Discussion, Review of Elizabeth Strout and OH WILLIAM!

In her latest novel, OH WILLIAM!–Lucy Barton, the main character and voice in the novel, tells us that when she learns William had been having an affair with her friend, “a tulip stem inside me snapped. It has stayed snapped, it never grew back.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Strout hated being a lawyer: “I couldn’t stand up for anybody, even when I believed in their case.” After six months, she left to do the adjunct professor thing in Manhattan, teaching literature—writing. Strout has admitted that there’s nothing romantic about being rejected, but she never gave up. “I often had only two hours every three days to work; I had to make the most of it.”

She succeeded, using her early life in Maine to create Amy and Isabel, Abide with Me and then Olive Kitteridge, her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories about a cantankerous wife, mother and former teacher. Example: Olive’s only child, Christopher, has just married Suzanne. Olive leaves the party, goes into the married couple’s bedroom…she crosses the pine floor, gleaming in the sunshine, and lies down on Christopher’s (and Suzanne’s) queen-size bed. …It pleases her to think of the piece of blueberry cake she managed to slip into her big leather handbag—how she can go home soon and eat it in peace, take off this panty girdle, get things back to normal.

…Then later, Olive sees the bride’s favorite pair of loafers. She takes one, smashing it into her purse with the blueberry cake. That’s Olive.

In Olive Again, 2019, Strout deals with Olive’s second marriage, her son’s divorce, her need to move to the Maple Tree Apartments. There she meets characters who have appeared in Strout’s work: Amy and Isabelle, The Burgess Boys. This expansion of the lives of former characters reinforces Strout’s oeuvre and the world she’s created. Toward the end of Olive Again….her mind twirling around, Olive suddenly remembered catching grasshoppers as a child, putting them in a jar with the top on, her father had said, ‘Let them out, Ollie, they’ll die.’

Her next, My Name Is Lucy Barton, allowed Strout to explore new artistic territory by creating Lucy, a writer with a background, a life experience worth exploring, exposing. Strout followed with a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible and now with Oh William! — Strout the writer, Lucy Barton her muse. 

In MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Lucy is hospitalized for complications from appendicitis. Away from her children and husband, she awakens to find her mother sitting in the hospital room. There is little positive history to connect these two, but the mother has traveled from Amgash, Illinois, a fictional small town Strout created where people cling to the land, seeking comfort in the narrowness of what they know. The mother’s arrival gives rise to Lucy’s childhood pain: her father locking Lucy in a truck with a snake; the tiny cold house; Lucy staying late at school where she could study, be warm, meet the gentle teacher who believes in Lucy, helps her escape Amgash, attend college where she begins to write about her life, where she meets and falls in love with William!

As she wrote the story collection, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, I envision Strout with piles of notes (her process, see previous post) while laboring over themes and visual details to create characters that might have walked the streets of poorer towns, maybe even those in her beloved Maine. In her story SISTER, Lucy has finally returned to Amgash to visit her sister and brother.

Lucy moved close to her sister, she rubbed her knee. “Oh, that’s disgusting. You are not icky, Vicky, you’re–”   “I am so icky, Lucy. Just look at me.” Tears keep coming from Vicky’s eyes. They rolled down over her mouth, with its lipstick.   “You know what?” Lucy said. She stopped rubbing Vicky’s knee and started patting it instead. “Cry away. Honey, just cry your eyes out, it’s okay. My God, do you remember how we were never supposed to cry?”

Strout left a thread in MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Lucy’s father, a WWII vet, won’t accept Lucy’s marriage to William, whose heritage is German. Now in OH WILLIAM! Strout explores that thread.

LUCY’S HISTORY…

Lucy married William, they lived in New York City, had two daughters, then later divorced. In Oh, WilliamLucy’s second husband, David, has recently died, her  daughters are grown. William has had women, but finds himself lonely. When he asks Lucy to go on a trip with him, help him search for a half-sister he has newly discovered on an ancestry website, Lucy questions her current role, but then agrees. The book is a trip of remembrance, of adaptation that all couples experience. Memories of their lives, their daughters lives past and present are shared. They talk about Catherine, William’s deceased mother, questioning how this step-sister might exist. The trip revives memories, Catherine putting William in a nursery school. “I’d cry every day at that place…Lucy, I would cry–the kids would circle around me at recess and they’d sing, ‘Crybaby, crybaby.'”
Lucy listens, silently questions how William will react if they actually find this woman, this half-sister.  

With MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and now OH WILLIAM! Strout has mastered a clipped, direct style, scenes that flow into one another, revealing a character’s thoughts, ordinary, maybe even simple, but always revelatory….he was wearing the khakis that were too short and I had the same reaction I’d had when I first saw him wearing them at the airport the day before, but I was tired from my night and I did not feel it as strongly. 

so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for breadcrumbs that could lead us home. …that the only home I ever had was with William…I’m not sure why this is true, but it is. …being with Hansel–even if we were lost in the woods–made me feel safe.              I wrote in the margin, YES! Strout relates a character’s thoughts, questions, pains, and the questioning we all have about our closest relationships. 

I was in rural Maine and what had just come to me was an understanding, I think that is the only way I can put it, of these people in their houses, these houses we passed by. It was an odd thing, but it was real, for a few moments I felt this: that I understood where I was…that I loved the people we did not see who inhabited the few houses and who had their trucks in front of these houses. This is what I almost felt. This is what I felt. 

Again, we check in on our feelings as they flow through us, pinning them down as we question and then say YES.

Every reader comes to a novel with their own past, their own anxieties, beliefs and a view of the world. Getting lost in story can be pleasing, but it can also arouse questions. Reading Elizabeth Strout is a journey. It provides a look at the reality of lives, not always pleasant, not always redeeming. Her characters are flawed, as we all are. But people change and grow. Strout has penetrated those changes in her work. Maybe that is why she again finds her characters gathered on her table of messy notes, waving conjoling, encouraging her to write more about them. I hope she does.  

When Elizabeth Strout Critiqued My Pages

Elizabeth Strout, How She Came to Be A Favorite Author: Part One

An author from Maine, now living and working in New York City, Elizabeth Strout published her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, in 1998. The basic storyline echoed some unfortunate headlines, examining, “the close relationship between Isabelle and her teenage daughter Amy, how their relationship comes to be strained after Amy is groomed by her much older math teacher.”

A reviewer in the New York Times summarized the new writer’s talent: “…the story’s true drama lies in the palpable, intricate way it examines the ‘scrape of longing’ that drives these characters toward human contact, leaving them raw and bleeding yet also more fully alive.”

I read her debut, then her second novel, Abide with Me, (2006) summarized as: a religious leader, struggling with the death of his wife, in a small New England town, in the 1950s. Still New England, but Strout flexing her writing muscle, wowing some of the reviewers while finding her way. She would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature on March 25, 2008, for creating the amazing character who appears in a collection of short fiction: OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Now with no place to go but up, Strout published THE BURGESS BOYS in 2013, a novel with Maine roots that takes place in New York City.

I GET TO MEET HER

In the summer of 2006, I did what had become a delightful summer habit, I would attend a writing workshop at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. The catalogue listed Elizabeth Strout, offering a weekend course on writing THE NOVEL. I signed up.

What kind of a teacher was this future Pulitzer Prize winner that auspicious weekend? Well, nervous, apologizing that this was a new experience for her—but talking about her passion, which of course is writing.

She spent the first day explaining how she’d come to be a fiction writer. I don’t think attendees, myself included, found this very helpful or exciting—but looking back, Elizabeth was truly sharing the nuts and bolts of her writing process, encouraging those of us who might also be experiencing an unusual start, a bumpy start.  

Married to her first husband at the time, Strout mentioned that her in-laws didn’t understand why her dining room and a room in her basement were littered with scarps of paper, quick ideas that she jotted down, pages and pages, most-often written in long-hand and not always placed in organized piles. (Strout later taught herself how to compose at the computer) but I understood that moments of creation often come through the fingers, and at the time, longhand was her process. Though I don’t want to bore you with these details, as a struggling writer, I found it all fascinating.

