Friday, July 4, 2008

Ex Libris

I belong to a real, live, actual people involved, book club. I know! How outwardly social of me. There was one in the 'hood that was comprised of all the young single women, but apparently it kinda devolved into everyone passing the buck on whose house they were meeting at, and not reading the book, but showing up for the wine and discussing the movie version. I joined at the tail end of this version 1.0, and co-conspired with a member who wanted to make it a wee bit more serious, and we (sadly, perhaps) lost some of the old people, but attracted numerous new ones. And now we have this real organized group 2.0 that meets monthly for dinner (or brunch, if schedules fail) and everyone reads (at least most of it) and everyone talks. And I like it very much.

There are some oddities though, that I'm finding out about reading since the big divide took place in my life. For starts, it never really hit me how many ficitonal books involve themes of motherhood (and all the concomitant yearning, suceeding, failing, losing thereof) and loss (marriage, money, life). And I guess it makes sense to some degree, because what the hell are we going to write about that's remotely interesting? And so all books it seems to some degree hurt a bit.

And in public, this brings about a bit of the awkward. I've noticed at times when we're discussing what to read next, and I say "So! What's the deal with 'Memory Keeper's Daughter!' What's that about?" and there's this really, long pause when someone finally gets brave and starts, "Well, it's about this woman who has two children, but one has Down's, so her husband takes that one away and tells her that the baby died . . . " And again this horrible huge silence where everyone's wishing that the big screeching vulture would swoop down and devour the chirping crickets giving us something else to talk about. And I feel it's my social duty to step into the breech, usually with a (sarcastic) joke, "Well, that sounds cheery!" to let them know I'm ok talking about it. I once discovered that two people in club had a small private conversation about a book a couple nights before we met, and my first thought was, "How great is that!" and my second, conspiratorial thought was, "Jeebus, I bet they were wondering how I'd react to the book -- whether I'd just crumple at the table."

That book was Amy Bloom's "Away" (a gripping story about child-loss of another sort entirely), which I loved. But it brings me to my next personal epiphany: I read books differently than I did before. I suppose that's rather frying-pan-to-the-head obvious, but it really didn't dawn on me until I read Julia's review of Handmaid's Tale (which I read over a decade ago, long before I really contemplated having children) that books might strike me differently now that I'm on this side of infertility, miscarriage, and neonatal death. I recently read "The Other Bolelyn Girl," and found myself running to the bookshelf to cross-ref Alison Wier's awesome "Wives of Henry VIII" so many times, that I'm now rereading it. And talk about infertility, miscarriage, and neonatal death. These were subjects that I glossed over for the politics during the first read through about 8 years ago, that I'm now swimming in, in fascination, horror, and disbelief. During my 40th week of pregnancy with Maddy I read Gregory Maguire's "Wicked," and I'd love to reread it now, knowing what I do about genetics and offspring and siblings.

Stories on loss get met with a very critical eye now. Does the person get it? Months ago, the NY'er had a short story about a guy who faked his young child's death in order to take some time off work. Instead of being completely insulted by the premise, I was instead rolling my eyes in disbelief at the weak research the author used: a completely supportive workplace that would phone the wife to express condolences in person? Fiction indeed.


Bookclub is now into summer reading, and this month's selection seemed a safe bet: David Sedaris', "When You Are Englulfed in Flames," a compilation of short stories by the ever-so-clever and amusing wit. Until I hit the end of the very first story which ostensibly dealt with parasites, but of course, ended with dead children humor:

Did you know that every year five thousand children are startled to death?


"Those poor children," Maw Hamrick said.

"And the parents!" Lisa added. "Can you imagine?"

Both groups are tragic, but I was wondering about the surviving children, or, even worse, the replacements, raised in an atmosphere of preventive sobriety.

"All right, now, Caitlin Two, when we get home a great many people are going to jump out from behind the furniture and yell 'Happy Birthday!' I'm telling you now because I don't want you to get too worked up about it."

No surprises, no practical jokes, nothing unexpected, but a parent can't control everything, and there's still the outside world to contend with, a world of backfiring cars and their human equivalents.

Had one of you written this, I would probably be on the floor, trying desperately not to wet myself. ("REPLACEMENTS! BWAH!") But from what I know, he is not one of us. So the lines struck me cold and extremely unfunny, I closed the book, and haven't picked it up in two weeks. I know I need to, and that the subsequent stories are probably hilarious, but continuing to pursue this book has been difficult since we clearly got off on the wrong foot. It is the same reaction I have to people who run on for minutes about how great "Juno" was. It's funny if I (or you) make it funny, but really pregnancy and birth and death will never be humorous again.

