I hadn’t heard of the book Mary Coin or the author Marisa Silver. I met someone who works for one of the big publishers. I told her what books I like, including a recent read — The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin — a quiet book about quiet lives in a remote part of Washington state. Mary Coin, a quiet, skillfully written book, takes us to California by way of Oklahoma.
The book alternates between the lives of three different people. First, we follow Walker, a present day middle-aged academic, who is sort of a socio-historian. He goes to small towns and puts together individual histories by combing through attics, old ledgers, photo albums, old local newspapers, etc. He has neglected his own family and, recently divorced, is now dealing with his teenaged children and his dying father.
The other two stories take place mostly in the 1920’s and 1930’s. One follows title character, Mary Coin, who grows up in a one-room sod house in a small town in Oklahoma. Insects live in the dirt walls of the house and Mary feels “as trapped as that cricket, stuck in this house filled with the sweet smell of rotting earth.” She marries young and she and her husband end up in California looking for work in the forests and fields.
The third story follows Vera Dare, whose life is based on that of real-life photographer Dorothea Lange. She lives in San Francisco where she has a photography studio specializing in debutantes and high- society portraits. The Great Depression takes Vera out of her studio — she is hired by the Farm Security Administration to photograph the poor, particularly farm workers.
Walker talks about his work and the difference between looking and seeing: “This unimportant image or piece of information that no one cares about? Well, there is a story here, too, and I’m going to find out what it is.” Seeing is not just a glance. It is looking past surfaces and using one’s imagination.
That is exactly what Marisa Silver is doing in this book. Silver’s jumping off point is Lange’s 1936 photograph, Migrant Mother. Silver has gone past looking and is reimagining the lives of ordinary people. We see the characters through life and death and through love and loss. We see the loneliness and hardships of their lives, whether poor or privileged.
The role of photography is an underlying theme throughout the book. In an interview, Silver said that Migrant Mother “became an inadvertent icon and made its way down through the generations in all sorts of forms – as an exhibit in museums, as a document in textbooks, even as a U.S. postage stamp. The life of the original object was interpreted and reinterpreted, and, as a piece of history, it adopted meanings and values that were different from those in play at the moment of its making.” The real subject of the photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, did not reveal her identity until late in her life when she was very ill and needed money for health care.
The book allows us to contemplate how photographs capture a single moment and how we relate to that moment. It also allows to think about how photography has changed. Silver says, “Photography is an interesting form because it is one that is practiced not only by artists, but by everyone. We are a planet of image-makers. Instamatic… instagram, the message is that life can be captured and fixed in an instant.” Walker, the character, wonders what will happen now that digital photography means there will “be no dusty albums hidden in attics for someone like him to discover.” It is an unanswered question “but every age deserves its fashion and its forms, and no one can control what survives.”
Each of the three strands of the story was interesting on its own. It was a beautiful read. I wanted to know more about the characters and I was driven by the mystery of how their lives would intersect.
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A Tale for the Time Being is Ruth Ozeki’s third novel, after My Year of Meats and All Over Creation. It was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction.
The main character is also named Ruth Ozeki and her life bears a lot of resemblance to that of the author. Ruth, the character, lives on a small island off the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada, where she finds a plastic bag containing a diary of a Japanese teenage girl washed up on the beach. The novel alternates between a narrative of Ruth’s life, as she reads the diary and tries to find out what happened to the girl, and the first person narrative of the diary itself.
Within this framework Ozeki plays some games with time. The diary is written in a notebook that had been has been made by replacing the pages of Proust’s book “In Search For Lost Time” with blank pages. In a Guardian newspaper interview, Ozeki said “I think that all writing is in search of lost time.”
The girl calls herself a “time being”. In fact, the girl’s name is Nao—pronounced “now”. The girl is addressing the diary to a reader—putting them in the same time zone—the present. But, what Ruth is reading is history and for the girl, her reader is someone in the future. The girl may not even be alive—did she die in the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami? Did the girl kill herself, as she indicates she may do in certain passages?