MY LITTLE GIFT & HER ANALYSIS

Before that weekend, I’d found a furniture advertisement in a women’s magazine, the usual, except that the table had a neat pile of books and Strout’s AMY & ISABEL was prominently displayed. I brought the page with me, clipped it to my homework assignment.

Elizabeth had asked us to provide one chapter from our work-in-progress. I was working on my second novel, THE MOON DOCTOR, (still unpublished) about a burn victim who finds his traumatic experience has given him the power to heal others–without the need for medical school. 

Strout read ten pages from a chapter in the middle of the book. Her final comment:

There’s a lot going on here, and it’s very intriguing. It seems you have quite an interesting plot at work here, and some very good details. I think you might work on making sure every sentence is direct and ‘true.’ We will talk more about this in workshop and conference. (Thanks for enclosing the cover of the brochure displaying my book. That was very thoughtful of you.) Elizabeth Strout.

For interested fellow writers, she underlined phrases, stating that they WEAKENED my presentation. Her message: these sentences were not true to my voice.

Example: All of these thoughts skittered around the encumbrance of his physical body.  YES, I agree, a truly horrible sentence.

He slowly removed the IV catheter from Jolene’s arm. He’d forgotten a 4by4 and instead watched a snake of dark blood pool down onto the bed linen. Strout wrote: good use of detail.

Was Strout a great teacher? No. I know she’d be so much better now, as I have listened to her interviews, she being more assured, eager to share her writing process, because she has succeeded, truly succeeded. And her life has radically changed, her fourth novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, performed on Broadway, the dialogue spoken by Laura Linney.  

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT ELIZABETH STROUT…so next week, I will review Strout’s recent novel, OH, WILLIAM! when Strout is once again in the world of Lucy Barton, the main character of MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and her collection of short stories, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Thanks for reading. 

 

Memories and Their Power

Ann Patchett says: I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ from a sibling etc.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the …faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
Joan Didion, Blue Nights

That’s Joan Didion, her words veering toward the negative. Because loss is tragic, hard, challenging. She longs for her daughter. That loss shakes up the foundations she depended on, and I applaud her words as a search for strength.

But can we be nostalgic when we are young? Yes.

Anne Frank was, writing in her diary of days past, knowing those days were gone, that her world was imploding and that she might never again sit in a classroom, walk the streets of Amsterdam free and unhindered, look forward to love, marriage and children.

Anyone who looks back in longing–for a friend, a house, a parent, an experience, can feel and write about their longings–this is nostalgia. You want something back, that you don’t want to forget.

CREATIVITY AND REMEMBERING 

There was a time when I began to write, that nostalgia seemed to propel me. Why? I was young, and I saw that my experience was in some ways limited. Some changes in my life had already happened (loss of a parent, early responsibilities as a result). And I saw that I didn’t want to relive my childhood, but that it dwelled within me, making my losses and gains part of me, the engine of my creativity.

Because when you write, you are either pulling things out of your own experience or making shit up. Both land on the page, and wow, you’re a writer. (Though not necessarily a good one. It takes time, lots of time. Maybe forever.)

SO WHAT IS THE ENGINE OF CREATIVITY?  

When Author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House, Commonwealth) takes a memory and infuses it with meaning, she then uses it in one of her novels. She describes her process this way: “I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ…” Because we know that fiction comes from seeds of experience. IT COMES FROM LIFE, FROM LIVING. And what one person sees or hears or feels, can differ from another.

EVEN FICTIONAL CHARACTERS LIVE IN OUR MEMORIES 

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, discovered that her characters refused to stay within the pages of past books. Though Strout left her home in Maine for New York City, Maine stayed with her. So did the voice, the face, the life of Olive Kitterridge, the eponymous title of the collection of short stories that won Strout the Pulitzer for fiction.  But Olive wasn’t finished. She continued to speak to Strout, and thus Olive Again came to be, more stories that take us back to Maine, but also (and this is to amazing and clever) bring back characters from Strout’s other novels. It’s delightful for Olive to find herself living in the same senior facility as the mother from Amy and Isabel, that being only one example. After writing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout felt compelled to learn more about Lucy’s beginnings and sent her back to a small town in Illinois to reconnect with her siblings and other in a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible. We all do this: let our memories grow, fill out the stories of our lives, enhance them. At some level WE ARE ALL STORY TELLERS. 

