Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Myth of You & Me by Leah Stewart

And I’m left to wonder, What is this place? This room, this house, this life accountable to no one but myself.  ~ A. Manette Ansay, “Sister” ~

I don't know of Leah Stewart... had not read her previous novel, "Body of a Girl," nor was I aware of this novel, "The Myth of You & Me."  Had I stumbled upon the blurb of it in my quest for what to read next, what to have on the ready bedside table, as Heaven forbid I be without something to read ever!, I might have passed it by...  I don't savor or crave ChickLit, and I must say, if I were Leah Stewart and I just read that someone (whoever this nobody Jae Halam thinks she is) just deemed me an author of ChickLit, I'd be highly offended because "ChickLit" is not a fair categorization of this type of work.  I don't know what it's called - it's something magical, and meaningful and melancholy...  it's literature that has a way of reaching deep inside and finding a home in your heart, a place where lifelong secrets and desires and shames and memories are resting in peace, where certain words from the page jump out and ring a bell and awaken the once silent beast.  Literature that makes you think.  And feel.  Lovely literature.  Absolutely lovely.

And so my introduction to Leah Stewart has taken place and I now feel very connected to her.  I want to know her and study her work and learn from her...  and write like her.

This wonderful tale that has sparked me so is the story of a friendship, and a betrayal, and a hurt (well more than one), and a hiding, and a loss (also more than one), and a search, and a find (oh, yes, definitely more than one), a story that takes you there to here and back to there, and once again to here and then, finally, to now.   


A lyrical time capsule from age 14 to age 29 - no, 30! - of two girls finding each other, saving each other, and holding each other together.  They venture, hand in hand, thru the trials and tribulations of adolescence into the early stages of adulthood, and then, sadly, they each leave one other along the way (altho the story is told from only one's point of view - the one betrayed - and seems to be intended as only one, the betrayed's, leaving the other behind, I choose to see it as both leaving each other).  Eight years later, the betrayer reaches out to the betrayed, and so begins an emotional journey of physical distance that takes the betrayed back in time to "the myth of you & me" thru the many doors of her past that she's left standing open, intentionally ignoring the gaping black depths of memories and relationships shoved into the dusty dark corners within...

However did Leah Stewart do it?  ~sigh...  if only so could I...

“what if you had to choose between being my best friend forever and having the boy of your dreams?”

When I went out I worried that his heart had stopped, as though by my presence alone I kept it going.

I was just grateful for my ordinary life.

All those boxes along the wall, full of childhood discards – an old dollhouse, the Ewok village, a box of stuffed animals loved into ruin.

Had I erased her from the picture, or had she added herself?

We rescued each other, not only from a speeding car and a swimming pool, but from our separateness, each of us at once the savior and the saved.

“…and on this momentous occasion being more aware of the people I’d lost than of the people who were there.”

“I don’t know what I’ve taught you, if not that time is meaningless.”

I’ve always been a good liar because I have the ability to believe that whatever I’m saying is true.

By this time I had come to accept the version of myself reflected back by others, as you cannot help but accept the image you see when you look in the mirror.

Once, I’d been proud of how portable my life had become – far better to accept a transient and unstable life than to pretend permanence when there was no such thing.

It would be so easy to stay up there in the attic and become a ghost.

Once, Oliver told me I was lucky not to have the kind of past embodied in this vast, treasure-filled attic, where for more than a hundred years his family had stored their memories. He said, “You make your own history.”

To belong nowhere is a blessing and a curse, like any kind of freedom.

She embodied the lesson I’d learned from my dealings with my father: show no weakness. The world will use it against you.

She used to say I did a fine job of seeming to care about nothing in order to hide the fact that I cared about everything.

I understood the impulse to disguise, and I understood, too, the longing for one person to know the truth, the weakness of spies and superheroes everywhere.

It’s astonishing what a single life accumulates.

– all the things we think we just might need someday. These things we endow with a certain life – the possibility that we might use them, the memory we attach to them – and then, when we die, they become just things again.

-a plan for my future he’d finished making after all.

He looked in that picture like a man on the verge of an adventurous life.

In spite of myself, I felt the stirrings of a certain familiar excitement – the anticipation of departure.