Nao’s story is quite harsh. She is the victim of brutal bullying from other students. Teachers seem to be complicit and her parents oblivious. Nao moves away from school and home into a world of Japanese culture that seems quite bizarre—from cafes where the waitresses are dressd as French maids ready and willing to indulge their customers fantasies and fetishes to the life of Nao’s great-grandmother who lives in relative isolation as a buddhist nun and in which Nao encounters the supernatural.
Ozeki’s characters are dealing with displacement and disconnection. Ruth, the character, like Ozeki, has moved from New York to British Columbia to be with her husband, but after years there, she still doesn’t feel at home. She and her husband are not always able to communicate well. Nao has spent much of her childhood in northern California and has only recently returned to her country of birth. She was never fully American and now is being taunted as an outsider within Japan.
The novel explores suicide—through Nao’s father, who tries unsuccessfully to kill himself, through Nao who contemplates it, and through Nao’s great-uncle who was a kamikaze pilot in World War II. There are also explorations into technology—as we see how the internet affects both Nao’s story and Ruth’s investigation into what happened to Nao. We learn about enviromental issues, quantum physics and garbage floating on the oceans gyres. In a Bookslut blog interview, Ozeki has said “the whole idea of a time being is a being that has a limited amount of time . . . So this negotiation around how much time we have . . . and the way we live our lives as a result of the way we think about it — these are very important things in the book. And so it does make sense to me that there are so many characters contemplating the end of their life in one way or another.”
At the end of the book, Ruth is having trouble finding traces of Nao and her family on the internet. Also, she has seen items on the internet that seem to have disappeared. It turns out that someone in the book may removing specific personal histories from the internet—particularly useful when the history is embarrassing or the includes the result of humiliating pranks of bullies. I thought of this part of the book when reading about the EU’s recent ruling that people can have links removed from Google.
There was some lovely writing and some interesting juxtapositions and expositions in “A Tale for the Time Being.” But the themes were sometimes too disparate. At times, particularly when the story verged on the surreal, I had to struggle to make it to the end.
It looks like a giant meteor will hit earth and do some serious damage within the year, but Detective Hank Palace is going to work every day and he’s trying to solve the latest murder. Well, first he has to prove it’s a murder and not one of the now commonplace suicides.
He’s only been in the police force for a little more than a year—he moved up the ranks quickly due to the high attrition – everyone is leaving their jobs in order to spend their last months at the beach.
Winters has imagined what would happen if everyone was told they had less than a year to live. Hoarding and abandonment of the production lines leads to shortages of basic needs and services. U2’s “Until the End of the World,” Tom Waits’ “Earth Died Screaming,” “and of course that R.E.M. song” (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”) are having a comeback. People’s relationships and priorities are changing. The description of these consequences was my favorite part of the book and reminded me of the distopian novel The Age of Miracles: A Novel in which author Karen Thompson Walker imagined a world where the the earth’s rotation was slowing down and days were getting longer and longer.
Though it sounds like a sci-fi novel, The Last Policeman reads stylistical more like an old fashioned noir—it clocks in at just 288 pages and is told in first person. It starts out with Detective Palace standing over the dead body. Things seem a little not quite right, but at first we don’t know why. What is happening reveals itself slowly—so we feel a little like detectives in reading the book and putting the facts together.
I really wanted to love this book—it is a murder mystery with some indie creds that give it a cool factor and it even won the 2013 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. But, while I enjoyed the pre-apocalyptic setting, the narrator and a number of the characters we met along the way, there were some plot features that didn’t work. The murder mystery itself was a bit of a letdown and there were some confusing side-plots involving Hank’s sister that didn’t make sense.
The Last Policeman is the first of a trilogy. The second book, Countdown City: The Last Policeman Book II (Last Policeman Trilogy), is already available and the third book, World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book III,
is due in July of this year. Though I didn’t love the book, I am intrigued enough to continue on with the series.