Saturday, May 14, 2011


I don't know why, but I've had a rather high fail rate among my library picks recently. I went to the library a few weeks ago, full of ideas. Of course, they were all checked out or unavailable. I got some alternatives.

The first to fail was Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving. I'd liked Cider House, of course, and wanted to try something else. This was set in a logging camp and opened with a gripping account of the death of a young boy. But after that, I just couldn't get into it. Also, not to sound shallow, but the book was falling apart, and I kept having to hold the pages and the binding together.

So I turned to The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan. I was savvy enough to know that the title couldn't possibly be literal, but naive enough to get drawn in enough to pick the book up anyway. It sounded like it might be good. It's about a girl whose older sister was a hippie in the 1960s and died under mysterious circumstances in Italy several years earlier. Adrift after high school, she goes to retrace her sister's footsteps.

The first half of it was slow-moving and emotionally devoid. Phoebe (the main character) has had a lot of sad things happen to her, and from her lifestyle, it's obviously affected her deeply, but we don't feel it. She seems flat. It's hard to conjure up much empathy for her, and by the time she's obtaining her passport and plane tickets, I wanted her to just quit fucking whining already.

But when she made it to Europe, I just wanted to smack her. I went when I was slightly older than her, and it was so terrific and incredible that I've wanted to return ever since. I remember vividly the sense of possibility around every corner, the feeling of your mind and senses being blown wide open, the way that everything seemed extraordinary. Phoebe doesn't see any of this. She's a one-note singer, looking for hippies everywhere and asking if they remembered some random girl who had passed that way years earlier, as if it's even remotely likely.

So I gave up on that book. I looked in my book bin, and only two still appealed to me. Riches Among the Ruins by international financier Robert Smith is the one I'm reading right now. I saved Pelican Road (can't remember the author) as well, and a few others I'd picked up at a library visit earlier this week: a book by Carolyn Chute, and a book about the Vikings. The rest are going back today. Better luck next time, right?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The amazing childhood of Catherine Gildiner

At the paper, I interview local authors a lot. In the year and a half I've been there, I've done stories on maybe ten different people who had written books. It's always pretty interesting, but one of my absolute favorites has been Catherine Gildiner.

My co-worker had actually read her first memoir, Too Close to the Falls. Her sequel, After the Falls, came out in November, and that was when I talked to her. I knew I'd like her from the opening description of their move to a suburban subdivision (when I first became aware of subdivisions, I promised myself that if anyone tried to make me move to one, I wouldn't even take the time to argue, I would just run, as from any dangerous situation. I actually still feel the same way. Gildiner did, too.) She was excellent to interview, she recalled reading the paper I work for when she was growing up, and I met her at a signing and she signed the advance copy she'd given me. Fortunately or unfortunately, her new book made interest in her first book spike to the point where it was unavailable at any of the libraries. I finally went out and bought it, and you know what, I'm glad I did.

I would like to arrange a virtual introduction somehow between her and another writer I admire, Lenore Skenazy, of the wonderful Free Range Kids blog. Gildiner was the ultimate free-range child in Lewiston in the 1950s. She was born to older parents, a welcome but unexpected surprise. When she was four, the doctor said she was hyper and needed a job, so she went to work at her father's pharmacy, keeping the place neat and helping to deliver medications.

Through her job at McClure's Pharmacy, she was exposed to many other worlds. She was the delivery man Roy's right hand man. He was the one with the driver's license, and she was the one with the ability to read, and together, they were unstoppable. They got to know Lewiston's former prostitute and abortion doctor, Marie Sweeney (and Cathy ruined her mother's bridge party by suggesting that one of her mother's friends should take her sick daughter to Sweeney). They went out to the Indian reservation regularly, and got to know the scary, violent Mad Bear, and the consequences of delivering his sedative too late.

The pharmacy wasn't her only world. She attended Catholic school, and battled the nuns constantly. She was a member of a neighborhood gang, the Bloods, where your membership renewed seasonally and if you could do scary stunts like swing out over the gorge, you were out. She writes a lot about her mom, who was a key member of the Lewiston Historical Society and knew the background of every building in town, who was a master bridge player and a participant in a women's study group where she wrote weekly research papers, but who had a maid and who never, ever cooked (Cathy was about 10 before she realized it was possible to make food at home).

Both of her books are wonderful. There's a lot of humor in them. Cathy was what one might term a trouble-maker, who stabbed a bully in the hand, who caused a wimpy kid to lose part of his fingers, and who also drink Shirley Temples in bars. There's a lot of sadness" I cried during the chapter on Warty, who ran the town dump and suffered from both Elephant Man disease and from ostracization, and at the part where Roy disappeared, never to be found or heard from again (I asked).

The books feel very real: Gildiner remembers well what it's like to be a kid and the sense of unfairness that often surrounds you, how well-meaning adults insult your intelligence and capabilities, how you're constantly smacking into the gaps in your own knowledge of the way the world works, the revelation that your parents and even your teachers don't have all the answers.

She'd hinted to me that she might write a third, and I genuinely hope she does. The first two are absolutely worth a read.