WRITE IT DOWN 

Many of us kept or still keep a diary. It’s our lives on paper, our deepest thoughts and even our anger and our hurts. It’s not fiction, but it can fuel fiction and it always comes from the power of memory.

Talk to an old friend. Discover that the mention of a place, a high school crush, a certain teacher brings back a flood of memory. And though they aren’t always positive, they are part of our lives. Joan Didion wrote Blue Nights after losing her daughter. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband. Joan used the power of her memory, of her words to seek healing. Each and everyone of us is a vessel of stories. Write them down. They are part of you, and they have power. 

Some of The Amazing People I Have Met

Some of The Amazing People I Have Met

We meet many people during our lives. There is often the iconic story of the teacher, doctor, employer who teaches, employs and cares for a young man or woman who goes on to become known in the world: the scientist who creates the polio vaccine; the political activist who becomes a state senator and then president of the United States; the gardener who loves plants and then becomes known for his gardening advice. The writer who wins the Pulitzer.

Every one of you has someone you worked with, met or taught—someone who has gone on to do great things. Maybe that person is you!

Today I’m sharing some of the amazing people I have met who still inspire me to this day.

THE BEGINNING

Born, raised, and completing my education in Chicago—there are hundreds of people during that time in my life who had great influence on me, who loved and encouraged me. Certainly, every member of my loving family. 

BUT WHAT PATHWAY TO TAKE

My biology teacher at Mundelein College saw something in me, called me into her office to underline that I should NOT major in English, become a teacher. I should immediately switch to the sciences, go into medicine. I didn’t listen.

But after teaching high school English at BLOOM TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL (I loved my students) and having my children, I became fascinated with medicine and followed her advice, became a nurse. I worked in the maternity unit at MERCY HOSPITAL in Chicago, assisting pregnant women of all ages and backgrounds. Like teaching, this position opened my vision of life, stressed the importance of understanding all persons in our society.

LIVING IN IOWA EQUALS POLITICS

Then a few years later my husband accepted employment in Des Moines, Iowa—another adventure. Des Moines is the state capital, and because of Iowa’s first in the nation caucus, it is always the center of political activity. My husband and I couldn’t help but become more involved in politics. When HILLARY CLINTON ran, we were sitting in the Drake Dinner at 5:00 in the morning, watching her prepare for interviews on all major stations. We were friends with DR. ANDY McGUIRE, who ran for governor of Iowa, who has been head of the Iowa Democratic party and will always have political blood running in her veins. Through Andy, we met Hillary that morning, and I asked her how she did it all. She teared up. And for those reading who remember a similar episode, this was way before New Hampshire.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA won the caucuses and I was able to shake his hand during a meet and greet in Des Moines. That’s a huge memory for me. But that event was also fortuitous, as the woman standing next to me was an RN at the Polk County Health Department in Des Moines. I had recently lost the amazing work I had done for Meredith Corporation in Des Moines—(think Better Homes & Gardens, Midwest Living, Country Home and many other amazing magazines), because the Meredith Books group had shut down. (Thanks to Terri Fredrickson who guided me through the years I proofread for her.) So I interviewed at the health department and was hired JUST AT THE TIME, — H1N1 was surging.

But because of my work at MEREDITH BOOKS, I had met JAMES WAGENVROOD, a writer from New York City, who became my mentor and dear friend. We actually wrote a book together that you would not think would be in my wheelhouse, MIANI INK, MARKED FOR GREATNESS. 

I also met and toured the garden of ELVIN McDONALD, gardener, writer, and lovely person. You might be familiar with his: A GARDEN MAKES A HOUSE A HOME. 

