Monday, July 20, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Much has been said about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrons and all of it has been unequivocably positive for it's just skirting "precious" charm and reconstruction of a place and a time at a nostalgic distance from our own.
The book IS charming, the characters not just likable but admirable people of low pretension and large old-fashioned virtues. Now why this book makes me a bit uncomfortable. Everyone is basically good, even the German occupiers of bucolic Guernsey. Christian, the long-gone father of the orphaned little girl in the book, is a noble German, worthy of respect as a person. And the girl's mother, the mythic Mary McKenna, is a brave individualist. On the spot, she makes up the story about the neighbors meeting for the book society, when they were really having a festive dinner of contraband pig.

Later for helping a Polish slave laborer, she ends up in a concentration camp, where she is killed because she will not bow to her torturers. Because Mary is exceptional, she makes her own rules--it is okay for her to have a romance with an invader--for in fact being a collaborator because she can evaluate individuals and he is good. There is evil, but an individualist can be unconventional-rebel against authority, though she may pay an awful price. In this book it's cheerily states that almost everyone on Guernsey, especially young women, wanted silk stockings, food for their families, whatever they could get from the invaders. Yet, at the same time, the books condemns the turncoasts who turn in McKenna for helping the starved Polish slave boy. They go too far in opportunism by turning in a neighbor. It's simple, people are people, you like the good, whatever side they're on and condemn the bad.

But perhaps I quibble with this sweet book in letters. It well creates the flighty and wise British writer who becomes so fascinated after corresponding with people in Guernsey that she goes there to write a book about how they experienced the War. The strong but silent pig farmer, who wins her heart over the flashy American publisher, becomes not just the triumph of true love but the inevitable victory of common sense. She fits right in with the locals and it makes her happy to do so, including adopting Mary's daughter and marrying the farmer.

Postwar Britain is a place reclaiming values and in the wholesome country people of Guernsey have suffered but the traditional ways are preserved. Their natural way of life is a balm to the war ravaged urban soul of our heroine. Her publisher, an understanding dedicated man, who happens to be gay, and his sister living in Scotland are her main correspondents besides the locals of Guernsey--an eccentric herbalist, the mysterious and quiet farmer, island aristocracy represented by an older woman of exceptional understanding and other members of the Society.
As our heroine, that rarity, an intellectual woman just short of being a bluestocking, gets to know the members of the Society, she more than solves the mystery of how Guernsey fared during the war. She learns that simple country character suits her better than the pretentious milieu of literary London personifed by her other suitor, the charismatic and acquisitive American publisher. But we the reader have seen this story before. What's underneath it is more questionable--We are to reconcile that though survival and self-interest understandably come first in extreme circumstances, idealism and self-sacrifice for what's right, are the rule. It may be asking too much of this chocolate truffle of a book, to ask for less cheery and easily resolved human conflict. Recommended for light fun reading with a happy ending, especially with sweets.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

LIT, A Memoir by Mary Karr

I had never read Mary Karr before, though I'd heard The Liars' Club was good, because I'm not fond of memoirs or confessional writing generally unless the person had an amazing life.. When I found out LIT was about how Karr became a drunk and fought her way to recovery, I figured on giving the galley away. The whole 12 step thing has always seemed a tragic joke to me but then I heard Karr talk at Book Expo about the excruciating business of soul baring and why she had to do it--to set the record straight for her son. And she was funny talking about her pretensions as a poet newly married to another writer, an Ivy League blue-blood and about to start her own family. She congratulated herself on having escaped her mother's galloping insanity and triumphed over her soul destroying, hard scrabble childhood in Texas. Ahead of her was a life of love and achievement. But then, life brought her to her knees in more ways than one--she could have died and she had to learn to pray to survive. Karr's self-respect was not easily earned and the pride of a self-made intellectual meant she never let herself off easily or at all. Curious, I read this book and found myself rooting for things to work out for her, as they proceeded to go to hell.

What I came to like about this book is the compassion you feel for Mary because she has so little for herself. Trying to make ends meet on scarce money meant poverty was already a way of life before she got pregnant. Yet Mary soldiers on, doing her teaching jobs, writing her poetry, up all night with her baby, not to mention constant visits to the hospital with his illnesses. Then, struggling to hold it together, her mother gives her a beer--to relax. Mary's mother, herself in recovery, passes on the "drinking curse." What motivates Karr's drinking is not the need to escape but to anesthesize overwhelming emotions--from her past and her present. Trying to keep it under control, for the sake of her kid, marriage, and job, leads her to endless beers and whatever else she can drink and hide. Soon she can't function without drinking. She thinks she must do it to be there for her son, to be the loving encouraging wife to a husband working multiple jobs. She even worries about being a decent daughter to the mother she knows always has let her down. Soon knows this self-deception can't be denied.

Whether it's the drinking as cause or symptom, she can't escape that her life is in meltdown. She's no longer the always alert mother. Her marriage is about estrangement and she fears discovery. Karr manages to publish one book of poems and gets a prestigious grant, but soon finds she can't write anymore. When she goes to a marriage counselor with her husband, she's touched that he says she isn't an alcoholic. His denial means he has a faith in her that she knows is misplaced. She descends further and the facts of her marginal existence come to a head one night, after she's honored at a dinner and her car spins out of control. Mary's astonished she's alive and realizes that she can't leave her son without a mother. She comes to terms with the fact she is an alcoholic and learns that with her family history of emotional instability, she will die if she continues.

But before she can change herself, she has to come to terms with history, she thought she had overcome--her mother, the monster she grew up with and now felt she was turning into. Her mother the talented artist, was also a self-absorbed drunk who almost shot both her daughters.
Yet the monster she grew up with is now a straw-dog, an old lady who means well but still can't deliver on her promises. When she asks her mother, who is supported by both daughters and constantly double dips her expenses, "What she brings to the party," Her mother answers, "Well I'm fun?" And that for Mary is the doppleganger of her own hyper-responsibility, that she and her sister have taken on in their lives.

In this extraordinary book, Mary is heroic in her outsize struggle to overcome her illness. She goes into rehab to get sober, then once sober loses her mind and has to go into a mental ward. She must entirely lose herself to become a grounded person. It's a poet's journey to the underworld and you enjoy her escorts, her wise rehab coach Jone the Bone, the gallows humor of Deb, a beauty with a model's polish, paralyzed on one side of her body, and others who help her through layers of self-deception. Ultimately, she comes out of herself enough to connect to with what's strange and numinous. As unbeliever, she accepts that abstract force might be called God among other names. This connection of faith keeps her sober, when intellect fails. Karr's journey is that of an ironic mystic. She reads Thomas Merton, but you think Dylan Thomas, and hope that unlike his tragic end, Karr will keep her spiritual connection. I found this book unexpectedly profound.