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The Magician's Assistant, Ann Patchett

[asaleft]0156006219[/asa] There’s a book I wanted to say something about when I first started this blog, but I didn’t. I think because I was afraid of somehow trivializing it. But I’m going to try now.

Somebody handed me The Magician’s Assistant, or I probably would never have read it. It was one of those fateful, off hand gestures. She mentioned the book, and left it on my doorstep. I had nothing else to read just then (or nothing I wanted to read, more to the point) so I started it right away.

This novel is a work of art. Like any work of art, not everyone will appreciate it, but to me it is as close to perfect as a novel gets, in its own particular way. It’s about a woman who has lost her husband, and in the process of grieving learns more about him and herself than she ever imagined. Now, if somebody told me that about a novel, I wouldn’t be in a rush to read it. Doesn’t sound like my kind of story. But it is. Might be yours, too.

One word of caution: it probably won’t appeal to people who feel most comfortable defining ‘family’ in traditional terms.

In this short excerpt Kitty, Sabine’s sister-in-law, takes her to Wal-Mart. Sabine is a dyed in the wool Los Angelina, and this is a new experience for her. In this short scene (you only get a little of it here), you come to understand almost everything about Kitty’s life and world.

On the curb was a soda machine, all drinks a quarter. Kitty leaned in towards Sabine as they pushed open the glass-and-metal doors. The warm air smelled like popcorn and Coke. It smelled like a carnival wearing new clothes. An older woman in a blue tunic who seemed to be patterned on Dot, the same plastic glasses and gray curls, the same roundness, pushed out a shopping cart for them to take. She greeted Kitty by name.

“I buy books here,” Kitty said. “I buy my shampoo and underwear and cassette tapes and potato chips, sheeets and towels and motor oil.” There was something in her tone, so low and conspiratorial, that Sabine put her gloved hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

“Why?” Sabine said. “Why?”

newspapers in research

I have a collection of old newspapers that were published in the places where my stories are set. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy (for example) an issue of an Albany or a Boston paper from the year 1814, and they are almost always in very good shape — pages intact, if somewhat fragile.

My favorites are the advertisments, for the hundred different kinds of information they provide. The beginning of Lake in the Clouds uses my recasting of a couple dozen such ads in an attempt to set the stage for various storylines in that novel.

New Brunswick adThis is an ad from a Canadian paper dated 1786 (there was slavery all over the continent, something many people don’t realize) offering a reward for the return of a runaway. The details of clothing the young man was wearing are very useful to me when I’m trying to get a feel for a place and time. Such ads also make the facts of slavery much more vivid and undeniable.

One thing I like to do is to set up little mini-plots that span all the novels, and exist solely within newspaper references. The Mathers brothers and their marital woes are one such plot. This mention from Lake in the Clouds:

HEREBY BE IT KNOWN that Meg Mather, lawful wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her husband in the company of a Frenchman known as Andre Seville. She took with her the subscriber’s infant son, a French Negro slave girl called Marie, and a mantel clock. A reward will be paid for return of the boy, the slave, and the clock, but a husband so maligned by such shameless and sinful behavior is glad to be free, and will give no reward, nor will he allow the wanton back into his home. He therefore warns all persons from trusting her on his account. He will pay no debts of her contracting. Jonah Mathers, Butcher. Boston Post Road.

And from Into the Wilderness:

“Lydia Mathers,” Elizabeth read,

the wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her lawful husband in the company of one Harrison Beauchamp, known gadabout and suspected thief, taking with her a good pewter jug, twenty pound in coin, three silver spoons, a snuff box, the slave girl Eliza and her husband’s good underclothes. By this notice her much injured husband thinks it prudent to forewarn all persons from trusting her on his account, being determined, after such flagrant proof of her bad behavior, to pay no debts of her contracting. I treated her well.
Thy-Will-Be-Done Mathers of Canajoharee.

The Mathers continue in the same vein in Thunder at Twilight. I keep wondering if one of them will show himself more directly, but so far neither Thy-Will-Be-Done nor Jonah has come around a corner to surprise me in mid scene.

libraries, ode to; Jetta Carleton

As a little girl I would walk two city miles to the public library on Lincoln Avenue on Chicago’s north side, no matter what the weather. I think I checked out every book in the children’s section before I was ten. If the building hadn’t been converted to condos (I should hate this idea, but then I can imagine what a great place that must be to live) I could show you still where certain books sit the the shelves because I checked them out so often: A Wrinkle in Time or Up a Road Slowly or Our Year Began in April.

I have a great respect for libraries and librarians of all kinds. Here in my small town the public library gets almost no public funding, but they provide wonderful services anyway. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we lived for ten years, there was a fantastic public library with every possible service, as well as the university’s top-ranked research library. I was spoiled, then. Now I have to make due with interlibrary loan, the internet, and buying lots of books I would ordinarily check out for a few weeks and take back.

There’s a ranking of public libraries (of course, we love to rank things). Like any ranking it is flawed, but it does establish one thing: In the big city category, the Denver Public Library ranks first. Now, I have nothing against Denver, really, but this seems to me a case of gluttony. Denver already has The Tattered Cover Bookstore, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. And it’s got a good university library too. Really. I ask you.

So if you have a good public library, count your blessings. If your public library isn’t quite so wonderful, maybe you could help them out a little, eh? Especially when it comes to public funding.
One other thing, because I ran into this book on my shelf today and whenever I do I want to sit down and read it all over again.

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton.

Publisher: Bantam Books; Reprint edition (December 1984)
ASIN: 0553244221
sadly out of print

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years. I gave it to my daughter to read this summer. She was doubtful (the cover of this particular edition was particularly awful, I admit) but she read it on my recommendation and we had long talks about it. The really sad thing, she says, is that Jetta Carleton never wrote another novel.

Jetta Carleton’s obituary, from the Albuquerque Journal on December 31, 1999.

JETTA LYON , 86, of Santa Fe died Tuesday following a stroke. She was a writer. Her major work, written under her maiden name, Jetta Carleton, was ‘The Moonflower Vine,’ a novel from her childhood in rural Missouri. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1962 and became an immediate best-seller in both hardback and paperback. It was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Readers Digest Condensed Book Club. She was a graduate of Cottey College and the University of Missouri. She taught school briefly, wrote for radio in Kansas city and for television and advertising in New York. She and her husband lived in Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C., before building a home in Santa Fe in 1970. They founded The Lightning Tree press in 1973, publishing nearly 100 titles. The Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association honored them in 1991 with its first Rittenhouse Award for lifetime contributions to regional publishing. She was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years, Jene Lyon. She is survived by a sister and grand-nephew in Wichita, Kan. Friends scatter her ashes at her home in the Santa Fe foothills at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Santa Fe Funeral Options.