With moving, I have always been partial to the in-between, the blurred highway outside the window, that suspended time when everything you might become shimmers at the horizon. You might choose anything and make it happen, constrained by nothing but your own imagination, sure that not even gravity can hold you.

When I was a child, my father encouraged me to belong nowhere, to immerse myself in the culture of each new place and then just as easily leave it behind.

I’m a sucker for father-daughter scenes, especially the sentimental ones, alien to my own experience, which make me feel a weird kind of longing mixed with scorn.

“I wasn’t a baby,” she says. “I was a princess.” I was neither. It’s hard to say whether that’s anything worth regretting.

The front of the refrigerator was a riot of snapshots, fanned out in a way that both looked chaotic and suggested much time and thought had been given to their arrangement.

Strange, when I was working so hard to diminish my own sorrow, how much it hurt to have him diminish it.

A day seemed incomplete without a kiss to signal its end.

…and I thought with a quick pang of envy how lucky Sonia was, forgetting for a moment that she was her mother’s sorrow as well as her father’s joy.

I looked cool and detached, which was just how I wanted to look – like a keeper of secrets.

What question was she asking? What question was I asking? What did I hope to discover about Sonia now, rummaging through her things?

We were English Ph.D. students and we spent all our time “unpacking” images and sentences and words, and when we weren’t working, we turned that attention to other people.

A person is not a suitcase, with a finite number of items to unpack. A person is a world. Look at any photograph – of a stranger, your father, your very best friend. Sometimes the mystery is all you can see.

I wondered how long their friendship would last, and I felt sorry for them, because they didn’t know it wouldn’t.

Nothing is stranger than the familiar become (becoming?) unfamiliar.

“You know, “ he said, “a happy ending isn’t really the end. It’s just the place where you choose to stop telling the story.

I wasn’t old enough then to have any real concept of regret, of the endless things that ripple out from every choice.

Maybe I did live an old story, but I couldn’t help but live it as though for the first time.

My life was becoming a story I was telling myself.

It was amazing how quickly a person you’ve liked could go out of your life at someone else’s discretion.

The scene was nearly monochromatic, like a black-and-white photo, the sky light gray with a hint of blue, the clouds etched in darker gray, the water a matte silver-gray rolling with white.

“I was going to say it gave me a thrill of sorrow, or something poetic like that.”

Boston was ghostly through the fog.

All of it. None of it. The highway went everywhere.

Maybe I was afraid of exchanging desire for disillusionment.

The beauties of his body, its hollows, its muscles, skin and bone.

We seemed to fit together, in a way that suggested nothing had ever quite fit before.

My memory of the last two days seemed like a story someone else had told me, as though I hadn’t been living my own life but some shadow version of Sonia’s. Will had always belonged to her, after all – what if our relationship could exist only in her absence, and was just an echo of theirs?

Oliver had accused me of wanting to lead his life - maybe that was what I was doing with Sonia, moving in like a magpie, trying to take back the life that, eight years before, she’d taken from me.

Never in my life had I had such an urge to be cruel.

There was nobody you could trust with your heart.

I thought, with a strange dispassion, that she had made a lie of my existence, when all this time I’d considered her part of what made it real.

I looked for her in the mirror long past the point when it was still possible to see her there.

It wasn’t just what Sonia had done I hadn’t wanted to remember. It was what I had done.

I wanted us both to be alone, but her aloneness was to be desolation, mine was to be freedom.

“You’re not a realist,” she says. “You’re a dreamer who doesn’t believe in the dream.”

“She thinks private praise is better than public criticism.”

“She likes to add mystery to her life. She’s the mistress of the pointless secret.”

‘Isn’t there love that could survive anything?’

I couldn’t stop thinking about the calm with which she’d suggested bringing their relationship to a close, as though that would erase all the time and affection between them, as a house fire destroys your photographs, leaving you to start over without any record of where you’ve been.

But for me a relationship was a story. It was made up of snapshots: … I couldn’t keep the memories discrete, just as when I looked at the old photographs in Oliver’s attic, I’d never been content with the single image each picture contained. I’d always had to imagine what happened next.

Once you know the end of the story, every part of the story contains that end, and is only a way of reaching it.

