A Widow for One Year, by John Irving. I listened to it on CD while driving. A huge book in print, it translated to 20 CDs. That’s a lot of car trips. Although I got impatient with Irving’s repetitiveness at times, overall it was a great experience in which to immerse myself. His characters are quirky enough to be real and the situations they get into are labyrinthine but always entertaining. His books are lengthy, rambling sagas with all kinds of sideways diversions and embellishments.
Ruth Cole, the daughter of Ted and Marion Cole, was conceived as a replacement for the two brothers she never knew, who were killed in a car accident years before she was born. Marion never gets over the loss of her two sons and is unable to get close to her young daughter.
Ted Cole is a writer of rather scary children’s books: even the title of The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls makes me think of children’s nightmares. Even worse, The Sound of Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound has a mole “twice the size of a child, but half the size of most adults. This mole walked upright, like a man, and so he was called the moleman. He wore baggy pants, which hid his tail, and old tennis shoes that helped him to be quick and quiet.” And this mole likes to take little girls back to his lair.
Ted is also a tireless womanizer. He hires the teenage Eddie O’Hare as an assistant during the summer that Ruth is four. We are told that Ted hopes Eddie will be more than an assistant to Marion; in fact, he hopes that Eddie will make up for his neglect of her.
Marion initially views Eddie like another son, but eventually they become lovers. The days and weeks during which this situation develops has a dreamlike quality: the feeling of the endless summers of childhood.
Irving’s winding, convoluted sentences add to that feeling of being on a summer vacation. You can relax into this book and take time to understand the nuances of each situation. His paragraphs tend to be repetitive, meandering, referring back to earlier times, foreshadowing events later in the novel, and making quite sure the reader understands all the details and subleties:
That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any “presence” she detected in either her mother or her father—and that, after her mother had abandoned her and her father (and took with her almost all the photos of her lost sons), Ruth would wonder why her father left the picture hooks stuck in the bare walls. The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer—for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photos had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed. That Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; from her earliest memories, she was forced to imagine them.
It can be quite hypnotic, especially when you’re listening to it as an audio book.
My main caveat is that sometimes all the detail, the repeated words and reminders of past events combine to give me the feeling that there will be a test later and I will have to remember everything—but I ended up adapting to and accepting the style. Overall, it’s a very satisfying book.
Treme is a television series created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who previously collaborated on The Wire. It is set in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It follows the lives of residents of the Treme neighbourhood as they try to rebuild their homes. Some are trying to find out what happened to relatives who have disappeared; some are trying to obtain assistance to rebuild. But along with the suffering goes an appetite for life—for good food, for parades and parties, and of course for music.
Music is huge in Treme, with lots of traditional and newer music in every episode. Wendell Pierce, who played a cop in The Wire, is Antoine Batiste, a trombonist who lives with his second wife (although he still has a roving eye). Every episode has scenes of second-line parades or street musicians or people dancing along with the music in bars (sometimes all three). Many real-life musicians play cameos. Sometimes Treme indulges them a little too much, introducing them by name with excessive amounts of awe. Sometimes, dare I say it, there is too much music in an episode to the detriment of the story arc.
Police corruption is a major theme. Melissa Leo, as lawyer Toni Bernette, struggles to work with the better cops and expose others. Given the general atmosphere, you aren’t sure that even the good cops are entirely pure.
But the heart of Treme is about the community’s love of New Orleans. The residents go through painful struggles trying to rebuild their lives. They have to deal with loss, with bureaucracy and with those out to turn a quick profit, but still they love the place and its traditions.
Treme isn’t as good as The Wire—it isn’t as tight and coherent, but it’s an entertaining and often thoughtful series that seems pretty authentic.