Miss Jane

Miss Jane

By Brad Watson

Published 2016

Read Dec 2017

For the first time in my life I knowingly have an overdue library book—this one.  I can’t renew it because it’s on-hold for other book discussion members.  But I really don’t want to give it up.  Enough said about this book?  Well I’ll say it anyway.

I’m not sure what I like most about this book—Miss Jane or the author’s beautiful language.

Miss Jane was conceived in 1915 in rural Mississippi when her father had been drinking heavily (his own moonshine which would be a stable source of income through thick and thin times) and her mother, then 39, was heavily sedated by laudanum which she took, on doctor’s direction only when her nerves were most frayed.  She was born with a genital defect that rendered her incontinent and without means for sexual intercourse, but was otherwise normal physically and mentally.

Miss Jane’s childhood is a mixture of delight and pain.  Her various senses of sight, smell, and touch were regularly delighted through the physicality of living on a farm containing sharecropped fields, forests, streams, and animals.  Miss Jane desperately wanted to attend school when she reached school age, but the guidance from Dr. Thompson, the doctor who delivered her , monitored her health, and corresponded regularly with distant experts regarding her condition (always hoping their surgical techniques would advance sufficiently to help Miss Jane) regarding limiting food and drink were insufficient.  Although the uncontrollable accidents were actually few, the hunger and thirst associated with avoiding food and fluids to prevent the accidents left her too lightheaded to function in the classroom.  Lack of formal education didn’t deter her from learning to read and write and do arithmetic.  She was self-taught; arithmetic  knowledge came from watching her father tend his small store set up to help his sharecroppers obtain needed supplies.  She eventually ran the store herself while just a child using a step stool to reach the counter and shelves; store revenue soars since it was open much more of the time as a result.

Grace, her older sister, was charged with tending Miss Jane from birth until Grace successfully moves away from home into town as a late teen.  Both girls show amazing determination—Grace to flee her family and Miss Jane to plow through life despite the challenges her body provides.  Grace’s story is a moving subplot in this book.  Her desire to be away from the farm and her family and what she is willing to do and not do to fulfill this desire, and how this impacts Grace’s relationship with Miss Jane is a powerful aspect of this book.

Dr. Thompson is another potent character in this story.  We learn about his concern for Miss Jane, his interactions with her family, his own personal life story, and his multi-year correspondence with the medical experts about Miss Jane.

Miss Jane’s relationships with Grace, Dr Thompson, her father, and her mother, and Elijah Key are important in shaping her although Miss jane’s relationship with herself is even more of a determinant.  As Brad Watson tells us in the first chapter  “She did not like the vexation of her incontinence, and wished she would outgrow it, but eventually accepted it as part of who she was, no matter how unsavory.  She determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could, and when she could no longer do that, she would adjust her life to its terms accordingly. So she did not fear her own strangeness, even though her awareness of it grew and evolved as she got older.  In time her gaunt, dark-haired beauty would be altered and sharpened by age, a visible sign of her difference, her independence, and a silent message to all that her presence in the world was impenetrable beyond a point of her own determination.”

Miss Jane and Miss Jane slowly embrace the reader showing the reader the possibilities that Miss Jane embraces as her body continues to provide her barriers and challenges that could overwhelm and blunt the human spirit.  Miss Jane provides us a tender and rare model that life is always what we make of it.


Missing Person

By Patrick Modiano

Published 1978 as “Rue des Boutiques Obscures”

English translation by Daniel Weissbort published in the UK 1980

Read Dec 2017

Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. (Nobel Prize website).  Only some of his work has been translated from French and published in English, but Missing Person, for which he won France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, fortunately is an exception.

Guy Roland, our narrator, has lost his memory.  For the past 8 years he has been employed as an investigator by C. M. Hutte who provided him with identity papers 10 years ago.  As the book opens, we learn that Hutte is closing his business and retiring, although he’s keeping the lease on the office and all the contents—all the society catalogs and directories so useful to his business at that time (no Google search engines available then…).  Roland and Hutte meet one last time as Hutte prepares to leave Paris.  Roland indicates he will now investigate his own past.  We learn, in passing, that Hutte too “had lost track of himself and a whole section of this life had been engulfed without leaving the slightest traces, the slightest connection that could still link him with the past.”  But our attention is directed back to Guy Roland’s investigation of his own past.