Why had she told that story to Martin, a story that cast me in the best possible light? Was that the first thing her memory offered her when she thought of me, instead of the sight of my disappearing car? Wasn’t she angry with me at all?

“You never have all of a person, right? So what I have of her is enough.”

“Oliver didn’t suffer fools.”

“A history, like life, is just what one person chooses to remember.”

I was alone, and it was better that way, because this time I had chosen it.

One way or another everybody left, and so life presented two options: You could be the one who got back on the road, or you could be the one left behind.

Home was a place where I happened to be.

Now I was the one feeling that the more places I went, the more of myself I left behind.

I couldn’t imagine that only Sonia had prevented me from being the woman holding his baby on the other side of the door.

But just as Oliver’s things lost their meaning without Oliver, so without the love I used to feel for Owen, he’d lost his meaning for me.

I had the heavy feeling I was fated for departure.

There’s nothing lonelier than being angry at someone who’s indifferent to your anger. It’s like playing catch off a wall by yourself. Everything you feel just bounces back to you.

“I did what you have done. I left her behind.”

There are certain drawbacks to a posthumous surprise.

I did nothing to distinguish myself.

I had the same sense of duty, the desire to complete one stage of life before beginning another…

I was a historian, and when I started writing my books it became even clearer to me that I’d finally begun living the life I was meant for all along.

You could say this story tells you that there is no absolute truth about a life. You merely choose the story you want to tell, and keep telling it.

Please don’t choose loneliness, my dear Cameron, thinking it will protect you from grief. It will spare you nothing.

We’d just been two wanderers clinging to each other, pretending it was possible to stop running, pretending we belonged.

Her mother needed her, and here she was, no matter what the woman had done. Was that weakness on her part, or strength? Her whole life, she’d loved a person w ho gave and withdrew her affection at every turn.

Here was the secret of this house, the thing it took bravery to face – that to go on loving someone means to over and over allow the necessary pain.

…and I understood that if hatred can negate us, love can create us, and when we lose it we don’t know who we are.

I was only myself again, and that seemed a lonely thing to be.

How much had I lost, racing down the highway with everything I owned in my car, trying to arrange my life so that I had nothing to lose?

None of us knows why we love, or why we stop loving, or why everyone we love we lose.

…and I’ll know that this is what you live for – to hear someone say, “Let’s go home,” to hear someone you love call your name.

They’re all there – all the people we were and will be, linked like a chain of paper dolls, girls and women, unfolding and unfolding from the moment one fourteen-year-old said to another that it was a beautiful day.

~end quotes~
My only disappointment would be in the act of betrayal...  I knew, before I knew, that the betrayal would have to do with a boy.  Why else do women turn their backs on their very best friend?  Whatever else would cause so much hurt and anguish to end so strong a connection?  With all the indepth contemplating this story invokes, I was hoping for something not so obvious.  But yet that there in itself sparks a question I'm left to ponder, one I've already asked:  whatever else would be severe enough, dire enough, unforgivable enough to have you leave behind, without a backward glance, the one you love and trust the most, your very best friend.
I'm not done thinking, and pondering, but I'm pretty much stumped as of this moment.  So despite my disappointment that it was such an obvious choice, I must applaud it all the same.  Because that's what makes it real, doesn't it?  That's what makes it something I can live thru, with the narrator, as I read the story.  I can believe that.  I can feel that.  I can relate to that.  I can become enraged and callous and heartbroken by that.  Yes, Bravo!, Leah Stewart, and thank you, too, for this wonderful invitation to travel down my own memory lane, thru my own past heartaches, in search of any meaning thru any relationships I may have left behind.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Don't I Know You? by Karen Shepard

My first thoughts on this novel: 
  • I enjoyed it, but I'm aggravated. 
  • I love mystery & suspense, but I like closure. 
  • I think it's best to let a story unfold, but I also it should tell you what it's about.
  • Some unanswered questions are good.  Too many aren't.
But that's just me.  I've thought about this book since finishing it last night.  It's been on my mind all day.  I'm drawing the conclusion that in this particular "mystery" the unanswered questions are an actual mimic of life, a sad mimic of life.  In life, sometimes we just don't always get our answers.  People leave our lives for whatever reason and we may never know the full story why.  Things happen, out of our control, and we have no idea what spiraled them in that direction.  We may discover secrets and lies and hidden agendas but can uncover no reason...  Destiny, fate, karma, God's will - whatever it is, it is what it is.

