Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

You guys, I really wanted this post to just be a list of quotes from this book, because there are so many good lines. How does Lorrie Moore do it?

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Some covers. I own the one on the left.

I guess I’ll try to be insightful instead, although I find that I have a hard time articulating what it is I love so much about Moore’s writing. The best way I can describe it is to say that more often than most, her sentences give me that sharp, gut-punch feeling of instant recognition. You know, that moment of wonder when a book seems to be actually, and secretly, about your life, and everyone forgot to tell you. That feeling is what I read for.

All that aside, I did have a hard time getting into this book. Birds of America (1998) is a collection of short stories, a medium that Moore has perfected but also one that I have trouble with. I like very long, plot-driven novels, a preference which I suppose explains my MA in Victorian fiction but makes me not very hip. I always want more at the end of a short story—it seems like I’ve just gotten settled into the thing and then it’s over and I never see the characters again. I kind of hate that.

But Moore is such a good writer that I’m willing to suffer that disappointment. I’ve read two of her novels, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (perfect) and A Gate at the Stairs (not perfect but very good), as well as her newest collection of stories, Bark (dark and wonderful). She’s one of the only writers I can name who seems equally at home writing short stories and novels. (Who else? Margaret Atwood… ? I don’t read a lot of short stories.) But for some reason, the first story in this collection, about an actress who takes a break from Hollywood to move back to Chicago and takes up with a man who doesn’t watch movies, didn’t grab me.

Instead, I’d call this collection a slow build. The last two stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” and “Terrific Mother,” were my favourites. The former is about a mother who discovers that her baby has cancer. Moore’s depiction of a paediatric oncology ward is incredible: realistic (I assume) and detailed with just enough absurdity and sarcasm to cut the bleakness. Equal parts darkly funny and devastatingly sad, the story follows the mother, father, and baby (never given names, although the other characters are) through their time in the ward. “Terrific Mother” is about a woman who is accidentally responsible for the death of a neighbour’s child. After spending a few months locked in her apartment, she marries and travels to Italy with her new husband, where she experiences something transformative in an unlikely place. As Michiko Kakutani points out in her review of this book, these plots seem like they could have come from a Lifetime movie—and yet Moore’s precise writing, sharp humour, and keen sense of the absurd transcend sentimentality.

One of Moore’s many talents is for oddities, those strange or unexpected details that make characters seem more real and also more memorable. Take, for example, the story “Charades,” about a family Christmas gathering. During a game of charades, a brother and sister have a fight about whether or not anyone else has heard of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” It’s such a ridiculously specific argument that it feels exactly like how a brother and sister would interact. After all, the moments we share with those closest to us often seem inexplicable to outsiders. Moore’s ability to create such moments, and in a way that is universal, is rare and wonderful.

Like the birds of the title, we are all rare birds, aren’t we? (Aside: I assume the title was inspired by Audubon’s The Birds of America). Or so we like to believe. Moore knows this, and admires this about each of her characters, even as she skewers their self-importance, their insistence on their own individuality.

I bought this book after my first semester of graduate school, in the University of Victoria campus bookstore. I was mistakenly convinced that I was about to spend my entire Christmas vacation reading for fun, so I took this book back to Toronto with me. Instead, I’m pretty sure I watched a lot of Christmas movies and ate chocolate. Then I took it back to Victoria—then I lugged it home again when I left B.C. and it moved with me, still unread, into a new apartment last summer. It’s funny, the things you’re willing to take with you when you travel long distances. What do your possessions say about you? What kind of rare bird do you think you are?

And now, for fun, some of the best lines in the book:

“He bought her a large garnet ring, a cough drop set in brass.” (from “Community Life”)

“In general, people were not road maps. People were not hieroglyphs or books. They were not stories. A person was a collection of accidents. A person was an infinite pile of rocks with things growing underneath.” (from “What You Want to Do Fine”)

[a character reflecting on a movie she’s just seen, about a woman who falls in love with an alien disguised as a man] “To Ruth, it seemed so sad and true, just like life: someone assumed the form of the great love of your life, only to reveal himself later as an alien who had to get on a spaceship and go back to his planet.” (from “Real Estate”)

“When Olena was a little girl, she had called them lie-berries—a fibbing fruit, a story store—and now she had a job in one.” (from “Community Life”)

“She remembered it had made any given day seem bearable, that impulse toward a joke. It had been a determined sort of humour, an intensity mirroring the intensity of the city, and it seemed to embrace and alleviate the hard sadness of people having used one another and marred the earth the way they had.” (from “Agnes of Iowa”)

I’ve got three books by Dickens on my list so I’d better get started on him. Next up: A Tale of Two Cities.

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Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I finished a book! Only 48 to go. Unfortunately, this was the easiest read on the list. It’s all 800-page Victorian novels from here on out.

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A survey of the available covers. I love the middle one with its creepy house and bloody tree. 

