Abandonment Issues: Shelby Hearon, Life Estates

Life Estates was published in 1994, and has not aged well. In the first fifty pages, we have the following:

  1. A business partnership that starts when a black woman, Katie, comes to clean a white woman’s house and impresses the white woman, Sarah, with her knowledge of commerce;
  2. Sarah’s insistence that her husband bequeath his assets directly to their children upon death – not to her – because she wants to be financially independent;
  3. Sarah’s recollection of losing her virginity at sixteen by seducing her history teacher.

The first one is the worst, with its invocation of the secret, surprising wisdom of black people. #2 is odd because I’m like, in these financially unstable times, who can afford to stand on that principle? And as for #3, I’ve covered it. It’s not as if it would be impossible to make this combination of events work in a book. But Life Estates, sentimental, Southern-fried, and disposable, blows by them as if they’re touchstones for the reader, who should nod knowingly and bond with Sarah. I know I’m not the right demographic, but it extra-didn’t work on me.

Shelby Hearon is one of those authors I’ve never heard of, who is prominent enough to have her own Wikipedia page, and whom I’m not going to be reading again.

The Centennial: December 15, 1914

Eran had known that the weeks between First Ypres and the Christmas Truce were a quiet period in the war. He hadn’t known, however, how well they would parallel the quiet period of the end of his semester.

Which was a terrible thing to think. Mass slaughter and hardship vs. underpaid labor as a grad student: clearly equivalent. Narcissism had to be the characteristic disease of the 21st-century West.

Eran had calculated and submitted final grades for his class (three As, no Fs); dealt with the requisite whining of students who didn’t want Cs (“But I didn’t have time to write the paper!”); endured Stefan’s end-of-semester lecture to his advisees (“Remember that this is a job and you’re expected to continue working, even if the university is closed”) along with the dose of luxe hypocrisy (“I’m afraid I’ll be out of contact in my hotel in Honolulu”); and hauled all his teaching materials home from the TA office. He would not be expected to account for himself on campus for another month. It was like getting time off to prepare for the long Minnesota winter hibernation.

The transport had come that morning, while he lay half awake in the tentative dawn. It was like seeing ghosts in his bedroom. Looking around, he found himself surrounded by troops in Austro-Hungarian uniform. Eran remembered the river battle; but no, this was infantry. His host was upright but nodding out, head lolling on his shoulders. He dreamed of Vienna, of knocking on his father’s door, of spending Christmas in his own bed. (Eran couldn’t tell if a homecoming had been promised, or if the host’s dreams were just that.)

Somone slurred aloud, and Eran mentally translated: But we failed! We’re giving up Belgrade! We can’t allow that!

And his host, riding a bolt of reactive energy that jolted his eyes open, snapped: Let it fall on Liborius. He’s the one who got most of us killed!

The sounds of withdrawal – a din of voices, machinery, hooves, and boots – receded into white noise. The crush turned into a film reel projected on the gray-lit walls of his bedroom. Eran blinked. The images were gone. He was awake.

That was when he compared the transports to his life. 1914 seemed to be tying up loose ends: the Fourth Despatch, the Serbian campaign, the Ahlers trial. It was as if the world were also taking a moment to prepare for the long hibernation.

Eran added a note to his dissertation journal about the transport, and slipped the journal into his drawer. Despite Stefan’s admonition, he hoped not to open it again until the new semester.

December 15, 1914: Austro-Hungarian forces withdraw from Belgrade after the Battle of Kolubara.

The Centennial: December 9, 1914

One day left in the semester, all student presentations. (“There were many causes of the fall of the Soviet Union.”) Eran just had to buy candy and show up.

But buying candy was easier said than done.

“Well, if you hadn’t left it until rush hour the day before,” Eran said out loud, to himself, in the packed Midway Cub. The woman next to him turned carefully until her headscarf blocked her gaze. She edged away at a snail’s pace, wedging her cart in between an older gentleman, who was dressed like a preacher at a tent revival, and two teenagers, linked at the hands and giggling over the fact that people could just buy condoms. Eran had found the only free space in the aisle, which consisted of two tiles up against the shelf. He was so close to the bags of candy that he couldn’t read the brand names.

He blinked and was gone.

She was hoping to catch a glimpse of the traitor. What could he look like? She had heard that once, in the newspaper, he had announced the loss of his spectacles, as if he were any other person, not someone who could sin against the British Empire.

She had heard he called himself a German at heart. This was why they were kicking dachshunds in the street.

She was allowed in, and caught a glimpse of the accused. Eran followed the thread of his host’s thinking. First there was shock: He looks just like any of us! Then an uncoiling thought: But there’s something about the eyes… Like an Austen heroine might have thought. There was nothing about the eyes that Eran could see. To Eran, Adolph looked weary, like a dapper gent (like his contemporary tent preacher) exhausted from keeping up appearances. But the thought had been enough for the host. Her shock dissolved, and she went on merrily kicking dachshunds in her mind.