The narrator leads us through his investigation as he follows a path of leads as he speaks with people who may have known him or people with which he may have interacted and follows up on reports he receives from a fellow investigator.   Some of the people he speaks with give him physical items they have held for a potentially returning friend but with whom they have lost touch.    Roland uses a few photographs he receives to spark discussion with some of the leads.  Most of the people he meets do not recognize him, but this isn’t surprising as some twenty plus years have passed since they’ve last interacted with the person he once was, or they actually didn’t know the person he once was but rather only someone he once knew.   One person does recognize him and is surprised that Roland neither recognizes him nor recalls their shared experiences.  Roland now begins to recall pieces of the past, or at least thinks he does, and the text turns away from investigative reports to Roland to his recollections which lead to remembering a significant event after which his memory ceases. Clearly the event recalled could be one to trigger significant mental upheaval, but we don’t know if that’s the case or not.

Roland’s narration ends when he’s reached a dead-end with regard to a particular “witness” he’s pursued and as he plans to follow yet another path for information.  We don’t know if he will successfully fully identify himself or fill in his lost memories.  This ending separates the novel from a “standard” mystery.  It’s not solved.  The investigator can’t tell us the story that wraps it all up for his client or for the reader.

The concept of memory Is of much interest to many authors (Kazuo Ishiguro being one in particular) and to psychologists (noted Nobel Prize winner in economics Daniel Kahneman being a prime example).  Kahneman discusses the “remembering self” (what we recall) and the “experiencing self” (what is happening) and notes that “what people want is more closely associated with the remembering self. It’s — they want to have good memories. They want to have good opinions of themselves. They want to have a good story about their life.”   (from an interview by Kristin Tippett :  https://onbeing.org/programs/daniel-kahneman-why-we-contradict-ourselves-and-confound-each-other-oct2017/).

What is Guy Roland looking for?  The book begins with the sentence “I am nothing.”.  Is Roland seeking to know who he was?  To know that he was something?  To know what others thought of him?  To know that others remember him?  That Roland’s client is himself also makes this novel a “nonstandard” mystery.  However, it’s not unusual for the investigator’s client to be unclear about what they are really seeking.    That Roland continues his investigation suggests he hasn’t yet found what he’s seeking.  His final comment “do not our lives dissolve into the evening as quickly as this grief of childhood?” leaves us with no answers and only questions about Roland’s search and also about what we are looking for and what we memories we want ourselves.

Setting Free the Kites

Setting Free the Kites

By Alex George

Published 2017

Read Dec 2017

Setting Free the Kites is a wonderfully engaging story of two boys and their families.  This reader experienced a range of emotions as the boys and their families struggle with devastating losses and the turbulence of the teen age years.  The reader is obliquely offered some universal questions to consider although the author provides us no answers.   Perfect.

Robert Carter has lived in this particular coastal Maine town all of his life.  His father took over running the amusement park his father started in 1946 after his father died of a heart attack in 1959 while taking the first roller coaster ride of the day, in the first car, as was his habit.  While his father hadn’t wanted anything to do with the amusement park and got none of the kind of joy from the park that his father did, Robert’s father develops his own passion for the park with respect to keeping everything running and carving new horses for the carousel as old ones needed replacing.

The most important aspect of Robert Carter’s family’s life, however, is that his older brother, Liam, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy which is slowly destroying his muscles and will eventually lead to his premature death.   Robert’s mother was pregnant with him when they learned of Liam’s diagnosis, that the disease is hereditary, and that if the fetus she carried now was a boy there was a 50-50 chance he would have the disease as well.  Fortunately Robert develops normally as his brother continues to decline.  “As she [Robert’s mother] lifted her wreck of a son in and out of the bathtub each night, my mother knew that there was a world of grief to come, but at least the scope of the tragedy was finite now.”

