NYT gushes about this book.
I do too.

2009 Mother’s Day Pick: Atlas of the Unknowns

They say that we sometimes buy gifts for others that we covet for ourselves.


Mary Turner got this for Mother’s Day.
It’s hot off the press and alas a hardback, but it’s hard to get ahead of ole’ Mar Mar. 
She seems to read everything, so I have to work hard on my selections.

(Throughout this site, I will try and give credit to “Mary’s List”, because she is literally one of the best readers I know. Except that bad Joyce Carol Oats problem she has…let’s face it, JCO kinda sucks.)

I love the SF Chronicle’s book review section. They like new writers. And here is what they had to say about it:

Once in a while, a novel comes along that makes you wonder why people don’t read more fiction – why, given the right book, anyone would choose to do anything else. “Atlas of Unknowns,” the dazzling, original and deeply absorbing debut by Tania James, is this rare book
(Read the entire review here.)

Oh, I realize I am taking a risk. I could continue to have the ‘Indian Disconnect’ with Mom. She is, in fact, probably one of only 6 people that walked out of Slumdog Millionaire. And when I asked if she luuuuvvvved White Tiger, the response was tepid. 

But we’ll give it a go. 
I’m thinking that, at the very least, she’ll mail it to me…..

Stay tuned.