Last year at the beach I brought trash -- Tina Brown's "Diana" -- which included the story of Diana's mother giving birth to a stillborn child that the attendants would not allow her to view. This year on my island vacation I picked up a thriller (Laurie King's "A Darker Place") -- known author, completely unknown story -- and it turns out the protagonist was driven by the death of her young daughter. It seems almost impossible for me now to pick up a book and not search for it, or get beat over the head with it. Either babydeath is more recognized than I assumed, or it spins a damn good yarn.

Someone tell me this Sedaris thing gets better, please.


Lollipop Goldstein said...

I haven't read his latest one yet so I can't promise it will get better.

But it is incredible how ones reading experience changes with IF/loss/etc. I went through a long wave of books where miscarriage kept popping up as a theme. Books after book after book.

loribeth said...

I haven't read any of his stuff, so I can't tell you either. Loss certainly does give us a different prism though which to filter everything, doesn't it?

But your line about phoning the wife to express condolences in person almost had me spewing my tea across the computer screen!

luna said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, tash. I am just reading amy bloom's "away" now, hoping to finish it today, and I just read "the other boleyn sister" and had the same reaction (though I haven't read the weir book yet, it's still on my list). I had a whole post in my head about that book and never wrote it down...

it's true about the lens of IF/loss -- it's a totally different perspective.

STE said...

C has written about our experience of "babies everywhere!" Over time, it's evolved from a head-shaking, eye-rolling exclamation to a sighing, sad-eyed assertion, "Babies everywhere."

I don't really read much anymore, but I love David Sedaris. Until I get further reassurance, I guess I'll be skipping that one, too.

MsPrufrock said...

Well, being as I didn't even know David Sedaris had a new book until you mentioned in an email, I've got nothing.

When I was pregnant I read "The Time Traveler's Wife", lent reluctantly by a good friend of mine who was worried the miscarriage element would be too much for me at the time. It's something that wouldn't even have occurred to me to anticipate beforehand.

niobe said...

But from what I know, he is not one of us.

As I read this, something as bright as a tiny sparkler exploded in my brain. Everyone, I thought, is one of us. Everyone has lost something unutterably precious and is doomed to wander through life, opening doors in a endless corridor, hoping that behind one of them is that thing that we can't help looking for.

But that's not your point at all.

Busted said...

I haven't read that Sedaris, but to be honest, he lost his luster to me when I heard that he made up half of his so-called true stories. I don't mind if the stories are made up, but I hate that he would claim otherwise. Agreed from your recounting that it just sounds cold to me, not funny. How dare he joke about "replacement" children, when it is such a real fear of ours, that the same could happen again, or that another child will be viewed as a replacement.

I find the lens through which I view media is also supremely altered by our infertility and loss. Juno irks me - I won't even watch Baby Mama. I recently posted on an infertility board whether the book/movie In Her Shoes would be watchable for me because I couldn't watch anything having to do with pregnancy/babies/loss. They all said it would be fine - but a major storyline in the book was the death of the protagonists' mother - only there was a good deal from the point of view of the grandmother about her lost daughter - and that's pretty much all that stayed with me.

Julia said...

As you know, I just had a "liar-liar" moment on the topic of grief behavior and books. And reading this made me realize that 1) I am not reading nearly as much as you are, and 2) I am bloody jealous of your neighborhood.

Coggy said...

I've tried reading his earlier stuff and didn't really enjoy. Good luck with this one!

Loss just colours everything I do now. I find it difficult to have many conversations with people. I have to avoid certain films. I read books and news in a completely different way. I often feel like I'm the one living in the real world and all the non-loss people are the ones that don't belong.

I'm also with Julia. I'm jealous that your neighbourhood has a book club. I'm lucky if my neighbours even acknowledge me when I leave the house and I've lived here for 5 years.

Bon said...

my bookclub read the Memory Keeper's Daughter...and i had kind of the opposite experience of you, where people seemed to experience a total amnesia regarding my history during all discussion of the book. which was too bad, as i thought it was tripe - reads like a Hallmark card - but felt uncomfortable saying so because i didn't really want to go all "authentic dead baby" on their asses.

but yes, lots of motherhood and child death in fiction. i make book club so much less Stepford these days.

charmedgirl said...

i am currently re-reading the life of pi, and within the first bunch of pages he says, "when you've suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling." i am finding that the *everything deadbaby* you describe to be both comforting and horrifying.