BOOK SIGNINGS 

The Des Moines Library (newly built in the re-emerging city center with a roof that originally was covered in grass, a salute to the green movement) hosted authors and there I met ELIZABETH BERG. She shook my hand and said I needed to get my novels out of the drawers where they were sitting. I’m still working on that project. She was charming, of course.  

THE IOWA WRTERS’ WORKSHOP

And speaking of writing, Iowa is the home of the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, famous for its creative writing program: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An easy drive down Route 80 and you’re there!

So get jealous now: I and twenty other writers spent a weekend with Pulitzer Prize winning ELIZABETH STROUT, known for her novels OLIVE KITTERIDGE, OLIVE AGAIN, AMY And ISABELLE, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON (and more). I’ve read ALL her work and encourage you to do so.

There were more wonderful teachers at Iowa: my friend and helpmate SUSAN CHEHAK who helped and encouraged me to publish my collection of short stories: A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE.

ONE FINAL and FUN STORY

Through Andy McGuire we met many people in Democratic politics: Governor Vilsack, former Vice President Mondale, Governor of Vermont Howard Dean—but the most memorable was meeting NANCY PELOSI.     

We were in Andy’s inviting house for a fundraiser for a House Representative. I was sitting in the back of the room. I have often found myself in the back of rooms, but when someone is speaking, I go back to my grade-school days—I look right at the speaker, focus on what she or he is saying. When Nancy finished, she became surrounded by people. My husband and I got up quietly and walked into the dining room. I was sure I had seen some chocolate cupcakes along with other goodies set out on Andy’s dining room table.

But then someone was tapping me on the back. I turned. It was Nancy Pelosi. She said, “I came over to meet you.”

Okay! Why? I guess Andy had suggested that she do so. As we chatted, John asked her, as only John would, “What is the most important thing in your life going on right now?” He was waiting for a political response, but Nancy answered: “My grandchildren.” We loved that.

The bottom line in sharing all of this with you is that I have been blessed. The people I have met in person and the people I continue to meet online and now in my new but old home of Chicago, are all important to me in so many ways. So thank you….AND, ANYONE READING THIS–YOU ARE ALL AMAZING, Beth 

Photo Credit   Citizenship Creations Stock.

My Wall of Hope

My Wall of Fame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our move to Chicago is in Medias Res, as we have not “closed” yet, awaiting for all the necessary paperwork to be completed and for the house to become ours.  So we are basically homeless–yet loved and taken care of, staying with my husband’s generous sister.

In the flurry of “packing” my office, I pulled from my “wall of hope” various quotes that I had printed and tacked up–most applying to the writing life. Today  I am sharing them with you. Some may already be familiar to you.

#1  We make things and seed them into the world, never fully knowing –often never knowing at all–whom they will reach and how they will blossom in other hearts, how their meaning will unfold in contexts we never imagined. W.S. Merwin

Bio: Merwin is an American poet who wrote more than fifty books of poetry and prose. During the 1960s and the anti-war movement, his work was thematically characterized by indirect, unpunctuated narration. In the 1980s and 1990s, his writing derived from an interest in Buddhist philosophy and ecology. Residing in a rural part of Maui Hawaii, he was dedicated to the restoration of the island’s rainforests.

This next quote was given to me by a fellow fiction writer who understands what it means to live with your words and your characters every day of life your life.

#2  ...because writing literary fiction allows me to live with my imagination, and that is the greatest gift you can have.  John Leggett 1917-2015  University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop 1970-1987

Bio: John Leggett attended Yale, then served in the US Navy in WW II. Back home after collecting a “fat swatch of rejection slips” he did editorial work for Houghton Mifflin Publishing and Harper Collins. In 1969, he joined the English department of the  University of Iowa where he became the director of the famous Writer’s Workshop. During his tenure, he worked with amazing writers: Ethan Canin, Gail Godwin, Jane Smiley, John Irving, Raymond Carver. In 1987 he moved to Napa to help run the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Leggett died of pneumonia in 2015.

