6. Tinkers, Paul Harding

When I am old what will be the defining moments of my life that I will recall? Will it be something simply that currently holds no special meaning, or will it be something big that clearly impacted my life? Is it something that has already happened? These are just a few of the questions I found myself asking as I read “Tinkers” by Paul Harding. I was certain that this Pulitzer Prize winner was going to be the first bad review I write on this blog because I could not get into the book for the first 50 pages or so. However, it turned around and ended up being an enjoyable book after all. One that scared me immensely of old age and made me think for the first time about being old in a more serious way. In this book, the author celebrates life and truly puts mortality into a perspective even for those of us who are only 23 years old.

The story begins with an old man who lies dying (his last eight days) in his living room. George Washington Crosby is surrounded by his family which includes his grandchildren. He is stuck in bed awaiting death and is in pain. We learn that during his better days his big passion in life was repairing clocks. I found it ironic that in the room George is lying in all the clocks have been turned off so that he does not hear the tick tock as his time on earth winds down. George notices this and orders his grandson to wind them up and let them tick tock. He seems like he is not afraid of death and understands that his time is running out. As he rests in bed he drifts back to his childhood days in Maine and recalls the memories of his father Howard who was an epileptic and his grandfather who was a Methodist preacher full of madness. The novel goes back and forth between George’s memories and those of his father Howard and his grandfather. Their recollections cover everything from the struggles of illness, faith, love and loss.

In addition, Harding intertwines the beauty of nature that these characters are surrounded by and writes eloquently about it. There isn’t one bee that he forgets to describe in detail. To some readers this can get in the way of the story line but if you enjoy this type of writing style then Harding is your guy. One should also keep in mind that this is his first novel and is impressive. He has a way with words and often catches you of guard. This novel makes you think about life a little more deeply. It might sound cliché because all books make one think about their own life and such. However, this book has a special touch because it isn’t afraid to bring up death in order to highlight life. Because of this I have no hesitations in recommending it. This book will be a classic for many years to come. It might not seem appealing at first but if you keep with it, Harding crafts an incredible story. Here is a favorite quote from the book to give you a little taste.

“And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.” 


3. The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Many times a novel weighs heavily on our shoulders and should not be read on a murky, rainy day.  “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham literally grasps your heart and you are holding your breath for over 200 pages. The most ironic thing is that you are reading about three people and the ordinary life they lead and not an adventure with twists and turns on every page. However, in the end as these three unconnected people meet their faith we see just how masterful with words Cunningham truly is. A novel deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it has received.

I have never read any works by Virginia Wolf but do enjoy when novels are written about great authors. It makes me want to pick up one of their books and see what it’s all about. So the novel starts out in an unfortunate way with Virginia Woolf committing suicide in 1941. She drowns herself in a river in Sussex, England. As she is drowning, Virginia marvels at the images of ordinary life around her. In the very beginning pages her husband finds her suicide note which is the actual suicide note she left when she committed suicide. For the sake of space I have included the suicide note in the “Favorite Quotes” section of the blog.

The novel is about three generations of women affected by a Virginia Woolf novel and their narratives go back and forth in the book. In those narratives the reader gets unfiltered thoughts and past memories of protagonists that are very unpredictable. In Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway” the whole book takes place in one day in the life of the central character Clarissa Dalloway. In Cunningham’s book it is one day in the life of each of the three central characters; Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf herself. Cunningham shows the beauty and profoundness of every day in our life. He illustrates how even the most ordinary day in every person’s life can be examined through the prism of one single day. I believe this is the true beauty of this novel.

The first is Woolf herself writing “Mrs. Dalloway” in 1923 and struggling with her own mental illness which this book showcases in an extraordinary and emotional way. You can’t help but sympathize with the struggles the human mind faces especially when it is as brilliant as Woolf’s. The second is Mrs. Brown, wife of a World War II veteran, who is reading “Mrs. Dalloway” in 1949 as she plans her husband’s birthday party. She is probably the most relatable character to me as well as surprising. I was most griped by her story and the struggles she faces. Often times she wonders if there is more than being a housewife, raising children and what has she given up to commit to this life. What talent has she wasted and what potential has she killed? These are the questions she asks in the privacy of a hotel room as she thinks about what it’s like to have the power to end your own life. The third is Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian, who plans a party in 2001 to celebrate a major literary award received by her good friend and former lover, the poet Richard, who is dying of an AIDS-related illness. Here we see characters dealing with a lot of LGBTQ issues. From today’s perspective it is interesting to read about a lesbian living with her partner in the 1940s.

The situations of all three characters mirror situations experienced by Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway in “Mrs. Dalloway”, with Clarissa Vaughan being a very literal modern-day version of Woolf’s character. So with that being said, “Mrs. Dalloway” is now on my to-read list. As for my final thought on this novel…well it is not for the faint of heart but it is for those that like to read between the lines, that like to observe simple things in life and give those simply things profound meaning. It is a book to be read more than once because there is so much thought and feeling on every page. You need capacity to take it all in and you can’t do it all in two days. You need time to contemplate life, it is an ongoing process that Cunningham has captured in this novel. I found out that there is a movie based on this novel and will have to see it soon.

2. So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ

My reading adventures continued today with a book that most people do not come across at their local bookstore or on the list of top 100 books to read before you die. Nonetheless, “So Long a Letter” by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ is deserving of recognition. It is in fact one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century and the winner of the Noma Award.

“So Long a Letter” resembles an autobiographical novel and is kind of like the title suggests a long letter. It’s translated from French and done so very well. Despite not being in the original language it was written in, this novel resembles an epic poem and the author has a very special way of crafting images out of words. In fact, for most of the book I felt like I was bombarded with images of African culture. The theme is the condition of women in Western African society and the transition from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country. If you are at all interested in post-colonial African literature this is a must read. I do want to give a head up though. This novel will be a challenge if you are not familiar with contemporary African women’s literature or post-colonial literature. Most books in this genre are strongly rooted in culture and one gets the most out of these books if they know a little background information.

The novel starts of with Ramatoulaye Fall writing a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ.  We learn from the very start that the reason she is writing this letter is because her husband has passed away recently.  As she is telling her friend about her husband’s death she describes the major events in their lives. You really get a good picture of the friendship the two women share. At the same time we learn of the struggles Ramatoulaye has had to endure during her life time. She is an educated and articulate woman who has worked as a teacher her whole life. She has given birth to twelve children but despite this her husband takes on a second wife and she feels betrayed and does not agree with the polygyny that is allowed in her tradition.  In her letters to Aissatou she expresses her hope that the old traditions and new freedoms can one day be combined to form a healthy balance. Aissatou is very much in agreement with her because we know she immigrated to the United States and pursued a feminist, monogamist relationship.  Ramatoulaye also writes about many other aspects of her life that are affected by her tradition and religion and truly opens the door to her world for the reader to grasp.

“So Long a Letter” is not the easiest book to read but it is most definitely worth the effort. It offers an insight into a culture we often don’t read much about.  In case you do pick up this book and are looking for others that are similar I highly recommend  The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta.

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