The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson (20 Books of Summer #16/Classics Club #7)

The Bird’s Nest is the Shirley Jackson’s third novel, published in 1954, and it is just as quirky and oddball as you might expect if you’ve ever read her before. It’s the fifth one I’ve read by her so far and it is my least favorite, but still it is more thought-provoking and entertaining than many novels published today. Jackson has a way of describing human relationships and the human mind that is deliciously off-kilter and insightful. In this tale of a young woman’s deepening mental illness Jackson explores what it means to download (1)be human and how trauma can affect the mind.

Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest , as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s person equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that if was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that the began to slip at about the same time.

Living with her aunt Morgen and working in a hum-drum job at a museum, Elizabeth starts experiencing perplexing and frightening symptoms, like losing gaps of time and horrendous headaches and backaches. She also starts receiving threatening notes at the museum. Her aunt takes her to a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. Dr. Wright suggests hypnosis to try and get at the root of the problem, as “Miss R” (the doctor’s initial name for Elizabeth) insists there’s nothing wrong with her. When he puts her under hypnosis for the first time, Dr. Wright sees something that leaves him shaken:

…I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome. Because she was not, I saw, at all handsome, and as I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed, evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, thought only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she.

Little by little the hypnosis starts revealing that Elizabeth’s personality has split into four distinct personas: Elizabeth, Betsy, Beth, and Bess. There is a hinted trauma in Elizabeth’s past involving her mother, which Dr. Wright thinks is perhaps the origin of her mental illness. One section of the book is narrated by Betsy, who is the most lively and interesting personality. She takes off for New York City trying to find her mother. This was one of my favorite parts of the book because I had no clue where the story was going, and Betsy experiencing total freedom and control of the other personalities was entertaining, like a naive child out in the world for the first time.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot but I’ll just mention that Dr. Wright himself occupies a large share of the book, and he’s really not the most interesting character. He likes to hear himself talk and Jackson gives him too much of the book’s real estate. He’s not malevolent but instead self-important and irritating. Betsy aptly calls him “Dr. Wrong.”

If you’ve never read Jackson before I wouldn’t start with this one. It could use a bit of editing and Jackson honed her craft as she wrote more, becoming better at characterization and narrative drive. However, if you are already a Jackson fan and want to read everything she’s written, you will probably enjoy this, if for nothing else than to see the ways in which her skills developed over time. It is a strange exploration of identity and I liked it.

Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it – she will.”

“I don’t get it,” said Morgen.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be… dead?”

“Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation.

(This is the 16th book from my 20 Books of Summer list and the 7th book from my Classics Club list. I know that today – Labor Day in the U.S. – marks the official end to 20 Books of Summer, but I have one more review to post. Expect my thoughts on George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Decline sometime later this week.)

Classics Club Spin #17: The Long-Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker by Maeve Brennan #ccspin

Sometimes I think that inside New York there is a Wooden Horse struggling desperately to get out, but more often these days I think of New York as the capsized city. Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.

Even after more than twenty-five years the long-winded lady cannot think of herself as a “real” New Yorker. If she has a title, it is one held by many others, that of a traveler in residence. As a traveler she is interested in what she sees, but she is not very curious, not even inquisitive. She is not a sightseer, never an explorer… She is drawn to what she recognizes, or half-recognizes, and these forty-seven pieces are the record of forty-seven moments of recognition.

51auvQaKFML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My first Classics Club Spin (I joined back in February) was a mixed bag. The late Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan intrigues me, so I am glad that I read her collection of essays about living in New York City in the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Long Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker. These were originally published as pieces in the magazine for which she worked for more than 30 years as as staff writer. I found the experience of reading the collection in a few weeks’ time to be challenging, despite its short length. I tried to space them out by reading one or two a day at the most, but they still started to blend together for me. Many of them are set in restaurants, observations of the people eating and drinking and the staff. Many of them are about buildings being torn down in favor of “progress.” There is a palpable sense of transience about the collection as a whole, of a city in flux, a time of great social change. Most of the essays are indeed about small moments between two people, whether between people Brennan observes or between Brennan and someone else.

Brennan is a talented observer and chronicler of human foibles and quirks. She has a way with words. In one piece I liked, “Balzac’s Favorite Food,” she writes of peacefully browsing a book shop, just starting to read about something that Balzac would mix into sardines that he mashed on bread, when she was interrupted by a group of obnoxious interlopers.

…I took off my glasses to get a look at them. Cruelty and Stupidity and Bad Noise – there were three of them, a man and a woman and another, but I did not see the third, who was hidden behind the tall spindle bookcase they were all looking at and making merry over. They called out names and titles, and made a lot of feeble puns, ruining the place for everybody, and I paid for the books I had under my arm, and left. I walked over to Le Steak de Paris and asked for sardines and plain bread, but when I began to mash the sardines, I couldn’t remember what it was that Balzac used to mix them with. It didn’t matter. Sardines with plain bread are very good. I said to myself that there was no use thinking about the hyenas in the bookshop. Their capacity for arousing violence will arouse somebody who is violent one of these days.

She decides she will go back to the bookshop that night, find the book, and before the night is through she will know precisely how Balzac’s favorite food tastes.

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121 Charles St.

Another essay I liked, one that sent me off the Google to do some research, is “The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown.” And old farmhouse, really old, like 200 years old, was about to be torn down for a nursing home, so the then owners decided to save it and move it by truck to the Village! (It still stands today, as far as I can tell, and you can read about it here and here if you like. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and other children’s books, once lived there!)

