HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson: A Review

Walker Percy has described this strange 1980 publication of Robinson’s first novel as a “haunting dream of a story.” The characters are strange; the plot is strange; and the ending is strange, open to more than one interpretation. Even the characters are strange enough to wonder if they are sane or not. Ruth, the older of two sisters has never fit in, nor never wanted to. Her younger sister, Lucille is just the opposite, desiring to be popular and to lead a “normal” life. Eventually, the sisters come under the care of their mother’s sister, Sylvia Fisher, the strangest of characters I’ve ever read. She is described as “eccentric” and “remote,” a definite understatement.

Underlying the story is the river and the railroad that crossed the river once, sending a whole train and all its passengers into the glacial waters so deep no one ever found the train or any traces of it. The girls’ grandfather was killed in the accident. There are no chapters in this book, to speak of ; one section just flows into another, pulling the reader along as the river pulls along the things and people who fall into it. Thematically, the novel deals with the transience and impermanence of things and of life, The Great Depression, insanity, death, and suicide. In places it is depressing, but, throughout, it is beautifully written. There are even some spots of dark humor.

Years ago I had read and loved Gilead, Home, and Lila, Robinson’s outstanding trilogy, and came to her debut novel late, expecting something that was not present. The novel left me impressed with the writing, intrigued and a bit puzzled by the ending. I could not rate this novel if I wanted to and kept the copy I ordered rather than passing it along because I am sure I will, at some point, read it again.


Two Books Read During the Holidays: Reviews

A grammar handbook and a magnificent children’s book written by a global hero couldn’t be more different, but those two books were two I read over the holidays.

Thomas Parrish’s The Grumpy Grammarian was laugh-out-loud funny. It’s subtitle is “A How-Not-To-Guide to the 47Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better.” The author, Parrish pretends to have an older friend who has saved clippings full of errors from writers who “should know better.” Some of these come from prestigious newspapers and magazines (The New Yorker, Newsweek, USA Today, Washington Post to name a few) Some of the errors that make the grammarian friend grumps are “picky”; some are outdated, but others are just W-R-O-N-G.  The malapropisms and dangling modifiers often make the reader chuckle . It is not a book for all, but it was a delight to this grumpy grammarian. I gave it to two grammarian friends, father and son, who are anything BUT grumpy and decided to let them enjoy it as I did.

A children’s book by Malala Yousafzai,the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is  beautifully illustrated by the husband and wife team who go by the pseudonym KERASCOET was another fascinating reading “experience” I had this holiday season. It begins:
“When Malala was a child in Pakistan, she wished for a magic pencil.  She would use it to…

‘…draw a lock on her door to keep her brothers out.

…stop time so she could sleep an extra hour every morning.

…erase the smell of the trash dump near her house.’ ”

It tells how Malala, more than anything wanted to attend school, but in Pakistan this was forbidden because she was a girl. The book tells and shows in pictures how Malala found a pencil and wrote about the challenges she faced as a girl/young woman in Pakistan, a war-torn region.  Worldwide, people read her writing. The horrible attack she suffered is handled in a sensitive way (It is a child’s book, after all.) and points out that she saw the “magic of hope” through it all. As the cover states, this spectacular book is “The true story of one girl’s wish for a better world.”  It would be the perfect birthday book for a child or grandchild.  I was thoroughly enchanted by the illustrations and intrigued by the story.

RECENT READS: Reviews of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Church of the Dog

Kathleen Rooney has written a fascinating book about a fascinating woman in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. The novel is based on a real person, Margaret Fishback, who lived in the 1930s and published witty poetry and several books. Like Margaret, Lillian, the fictional character works for many years as an ad writer for Macy’s Department store.The story takes place in one evening and night, New Year’s Eve, 1984, in Manhattan, as Lillian Boxfish walks alone for a total of ten miles.  As she walks, she considers her life, which covered ” ” from “the jazz age to the AIDS epidemic,” “from the Great Depression to the birth of hip hop.” It not only explores the changes in Lillian Boxfish,but the changes in N.Y. specifically, and the US in general.  Lillian is extremely openminded for an octogenarian, and is flexible to at least accept change as it throws itself at her. As a reviewer said, “There is a little of Lillian Boxfish in all of us. And if there isn’t, there ought to be.”

Another book I finished this week was Kaya McLaren’s Church of the Dog.  Interestingly enough, it was originally published in 2000, then after input and advice from fans and book club appearances, the author re-wrote it, making extensive changes and re-published it in 2008. The novel is set in Oregon farm country among the many cattle ranches and “good country people” who occupy them. One such couple is the McRaes, whose lives are turned around and upside down by the appearance of Maura O’ Shawnessey, who has the “gift,” as the Irish say. She fixes up an old bunkhouse on the McRaes’ property which comes to be called “The Church of the Dog” by the neighbors because of it’s arched entrance and mural of a  friendly dog on the front. Surprisingly, a real dog, who looks exactly the same as the mural arrives one night in the middle of a thunderstorm, which Maura names Zeus, appropriately, since Zeus was the god of the thunderbolt and storm. The novel holds many surprises and completely redefines the concept of “family.” However, no surprise is bigger than the surprise ending. It is available in large print at the Alvin Library.

