A Book in Need of a Book Club: Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

photo 2 (4)I found Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau* to be well-written, intriguingly structured, and deeply frustrating.

This last characteristic is a measure of the skill Ms. Essbaum, who is a very well-regarded poet, brings to her characterization of Anna, the eponymous hausfrau.

Anna is an American who’s lived in Switzerland for many years, but who’s never felt at home in her adopted country. Outwardly, her life seems orderly and comfortable. She is married to a handsome and successful banker, has three beautiful children, and lives in a charming suburb of one of the world’s best cities.

Inwardly, Anna is a mess. She has trouble making friends, her husband is emotionally distant, and she doesn’t speak the Swiss variant of German, so she feels constantly isolated, even from herself. It’s difficult for her to understand her own feelings and impulses. To combat her isolation, Anna starts Jungian analysis (one of the best parts of the book, I thought), German classes, and ill-fated affairs.

As I said, Hausfrau is very well written—calibrated to elicit the reader’s undivided attention and inability to look away from Anna’s increasingly disastrous life. The narrative arc covers only a few months in time, but each chapter reaches back to past events and is molded by Anna’s conversations with her analyst, an interesting strategy that I came to admire as I adjusted to it.

Anna is very much alive, but reading about her was exhausting; I often felt overwhelmed by the details of her thoughts and experiences. And this is why I think this book screams for a book club: some readers are going to hate her, others are going to be entranced by the full psychological portrait, and some are going to feel both ways at once (yes, that’s me).

Spoilers ensue. 


If I were part of a real-life book club, here are some things I’d want to talk about.

photo 1 (3)1. The heroine’s name is Anna, she’s adulterous, and the first chapter involves trains. Anna Karenina much? We all knew what was coming, right?

2. If Anna is so unhappy because Bruno is so emotionally distant (and prone to violence, though it’s not clear how far that goes before the last episode), why doesn’t Anna get a divorce? Why not even talk about it or think about it? I thought this was unrealistic. Marriage certainly didn’t define Anna to such an extent that she’d be adrift without it. She’d be adrift no matter what.

3. Anna’s failure to recognize her privilege annoyed the hell out of me. She does not need to worry about money at all (this is a complaint I have about a great many novels, as I discuss in this review), but doesn’t seem to appreciate this gift.

And while being the at-home parent is challenging (believe me, I know), she is not juggling working from home at the same time, her children are healthy, and she has so much help! Her mother-in-law is available to her almost at-will (and at no cost), freeing Anna up to take German classes and have sex with various accented men. She sends a text and Ursula magically picks up her sons from school. She calls Ursula and suddenly she has a night free to spend with her husband. Ta-da!

I’m all for at-home parents taking all the help they can get, but as someone who doesn’t have in-home help, or daycare, or my child in school, I cannot believe that Anna doesn’t take better advantage of her free time—which she’s had for years. I can imagine a person in the heady rush of child-free time taking a few weeks to adjust and figure out what to do with themselves, but years? No. Honestly, it drove me crazy that Anna devoted so much time to navel-gazing and destructive behavior instead of learning the local language, reading a book, writing a novel, volunteering, getting another degree, going to a museum, or for heaven’s sake, just taking a nap. 

On the other hand: Am I being too harsh? Is Anna in the grip of profound mental illness–depression seems the most likely–that somehow accounts for her myriad irresponsible choices and inability to appreciate the good parts of her life (particularly her children)?

4. I found it weird that I’m reading a novel in 2015 that punishes a woman for having sex, even adulterous sex. Very nineteenth-century novel.


End of spoilers.

Anyway, I recommend this book for its writing and because people are going to be talking about it, and if you read it, you will definitely have something to say.

I’m off to find a collection of Ms. Essbaum’s poetry, because I’m guessing it’s amazing.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Making Nice, by Matt Sumell

photo (14)When I finished Making Nice*, Matt Sumell’s debut novel-in-stories, I couldn’t stop thinking of it as a bildungsroman, even though the narrator, Alby, is about thirty.

I think that’s because we can come of age not once, but at least three times: when we physically and, to some extent, emotionally “grow up” (the fodder for the archetypal bildungsroman, like Great Expectations or Jane Eyre), when we meet our own children, and when our parents die.

This last sense is speculation on my part, for which I am very grateful, but I can imagine the jarring sense of being alone in the adult world that would accompany the grief over a parent’s death.

Making Nice is about how Alby deals with his mother’s death from cancer—not very well, it turns out—but at the same time, it’s about his whole life, his family, his environment, and his choices. It’s a bruising account of that final and terrible kind of growing up.

On paper, Alby is not a sympathetic character: he drinks to violent excess, he steals pain medication not meant for him, he fights, he’s often contemptuous and belligerent toward women. He’s prone to egregious lapses in impulse control.

However, in Mr. Sumell’s capable hands, he is very much a whole person: studded with flaws more visible than most people’s, but a man of blistering emotions who demonstrates a profound capacity for empathy. The book’s structure—linked stories—is ideally suited to conveying the complexities of Alby’s character. Rage and humor sit uncomfortably close to one another, and the result is great writing, even if it’s sometimes difficult to read. This is a compassionate, humane book, and I recommend it.

