What to do when I’m gone

Once you make mention of your possible retirement, people start hounding you mercilessly. All boundaries crash and burn and you will find yourself having to answer questions like: “Why now?”, “Surely you’ll get bored?”, “Exactly when?”, “Will you have enough money?”, “What about your sex life?” … OK so I made up that last one, but all the others stay put. What I really needed was a book entitled: “What will I do when you are gone”, sadly that one is yet to be written.

What to do when I'm goneBut Libraries have always come to my rescue in the past and they did not fail me this time either. Lo and Behold, I found the perfect book to recommend for situations of loss, because make no bones about it, I’m going to miss you guys heaps.It’s a new book – What To Do When I’m Gone. It’s written by a mother to help her daughter cope after her death. It’s funny, full of good advice, beautifully illustrated and applies to all sorts of life situations where people just aren’t there for you any more. Here’s how it starts:

DAY 1 After I’m Gone: Make fajitas. And after you’ve done that serve with fresh tortillas, chopped cilantro, and thin slices of avocado. Great job. Now don’t you feel better? Of course you don’t. Pour yourself a stiff glass of whisky.

The Wrong HeavenMy next bookish recommendation to tide you over is The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons. This recent edition of short stories has a slight Magic Realism edge to it. Here is a book to remind you why we read in the first place: to be taken by the hand to visit some strange place, only to get there and find yourself quite unexpectedly at home. I chose this book for its stunning cover, I started reading it because of its great title. I finished it because it is just brilliant. And you’d think it would be a “ladies” book, but its best reviews are all by men. Read it!

Anytrhing is PossibleAnd I hope you have already met up with Elizabeth Strout in your reading travels, but if not you can just as well start here with Anything is Possible her most recent book of loosely linked characters in a small mid-western town. I love Strout’s writing – she is one of the best observers of everyday
folk that we have right now. She feels like one of those people who can divine an entire personality from a single scrap of fabric. Forget about politics and climate change and the price of petrol. The really important stuff is happening to the people in your home, your neighbourhood, your town.

Of course you can instead choose to read one of the many books on retirement, or on growing older. But I can summarise their contents for you right here: Make a will; Pay off your mortgage; Keep active and socialise, and whatever else you do, join a Tai Chi class. Instead I’m hoping growing older will be more like this quote from a review of The Wrong Heaven:

Anything is possible: bodies can transform, inanimate objects can come to life, angels can appear and disappear.

Now that’s more like what I am aiming at in retirement!

Mothers and daughters

Fierce AttachmentsIt’s a long time since I have read a happy Mothers and Daughters book. Honestly, decades. How can this be? Most of the mothers I know have great relationships with their daughters. Yet current fiction does not support this view, and I have the books to prove it:

Let’s start with Vivian Gornick’s biographical account of life with her mother – Fierce Attachments. Well, the title says it all really. Two lippy women living in the Bronx without the balancing household presence of any y chromosomes. The daughter: sharp-tongued and sexually adventurous, the mother: conservative and grieving the loss of her husband. Their best moments come when they walk the streets of their beloved New York.

Hot MilkMoving right on to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, where things become that bit more curdled. Take one controlling, difficult-to-please mother, add a “finding herself” daughter and a dodgy medical practice. Transport them all to foreign soil, leave to simmer in the heat, stir occasionally – then prepare to dodge the fallout. Deborah Levy was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2016 for this very readable novel.

My name is Lucy BartonMy Name is Lucy Barton also has ill health as a trigger point for a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. It’s a small novel, set almost entirely in a New York hospital room, in which Lucy and her mother attempt to nut out their history. This book made me the most sad, because the real culprit in their story was poverty and its effect on families. It also makes one aware that sometimes, even when great efforts are being made, things do not always work out. In fact Elizabeth Strout is something of a specialist on the theme of strained mothers and daughters. Her highly acclaimed first novel Amy and Isabelle also tackles this topic.

A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member

said George Bernard Shaw. This may well be true, but I won’t know for sure until I have reacquainted myself with some good strong Happy Families books. Does such a thing even exist?

The chameleon reader

I am a chameleon reader. This is someone who takes on the personality of a character in their current read. In other words, a person who has porous boundaries between their real and their imaginary worlds.

The person most affected by this is my husband – who has taken to tentatively entering the house at the end of the day while he works out which persona is going to greet him. Here are some recent examples of my chameleon reading:

CommonwealthCommonwealth by Anne Patchett made me all envious of big families and large gatherings – resulting in an unexpected desire to entertain at home and devise menus for dinner parties. Just like  the beautiful Beverly who did exactly that, and ended up causing the mother of all family upheavals in the terrific family saga that is Commonwealth. We sank happily back to our two-person suppers when I finished reading this book.

Fierce AttachmentsHowever I bet my man preferred Commonwealth to the effect of my next read, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. Reading Gornick makes me want to be a feisty, intellectual Jewish woman from the Bronx. It must have been a terrifying experience to come home to find me transformed into a sharp-tongued feminist with acute mother issues. But that too passed.

 

The satanic mechanicAnd in its place came the altogether more malleable Tannie Maria in The Satanic Mechanic. Along the lines of Mma Ramotse in Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series, this South African Karoo novel comes with a lovelorn closet detective who is a terrific cook (this is one of those books interleaved with recipes – and the odd Afrikaans word). My husband was very happy with this turn of events. But, it was a short, easy read and I moved quickly on to…

Olive Kitteridge Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Well here is a character who Takes No Prisoners. Who reaches rapid conclusions, holds onto them come hell or high water, who only once in her entire marriage apologised to her truly lovely, all-patient husband. We watched the DVD. My husband thought Olive was a total witch. But she is not, so I put him right about that in a Kitteridgy way. Still, I bet he is praying that I do not read the book.

And that’s what chameleon reading is all about. You should try it – it’ll really keep your partner on his or her toes!