RECENT READS: Reviews of Two Children’s Books

The two books I read this past week are both love stories from a child’s point of view but with very different messages and very different viewpoints.

The first, The Day I Became a Bird, written by Ingrid Chabbert and illustrated by Guridi, a Spanish artist, was published in 2016 by Kid’s Can Press.  It is a very special book. The story goes: Boy meets girl and wants to catch her eye.  Girl cares about nothing but birds, “…There are birds on her pants and dresses.  She wears birds barrettes in her hair.  She draws birds on her notebooks and folders.  And when she speaks, her voice sounds like birdsong.” So, the boy makes a bird costume and wears it to school despite all the teasing and hard-to-maneuver times, for he has eyes for her. Then, attracted by the costume, their eyes meet, and the rest is a beautiful story of young(est) love.  Done in greys and blacks on beige paper, the drawings, and especially the grey cover are simply lovely and convey the gentleness and guilelessness of the story.

The Tadpole’s Promise, on the other hand, published in 2005 in the US; 2003 in Britain, by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ress, is downright depressing.  Or maybe it was me; I was a bit “down” the day I read it. It is the story of a tadpole and a caterpillar who leans out over the pond on a blade of grass.  Their eyes meet, and they fall in love. The caterpillar makes the tadpole promise he will never change, as she calls him her “shiny black pearl,” and he agrees to his “beautiful rainbow” (Her stripes are multi-colored). He promises with good intentions, but breaks his promise three times as he goes through the development of a tadpole into a young frog.  She is broken hearted and is so sad, she breaks off the romance and crawls into a cocoon. You guessed it!  They both change and no longer recognize each other.  As a butterfly, she glides over the pond, the frog zaps out his tongue and swallows her! The depressing ending has the frog sitting on a lily pad, longing for his “beautiful rainbow” and waiting, waiting, waiting…

Two very different endings. Two very different emotions conveyed. Both worth reading for the illustrations alone.


Here are brief reviews of two books I finished last week, both worth investing our precious reading time in:

Paper Hero,by Leon Hale, a local humorist and colorist, was a re-read and was originally an “assignment” for the Third Tuesday Book Club.  Wanting something “Christmassy” last Christmas, we all agreed we’d enjoyed Paper Hero enough to read Hale’s essays, collected under the title One Man’s Christmas.  This led me to  revisit  Paper Hero to remind myself of Hale’s childhood and journalism background, and I’m glad I made the journey.

Paper Hero,a memoir or autobiography starts out in Hale’s childhood.  It was during the depression, and Hale’s father was a traveling salesman, trying hard to feed his family.  Because of frequently getting laid off, Hale’s father moved his family around from rent house to rent house, frequently. Like many people during the depression, although the family lived in the city, they kept a cow and chickens, plus had a garden .  Early on Hale got a job throwing newspapers, thus the title, Paper Hero. His description of his college days (on a scholarship) describes him finding out what he was good at.  Like many young men of his era, WWII interrupted his life for several years. He was in combat and eventually was (before there was such a thing) an embedded Journalist for a paper.  He goes on to describe his earliest jobs at  the Houston Post, then at the Houston Chronicle, when the Post folded.  This is where our group had first met him, as a columnist whom we would never mis reading.  Once in a while he will still (He is in his 90s) write a guest column ,or the Chronicle will re-run one of his classic columns. His columns are hilarious at times and always warm and touching.  His autobiography is the same.

Jhumpa Lahiri is responsible for the fine film,The Namesake, so when I read about The Lowland,a National Book Award finalist published in 2013, I ordered a copy.  I was not disappointed.  Her novel tells (in her particularly beautiful storytelling style) the tale of two Indian brothers, born very close together and together in every undertaking whether it be mischief or scholarly pursuits. Subbhash, the elder is quiet, a serious scholar and totally apolitical.  Udayan, the younger, is rash, a risk taker, very political, and the favored son of the boys’  mother. While Subbash is studying  and teaching in America, Udayan, like many Indian students of the time, fights with a radical political party, taking dangerous assignments even though he has taken a wife, Gauri.  Udayan is executed, and against the wishes of his parents, Subbash weds Udayan’s pregnant wife and relocates her to Providence, RI.

Beautiful writing is present throughout this engrossing novel with the lowlands, “…dark, dank, weedy places that haunt out lives,” first in India, then in Providence, become  a metaphor for the lives of the characters as well as the plot of the novel.  It has been said of Lahiri, she “…spins the globe and comes full circle.” The twists and turns of the plot and the memorable characters she creates allow her to do just that in this fine novel.