Verbose Book Reviews (the reviews are verbose, not the books)

Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes by Merrill Feitell

A book of short stories. Winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, 2005.

"The Marrying Kind" and "Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes" particularly resonated for me. "The Marrying Kind" is the story of a woman whose long-term love affair (or, perhaps more accurately, sexual affair) is breaking up. Because of his wedding. Which she's attending. "Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes" is about a group of four, now five--Janie and her husband Jeff, their newborn son Otis, Janie's brother T.J., and his girlfriend Hazel, who has been Janie's best friend for years. The interaction between the four adults, brought together on this day so that Hazel can dye Janie's hair, is powerful and deeply-felt.

The Language of Good-bye by Maribeth Fischer

A novel. I've been reading this book since 2000 or so. Perhaps a bit earlier than that. It's a very difficult book to read. I don't mean to imply that the book itself is so terribly complex, or that the writing is obtuse. It's just...difficult.

The Language of Good-bye, in the direct sense, is the story of a woman (Anne) and a man (Will), who had an affair and eventually left their spouses (Carter and Kayla) for their relationship. Anne is a teacher of English as a Second Language in a university; and Will is a counselor for troubled children.

In the metaphorical sense, the language of the title is that which any divorcing person, or person contemplating divorce--or even a serious breakup--must learn. How to think of life as a "single" again. Telling the person who's been the second half of you that you're going to be whole on your own again, and that they have to be, too, whether they're ready or not, whether they like it or not. The "language" is also what Anne's students learn as a part of learning English (and, I suppose, what Will's young clients learn in therapy, although the point is made much more obliquely in the text): they learn to say goodbye to their pasts, without forgetting them. They learn to become American, while still (if they are lucky and can balance it) retaining their Korean-ness, Italian-ness, or Saudi-ness.

I began reading this book at a time when I was afraid of the tiny voice in the back of my head that was telling me I should think about leaving my husband. That's why I stopped reading it that first time. I picked it up again just as I began writing my thesis in earnest, so I put it away again in favor of completing that chapter of my life. I began trying to read it again after I'd moved out of my house, but it was far too sorrowful and meaningful for me. I'm not sure why I could do it now, but earlier this week I picked it up for the first time in several months, and read the last 70 pages or so in one evening. Stayed up far too late, spent far too much time staring at the ceiling afterward (lying flat on my back on the couch, where I'd been reading, holding the book over my face), pondering.

The book is beautifully written, and their thoughts and feelings became my own--particularly those of Anne and Carter, her husband. Generally, though, the characters are irritating as all hell. They're morose, sad and small. Their lives are filled with regret, their perspectives so shallow....

The best that I can do is to list the quotations--all of them--that made me love the language of this book. That language alone will make someone read it, much more than my far-too-personal review.

Suffice it to say, this is not "a Johnnie book."

"It seemed impossible that love could simply disappear. It should have been something huge that killed love, something cataclysmic. Not the subtle erosion that it had been."

"...even emptiness has its own weight."

"Passing time, stalling, thinking that if he simply followed some order, his world would make sense again. Like a novel. He wanted a plot he could follow."

"It terrified her how easy it was to ruin the sweetest things: a birthday cake, a marriage, a love."

"All summer S. wondered where W. had gone when he left K., and if he was happy now, and if he understood yet the truth about happiness--that it was like a beautiful dragon, so enormous and powerful that it could exist only in a legend or a dream."

"He groaned softly and pulled away finally, still holding her against his chest, his heart beating so hard it seemed to be hammering inside her."

"W. understood, as he hadn't until meeting A., that nothing disappears. Lies, like water, can evaporate, but both eventually return in another form. In the punishment of rain; in the silence of snow."

"Countless times, he had tried to retrace his and A.'s relationship, to find that single moment where, rather than thinking of saying goodbye to A., he had started thinking instead about leaving K. But if there had been any such point, it was at the very beginning."

"This, this was the reason he'd left K., he told himself, this was why he couldn't imagine being without Anne anymore. She had brought this into his life--this pure uncomplicated happiness and sudden giddiness, this joy for no reason."

"She didn't tell him that his love had splintered open her life, that if she had never met him, she would have gone on as she always had, and she would have been okay."

"...sometimes leaving what you love most--your home, your family, your country--wasn't always the best choice or even the right choice; it was simply the only choice you were capable of making...or maybe the only one you could live with."

"He wanted to tell her that when someone is suffering the greatest pain, he often responds not with telling or with tears but with silence. And sometimes all he needs is just a response. One word."

"But memories, these memories of happiness--how could she make them go away?"

"She didn't want to confront the truth: She was attracted to him, enough so that by the time she got into the car with C., she felt guilty, as if already she had betrayed him–-and hadn't she? Don't all lies begin with silence? A hundred times she had wondered what would have happened had she simply told C.: He's good looking. I think I have a crush.... They could have laughed about it. He might have teased her, and the words, the feelings out in the open would have dissipated, as insubstantial as smoke."

"Why, she wondered now, did it always seem that people ended up resenting the very thing they'd once loved? Or was it that they resented only what they had come to depend on?"

"I'm just not in the same place as J...., and I'm not sure I ever will be. And then I start thinking how it's always like this in a relationship. One person loves the other just a little bit more, and that's the person who's going to get hurt. This time it's J., last time it was me."

"...if she can so easily see it, why can't W.? But you see what you want to. Isn't that always the case? Isn't that what allowed people to have affairs and fight wars and get married to begin with? You close your eyes to the stuff you can't handle and you keep going and you keep believing that somehow it will all work out. You pray or you take alternative vitamins or you collect lucky coins or you make wishes on birthday candles or falling stars."

"Hadn't she learned long ago that what was most dangerous in a person's life wasn't what she feared but what she desired?"

"What was the greater act of love? To have let her go, as he had, or to have begged her to stay?"

"Once you lose what you want most in your life, is it easier to relinquish everything else? Is loss just one more habit, like riding a bike or learning to swim?"

"A. wasn't sure she knew what those words--right, wrong--meant anymore. Had it been wrong to love W.? Or was it that once you accept that which is wrong and begin to call it right, you lose the ability to discern the difference between good and bad? She didn't know if she was a good teacher or not anymore, or even a good person. She didn't know what it meant to love W. any more than she understood what it meant to no longer love C."

"Had he lied? She knew all too well how capable they both were of deceit."

"She stared at him across the room, her heart exploding in tiny bursts, and realized that she didn't trust him and that he didn't trust her. They were people capable of betraying those they most loved."

"You see, S. wanted to tell K., duty is stronger than love. But her throat was clogged with the tears that she shed only after K. left because S. also knew that sometimes to substitute duty for love was like using honey in a recipe that called for sugar. It was too heavy; it would weigh the cake down."

"What is the balance between wanting to hurt someone and wanting to love him?"

"...love, like language, is not a thing, but a place--a world that you learn to inhabit slowly. And in a new love, as with a new language, there are four signs of culture shock. You must travel through each: infatuation, grief, acceptance, and joy. Language experts say it takes nearly fifteen months. At least four seasons."

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