Saturday, July 14, 2012

So Close to Mexico, Maine, but Not Quite Close Enough for Me to Visit, Except Through Monica Wood's New Memoir.

So I’m in New England for a few days, Boston for one, Worcester for two, and of course I realize that I’m so close to so many places I would love to go, but absolutely have no time to visit them. It’s sort of like when I went to Atlanta and could not think of a way to get over to Athens to see Avid Bookshop. And here I am, probably less than an hour from Providence where I could browse Brown University Bookstore and find out what Tovah is reading.

Or I could go up to Maine and walk around Portland and spend time at Stuart and Chris’s Longfellow Books. Whenever I think about that store, I remember falling in love with Monica Wood’s Any Bitter Thing a number of years ago. We sold a great deal of copies of that novel at Schwartz, and apparently we’d told Stuart and Ms. Wood wound up sending us a very nice note. Eventually I wound up going to Maine and meeting her at a bookstore reception because for some reason, I think she did read at Schwartz for the paperback and I didn’t attend. I was lazy back then, especially when half the events involved driving 15 miles north or west, and I didn’t own a car.

And now Wood has just written When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine. It’s always interesting to read an author’s novel and then read a memoir. Some novels are almost autobiographical, and you learn what was true and what was not. Other novels couldn’t be farther from the truth. But many titles are somewhere in between. The plot’s totally imagined but perhaps a character is based a bit on a real person. Like Father Mike in Wood’s novel bears some resemblance to Father Bob in Wood’s life.

I’ve been more often trying to write blog posts about the books I read immediately after finishing them because if I wait too long, I forget the details.

Here’s my take on the new memoir:

“Living in Mexico, Maine in the early 1960s, the Irish Catholic Wood family (four girls and a boy) lived a pleasant life, if you can exclude their grumpy Lithuanian landlords downstairs. But then three deaths happened, two fast, one slow. First, Dad died of a heart attack. Secondly, President Kennedy was shot. And finally, the Oxford paper mill, the paternal employer that kept the town going, started on its slow decline. Told from the perspective of fourth grader Monica, it’s a nostalgic and poignant look at coming to terms with grief and change, both from both a child’s perspective, and the adult that this child became.”

And that reminded me that the paper mill was like a character in the story. I had written quite a bit and it was only when I reread my review that I discovered I had left out the slow decline of the town’s employment center and raison d’etre. And of course much American industry in the United States has followed the same path, but in this case, you can see how the attitude of the factory owner’s changed when they moved out of town, well before the mill started changing ownership every few years.

I immediately gave my copy to Anne, and she also enjoyed Wood’s story. Some of the most fun experiences of reading a story is identification. And though Anne did not grow up in a poor mill town, and her father did not die when she was a young girl, she could identify with many of the small details. As much as we should never prejudge folks based on their religious or ethnic or racial identities, there is a shared experience celebrated in many artistic works that gives additional pleasure to the folks that shared the experience!

So it is not surprising that one of the first reviews to be posted was from U.S. Catholic. Catherine O’Connell-Cahill’s praise is effusive, noting “This book is a shining example of everything a memoir should be.”

I like a little balance. Read some books inside my comfort zone, but mix things up with a little adventurous reading. Just reading many of our event books alone get me in genres I’d never consider on my own and sometimes it piques my interest for further reading. But that’s what’s interesting about reading. To use a food metaphor, my adventurous eating is someone else’s comfort food. But When we Were the Kennedys works for either, I think.

For Worcester, there's always John Dufresne, but that's for another post.

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