We're expected to just walk thru this life, take the hard knocks on the chin, count the blessings as they come and accept them all as is.  Maybe we're provided an answer, but what answer is it?  Is it the truth or is it what the do-er wants us to believe?  Sometimes we're just left to find comfort in drawing our own conclusions.  And then we have to live with the assumptions we make.  In this, we design our own closure.

This story took me down that path.  That path of finding my own way, creating my own assumptions and finding my own closure.  Therein laid a big question with no true answer but quite a few conclusions.  I define it as a surface teller: it skimmed the surface of the situations, providing snippets of information without much depth and just a sprinkling of observations from only one perspective at a time.  I had to put the story together, piece by piece, snippet by snippet - like an investigator, and as much as I enjoy investigation, I can't quite say I enjoyed it.

Here's the deal, Dear Author:  This is your story - TELL it to me!  Don't give it away, of course, but don't make it so cryptic, I can't decipher it.  I don't want to scratch my head and wonder what you'd have me take away from it... Rather, just say it.  Tell me what it is that I need to know.

(but tell me creatively, clearly, and with wit, and clever twists... have the light bulb slowly progress from dim to full illumination! no dark corners with cobwebs left... no, none for me, please)

I'm clutching at this because I believe there is something deeper here.  The metaphor of life, yes, got that.  But something else that if I were more literary I'd understand and marvel at the brillance of it.  Fact is, I am impressed by Karen Shepard's truly interesting concept:  have you ever known a storyteller to tell you a story but NOT tell the story?  Perplexing, fascinating, but infuriating!  Too many, much too many, unanswered questions. 

~ Was there justice in the end? 
~ Was he wrongly accused? 
~ What did he believe? 
~ Who lived where? 
~ Who knew who? 
~ Who was there? 
~ What was written? 
~ Why was it hidden? 
~ Where did everyone go? 
~ What happened after? 

Yes.  Endless questions - as in life, I know.  I do get it.  But is that right?  Do we go thru life, especially after a particularly devastating experience, and live with this huge void of inconclusion, lack of fact, no closure?  So cynical of you, Dear Author Karen Shepard.  So cynical, so cruel and so very sad.

But despite these gripes and grunts, I did love a few things...  Shepard has a wonderful literary voice.  It's the type that speaks to me and guides me to find my own.  More than once, as I was reliving what I'd read in my head, I stopped whatever I was doing at the moment & wrote.  Just wrote.  The entry before this one was part of that.  A voice from deep within me and out of nowhere.  So welcomed, so motivating and so inspiring! 

Another element I truly enjoyed was how her characters intermingled - character infusion, I call it.  They would pop up in another storyline, usually as an unassuming and unimportant observation, but giving us a hint of insight, just a slivering tidbit, for us to file away & maybe draw from later.  The story was so littered with casual observations it was hard to decipher what was critical to the keep and what could be let go.

The entire book is a study of a writing format that I do find fascinating: 3 different characters telling their story from their particular perspective all the while casually, almost unwittingly flittering insight into the main story... 

Extraordinary.  Simply. Extraordinary.

BUT:  it's as if there is a box on the table, and the overall story, the main story (an unsolved murder), is the box.  And lying out to the sides of the box, coming from beneath it are these 4 glorious, sensuous ribbons, one off of each side.  Three of the ribbons represent the 3 characters telling their particular story at a particular time within the overall story.  The 4th ribbon represents the very last story, the final puzzle piece, if you would - this story is about a time, not a  person, but it involves all 3 characters.  The goal is to take the four ribbons, draw them up over the box top and tie them into a beautiful, magnificent bow.  However, sadly, the bow does not get tied.  The ribbons get wound around one another, and I can see the knot, but the bow - the beautiful, magnificent bow made of 4 interconnected glorious, sensuous looping ribbons - just does not get formed.  Instead, limp & unformed ribbons hanging off the edges of the box from the large and sloppy knot in the center is the best I get. 

~ quotes ~

And the belief that actions had consequences.  And guilt.  Those last two, she said, were connected.