(The Paris Review, which published one of the stories now included in Making Nice, has a fascinating interview with Matt Sumell that explores some of the novel’s autobiographical aspects.)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

On Meditation and Poetry and Neil Fischer’s [As if the moon could haul through you]

CarolynOliver_MountAuburnCemetery_October2014I’ve been thinking about mindfulness lately, which is, I realize, sort of ridiculous; instead of thinking about mindfulness, I should just be mindful, right?

I do try, but then there’s always something in the back of my mind– a project for a client, how much Christmas gift-planning I have left (hey, I start early but my Decembers are very relaxed), books to read, reviews to write, wondering if my son will ever outgrow the vegetarian-except-for-bacon-phase, wondering what color I’d paint my front door if I owned a house with paintable front door (purple, but what shade?), how often I should be checking to see if Leonard Cohen is going on tour again,  which houseplant I’ve brought closest to death this week, how much I wish Parks & Rec season 7 was on right now . . . and so on.

I have a few friends who practice meditation,and they seem calmer and better adjusted than I feel, but every time I think about getting a meditation app or reading a book about how to meditate, I’m distracted by something (often a small something who likes to wear three shirts at once, demands very specific, non-findable episodes of Super Why, and recently expressed a need for a “poem-book,” thereby bringing his mother to tears).

Which is all a long way of saying that my one small step toward meditation is reading poetry. Sometimes—most of the time—I can’t read a full collection, but one poem? I can do that.

So this week I’ve been reading and re-reading Neil Fischer’s [As if the moon could haul through you], which is gorgeous, and is about clearing the mind, even if it fills the reader’s with heady images (“the purl of south-bending river”—I swooned, almost).

Death of a Poet

The first time I met Eric, one warm evening in late May, I told him how much I hated the title of one of his poems. (I am a noted conversationalist.)  We were at a party unveiling the latest edition of the college lit magazine, which I’d worked on, and two or three of Eric’s poems had been selected for publication, including the one I fought vehemently against because of its horrid title. (It really was bad.)

Totally unfazed, Eric grinned, told me I was wrong, and joined the magazine’s staff in the fall so that we could bicker more frequently. He walked me home every Monday night, always laughing.

Two years later, we finally realized that we were madly in love with each other.

Three months and twenty-seven days before our wedding day — seventeen months and two days after our first kiss at Logan airport — Eric was dead.

That was six years ago today.

In the six years since Eric died (I am allergic to euphemisms, at least when it comes to death), I’ve never been able to write coherently about our few years together, his death, or the aftermath. Over the past month I’ve written pages and pages of material, but it’s too much to post here, though it was, in the greater scheme of things, an ordinary tragedy. There was no bomb, no gun, no collapsing bridge, no drunk driver. No earthquake or tsunami or tornado or wasting disease. There was no one, nothing to blame, but there is so much to tell.

I could tell you about how much Eric loved his family and his best friend, Andy, his generosity of spirit, his quick wit, his inimitable brand of hard-edged sensitivity. But then I’d have to tell you about Eric’s walk (jaunty, purposeful, often with a cup of black coffee in hand), his laugh, his eyes, his fearlessness, the long tails on his handwritten ‘y’s, his inexplicable love for soccer, Miller High Life, and rap.

I could tell you about his poetic exploits (he wrote a sonnet composed of advertising slogans, and it worked), about the funny, bawdy, homely, happy poems he dashed off two or three times a week for me, about the play he wrote without telling anyone. I could tell you how the last time we talked I said I thought some of the poems in his thesis were ours, too personal to share. But then I’d need to tell you how we laughed about brazier/brassiere, how proud I was when he was published, how modest he was when other poets praised his work.

I could tell you about screaming into my apartment’s floor after Eric’s father called to tell me he was dead (the carpet was beige and cream with little brown fibers threaded through its flat twists, like loose hairs). But then I’d have to tell you about smashing glasses in the kitchen, curling up next to my best friend and hearing my mom ask him through the phone if I was vomiting, because I was sobbing so hard — and I wouldn’t be past the first two hours.

I could tell you that it is absurd (one of Eric’s favorite words) to be twenty-three years old and shopping for a black dress when there’s a perfectly good meringue of a wedding dress at home that you won’t ever wear. It’s absurd to wonder if there are support groups for almost-widows (There weren’t.). But then I’d have to tell you the absurdity of trying to explain your fiancé’s best qualities to a minister who’s never met either of you before, the absurdity of listening to a woman who verifies your relationship with the dead man in the casket twenty feet away and says, “Just think! All those birthdays! All those Christmases! And your wedding!”

I could tell you what it’s like to think that the evidence of spring around you is worse than absurd — it’s obscene. Obscene that all those flowers and budding trees are licked with sunshine when your beloved’s body is going down, down, down into the dark earth where you can’t follow. But then I’d have to tell you about reading an autopsy report, a calm account of your lover’s body cut to pieces, learning, at the last, just how heavy a heart can be.

You see, April really is the cruelest month.