Tash said...

Luna, I had a whole post started on just this line from "away":

Everyone has two memories. The one you can tell and the one that is stuck to the underside of that, the dark, tarry smear of what happened.

I love that. And the very last paragraph, which I read right about the time Kate asked me to join GITW and I don't believe in signs, but . . .well.

Mrs. Pru, someone warned me of the same theme in the same book, but I wound up hating the book so much by the time I got to that point I laughed at loud at the reason. Apparently that means I cry battery acid, am devoid of a soul, and going straight to hell.

Niobe, I get what you mean. And along those lines, I don't think an author has to have experienced what it is they want to write about, and I also think that any loss can certainly assist in empathizing another. BUT. I don't think I would feel comfortable myself writing about a person who loses everything they own in a fire without getting rather seriously into the skins and words of people who had for real. Just saying.

Busted, that's interesting that a totally different plot line hit you hard. I get that too.

Bon, I'm very lucky that my neighbors (perhaps assisted greatly by alcohol) are able and willing to both talk about books, but honor my place in the discussion. At least so far. We actually decided not to read that book, I guess the crickets were a bit too much to bear.

G said...

I just finished the Queen's Fool after reading The Other Boleyn Girl and was thinking I will never read a book again that doesn't stick to me and my experience.

Charlotte's Mama said...

In the group that I run I was just relating, last week, about how loss jumps out a me from everything I read.
I recall that after Charlotte died, I ran to the shelves, pulling off the few books-- novels or not-- where I could recall that someone, anyone, had experienced the death of their baby. I needed to read it again, to see it with my fresh, experienced eyes. It was different. It pulled at me in a new way.
And now, it seems to be everywhere, in everything I read. Things either seem heartbreakingly sad, if they are true or well written, or they seem so shallow and trite that I can hardly continue to read. And yes, in that context, the humour of much is simply gone. Gone forever. You just digest things much, much differently.

janis said...

I used to be in a book club, but I don't think I can be in one again. Unless I have brain surgery to remove my memory. Some intriguing books out there I need to read. But I guess by myself.

Alice said...

I completely understand this. Nowadays every single book I read involves a stillbirth or the death of a child. It happens with such regularity that finally I just have to find it funny.

Incidentally I'm reading a fantastically good book at the moment called The Women's Room. It's a feminist classic so everyone else probably read it years ago. I always avoided it thinking it would be too much of a rant. But it is very, very good. I'm only half way through but I take my hat off to Marilyn French. It is all horribly like reading about my own life. (But no dead babies yet. I'm sure one will crop up before too long).


kate said...

I rarely read fiction at all anymore. Ok, i rarely read anymore. I would like to start again, one of these days. I can occasionally read a short story in the NY'er, i remember that one you are talking about. I found it....irritating.

kate said...

PS i recently did read a few stories in the New Yorker 'summer fiction issue'. I swear, every single one of them was chock-full of trauma and loss and death. Jesus, i thought, this fucking magazine should come with a big red warning label. What the hell is up with that?

Jana said...

I recently re-read The Handmaid's Tale. When I read it before, I was a single college student. Now, I am married with a daughter. I found the passages about the narrator's attempts to flee with her daughter so heartrending...and I didn't even remember that part from when I read the book before! It just goes to show how a book can be completely different based on your perspective.

Jen said...

Alison Weir is not the best bet if you're looking for accuracy about Tudor England. She tends to report speculation as fact. If you're interested in the history of Henry VIII's wives (reproductive history included), Antonia Fraser's book is a much better source of fairly accurate popular history (without getting too "scholarly").

And as Henry VIII's wives go, Anne Boleyn did not have the most tragic reproductive history. His first wife Katherine of Aragon (subject of my master's thesis all those years ago) carried six pregnancies to term, but only one child survived birth and infancy (Mary). There is much about her story that makes her a compelling historical figure (and therefore subject of my research), but that aspect of it is what drew me in and broke my heart.

Finally, as some others have already stated, I'm jealous of your book club. It seems my bookish friends are spread too far afield for me to ever get anything like that up and running.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to find humor in the mundane like David Sedaris does after such life changing losses. And to see his jokes about the replacement children through your eyes. I don't know what to say.