#3  Vanishing twin? Never heard that phrase before but it gives me chills. Today I am truly feeling your story. Meaty emotional stuff. How strange that we call lost kids “missing.” They are anything but. They haunt us every day. I remember Etan Patz. Have you been following recent developments in that case? The perp was found and confessed. (He has a low IQ and mental illness, worked in a bodega in SoHo, killed Etan within minutes of him leaving for school on his own for the first time. ) …What an unending torment for Ethan’s parents. Your notes today have me stirred up..which means, good work.   Donald Maass

Bio:  Donald Maass (New York, NY) heads the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York City, which represents more than 150 novelists and sells more than 150 novels every year to publishers in America and overseas. He is a past president of the Association of Authors Representatives, Inc., and is the author of several books.

#4  Conversation with Pulitzer Prize author, Elizabeth Strout: …fiction is more true than just about anything else…the terrible details of marital strife, the big holes in us that we pretend aren’t there, all our contradictions, only some of which we can see, our sex lives, our odd attractions and repulsions. …I’ve wondered my whole life why fiction exists and persists across time and culture. And now I feel like I know: because we can be honest there, we can reveal ourselves, see one another fully and finally. Meredith, The Falmouth Book Baristas 

Bio Meredith: I am an avid reader of new fiction (especially historical fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction and mysteries) memoirs, and the occasional non-fiction book.  I work in Circulation at the Falmouth Memorial Library, and look forward to hearing about what you read.

#5 Springing a point on readers isn’t artless, it’s artful. It’s welcome. When the point is the truth, we don’t turn away. We are inspired to become better and are glad of it. So, go ahead and think like Aesop. He revealed human nature and delivered moral truths. He wasn’t stoned to death. You won’t be either. 

Probably, Donald Maass again. Sure sounds like him.

#6 The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious–the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.” Albert Einstein (no bio needed) My comment: YOU CAN KEEP THE DREAMS IN YOUR NOVEL. 

#7 When faced with a challenge, we might find that very challenge was everything we needed to discover what we’re made of. A quiet, meaningful moment might be followed by disorder and confusion. Still, it could be that very moment that shifts something–the one that opened the dirty, muted window and changed the view. And so I dive in… 

I cannot find the source. If anyone else knows it, please let me know. And as always…THANKS FOR READING, Beth

 

Strout’s Olive Kitteridge: A Woman of Our Time

Strout's Olive Kitteridge: A Woman of Our Time

Strout’s Olive Kitteridge: A Woman of Our Time

Writing fiction is my passion. While raising my children, I wrote short stories, finding strength in my work when I rooted it in the emotions and conflicts of my own life. This makes me agree with Michael Zapata, author of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, when he comments on what fiction writers are putting on the page: Every telling of an event is a portrait of the teller, not the event itself. 

My interpretation of that statement: The author’s ideas, feelings, beliefs–all reside somewhere in the pages she writes. And going deeper, the actions and statements of a character reveal or mask what and who that character truly is. That’s why we love different authors during different periods of our lives. We change and find those who speak to us. Right this moment, Elizabeth Strout is my favorite.

Strout writes novels, yes, and I’ve read every one. But I also love the satisfying  experience of reading an entire story in a brief period of time. Our life styles can demand it, short stories fulfill it, the writer focussing on one character’s experience, inner thoughts and much more. And as you will see, WE GET OLIVE. 

MEET OLIVE KITTERIDGE .

“Mousey. Looks just like a mouse.” These are the first words of the irascible and yet in many ways lovable Olive when we first meet her–she providing her opinion of the assistant her pharmacist husband, Henry, has just hired. When Henry replies: “But a nice mouse. A cute one,” of course Olive has more to say.

“No one’s cute who can’t stand up straight.” And you’re reading and straightening up in the chair where you are sitting and thinking, damn, she’s right. And that’s only the beginning, for Olive lives fully in the pages of OLIVE KITTERIDGE and now in OLIVE AGAIN. 

ME AND STROUT 

I read her first book, AMY AND ISABLE and loved it. A year later, I signed up for a weekend class with Strout at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. She shared her writing process, which is long, with many versions and iterations that she keeps in boxes in her home. She laughed, saying that her in-laws didn’t seem to approve. Well they must now–Strout being a Pulitzer Prize winner for, of course, OLIVE KITTERIDGE. 

