Saturday, November 22, 2008

Yes, We Can

I’m watching the news this morning about all the hoop-la over Obama’s upcoming inauguration. Should he tone it down, given the economy, or should he throw down in a big way, given the historical significance of his election? Should Michelle wear designer duds or shop at Target? As if the guy doesn’t have bigger things to worry about!

I have to say, though, despite all the bad news coming from the television anchors (have you ever noticed how these people seem almost gleeful as they deliver their forecasts of doom and destruction?), I have this inner feeling of optimism. I have this gut feeling that everything is going to be all right.

Call me crazy, but I miss the days of Bill. Bill Clinton could sell a double bed to the Pope. He could sell you chicken shit and make you believe it was chicken salad (to paraphrase another of our fine Southern presidents, LBJ). And maybe that’s what this country has been missing for the past eight years. A president who could make us believe, really believe, in chicken shit.

Not that I’m lumping Barack Obama in with Bill Clinton. He has something of Bill’s calm, unflappable demeanor but in Obama it’s more an air of studied resolve, of steady determination to see a job through.

I was never quite sure if Bill, despite his obvious intelligence, was seeing the big picture. Obama’s grave countenance the evening he celebrated his historic win in Grant Park, tells me he does see the big picture, and is approaching what history may call some of our country’s darkest days, with the requisite combination of courage, boldness, and tenacity. And somehow, despite all the bad news, this comforts me.

Maybe it’s because I read history. Maybe it’s because I know that, during those moments of extreme crisis in our nation’s history, we’ve always managed to produce a leader who helps us rise above failure, division, and despair. George Washington. Abraham Lincoln. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Barack Obama?

Miracles happen every day. If we believe.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Damn, That Girl Can Write

Anyone who reads my novels knows I love dark humor. The darker, the better. And no one does dark humor better than the British. I discovered Hilary Mantel years ago while browsing through an out-of-the way bookstore. I read Everyday is Mothers Day, followed by the sequel, Vacant Possession. The novels revolve around Muriel Axom, the hulking, psychopathic, idiot savant daughter of a medium trying to eke out a living in a crumbling English middle-class suburb. Muriel is a truly evil character and yet also strangely compelling and childlike. It’s a testament to Mantel’s ability as a writer that she can create a character who evokes such strong conflicting emotions. Slowly, patiently, and diabolically Muriel plots her revenge on people who have been cruel to her, including her own mother. Her transformation in Vacant Possession, set against the staid, bourgeoisie background of the Sidney family, is by turns grotesque, horrific and comic.

Mantel is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including The Orange Prize for Fiction (Beyond Black). She is a fine writer but she’s not for the squeamish. Her novel, The Giant, O’Brien is the story of an Irish giant who exhibits himself on the London curiosity circuit in the 1780’s. Charlie O’Brien is also an Irish storyteller who entertains the human oddities he travels with, the dwarfs, bearded ladies, prostitutes, and pinheads. At eight feet tall, he’s a celebrity of the circuit, but he’s also begun to grow again, which means he’s dying. It’s at this time that he comes to the attention of John Hunter, the brilliant Scottish anatomist who determines that he must have the Giant O’Brien’s skeleton for his collection. The novel is slim, but Mantel manages to capture in her spare language the essence of the eighteenth century, with its cruelty, hypocrisy, and dawning preoccupation with scientific research. It’s the story of two remarkable men, set against the dying of the old world, and the birth of the modern age.

My favorite book of Mantel’s, however, is her autobiography Giving Up the Ghost, which can be enjoyed by everyone. It’s one of those books that, as a writer, I can so clearly relate to, pages where she describes what it’s like to be an imaginative child, a storyteller, an introvert in an extroverted world. She also describes what it’s like to be an intelligent woman, an academic, in a man’s world of the nineteen sixties and seventies. Her lifelong struggle with endometriosis, her misdiagnosis and subsequent battle with the medical establishment over her own body, are conflicts women everywhere can relate to.

Kudos, Hilary. You go girl.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy Families Are All Alike

I’m fascinated by those television reality shows about big families. You know the ones, with anywhere from twelve to sixteen, nope make that seventeen, kids. I note that the mothers in those shows are always abnormally calm. Prozac-calm.

Me, I come from good Beserker stock. I come from people with names like Olaf the Terrible and Sven the Morose. Just ask my three children. They’ll tell you life in our household was loud, but never boring. They’ll tell you my mothering style was something along the lines of Becky Sharp Meets Tony Soprano (they mean that in a good way, of course.)

Not that I ever lost my temper in public. I’m a Southern girl, and we’re taught that to display anger in public is the height of white-trashery. We’re taught that you should never strike or rebuke your children in public, but should instead wait to do so in the privacy of your own home.

So I wasn’t Donna Reed. So sue me. I’m a survivor. I’ve raised three teenagers and I have the baggy skin and frown lines to prove it. And I did so without the help of pharmaceuticals, I might add. (Martinis, yes – pharmaceuticals, no.) My husband and I are whittled down some, but we’re still standing.

Still, watching those TV shows about large happy families, it’s easy to get a little misty-eyed. Last night while getting ready for bed, I mentioned to my husband that maybe we should have had ten children, bought a farm in the country, home-schooled our offspring, and baked our own bread.

He looked at me with an incredulous expression and then began to laugh. His laughter was long and sustained, bordering on hysteria.

He was still laughing this morning.