Steven figured that for awhile everything he said was going to hurt.

It always felt good and bad to be let go.

The first thing was the big rock into the pond; everything else was ripples.

"Sometimes fucked up's just the play of the day."

He could feel his heart, but he didn't know if that was because he believed himself or because he didn't.

He didn't want to be responsible for making people care again, or still.

"And things will be hard, and then things'll get easier."

She wandered the apartment, a balloon tring to find its way back to earth.

His body had been imperfect in perfect ways.

asking someone to save you was the same thing as asking for a certain kind of destruction.  His genuine sadness about his own behavior did not temper the damage, though it had taken all she had to tell him to leave, to refuse the phone calls, to deny the ache of missing them when they stopped.

She trusted people until they gave her reason not to.

and she'd felt a little sillly and told herself, as she often did, to remember that there were usually logical explanations for all those illogical feelings that wouldn't quite be placed.

"You make it thru the day without anyone finding out you are a fraud."

What had Matthew ever wanted?  Everything.  Nothing.  And all that lay between.

It was the only extravagance they allowed themselves, and Lily stood there thinking of it as pathetic.

"I love him; he love me; we love you.  It why we love you,"

Who thought of these machines? she often wondered.  Who decided what we needed and how to give it to us?

The best lies were the ones closest to the truth.

How did people spend their lives as liars?  How did they keep track of it all?

Reminded her how difficult it was to know someone with anything like real confidence, how much of a blessing it was to receive even a glimpse behind the curtains of someone you loved.

She worked her hands under his shirt and placed her fingertips in the small of his back, where they had discovered, years ago, a spot built just for them.

She was not herself.  She was some version of herself that knowing these two men had brought to the surface.  Maybe that meant she was more herself.

She wanted to be in control, to have a say in how at leasat one thing in her life would resolve itself.

And perhaps she would teach him what he had taught her: that the least likely people are capable of the most unexpected things.

Fear at doing or saying the thing that would end upmaking all the difference.

A strategy she used with the preschoolers came to her.  Don't demand.  Ask.  Let them think it's you who needs the help, they who hold the solutions.

Just tell the truth, her father used to say to her.

If he couldn't give her what she needed, she could leave him, and do so without being destroyed.

Watching was a way to learn.

That's when she wept, because her mind shut down at the understanding that dying meant leaving her son.

Now the old friends had time to sit at Muriel's kitchen table, smoke cigarettes over cups of coffee slowly growing cold.

He was Jewish; people thought he was wise.

Her life with him was only part of other lives he had: the barbershop, the army, the woman with the Russian accent who'd shown up at the memorial service accompanied by a boy a few years younger than Michael.

Both women wee hard workers, their households smoothly running machines.  But Muriel was better at getting what she wanted by way of announcement.  Louise was better by way of endurance.

Maybe he hadn't kept secrets from her.  Maybe she'd done that to herself.

She'd always known that where she failed, God would sort it out.

It was amazing what a person could come up against in herself and still keep going.

Everywhere she went, she was wrong.  Why couldn't life be easier?

If they just had the chance to go back, she could do things differently; he could do things differently.  Each of them could have the life they should've.

It had been strange to be in someone's apartment without the someone.

It was because she was dying that what she did mattered so much.

Who was happy with what God dished out for them?

Whatever she had or hadn't done had been for him.  She wouldn't have known how to live any other way.

He looked like he'd been there his whole life.

This was what heaven would be like - a view of everyone she'd ever known, milling around on the block.

They'd both been gone for years, but in another way they'd both been there all this time, waiting for her to come out and play.

"You're where you need to be," Muriel said.

He shrugged and she recognized her own gesture.  What had she given him?  What would she leave him with?

"Telling the truth is hard," she said.  It was the truth.

She'd know who she wanted to talk to and what she wanted to say.  And he wouldn't be there.

There were still hours ahead of them before sleep.

"I'm a fuckup," she'd say over and over, doing nothing to change her ways.

What did she know about men and women and the behavior between them?

They were all there: people he knew and people he didn't.

It could happen that easily.  Everything wasn't already the way it was going to be.  Things could happen.  Things could change.  It was a good thing to know.