JUST OLIVE

A former high school teacher, Olive is married to a pharmacist. They have one son, Christopher, and Olive always has problems with the choices he makes. They live in Crosby, Maine and Strout often writes about other married couples in that town. She states: Do I enjoy telling the secrets of old married couples? I adore telling the secrets of old marriage couples. A marriage is always a source of great drama for a fiction writer. It is in our most intimate relationships that we are truly revealed.

OLIVE AGAIN 

In the second book, Olive has aged, her pharmacist husband is dead and Olive remarries. But as the book progresses, we truly see the hardening of decision making that does or will affect all of us as we age. We see Olive struggle with wanting to stay independent. We ache when she has to acknowledge she is not as healthy as she once was, all the while being unable to control her sharp tongue. She is now an indomitable character on a precipice: will she reach out and help others or maintain a steely independence that can put her at risk as she ages. 

EXCERPT: …Betty showed up–the first home healthcare aid–and she was a big person. Not fat, just big. Her maroon cotton pants were tight on her, her shirt barely closed; she was probably fifty years old. She sat down immediately in a chair. “What’s up?” she asked Olive, and Olive didn’t care to hear that.

“I’ve had a heart attack and apparently you’re supposed to babysit me.”

“Don’t know that I’d call it that,” Betty said. “I’m a nurse’s aide.”

“Fine,” said Olive. “Call yourself whatever you want. You’re still here to babysit me.”

And then, at the very end of this wonderful book:

Finally Olive stood up slowly, leaning on her cane, and moved to her table. She sat down in her chair, put her glasses on, and put a new sheet of paper into the typewriter. Leaning forward, poking at the keys, she typed one sentence. Then she typed some more. She pulled the sheet of paper out and placed it carefully on top of her pile of memories; the words she had just written reverberated in her head.  

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.

If you do decide to join other Olive lovers and read these books or have read them, let me know. And thanks for reading. 

P.S. ATTENTION ALL ELIZABETH STROUT READERS: Because OLIVE AGAIN is a book of short stories, Strout does an awesome thing. Every character she has created in her other books, continue to live in her imagination. Thus we again meet Isabelle from AMY & ISABELLE and characters from the BURGESS BOYS. It’s a wonderful reunion to again be with these people and discover how their lives are progressing–or not doing so well. As each story unfolds, the world of the character is revealed in Strout’s tight prose that is truly genius. And as for Olive, she is the most honest, aging woman you will ever meet.

WHY I READ…STORY

WHY I READ...STORY

The world opened up for me on the couch on the southside of Chicago when my mother handed me a book. I’ve been reading ever since–weekly trips to the library, gift books, and now an audio book ALWAYS in my car, so that I am listening on my way to the grocery store etc.

When my mother was dying in Chicago and I was living in Iowa, I consumed books in my car. I also try to read every night for two hours–if I can stay awake. I read books and print material–I read a real newspaper every day, the LA TIMES. I taught reading and literature as an English teacher. I read huge tomes studying to be an RN. I read struggling authors as a proofreader. What would my world be if I could not read?

STORY

We all have one. Some of us like to remember various parts of our story, some people actually can have mental health problems as they grow, because they are working so hard to suppress their story. But we all have one that either lights our days or shadows them.

Right now in one of my book clubs, we are reading Elizabeth Strout’s MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Strout is a pulitzer prize author and I’ve read all of her books. She writes fiction, allows herself to travel into the minds of her characters. She says profoundly:

I’m interested in ordinary people and what their inner lives are like. Since I was a young child, I have been aware that inside every person is a universe, and that we’ll never know what it feels like to be another person. Which is horrifying. 

Yes, it is. How can we marry, raise children, move them out into the world not truly knowing what it feels like to be them. How can we praise another or dismiss another, not truly knowing what it means to be that person. DO WE TRULY GIVE A DAMN?

I hope so. Reading and writing is about immersing oneself in other lives. Someone recently questioned me about MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Comment: it’s so depressing? Why are we reading it?