Even at three Robert knew that his parents treated Liam differently than they treated him.  His father painted a dazzling mural across Liam’s wall—a dramatic jungle panorama.  “I knew I should not complain, should not begrudge my brother this one small thing.  But I ardently, secretly wished that my father would paint my bedroom wall, too.”  The family tolerates Liam’s love of current (1976) punk rock played at ear-breaking levels and appreciates that he “threw himself into everything”:  directing the school musical, learning the clarinet, even applying for colleges they knew that likely he would not attend.  His parents treat every annual event including Christmas and his birthday as if it were the last one, which they knew that one would eventually be.  When they finally lose Liam, “we stumbled out into the rest of our lives.” Robert’s father eventually moves into his repair shed, his mother withdraws from life as well for some time, and Robert is left to figure things out on his own.

But we learn all of this about Robert’s family after we meet Nathan Tilly and his father on Robert’s first day of eighth grade.  Robert learns that the bully that tormented him relentlessly the prior year was not promoted to ninth grade and the high school building but rather will be available to continue bullying him again this year.  Nathan, a new kid in town recently moved from Texas to a house outside of town right on the coast, finds Hollis dunking Robert’s head in a toilet in the locker room and rescues him.  Robert, Nathan, Hollis, Robert’s mother and Nathan’s father meet with the principal and, despite Robert’s discomfort, Nathan makes it clear that Hollis was bullying Robert.  Nathan’s father presses the principal to address the bullying problem.   The next day Robert learns that Hollis was belatedly promoted to ninth grade and won’t be available to bully Robert and that Nathan should be thanked for his actions.  Nathan and Robert ride their bikes to Nathan’s house for the promised celebratory ice cream Nathan’s father offered the day before.  When they arrive, Nathan’s father is flying a kite while perched on the roof of their house.  When he waves hello to the boys, he slips and falls to the ground.  He lives long enough to tell Nathan that he flew his kite on the roof so he could watch his wife as she walked on the beach in front of their house.  So by page 29 and the end of chapter 3, an outsider has rescued Robert from bullying and that outsider’s family has suffered a shocking, premature death.

We quickly learn that Nathan’s mother spends most of her time in her study, typing.  Nathan isn’t sure she even puts paper in the typewriter but he certainly hears her typing all of the time while chain smoking.  We also learn that Nathan and his father were very close and went on many interesting exciting adventures.  By the end of chapter 5 and page 48 Nathan and Robert have become good friends and are setting free the kites Nathan’s father made in his workshop.

The rest of the novel follows Nathan and Robert as they progress through the rest of the 1976/77 school year, the 1977 summer, during which Nathan and Robert join the seasonal workforce at Robert’s family’s amusement park and Nathan develops a crush on Faye, a high school girl, the fall of 1977 when Liam passes, the summer of 1978 when the boys have new jobs at the amusement park and Nathan’s crush on Faye continues.  There are a few flashbacks to fill in the story of Robert’s family’s amusement park and the story of Lewis, a handy-man at the park with whom the boys develop a friendship.  I won’t give away more of the story.

Robert is our narrator.  Much of the novel deals with death and loss.  He directly experiences Nathan’s father’s untimely and violent death, how the mother responds at the death scene, and some of how Nathan reacts to the loss.  Robert provides us much more detail about the huge loss of Liam.  He can tell us directly about how he feels about the loss and his reactions to his parents’ grief.  He can also tell us about the feelings he has as he and Nathan experience their adolescent summers.  George’s portrayal of Robert is very convincing.  We hear about Robert’s jealousy of the different treatment he and Liam get from their parents and the simultaneous understanding of why that is so.   Robert also admits to us that he is unhappy about Nathan’s crush on Faye—Nathan’s obsession with Faye means he has less time and energy for Robert.

George is effective in helping us feel the impact of the unexpected death of Nathan’s father and the expected but devastating death of Liam.  Readers who are parents are likely to feel confronted with the realization of how unevenly we treat our children while we likely tell them we love them all equally,   about the secrets we keep from them, and about our incapability to shield them from the pain and suffering we feel when we lose a child.

George’s use of an amusement park as Robert’s family business is very interesting.  The relationships each Robert’s grandfather, father, and Robert have with the business—at least through Robert’s narrator eyes—are very different.  George, through Robert, comments on the role the business plays in the economy of the area.  In addition, the amusement park provides a convenient setting for progressing the Nathan/Faye relationship and the continuing relationship of Hollis with the boys.  This was very skillfully done.

Apparently Robert’s name came from a character naming auction benefitting a charity.  I understand why someone would enjoy having their name associated with a book by this author and I look forward to more of his work.