Earlier this week I was very fortunate to be invited to a fundraiser for a local children’s charity where Elizabeth Smart was speaking. I don’t think anyone in the audience was expecting her to dive so deeply into her traumatic experiences and to pull the audience from her lowest points through her, at times, tenuous rebound. It made me think a great deal about how a negative experience has the potential to shape forever the whole of our person. For good or ill, we set our purpose in defiance and sometimes shelter ourselves defensively against its repeat.
It seemed to me rather appropriate I had been carrying around Magda Szabo’s The Door that day and reading it on the train. Emerence to me is the exact embodiment of these ideas about the self and our experiences. She is one of the most confounding, compelling and morally complex characters I have ever read. We discover her in tantalizing and bewildering pieces through the writer herself, who describes this true to life relationship. Szabo is painfully honest and does not spare herself in the telling. It is a story about finding ourselves through the eyes of others. It is a book bound up with our private living spaces and the ways they represent our interior lives. Szabo is the kind of writer that puts me in the uncomfortable choice between reading everything she has ever written in one weekend or doling it out like leftover Halloween candy until Christmas is here.
I was really sad this particular day because I stupidly decided to wear uncomfortable shoes to the event. After, I couldn’t fathom the hike to my favorite little quiet pub that is ripe for continued reading and a draft in the early afternoon. Also, my purse was getting kind of heavy since I’d gotten downtown early enough to traipse through the multi-story hodgepodge of a used bookstore. Which kinda also meant I didn’t have beer money anymore.
I can’t really complain. The reading has been really good this past week. Emerence wasn’t the only intricately drawn character or intimate portrait of a troubled relationship I found. I stumbled into my husband’s collection and stole his copy of Mildred Pierce. Then I spent the next several days blackmailing him into reading it so we could talk about it. Mildred and her daughter Veda will go down in my recollection as the apogee of a truly &$@!% up mom and daughter. I was actually pretty surprised to find this from James Cain. I’d finished The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity the previous week after I’d also filched them from hubs. They had offered a pretty fast and tasty narrative but not much else. So to find Mildred Pierce in all her pride and glory was wholly unexpected. Given Cain’s reputation for stories on husband removal, I kept expecting Mildred to use her chicken skillet for other purposes every two pages. But apart from that anxiety, I fell utterly in love with the deeply flawed Mildred and watched as her two daughters came to battle symbolically the contrasting shadows of her personality.
I even had a couple honorable mention reads this week. I found Sjon’s latest, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was at the library. It is only a partial departure from Sjon’s brilliant magical realism. The story is inspired by a real person but the telling dips into those transcendental places and fever dreams where Sjon excels. The second goes to Hye-Yung Pyun’s The Hole. It also caught my eye at the library when a book-back recommendation compared her to my beloved Shirley Jackson. I enjoyed the book. I was drawn into the deeply interior life of this character and the rising anxiety from his situation. I felt a bit disconnected from the central metaphor of The Hole. But maybe I need to think on it some more. And since its Coffee Day and I have been celebrating in spades, I should have plenty of time tonight to put the cap on.
I did also dip into fantasy a bit. I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I find endless action scenes and tedious descriptions of magical powers sort of boring. And Piers Anthony’s Xanth series is standard fare in this regard. So this wasn’t exactly my cuppa to begin with. (Ooo cuppa!) Plus it also has a lot of additional bonuses like rape jokes and an obsession with centaur boobs. Think, Tucker Max writes a fantasy novel, heavy on the gender tropes. Its not really for me. But I did wonder if the people who read this series are also the same people who can’t figure out why women feel so insecure and struggle with their worth. And maybe I would have had a better sense of humor about it. But it all sort of came back to Elizabeth Smart again. I kept remembering her talking about how she was raised to believe her value was tied to her chastity. How when she was at her lowest point in the kidnapping when she was raped and thinking that her family wouldn’t want her anymore because she was no longer clean. So maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. I’m okay if I never am.