BETWEEN THE LINES

"I loved this book" "I hated this book"

May 20, 2015

Tags: An Untamed State, Roxanne Gay, book group

A few days ago, a book group I attend discussed Roxanne Gayís debut novel, AN UNTAMED STATE. I had suggested the book for the group, and read it for a second time in preparation for the discussion. So I admit I was shocked when the first two comments were, ďI hated this book.Ē

Me, I love this book.

I suppose I wasnít entirely surprised, because of Gayís subject matter. AN UNTAMED STATE is about the kidnapping and brutal sexual torture of a young woman who returns to Haiti to visit her parents. Itís not an easy book to read. Itís not a comfortable place to go. So why do I admire it so much?

For one thing, the first sentence is one of the best Iíve ever read in a novel. It sent shivers up and down my spine, hooking me immediately into the story:

ďOnce upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.Ē

Wow.

I love that first sentence, because it tells me that this novel is about the fairy tales we like to tell ourselves, but they lie. This young woman will not live happily ever after. I love the book because the bad men Ė and they are very bad Ė are young men with hope beating in their chests. This doesnít excuse their actions, but it certainly deepens the story. I love this book because itís about the enormous chasm between wealth and poverty and how the fairy tale princess and her family share responsibility for the brutality of that system. I love this book because itís about the impossible choices people make, and then must live with.

In powerful prose Ė no one disagreed about that Ė Gay shows us the tangled and terrible realities of a very ugly class and race system. I love this book because even though the princess doesnít live happily ever after, she does survive.

Even though we disagreed about the book, it was a terrific discussion. I still love the book, and I love book groups too.

What My Mother Taught Me About Having It All

May 8, 2015

Tags: mother, Mothers Day, having it all

My mother wanted it all. She was bossy and demanding, a terrible cook, ambitious and very determined. Iím rather like her, except Iím a better cook. Raising my younger sister and me in the late 1940ís and 1950ís, Mom told us that we could have it all, be everything we wanted to be, but she was clearly unhappy in her short stint as a stay-at-home mother. The moment my sister started school, Mom went back to work as a high school chemistry teacher.

Being demanding and smart served her well as a teacher. She taught in my high school; her students loved her. Me, not so much. My friends competed for her coveted lab assistant positions. I focused on English classes and the school newspaper and took chemistry in summer school. Mom stayed late every afternoon after school, as faculty advisor to student groups and to meet with students needing extra time. I learned to cook dinner.

Mom demanded a lot of herself. In her fifties, she returned to college for a Masters and then a PhD and started teaching at a state university. By then, I was out of the house with a family of my own. I was proud of her, but I lived far away and her accomplishments had little to do with me. I worked on feminist issues (reproductive health and abortion and day care), earned my living as a nurse, and co-raised my daughters. My mother retired from teaching and turned her considerable fervor to collecting silver and turquoise Indian jewelry. In my fifties, I decided to write fiction. I took online classes, attended writing workshops and conferences, and then earned an MFA, completed just before I turned 60.

My mother died in 2008, three years before my first novel was published. She never knew that in my own way, I followed the path she blazed. But every time I do a reading from my work, I wear one of her silver bracelets.