Why are we walking this earth and having children and/or making friends, living? Strout’s book reveals LIVES. You read STORY, that life comes alive on the page. So my answer to this questions will always be: EMPATHY. We read story to get into the cells and bloodstreams of other’s lives, to understand their joys and pains. Depressing? Yes, sometimes. Joyful, yes, other times. But here’s the thing–in Strout’s book the joy is subtle, just as it is in real life. Lucy Barton tells about a grade school teacher, Mr. Haley, who taught her about the Indians.

“Until then, I hadn’t known that we took their land from them with a deception that caused Black Hawk to rebel. I didn’t know that the whites gave them whiskey, that the whites killed their women in the cornfields. I felt that I loved Black Hawk as I did Mr. Haley, that these were brave and wonderful men, and I could not believe how Black Hawk was taken on a tour of cities after his capture.” 

With those lines you can just see Strout recalling a personal experience, yet putting it into the life of her fictional character, Lucy, yet revealing how OUR LIVES ARE OPENED UP when we learn things in school–when our horizons grow and change.

Later, Lucy says to her mother, “Mommy, do you know what we did to the Indians?” And her mother, out of the angst of her own down-trodden life, replies, “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians.”

In my own life there was Anna, who cleaned for us, whose age I could never determine, whose body was permanently bent from work, who chewed tobacco, told me she had a picture of Abraham Lincoln in her apartment and once told us about a relative who had been a slave. This is a true American story. And yes, knowing Anna set my life in a direction…what, how, how much? At least a beginning. All of our lives are beginnings and they can form us IF we let STORY in–if we listen, if we cry and ask for more.

THE LOST ART OF READING  

In a recent article, David Ulin writes about the importance of story and our disrupted narrative in the United States. “On the one hand, America has always been a racist country. On the other, that has never before been rendered as acceptable. No, we are now in the midst of a broken story, and we have lost the ability to parse its lines.”

He goes on: “Stories, I’ve long believed, are connective, the only tool we have to reach out of our isolation, regardless of how fleetingly. This is as close as I get to faith, this notion that narrative can save us, even (or especially) if we cannot, finally, be saved.”

(If you do read the Bible, there are many stories about THE OTHER, but the purpose of the Bible is to bring the reader to Christ, and Christ never rejects THE OTHER.)

Olin writes about the 1980s, when he took a repetitive drive through Barstow CA to LA. He writes: “For hundreds of miles, radio gave up only farm reports and God talk…and when I stopped to eat or sleep or fill the tank, I was never unaware that I was a stranger in a strange land. ‘You a Jew, boy?’ someone once asked…and though he wasn’t exactly threatening (more curious I want to tell you), there was a moment when I wasn’t sure how to respond. (Earlier in this piece, Ulin writes: how could I believe racism has been vanquished when according to the Guardian Newspaper, African American men between 15 and 34 were nine times more likely to be killed by police in 2016 than other Americans.”

Ulin then quotes Maxine Hong Kingston from her book “The Woman Warrior”: “A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution.” YES, that’s what we need more and more.To get to that resolution.

But then Ulin quotes Ernest Hemingway: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and there is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.” True–yet as Ulin reminds us, “most stories don’t continue far enough, which means we have no choice but to engage with them as part of a continuum.” Yes, WELCOME TO TODAY! Welcome to becoming part of another’s story through listening, though a handshake, through volunteering or sending a check.

And finally, In MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Strout has Lucy meet and learn from a writing teacher, Sarah Payne. Payne tells Lucy: “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

WHAT TO TAKE FROM ALL OF THIS  

I am going to go with David Ulin’s conclusion, because it says it much better than I could.

This is how the world works: first we tell ourselves a story, then we dream our way inside it as a way of bringing it to life. It’s why we have to be careful about the narratives we evoke or create, because they are bound by the limits of what we can imagine, the limits of our ability to think. The reason books and reading remain essential is because they are still the most effective mechanisms by which to crack open the universe. Think about it: when we read, we soul travel, in the sense that we join, or enter the consciousness of another human. We EMPATHIZE–we have to–because our experience is enlarged.

photo credit: Jasu Hu THE NEW YORK TIMES.