The truth is, I’ve never written before about the aftermath of Eric’s death because to remember it, for me, is to relive it.  One memory leads to another, and another, and another; what I’ve written here is only a fraction of what’s still in my mind. I can hear our wedding rings clinking on a chain around my neck, can see the anguish in his mother’s eyes, can taste the dust from the gravel road into the graveyard. I did not — do not — handle bereavement with grace or humor or equanimity or courage or any admirable quality at all, really. The desire to write these things down is mostly selfish, an attempt to share the witness of grief, to excise just a few of those memories.

That’s one half of the truth. The other half is that love is stronger than death.

What’s stronger than the awful memories of the week of Eric’s death and burial is the enormous power of the acts of love that happened in the weeks and months and years that followed. If I were to list every person who was kind to me, to Eric’s family, to my family, you’d be reading for hours. I kept every message, every letter, every note sent with flowers; impossible as it seems, I remember every person at the wake and funeral, every kind word then and after, and my gratitude is unceasing.  For every agonizing memory, there are two or three filled with images of love. Most of them are so specific that I can’t write about them here without infringing on other people’s privacy;  so suffice to say that when life felt most unlivable, somehow kindness always appeared in one of its many guises — a cornucopia of grace that I’m convinced saved my life.

There’s a particular solace that books can give, the sense that someone else has been there before you, has staked out the country, is holding out a rough-hewn cup when you’ve been so thirsty for so long that you’ve forgotten the taste of water. Mercifully, the last book I had to teach before the summer was The Razor’s Edge, and I’d never understood it better. I re-read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. My friend gave me Ann Hood’s Comfort. And there was poetry — so much poetry: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Carol Ann Duffy, W. H. Auden, Milton, A. E. Housman.

And finally the ghost of Miss Havisham appeared and I decided that while I had no intention of falling in love ever again, I also had no intention of withering away in my apartment, or forever provoking (kind) looks of pity.

And so, about a year after Eric died, I found myself in a little Italian restaurant, sitting across from a tall near-stranger with warm brown eyes. He was shy, funny, serious, and, as I learned later, very kind and very gentle. I told him about Eric and my almost-widowhood on that first date, and he looked me in the eyes when he said he was sorry. He emailed me and asked for another date the same night. And in the last five years, he’s listened whenever I needed to talk about Eric.

It was confusing, at first, to fall in love when I still loved Eric; but finally I realized that I will never stop loving him. After all, we love relatives who’ve died, don’t we? The condition of their existence does not alter our love.

Last year, around this time, I wrote a little about what it’s like now to feel this mixture of love and sadness. For now, I can’t improve upon it, so here it is:

The end of a long story of mine is that I own the poetry collection of someone I loved very deeply and who died much too young.  In the beginning I kept our collections separate, and thought that someday I’d try to read through them as a way to work through my grief. But over time the project receded, and our collections have melded together so thoroughly that often I don’t know the provenance of a particular book.

This morning, my little son, H, and I were looking over the shelves to find a poem to work on this week, and I was drawn to Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems (1989), which won the Pulitzer (Wilbur’s second). It’s a thick volume, and I found several promising poems, full of sly wit and concrete images, but nothing that shook me by the shoulders and said “This one!”

Until, that is, as my son fell asleep in my arms, I read the title of the last section: The Beautiful Changes, the title of Wilbur’s first book of poetry, published in 1947, when he was twenty-six (oh, to have the touch of genius!). My hands shook a little; I know these poems, “Cicadas” and “O.” I’ve read poems that talk to them.

And the last poem in the book, in the collection, is “The Beautiful Changes,” and it expresses, for me, what has happened since I lost this person I loved, whose fingers turned these very pages. Through the madness and the crushing weight of sorrow, the images that I cannot un-see, life and consolation reached out and found me.

I knew, without looking, that if I opened the inside back cover, I’d find three angular initials, and that they wouldn’t be mine.

But now the poem is ours.

Portrait of His Beloved120_517293792055_8906_n

John Donne knew a compass could draw
the face of a clock, but not the face
of his woman. To the young poet,
did this difference mean anything?

He knew her hands, no matter how gentle,
held him, in the end, the same way
as the clock’s hands held him.

To be away from her was to know
the hour. It was to know death
could be any unknown moment.

He loved her likeness, because
it was its moment kept in its frame.
Looking gave him time to ignore
the strange numbers never smiling.

Eric Van Cleve, 2006


“Days are where we live.”

In a recent post on The Poetry Foundation’s website, Caitlin Kimball calls British poet Philip Larkin “that crown prince of misanthropic, socially awkward poet-librarians,” which is probably the best, funniest summation of Larkin’s whole ethos I’ve ever read. For me, reading Larkin’s poems are like sucking on lemons (I know, I know: terrible for one’s teeth. But I do it anyway.). There’s sourness, sure, but it only serves to highlight the brightness of the fruit, the taste like color.

Image courtesy of Pixomar / Freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Pixomar / Freedigitalphotos.net

In this poem, “Days,” it’s the turn that twists the knife; the first stanza lulls the reader into a little thought experiment, asking her to consider day as a place rather than as a time: “Where can we live but days?” Ay, there’s the rub.

Here’s the second and final stanza.

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.