Friday, March 06, 2009

The Rum Punch Review ("The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox," Part 1)

Here are some things I've recommended to people this week:

1. I recommended to a client that we make a settlement offer.
2. I recommended that The Boy read Soon I Will Be Invincible.
3. I recommended that Sweetie and I see Watchmen tonight on an Imax screen, because I've never seen an Imax movie, and
4. I recommended that a co-worker put some "cheese sauce" on her breakfast sandwich, which was toast and cream cheese and alfalfa sprouts.

To that, I will now add:

5. I recommend people read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, but
6. I recommend they not think it's gothic at all, or not much.

One of the things that lured me into reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell, was that either the back cover, or maybe a review of the book, said something about it being gothic. Being a literary guy and all, I didn't take that to mean gothic the way Twilight fans think of it; instead, I took it to mean gothic in the Disquiet, Edgar-Allen-Poe-y manner.


At least not so far.

But it's not bad, even though I was bait-and-switched.

The other thing that lured me into reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was that I had heard of the book, vaguely, when I saw it on the used books rack at the library. That's sort of proof of the power of advertising and word of mouth and the old platitude that it doesn't matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right. I read lots of book reviews -- in Entertainment Weekly, mostly (where I generally read any review for any book other than those labeled memoir because I'm sick of memoirs [except for this one] and I even sometimes read the memoir reviews, too) but I read them everywhere else, too, and I read blogs and articles by writers and aspiring writers and editors and agents, and so I hear about a lot of books. I hear about way more books than I actually put onto my list to buy, and all those book titles and reviews are lodged somewhere in my memory, waiting to be pulled out at random moments, like when I'm standing in front of a used-book rack at the library while Mr Bunches throws my keys at me and Mr F keeps demanding more Cinnamon Toast Crunches.

Did you ever stop to think about this: Why do we bother wondering what the meaning of dreams are, but ignore the meaning of the things we remember and the things we forget?

By which I mean this: Dreams probably don't mean much of anything, in the long run. Dreams are, in my opinion, just your brain doing its filing at the end of the day, sorting through the junk mail and bills and phone messages before heading out on the drive home. But people obsess over them in a way that they never would if they thought of dreams as a filing system; who obsesses over the way files are kept?

Besides my boss?

What people should be obsessing over is what they remember and what they forget -- what sticks in their mind and is recallable years, decades, later, and what is instantly forgotten and slips away, and then the middle category: things you didn't remember you remembered until you remembered them.

I like that sentence and I'm going to say it again: Think about the things you didn't remember you remembered until you remembered them.

things, the not-remembered-until-suddenly-they-are things, are, to me, way more meaningful than some dumb dream. The things I remember perfectly, and the things I forgot, are also more meaningful than dreams, as is the fact that I can remember that I forgot something.

Think about that for a moment, too, as a sidetrack to this sidetrack: your mind is capable of remembering that you forgot something, but not capable of actually remembering that thing itself.

Like when you're driving to work, say, on Friday, and you blithely turn left while listening to "M79" by "Vampire Weekend,"

And you think to yourself "Wasn't I supposed to not be turning left, right now, even though I ordinarily do turn left here?" and you try to remember why it is that you aren't supposed to be turning left that day, and you know that you're not supposed to turn left and you know that there's something you've forgotten, but you just don't know what it is that you've forgotten?

How can your brain know it's forgotten something but not remember the thing it's forgotten? Not remember it, that is, until you suddenly remember Oh, yeah, Sweetie wanted me to go to the bank! The bank that was straight ahead of me instead of a left turn! and so you turn around and go back to the Bank and are later for work than usual.

That's how I began today -- that, and recommending cheese sauce -- and it's why I'm thinking about memory and things that I didn't remember I remembered until I remembered them. Because that's how I picked out The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. And, like I said, if I could get a handle on why it is my brain remembers some things, and not others, and then why my brain sets up a third category of things that I will remember only belatedly, I'd probably find more meaning in that than in any 10,000 dreams I've ever had.

For instance, why does my brain not only remember the fact that "The Great Brain's" older brother's name was Sweyn, not only remember that but keep it so handy that I can recall it at a moment's notice, while at the same time making no effort whatsoever to hang onto the title of a song I loved?

For that matter, why would my brain also remember that Tom D., the "Great Brain" himself, came up with a strategy to have his basketball team not lose a game by very much in order to win a bet, that strategy being to just pass the ball a lot and not ever take a shot, running down the clock?

Man, those were good books.

For whatever reasons, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was not stored in the ready-to-go bin in my mind, but it wasn't discarded, either. It was set off to the side, ready to be picked up and dusted off when I came across the book at the library, which puts me back to the original point I was making, which is word of mouth. At some point, I had heard of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox because I will pick up a book to check it out for two reasons: 1. If I've heard of it and thought I might like it, or 2. If I like the cover or title.

That's right: I judge many a book by its cover, and that's perfectly okay. Judging
a book by its cover or title is okay because if I like the title or cover, that means that I think similarly to the author, cover artist, design team, editor, or all of them, all of the people who put the book together. They liked the title, or cover, and I like the title or cover, so we like at least one thing in common. Since we have that one thing in common, we might have other things in common, too, like maybe we'll like the same kind of story. So liking a cover, or title, means that I'll pick up the book and see what it's all about.

