Thursday, January 13, 2011

Abide With Me

Day 339 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and my book group was just reading Abide With Me, by Elizabeth Strout, because I had suggested it. Why? Because I found it at hand in the bookstore, when everybody was reading Olive Kitteridge, which got the Pulitzer Prize, and here was this one I hadn't even heard of, with a little girl on the cover, and a blurb on the back setting it in a small town with a main character of a pastor. Hey, we live in a small town, and a member of our book group is a pastor!

So we met last night to discuss it, and 1) Yes, the gossipy nature of small towns does affect pastoral life and 2) We are not a bunch of ladies who drink coffee. There were six bottles of wine on the table and three in the fridge.

But what happens at book group stays at book group, so you won't hear any juicy gossip from me. Maybe.

What I really like about this book is how we gradually get to know the people of the town enough to see that the "perfect" people aren't, and the most unlikable characters are human and have something to love and protect in them. We see how they got that way, but we only see as much as is revealed by the people themselves via the omniscient narrative voice.Usually a "godlike" point of view, this is a subtle omniscience that moves around as needed and still doesn't tell us everything. Mysteries remain.

Just as they do with the people we think we know well, the marriages we observe.  Outside the book.  So this rang true to me, as fine literary fiction.

This is the kind of book I read to learn how to live, something I said at the beginning of this "musing on reading" project. I read everything that way, but this is the kind of book that actually helps me.

So it was quite wonderful to find at the back of my paperback edition--one of those Reader's Guide editions, with questions--"A Note About Abide With Me" by the author herself, saying, "In telling my stories, I am--as Tyler Caskey [the pastor] is--interested in the question: How does one live life? Does it even matter how one lives?" I was feeling spoken to as I read along.

"Whether we approach life as Tyler does, with the question of how love can best be served, or whether we approach it with some other central issue, either of our own making or given to us by a religious guideline, most of us are still dismayed by how imperfectly we love, we are still surprised by the consequence of action, we are often at sea with questions of right and wrong."

Hitting home, and still ringing true. My mom lives with the central question of how love can best be served, and she came to this by living, by reading, by raising children, by being an English teacher. That is, she might not have started that way, but she lives in love now. I knew her parents, though, so indeed she might have started that way!

In college, my central question was that of political philosophy: "How should men and women best live together on this earth?" What are the crucial values, based on what discernible truths, and what are the equitable and practicable arrangements for supporting them?

"At sea seems to me an honest place to be," Strout continues in her Note, and I agree. "My job as a storyteller," she says, "is not to supply any answers, but to raise the questions in a way the reader may not have seen before--to record in a different manner what it means to desire what we desire, to fail the way we fail, to hope the way we hope."

And now, for the "river of stones" people, another fine rock coincidence: In trying to describe her personal beliefs, Strout says they are "like huge, smooth rocks that shift, sharply at times, as I run my hands over them, looking at them from different angles, always trying to keep the moss of cynicism and sentimentality from obscuring them." Love that!

Then, oddly, or not so oddly, given all the wine, we behaved as if at a slumber party and called somebody's boyfriend! For a book recommendation!


Susan Ryder said...

It might be good to point out that while we did not drink coffee, neither did we drink all those bottles of wine! Well, at least I don't think we did. I can't be sure since I was not the last to leave.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Wish I lived closer. I'd love to know what happens at book club!

seana graham said...

Sounds a lot like my book group, frankly, right down to the wine and the impulsive phone calls! Though these are usually to former members who have moved away not 'outsiders'...

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Wow! Great post! Great philosophical musings, great praise of your mom, (who sounds like my mom), great discussion of the book and author. Perhaps I shall reread this book. It sounds like just my cup of tea right now--or glass of wine!