By Steve Ellis • Guest Columnist
As we leave this political season, which has been nasty, brutal and long, I’d like to offer some thoughts. If you doubt my description of nasty, brutal and long, I remind you of our recent controversy here in Haywood County over the newly elected tax collector.
For all of you who haven’t started your holiday shopping yet, for you who scorn Black Friday, who keep telling yourselves day after day that you will go buy gifts tomorrow (tomorrow: what a wonderful word!), for all of you who wake at dawn in a cold sweat knowing that you are down to the wire, the holidays can hover like dark clouds at midnight. Gift cards are the backup plan, but then you remember you gave your mother, your siblings, and Uncle Billy-Bob plastic for the Olive Garden for the last five years running. Suddenly your mouth is drier than a sack of Kibbles and Bits, and your hands are shaking the way they did that morning after Billy-Bob’s New Year’s party and you woke face down in his backyard bean patch without a clue as to how you got there.
When I was 6 years old, I entered the first grade at Boonville Elementary School. For months, various adults had told me I would learn to read in school, and I marched into that old brick schoolhouse eager to acquire this skill. My memory of my return home from that day in school is vivid: I got out of the car, looked at my mother, blurted “They didn’t teach me to read,” and stomped into the house.
The story goes that as Benjamin Franklin was leaving the final session of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a monarchy or a republic?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied: “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.”
About three years ago, I reviewed a bloody little horror tale filled with black humor called Breed. It was a page-turning shocker, allegedly written by Chase Novak but actually spawned by a remarkably gifted novelist, Scott Spenser who became famous for Endless Love in 1979, a poignant love story that sold two million copies and is still selling. A remake is currently running on Cinemax, but it’s a dismal thing.
In Lauren Grodstein’s novel The Explanation For Everything (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013, 336 pages, $24.95), we meet Andrew Waite, a biology professor and widower living with his two young daughters in Southern New Jersey. Andrew is an evolutionist, an atheist who at the same time is haunted from time to time by his recently deceased wife, Louisa. He is a good father and a provocative teacher, but along with his wife has lost the power to connect with others. He spends a part of each day writing angry, unsent letters to the young man, now imprisoned, who killed Louisa while driving drunk.
This week it’s time to break out the champagne, pop that cork, and raise a flute of bubbly to the essay.
Once the property of magazines and newspapers, the essay is now the vehicle of choice for thousands of online bloggers. Everyday we can go to our computers and pull up essays on every topic imaginable. Anyone can create a blog, and the essay, usually short and focused, is the ideal form for posting thoughts and opinions on that blog. Name a topic — household budgets, the novels of John Gardner, black bears, guitars, love, Ebola — and you’ll find amateur essayists sharing their observations online.
Gone Girl is currently the most popular novel in America and it has been around since 2012; it is also now a major motion picture starring Ben Affleck. Gillian Flynn’s “thriller” (and it is definitely that!) is a favorite topic on talk shows with America’s favorite critics discussing why this wicked little crime novel has captured this country’s imagination. Well, I am among the enthralled, and I think it all began with O. J. Simpson. As soon as we, the audience, joined that helicopter that followed O.J. down the interstate on the day he was arrested, we became members of a new kind of “instant journalism.”
I am intimidated by this book. In fact, this is one of the most challenging reviews that I have ever undertaken.
Admittedly, I have known about David Mitchell, the English “wanderkind” for several years now, but I have carefully avoided any of his five previous novels because they were invariably described as “recklessly ambitious” and filled with sudden shifts (from fantasy to distopian novel to a kind of ecological thriller).
Twenty-five years ago, while under a good deal of pressure and stress, I began noticing I was forgetting things. I would tell a customer in my bookstore about a novel and then found I couldn’t dredge up the name of the author. I grew concerned enough to ask informal advice from a local physician, who suggested ginkgo biloba. (This didn’t work: I kept forgetting to take the pills).