The verdict was read. He was guilty. Adolph seemed to sag. The host fairly leaped, holding in a shout. Did it mean death?

Eran wondered: What if Wisconsin and Minnesota went to war? Cam would want to see her parents in Milwaukee. What would Ian do? Would he help her? Renounce her? Condemn her to authorities? What would he be if he did – either?

Someone passed behind him, allowing him to take a step back. Seasonal Reese’s: the gift that couldn’t go amiss. Eran added them to the cookies and eggnog in his basket, and plotted the safest way home.

December 9, 1914: Adolph Ahlers, a German immigrant to Britain, was convicted of plotting to help German reservists in Britain return to Germany at the outbreak of the war. He appealed and was acquitted, but was eventually interned in Britain.

Last Words in World Literature

Because every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

Word on the street for years was that the last word would be “scar.” This is better. “All was well” was Harry’s goal for just about the entire series. Earlier I complained about how Harry Potter’s first lines failed to capture the scope of the series; these last lines, by reducing thousands of pages to a simple all clear, nail it by understatement.

 

Or so Bill Denbrough sometimes thinks on those early mornings after dreaming, when he almost remembers his childhood, and the friends with whom he shared it.

Stephen King, It (1986)

Good ol’ Steve never met an overwritten sentence he didn’t like. Actually, I’ve loved this sentence for years, and it was only in typing it out for this post that I went: “Seriously?” The use of “dreaming,” “almost remembers,” “childhood,” and “friends” in one sentence is a pile-on of Norman Rockwell-iana. But since most of the book is about little children getting eaten by a Giant Space Flea from Nowhere, I think Steve earned it.

 

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)

Kristin and I just got our nerd on talking about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I’ve long maintained that Wuthering Heights is the better of the two: Jane Eyre orients itself around convention, whereas Wuthering Heights is a strange animal. It bears mentioning, however, that I’ve only read Wuthering Heights once, versus my multiple trips through Jane Eyre. (Damn that marriage plot…) Nevertheless, in my hazy memory, this placid paragraph is a great capper to all the lunatic violence that preceded it.

 

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly, ‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond, ‘Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus!'”

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)

Bag it, Sin-Gin: no one cares. This is what I mean by Jane Eyre‘s inclining toward convention; the book is over when Jane kisses Rochester’s hand, but god forbid we not get a summative postscript, like one of those final chapters of Jane Austen’s that always shat the bed. “Reader, I married him,” Brontë sees fit to inform us, as if we hadn’t already figured that out, and as if we really cared about anything else. WE GET IT. MOVE ON.

1847 was a big year for the Brontës; Anne published Agnes Grey, and Branwell was still alive. Since I’m covering Brontës, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Hark! A Vagrant.

 

I heard her suck her breath with satisfaction. “He’s cured!” she whispered slowly. “He’s cured!”

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (1918)

Just keep telling yourself that, dude.

 

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

I read about Hemingway before I ever read him, in a biography (don’t remember which) that busted its ass tearing down Papa’s myth. Makes sense to me. After the panicked praying and the fear of numbers above two, this conclusion is less “grace under pressure” and more “shocked into speechlessness.”

And finally, since I mentioned it last time out:

 

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)

The Centennial: December 3, 1914

“I couldn’t wait to get back here,” Mildred said. “My dad was cranky, mom was worse, and my mom’s new boyfriend is exactly like a Brooklyn hipster, except he’s fifty. Even the weather wasn’t enough to make me want to stay.”

“You could still be wearing shorts if you were there.”

“It rained some. I wore a lot of my Minnesota clothes.”

Hearing Mildred’s laments, and riding a second wind of sorts from the holiday, Eran had suggested a second dissertation session for the week. They got pumpkin lattes at the Coffman Starbucks – as usual, the syrup concentrated into a rancid layer at the bottom – and found a couple of comfortable chairs.

Mildred admitted to avoiding all work while in California. Eran, happily, had accomplished something. “I started looking at the Mesopotamia campaign. War for oil, right? But then there’s also this PR side where, like, an imperial power needs to put on a show of force.”

“Like the US in Iraq, 2003.”

“Tom Friedman’s suck-on-this moment, yeah. And I was thinking about the midterm election, and how the sides have settled into battle lines that don’t touch. So you need a war to settle things by other means. And I was applying that line of thought to World War I.”

“Isn’t that a bit presentist?”

For Eran, it was a new line of inquiry, based on that morning’s transport. He had dropped into a soldier in the Mahrattans. They were part of a small force sailing up the river toward Qurna, aiming for the Ottomans. Eran’s host was seasick, just as his host in the South African action had been, though the river was nothing compared to the ocean. There was no real action, and the battle itself would be a minor skirmish; Eran hadn’t caught much from his host except a sense of adventure and anticipation.