For example, I picked up, in a bookstore once, The Secret Life of Bees. Then I put it back down when I saw what it was about. The title drew me in -- but that was it.

A good title, or cover, then, is necessary, or I need to have read a review that made me have some kind of positive association with it. In the case of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, it had both. I saw the title, and it was the kind of title that will make me pick up a book: vanishing? Esme? Act? It makes me think of a mysterious stage magician at the turn of the century.

On that subject, there are, I see, two covers to Esme Lennox. Of those two, I have the one with the girl in the dress. Had I picked up the one with the woman with her eyes closed, I doubt I'd have kept going, even -- it's not compelling, and it makes it look like the book is some kind of autobiography of a little-known contemporary of Virginia Woolf's.

Was Virginia Woolf a real person? I don't know. But I don't want to read a biography of some little-known contemporary of hers.

When I saw Esme Lennox on the used books rack, then, I also remembered reading about it and thinking that might be kind of good-- not so good that I'd put it on my to-buy list, but good enough that I stored it away in my mind, obviously, and so I picked it up and read the back cover blurb (which I don't have with me but which I am positive said something about gothic this-or-that) and decided, yeah, I'll risk a buck on this book.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is, at about the halfway point, a good read. It flips back and forth between the story of Euphemia "Esme" Lennox's childhood and the story of Esme's grand-niece Iris. Iris lives in present-day something or other -- I've been thinking it's France but it may not be, after all; it may be Ireland or Scotland. I'm not very clear on that. I actually didn't like Iris at first -- not the character, not her storyline, not the setting. But at the halfway-point, almost, I'm warming up to her.

I liked Esme's story, almost from the outset: The very beginning shows Esme at a dance, looking at the grates on the windows and musing about dresses and thinking about how it all began, and where, and is mysterious enough and old-timey enough to draw me into the book right away, get me wanting to know what is going on here and find out more about Esme. Then, it almost jarringly switches over to Iris' story, and the switch is what initially made me dislike Iris' end of the story.

From there, the book skips back and forth as [SPOILER ALERT!] Esme recalls growing up in India and then (I think) Scotland while Iris learns that she is Esme's grand-niece, something that comes as a surprise to her, given that she never knew Esme existed.

And that, I surmise, is the "vanishing act" Esme has performed -- she has vanished from the family, from history, from memory, all the while keeping her own memories strong, so strong that she can recall a promise made to her early on, a promise that she learns decades later has been broken, it seems.

Esme is, we find out, in an institution, and it's not clear why. There's a terrible and frightening and, yes, sort of gothic scene that is apparently a breaking point for Esme, or maybe it's not, because Esme was a little off, before, too. The reader gets that scene early on, getting Esme's memories of her girlhood, and then the story flips back and forth to present day France/Scotland (?) to show Esme meeting Iris and going through her belongings at the institution, getting to open up a box of her things. She roots through it and complains that a piece of cloth is gone, or not there -- but notes that they promised it would be there.

No explanation is given for the cloth, or what it means (at least, not yet; I'm only halfway through it) but the search for the cloth and the meaning of it slowly becomes clearer, because at first I'd assumed that Esme, being in an institution and all, was crazy and maybe made up whatever it was about the cloth. But then Iris takes Esme at first to a hostel, and Esme, outside the hostel, remembers the city around her and is able to point out where landmarks are, or were, and she's right. Then, later, Iris takes Esme to her apartment, and Esme recalls that a room Iris shows her was a maid's room when she was growing up. Iris lets Esme know that she's right, again -- the apartment is part of the house where Esme was raised, for a while, a house since divided into flats.

Esme, it seems, remembers things -- and tries to remember them, as when she's walking out from the institution and trying to feel the gravel under her feet, to cement the sensations into her so that she can recall how it feels to walk across the gravel. (I liked that part, especially.)

And that remembering things is another reason why I'm thinking, as I write about reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. I don't know if O'Farrell meant it to be a book about how and why we remember things, and how and why we are remembered, but that's part of the meaning of this book to me (and remember, everything is symbolic of everything, so I'm certainly correct).

But let's don't get bogged down in meaning just yet, when there's so much other good stuff going on: The descriptions of Esme's childhood -- full of real and imagined frights, from a bug in her ear to the terrible horrible scene that maybe sent her on a spiral, to the grandmother sighing her way to town and frustrated because Esme's not wearing a hat -- and the emotions that are conveyed when Iris, who becomes more likeable as the book comes on, recalls her growing up with her "brother" Alex -- I especially liked the flashback to when Iris and Alex met, and she [SPOILER ALERT ABOUT A PART OF THE BOOK THAT'S GOING TO SOUND CUTESY BUT IT'S NOT] thought that he was an angel... but still didn't give him one of her cookies. It's especially hard to write believably from a young child's perspective, and O' Farrell just absolutely gets that perfect.

There's not much of a story yet, or I should say, there's not much plot yet, because there's a lot of story, but the story is all the start of tendrils of ivy just beginning to climb up the wall that is this book. The only action, so far, really, is Iris going to pick up Esme and then bringing her home, and, of course, that terrible scene from Esme's past, a scene that keeps getting fleshed out more and more as the book progresses... but that limited action has introduced Esme's vanishing act, and introduced Iris' life, and introduced Iris' history with Alex, and set the stage for what I assume will be a phenomenal second half of the book...

... one I hope I remember.

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