Box of Matches is a quiet novel like I've never read. It was a delight. Emmett gets up at 5:00am every day and lights a fire in the fire place while his family is sleeping.
“Good morning. It's 5:36am. I'm finding that a flat slab of junk mail dropped in the mail-slot created by two hot logs can sometimes get an unwilling fire to take the next step.”
“Good morning, it's 4:03am, early, early, early. I did something new while the coffeemaker was snuffling and gasping: I washed a dish that I'd left last night in the sink to soak.”
“Good morning, it's 5:44 am, and I'm up late again, but I've got four big old logs on the fire, each with a layer of burn-scabs from yesterday evening that break off when I arrange them.”
Somehow, it's great. It's so simple, so kind. This book demands nothing but our willingness to sit by a fire and watch the logs crackle. Emmett has things in life that he thinks about while he's sitting in the dark in front of the fire: his wife, his daughter and son, his cat, his duck, his 1700s Vermont house. He is an editor of textbooks. He once tried to write a mystery novel. He is a thoroughly ordinary New England person, and New England is a foreign country. I don't think about New England very often because they don't vote wrong and they're quiet folk, but New England is a land of three-hundred year old houses on winding roads amid maple forests where people keep to themselves and the only thing surprising about them is their affluence and the way that they manage to find extraordinarily gainful employment in the hinterlands of Vermont or New Hampshire. I've yet to figure that out.
Emmett stares into his fireplace, contemplates, describes, breathes, drinks coffee, wonders about the circumstances that brought him to this quiet life.
Mariko, a Japanese housewife who was 45 in 1993, also lives quietly in print. But Mariko is real. The Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family by Elisabeth Brumiller, honestly, I knew it would be good because books about Asian women always are: Factory Girls and A Tiger's Heart. Read them. Japan is interesting. And I mean that Japan is famous for its deviant sexual exports, but Mariko was not of the Japan that dresses up like sexy Pikachu on weekends. Mariko is the older generation, and her family is culturally conservative, so Mariko is something of a traditional Japanese throwback. She says when she first married she used to bow and lay three fingers on the floor when her husband came home from work every day. She stopped doing that pretty quickly, but it was a reasonable demonstration of respect for her husband that she would have kept on doing if he wasn't annoying her.
Ms. Brumiller stopped seeing Mariko as a typical Japanese housewife early on, but Mariko did the jobs of a Japanese housewife perfectly, her attitude was atypical. One of the questions that came up: Who is worse off in Japanese society, men or women? Women have limited social status, limited career opportunities, almost no chance to maintain both career and a family, they do all household chores, and they are responsible for educating their children when they're not at school, including teaching them to read the hiragana alphabet before they start kindergarten. Men work the same job at the same company their entire lives. They leave for work at 7:00am and get back between 10:00 and midnight, and their leisure time is spent drinking with colleagues. Mariko had two part-time jobs: meter reader and typist for a tourism firm. She was a PTA mom, and baseball mom, an American football mom, on the junior high graduation committee, on the God-carrying committee for the neighborhood festival, she took samisen lessons. Her husband would never have time to take samisen lessons.
Ms. Brumiller spent time in her book talking to people of national influence in Japan about the factors that shape Japanese lives, Mariko's included. The only problem with this is that the book is from 1993. What was a study of the modern Japanese woman is that it's now a study of the Japanese woman in the early '90s, and most of the studies Ms. Brumiller cites are from the late '80s. In 1993 a Japanese parliamentarian called Americans lazy, Americans said, “No, we're not,” and there was an international kerfuffle about it. Does anyone remember that?
The Secrets of Mariko and A Box of Matches are middle-aged lives, quiet and calm. The passions are over but they still have spirit and a self-determination unachievable by the young. As I drift through my thirties, maybe the calmness of a life well-lived will guide me in my reading to more mature books about adults and their meditations, but it hasn't yet. I read Tangled. Not the novelization of the Disney movie, but Carolyn Mackler's recent one. Carolyn Mackler won a Parent's Choice Award for The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things and she did Vegan Virgin Valentine. Tangled is her best ever. Carolyn Mackler is an adolescent's YA writer. She's great. Tangled has four protagonists telling the story in four chronological segments, and each one of these teenagers is the most alone person on the planet, they all have unspeakable pain that no one else could possibly understand, and everyone around them is cool, adept, and has it all together while they, Jena, Dakota, Skye and Owen, are all alone fumbling through a cruel universe. So it's realistic. Jena starts the book off when her mom makes her go on an island vacation with her mom's friend and her beautiful, actress daughter Skye, who Jena's always getting put with because they're the same age. Dakota is a jock, wracked with guilt because the girl he was about to break up with died in a car accident. Skye is a teen model/actress who is not doing so well. Owen is Dakota's little brother with a pain-of-being-me blog. The narrative is impressively structured. All the characters are heartbreakingly well-written, and some characters plot resolutions come as asides in other characters' stories.
Carolyn Mackler knows that teenagers do not have sex on the 90210 model. For those readers who did not watch Beverly Hills 90210 on DVD last year because they weren't allowed to when they were nine: Brenda and Dylan decide to do it. They make an assignation for a hotel during prom, start closed-mouth smooching, Dylan takes off his suit jacket, and the camera fades. Then there's a consequence episode where Brenda's mom finds a pregnancy test in the trash. I have no personal expertise in the area of sexual conquest, of course, but from what I've heard third-hand and read on fornication blogs, sex happens in a gradual and unscheduled way. Jena and Owen sure as hell nervously think about doin' it when they're alone together in Skye's empty apartment, but Jena finally says, "Do you think we could save some stuff for next time?" Owen, who's never touched a girl before, is over the moon because there's going to be a next time. Then they canoodle and probably get to second-and-a-half base. I was thrilled that Mackler doesn't present sex as a sitting-next-to-each-other-in-chilly-silence/vaginal-penetrative dichotomy, as sex is presented to teenagers that way too often.
Going in reverse chronological order by age of character, I listened to Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool on audiobook. I can't recommend this book, but I did finish it and that's saying something.
In 1946, Jack Baker meets autistic savant Early Odden (I couldn't decide if the kid was named Early to make the near-pun in the title) at a Maine boarding school and helps him go up the Appalachain Trail in a boat to find Early's dead brother, who isn't. This book has literary themes crawling out of its ears. Some of the themes are: fathers, friendship, World War II, the Appalachian Trail, boats, brothers, bears, autism, astronomy, astrology, π, pirates, reading, lost & found, timber rattlesnakes, and the quest for belonging. If your sixth grade teacher tells you to write a book report using themes in literature, Navigating Early is your obvious choice. In the end, everything is resolved through a series of unlikely coincidences, including the Swedish ex-pugilist outdoorsman who went to the woods after losing his lady love the librarian who taught him to read; Jack has to go back to school to find out that librarian Miss LeFleur's first name is Belle and she has been waiting for Sven in a maiden state since 1928 or so.
Up next: Good books from the recycling bin.