Gillian Flynn is pretty hot right now. She’s a bestselling author. Not only that, she’s written three novels and has sold the film rights to each. Pretty good odds! Gone Girl, which took bookstores by storm when it came out in 2012, stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike–perfect casting–and is in post-production now. Dark Places, a straight-up disturbing, nightmare-inducing read, stars Charlize Theron and comes out this fall. And Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, has been optioned, but no other details are forthcoming just yet. My favourite of these three is Dark Places because it is so twisted and awful that it will “mess you up” (to quote my coworker).

It’s easy to see why Flynn’s novels are making the transition to film: they’re atmospheric and suspenseful, with legitimately twisty endings. Okay, I did guess the big twist in Gone Girl, but I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie over the years. I have enjoyed each of Flynn’s novels, if enjoyed means “lost all peace of mind after reading,” and Sharp Objects, although probably my least favourite of the three, was also a fun, quick read. If you are inclined to just read books and then stop thinking about them, you’ll enjoy Gillian Flynn and your resulting nightmares.

But! If, like me and other recovering English majors the world over, you feel the need to analyze every detail of everything you read, you’ll also enjoy Gillian Flynn. All three of her novels are a masterclass in exploring and exposing the dark undercurrents of contemporary femininity, with mixed results.

First, a synopsis of Sharp Objects. Reporter Camille Preaker, who’s recovering from a stint in the psych ward, is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover a horrifying story: the murder of a nine-year-old girl. Police suspect a serial killer is on the loose, since this new murder fits the profile of another murder from a year before. Being home again with her mother Adora, stepfather Alan, and half-sister Amma brings up all of Camille’s insecurities and deepest fears. The memory of her dead sister Marian is everywhere, her high school buddies have turned fake and mean, and Camille worries that her mother’s neuroses are having an unhealthy affect on Amma. The longer she’s in Wind Gap, the closer Camille comes to finding the killer–and the closer she comes to losing her own grip on reality.

The twist ending here is not super shocking (bonus points if anyone can guess who done it just from my synopsis!), but it’s effective. Flynn excels at building the dark, dank atmosphere of Wind Gap, a hick town filled with hybrid midwestern/southern stereotypes. It’s a town of old Victorian mansions, slaughterhouses, and secrets. The odour of the local pig factory hangs over the town’s less attractive neighbourhoods. One of the murdered girls is found stuffed in a narrow alley between two businesses on Main Street–as if the town’s dirty secrets are literally bursting out of the cracks in its facade. (Aside: My only other pop cultural frame of reference for Missouri is Meet Me in St. Louis, which is a lovely film featuring Judy Garland at her most winsome and loveable, and those characters also live in a big old Victorian house, so I had some fun imagining Judy Garland as Camille.)

But I have a problem with how Flynn characterizes women, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Admittedly, in Gone Girl she eviscerates the phenomenon of the Cool Girl in one glorious chapter, and I admire her hugely for that. You know that girl, the one who never gets mad when her boyfriend comes home late, who doesn’t mind if he makes fun of her friends, who likes sports and beer and eats tons of junk food but still looks beautiful and boyishly slim at all times? She hangs out with the boys. Maybe she doesn’t have any female friends because she just can’t deal with their drama. She never nags her boyfriend about picking up socks or proposing. Yeah, that’s the Cool Girl. This woman does not exist, says Gone Girl‘s Amy. And Gone Girl is certainly an amazing send-up of all of those Cool Girl tropes that fascinate us so.

Written before Gone Girl, though, Sharp Objects relies a little bit on that Cool Girl. Camille isn’t easygoing enough to be “cool,” but she is effortlessly beautiful (so many characters tell her this, and I rolled my eyes anew every time), and doesn’t seem to care. She has casual sex with both a murder suspect and the main detective on the case. She drinks various men under the table. She tells the story of what was pretty clearly a gang-rape as just another wild night out on the town. And lest you think this is just because she was so damaged by the experience that she has learned to see it that way, the man to whom she’s telling the story gets very upset and even raises the r-word, and she brushes off his concern. That’s just how teens encounter sex here in Wind Gap, she says (more or less). I think we’re supposed to admire these traits in her–while recognizing that she is deeply traumatized from her childhood, of course. There’s a running thread about her past as a cutter that feels a little obvious. But why do we admire her? Because she’s the only remotely Cool Girl for miles. Every other woman in Wind Gap is a mess of pink and girlish stereotypes.

Camille’s mother Adora is definitely a candidate for Worst Mother of the Year. She’s so overly feminized, with her brightly coloured dresses and girlish voice and motherly concern for her daughters’ health, that she’s really just a nightmare portrayal of the perfect wife and mother. Ideal femininity taken to its terrifying extreme, like a Stepford wife. Camille’s 13-year-old sister Amma is described alternately as a sex kitten and as a beautiful, innocent young girl who’s being corrupted by her mother (and this is why Flynn can be so disturbing: she crosses and recrosses that line between titillating and inappropriate over and over). Camille’s former high school friends are all stay at home moms who glorify motherhood and shoot dirty looks at Camille because they assume she’s a feminist. Flynn draws a pretty stark connection between “traditionally feminine” and “mean or straight-up evil.”

