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Truth and Beauty and Books

This past month has been a continuation of high summer for us and we’ve had lots of visitors, good food, good company and good reading! I read three books well worth writing about; all have been in my library for a while and two I have read before but felt the urge to read again. That is the pleasure of a good library -- with actual books made of paper – browsing and finding books purchased years ago and not yet read or books read years ago and perhaps almost forgotten about, beckoning to be read again. I know it is possible to browse an e-reader, but I’ve yet to embrace such a radical shift. Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: A Novel
falls into the first category; I purchased it not long after it was published in 2005 but for some reason – too many other books intruding perhaps – I hadn’t read it in spite of wonderful reviews. The reviews were correct; it is a wonderful and unexpected book! When I first took it off the shelf it fell open at page 208, a chapter where many words and sentences are circled by red pen. My first thought was that I must have bought it second hand and these were the previous reader’s markings. It finally dawned on me that the pen marks were intrinsic to the novel, along with many other original aspects. For writers who want an incredible example of ‘voice,’ here it is, in the persona of endearing nine-year-old ‘nerd’ Oskar, a son grieving in his own unique way for his father, killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. It is almost a truism that there is no such thing as a unique character or plot line in a novel, but I think this novel is perhaps one of the exceptions. Not only is it exceptional in that sense, it also keeps you thinking -- working out who is talking, when, what about and how it all fits together in the greater scheme of things that is Oskar’s curious world. Through his search for the essence of his father, we are taken back to the bombings of Dresden and into the sad world of his grandparents. Oskar’s unique take on life is very moving in a way that is not at all soppy.

The two books I have just finished must be read as a duo, I think. I have read both books before, but not ‘together,’ and this togetherness added enormously to my emotional and psychological understanding of them. The first is Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy’s acclaimed memoir, first published in 1994. It is her story of her childhood through to her young adulthood living with the physical and emotional pain that accompanied numerous surgeries on her face, destroyed as a result of cancer when she was just nine. It is in many ways a very matter-of-fact journey through the unimaginable horror of what she had to endure, both in hospital and in the often cruel world of school children. Through the grimness shines a little girl and a young woman who believes she is too ugly to ever find true love, in spite of massive evidence to the contrary. The second book is by Ann Patchett, one of Lucy’s many dedicated and unconditionally loving friends, whose beautiful memoir, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, published in 2004, is about her friendship with Lucy from their student writing days up until Lucy’s death from a heroin overdose, at the age of 39. The Lucy revealed through this intense friendship looks like a woman with possible ‘Borderline Personality Disorder.’ The physical horrors and pain of her surgeries, along with her ‘otherness’ and isolation in childhood are certainly sufficient to explain why she might have developed such a self-destructive personality. Truth and Beauty vividly depicts an often incredibly dysfunctional young woman with a needy indulgence in her own loneliness who insists on being the most important thing in the lives of her many, long-suffering, dedicated friends. Underpinning it all is her terrible clinical depression, and ultimate descent into heroin addiction. Yet the very fact that the sane and lovely Ann Patchett as well as many others continued to love her and never give up on her in spite of her tantrums and bizarre behaviors, make it clear that there is another part of Lucy that is funny and witty and genuinely loving. I can only think that it must have been impossible to adequately express these aspects of Lucy in words.

These two books, and especially Truth and Beauty, are also books about the struggle to become a writer, and for that alone both are worth reading if you are a writer. But it is the friendship between these two women and the generous and searingly honest way Ann Patchett writes about it that makes this book unforgettable.
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