Back in Saint Paul, he had read up on the battle and the surrounding area, and was quickly sidetracked. Qurna, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was the legendary site of the Garden of Eden. A jujube tree in the area had been sold as the Tree of Knowledge. Everything was a story, and the right story was a straight line. There had to be one for the war. What was it?

“If you keep making that face when you say ‘presentist,'” Eran said, “Stefan will send you deep into the department for mandatory reeducation.”

“Xiaoyu prefers presentism. I should just work with her instead.”

“It’d be quite a coup, her poaching one of Stefan’s students. Of course, she’s even more disorganized than he is.”

“True. Guess I’d better stick with this far-right thingy.”

“See? The pumpkin syrup is brain fuel.”

Mildred made a face. “Don’t say that. I’d have to drink one of these every day until I graduate.”

December 3, 1914: British forces in Mesopotamia sail north along the Shatt al-Arab toward Qurna, preparing to attack Ottoman forces there.

The Centennial: November 27, 1914

It’s a legal requirement of the Thanksgiving episode that the protagonist reflect upon all the things he’s thankful for.

I am thankful for

Eran the history major chose to write his thankfulnesses longhand, in an old middle-school notebook that still lived in a desk drawer in his childhood bedroom.

my mother

who was downstairs doing unholy things to the turkey to make it palatable

my father

who was manually pounding the potatoes into a creamy mash with milk and butter

my grandparents

two of whom, his mother’s parents, had flown in from Arizona on a whim for the family meal; his grandmother was glued to MSNBC and ranting about the Tea Party, while his grandfather was scouring the house for something to fix

Ian and Cam

who had called from Milwaukee, Cam to say a pleasant hello, Ian to offer moral support if it were needed for the family gathering – “It’s actually not,” Eran said, surprising himself

my friends

Mildred had texted from California: “Remember how I said I could take my dad badmouthing my mom? Yeah – no. How are you?” And Kyle had texted that he was out of rehab – heroin, somehow – and wanted to get together over the weekend

my health

[Cough]

and my mind

The library was crowded with furniture in the Victorian style. He must have been someone upper-class, possibly an MP as he had been last week. The host was reclining in a leather armchair, stripped to shirtsleeves, the Gazette open across his lap.

“Do you hear this?” he called in a sparse, age-attenuated voice. “‘The Emperor himself considered the success of this attack to be one of vital importance to the successful issue of the war.'”

A response, plummy and prep-school-like, came in through the library door. “Showed him, didn’t we?”

The host harrumphed and turned over a page. He drew smoke from the lit pipe clenched between his teeth. Eran thought his own body coughed. “I can’t follow a damn thing. ‘Gheluvelt’? ‘Poperinghe’? Where?” His eyes flicked across the text, dragging Eran’s gaze along; Eran felt queasily as if he were on a rollercoaster. If he threw up, which century would it emerge in? “The Emperor was still issuing orders for a breakthrough!” the host called again.

“Disappointed, wasn’t he, Father?”

Eran was suddenly, strongly reminded of his grandmother’s reading the MSNBC crawl at a shout – “Damn that McCain!” – while he, half-listening, ate his breakfast in the dining room.

“Says Haig was invaluable during the whole thing.”

“Well, he’s required to, isn’t he? His wife was in the Queen’s circle.”

The host snapped something that even Eran couldn’t make out. Grouchiness, and a thought akin to Kids these days, bled through him like cream into coffee. But he quickly moved on. “Hear this: ‘It does not seem to be clearly understood that the operations in which we have been engaged embrace nearly all the Continent of Central Europe from East to West.’ My god, what an event.”

The son came through the door. He was a rat-faced smarmfest in craveable Cumberbatch garb. “So much for my summer tour.”

“Enough about vacations. When will you be joining up?”

“Oh, Father.”

Eran’s grandfather was knocking on the door. Without waiting for permission, he came in; Eran snapped the notebook shut. “Just hammering in loose baseboards.”

“None in here.”

“Ah, well.” Grandpa Ed smacked the hammer against his palm. “Dinner’s almost ready. Coming down?”

Eran thought back to what he had written. It seemed good enough. “Guess so.”

November 27, 1914: John French’s Fourth Despatch, recounting the events of First Ypres, is published in the Gazette.

Read-in-Progress: Orhan Pamuk, Snow

It probably just reminds me of Doctor Zhivago because, you know…snow. Or maybe it’s the political intrigue layered with an (apparently) doomed romance.

The prose hasn’t gotten any less clumsy, but at least that was evident from the start. And the shooting in the teahouse, with the follow-up “transcript,” is a tour de force. Anyway, I have to finish Snow as part of my goal of reading a book by every Nobel-prize-winning author. (Which isn’t going to be easy – when’s the last time you saw a Sully Prudhomme translation in the rack by the checkout lane?)

Postscript: here’s a Sully Prudhomme translation. It looks like the translator was Google. Ugh.