But are there any normal women in this world? No, there are not. There is the quasi-Cool Girl, perpetually drunk on bourbon and up for a good time, and there are the Mothers, sinister and guarded, judgmental and mean. Cool Girls, of course, don’t have time for traditional femininity–dresses, makeup, having children, even being married. They don’t want any of that, they’re too cool. It’s sort of a Madonna/Whore complex, but the Whore is the heroine and the Madonna really doesn’t love her kid as much as she claims to.

There’s also a fascinating subplot where Flynn pathologizes traditional femininity, much like some of the best Victorian novelists. Adora is a hypochondriac whose obsessive mothering and nursing of her daughters masks her own sick need for attention. In many Victorian novels, women fall ill with nebulous, unnamed illnesses because their lives are so narrow and repressed. Illness is the only form of self-expression open to them. At the same time, though, being ill–pale and delicate–really just reinforces the very femininity that makes these characters so powerless. In Sharp Objects, it’s similar–illness is how Adora asserts control over her family, how she finds her purpose, sick and twisted though it may be. I really loved that thread in the novel and I wish Flynn had fleshed it out a little more instead of making Adora such a cartoon villain. (Aside #2: In grad school, I researched and wrote a lot about femininity and illness in the Victorian novel, so that is my Number One Literary Obsession and it’ll probably come up again and again on this blog.)

Flynn once wrote that she herself “was not a nice little girl,” and Sharp Objects is very preoccupied with this idea. The two little girls who are murdered are not “nice little girls,” either. One shoves a pen into another’s eye, and the other likes to bite when she doesn’t get her way. Camille likes this about both victims because it means she can relate to them. As if a murder victim who was a “nice little girl” would be less worthy of her investigative skills, less interesting, too conventional.

Flynn has been accused before of relying on misogynist tropes in her writing, and she’s defended herself. I definitely don’t think that all portraits of women need to be flattering in order to be feminist–I don’t think that’s what feminism is about, nor is it what I want to read about, nor is it even what I’m saying here. But feminism also isn’t about the freedom to make women into villains or hate on other women for liking pink things. For one thing, there are plenty of female villains out there already, and not just, as Flynn says, soapy vixens who are “merely bitchy.” Let’s see–we’ve got Mrs. Bates, Baby Jane, Kathy Bates’s character in Misery, even a character like Nellie Oleson (she was the worst!), the narrator (Judi Dench’s character) in Notes on a Scandal, the list goes on.

But also, and I think we all know this, it’s okay to like things that are traditionally feminine, and it doesn’t mean that you’re boring, or less worthy of some investigative reporter’s attention after you’ve been brutally murdered, or whatever. And creating complex female characters is not just about acknowledging that women have a dark side. It’s more about the fact that women can have as many sides as they want.

The List

One day, I was watching an episode of Game of Thrones and happened to glance over at my bookshelf, where A Feast for Crows, book four in the series, has been sitting unread since I bought it. Three years ago. I thought, hmm, maybe I should read that at some point. It is taking up valuable shelf space. Along with Our Mutual Friend and War and Peace and various books on grammar and the history of the English language that I thought I would get around to reading.

And thus, this blog idea was born. I’m going to read my way through all of the unread books on my shelf and post about them here. Along with the other books I’m reading. The rules (because I love rules) of this project are simple: 1. I can’t buy a new book until I read an unread one that I already own. (I am allowed to keep reading library books and books borrowed from friends.) 2. I’m allowed to quit books, but only if I’ve read at least 100 pages and I’m really not into it.

Books of poetry have been excluded from this project, because I said so.

Without further ado, here is the complete list in alphabetical order:

Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash
The Brontes, Juliet Barker
How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom
Santa Claus: A Biography, Gerry Bowler
Mr. Darcy’s Guide to Courtship, Emily Brand (disclaimer: I did not buy this for myself)
A Truth Universally Acknowledged, ed. Susannah Carson
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
For Her Own Good, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders
Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
Jane Goes Batty, Michael Thomas Ford
On the Map, Simon Garfield
Sylvia’s Lovers, Elizabeth Gaskell
Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt
Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy
Moby-Duck, Donovan Hohn
Red Herrings and White Elephants, Albert Jack
Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, ed. Gordon Jarvie
What We Hide, Marthe Jocelyn
The Ghost Map, Stephen Berlin Johnson
The First Word, Christine Kenneally
In Darkest London, John Law (a pseudonym for Margaret Harkness)
The Xmas Files, Stephen Law
Word Origins, Anatoly Liberman
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore
The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
Origins of the Specious, Patricia T. O’Conner
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
The Son, James Scott
Contested Will, James Shapiro
Richard III, William Shakespeare
King Lear, William Shakespeare
The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, Michael Slater
The Jane Austen Handbook, Margaret Sullivan
Vanity Fair, William Thackeray
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester
A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf
Robert Schumann, John Worthen
If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It!, Ben Yagoda

This is going to take longer than I thought…