It was a very tiny house – much smaller than I had expected. That must have been a very small farmer who built it. It was sitting up high on a sturdy cage or raft, of heavy wooden beams, on a wedge-shaped, weedy lot, with the old brick warehouses towering over it like burly nursemaids. It was a crooked little house – askew on its perch but crooked anyway – and it looked as plain and as insubstantial as a child’s chalk drawing, but it was a real house, with a real door, and a flat roof with a chimney sticking out of it.

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Image from The Guardian

 

But by far my favorite essay was “I Wish For A Little Street Music” (1968) which starts out bemoaning the humdrum and depressing state of the people along Broadway. (“I thought to myself: All these people are sheep, and I am a sheep.”) But then she spies a middle-aged father and teenage son reunion that tugs at the heart strings (and me me absolutely BAWL, I might add!)

The father stared admiringly up at his son, hearing every word, and you could see that what he longed for was to have the chance, just once again, to pick his child up and walk a few steps with him in his arms. And it would have taken very little to cause that boy to embrace his father and whirl him around in the air. What a funny trick Time had played on those two – or was it a trick of Light that made the son so big while the father remained the size he had been? It was as thought some cameraman had enlarged a picture of the child and left the father life-size. 

…Maybe they went to the Howard Johnson’s at Forty-sixth Street. That is a nice place, especially if you get near the window, so that you can look out at the crowd passing and see that at a little distance there are no sheep on Broadway.

So while I did enjoy the essays, and some of them very much, overall I felt relieved when I finished the collection. This is probably more to do with the time constraints of having to get this read and written about by the end of April for The Classics Club than flaws in the material itself. If I’d spread this collection out for a few months instead of weeks I may have ended up giving it a higher rating. So I hope that if you are at all interested in essays about New York City, if you want a glimpse into what it may have been like (for a professional white woman) in the 1950’s and 1960’s, if you are a fan of Brennan’s fiction, then please do give this one a try. There is much here to admire.

 

 

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt that they didn’t know their mothers.  Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.

You know that bookish phrase you see frequently in reviews – “I wanted to like this more than I did?”  Like most cliches, there’s a reason you see it a lot: it describes a real feeling. The Mothers by Brit Bennett was one of 2016’s most highly lauded and promoted novels, and many of the book bloggers I follow had high praise for it.  To top it off, it has one of the most appealing covers of any hardcover in recent memory.  The fact that a debut novel by an African American woman had so much buzz around it is refreshing and hopefully a sign that the publishing industry is changing.  (I hope?)

28815371The Mothers is what I call a family saga.  The main plot deals with romantic relationships and a long-standing friendship, but the weight of family drama is ever present and influences the actions of the main characters throughout.  Nadia is a seventeen year-old living with her father after her mother’s suicide.  She and her father don’t know how to communicate with one another after such a horrific tragedy.  As she moves numbly throughout her days, making some poor choices, she ends up secretly dating Luke, a preacher’s son and an “older man” at 21.  Nadia also befriends an introverted newcomer to her school, Aubrey, who harbors her own painful family past.  Nadia and Luke’s relationship turns physical, and she becomes pregnant.  What Nadia and Luke decide to do that one summer has repercussions throughout the rest of their lives.

Providing an interesting structure throughout the book is a Greek chorus-style group of women who are the elder lay leaders of the Upper Room church that Nadia’s father attends, and where Luke’s father serves as preacher. These are women who serve on the committees, bring casseroles to the bereaved, and pray collectively for people of the church.

We don’t think of ourselves as “prayer warriors.”  A man must have come up with that term – men think anything difficult is war.  But prayer is more delicate than battle, especially intercessory prayer.  More than just a notion, taking up the burdens of someone else, often someone you don’t even know.  You close your eyes and listen to a request.  Then you have to slip inside their body.  You are Tracy Robinson, burning for whiskey.  You are Cindy Harris’s husband, searching your wife’s phone.  You are Earl Vernon, washing dirty knots out of your strung-out daughter’s hair.  

If you don’t become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words.

I liked the collective voice of these women, which sometimes separated into a single person and then came back together.  I cared about Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, and was invested in seeing how their lives played out.  But choices were made that really frustrated me.  And I wondered about the likelihood of some of those choices as well.  Things didn’t ring true at times.  I kept thinking, these people are in their late 20’s now.  Shouldn’t they be moving on a little bit, expanding their social circle?  Are they doomed to keep repeating patterns?  Sometimes it felt a bit like a soap opera, a bit overwrought.  I’m being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil anything.

That said, Bennett is a lovely writer.  I marked passages that were simply beautiful to read, like this:

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss.  You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

Or this one:

…magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.

The strongest, most nuanced parts of the novel for me were Nadia’s and Aubrey’s fraught relationships with their families.  Nadia’s strained relationship with her father was particularly moving to me.  I felt how much they loved one another, but they just couldn’t find a way to communicate their love.  The sections detailing with Aubrey’s painful past and how she tried to find a way to live and love afterwards were beautifully written as well.

I liked this lyrical, haunting debut novel and would most definitely read something else by Brit Bennett.  She is certainly an author to watch, and I am so glad she’s getting media attention.  This would make a good book for a book club – lots of things to discuss, both in plot and in structure.  This was a case where my own high expectations for the book weren’t quite met, which is not the author’s fault.  If you like a book about modern, complicated families and relationships, secrets and regrets, you should give The Mothers a try.