Friday, January 6, 2012

A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny

I read this on the Kindle, sitting in bed with a space heater blasting and my dogs curled up around me, because the furnace went out and I had to wait at home all day for the repairman. Occasionally I braved the frigid downstairs to make tea or hot chocolate, and then dashed back up to the one cozy room. It was a rather good way to read Louise Penny (and I am sure the dogs wish the furnace could go out every day), though I wish that this one hadn't taken place in June. Talk of the heat just made me crabby.

I do love Penny, and the village of Three Pines in which most of her books are set. I desperately want to live there except that a) they all speak French, and I am like the woman in Bury Your Dead who can read French but whose accent "could stop a train", and b) I would weigh four hundred pounds if allowed to eat at Olivier's Bistro frequently. Oh, the food descriptions. Lord have mercy.

Many of Penny's main characters are artists, and this book centers around the artistic success of one character and the resulting descent of the art world upon Three Pines. The murder victim was an art critic, and critics, dealers, and artists populate the pages. This is not new to Penny's books, yet I am increasingly finding that her descriptions of art are over-the-top. Paintings are constantly making people gasp aloud, burst into tears, know that they are in the presence of greatness. I much preferred the wonderful descriptions in The Brutal Telling of two wood carvings which at first seem adorable and then, after a few moments, people don't want to be in the same room with them. And when the part of the carving which caused the unease was identified, it made sense. The portraits by Clara Morrow, and the viewers' reactions to them, don't make quite as much sense. I remain unconvinced that anyone can actually paint, in a subject's eyes, "the moment when despair turns to hope", though I would love to think someone could.

Another major plot point in A Trick of the Light is AA. The murder victim was a member, and Inspector Gamache attends meetings, talks to other members, and reads the literature. I admit that my hackles flew up when I realized this was going to be a thing, because I have never come across AA in a book without the author buying into it hook, line, and sinker (admittedly I read a fair number of sobriety memoirs, and it seems that no one who has written one got sober without AA), and given my own extremely mixed feelings about the program, this irritates me.

Personal digression:

I got sober without AA. But I believe that if AA gets you sober, good for it. I believe whatever gets someone sober is good. Whatever works is good. And I feel that the ethos of AA does not accord that respect to anything besides itself. I had one maddening interaction with a therapist last year in which she preached AA at me for an hour and said that, because I had not done the steps, obviously I had no insight whatever into what made me drink or how to stay sober, and we would have to "start from scratch" on those topics. At this point I had been sober for over five years, and no one has ever accused me of being insufficiently introspective, but she was not hearing it.

Some of the steps are useful. Not all of the steps are useful for everyone. Everyone's addiction experience is different, and everyone's path to sobriety will be slightly different. I hate AA's emphasis on powerlessness; I kept drinking as long as I felt powerless over my addiction. It was only when I thought, No, I can do this, that I stopped. And while one can argue that any addiction has to be replaced by another, that an addictive personality doesn't stop being so and it's a matter of finding something less self-destructive, the addiction to the group and to the meetings makes me a little wary. I do believe that there has to be a replacement addiction - mine is exercise - but think that ideally your replacement addiction is something you can do by yourself if you can't find anyone else. I, personally, do not want my sobriety to depend on anyone but myself, and that includes a higher power. If I'd gotten sober for my husband, this year could have been a mess. If I'd gotten sober for a higher power, this year might have well made me lose my faith, and then what? I didn't get sober for anyone but me, and that's the one person I'll always have with me.

I'm not saying that my route to sobriety is better or stronger than that of someone whose route includes AA. I'm saying I respect AA as I would respect anything that gets an addict sober, but I don't feel that AA respects me back. It's like being a tolerant liberal around Tea Party nutjobs: we're saying, "Well, what you say is vile but I will defend your right to say it," and they're saying, "No one should have the right to believe anything other than what I believe." The road of tolerance is strictly one-way here. AA doesn't think anyone not in AA is really sober; we're just dry drunks, with no personal insight and no willingness to change. And that offends me mightily.

End personal digression!

So, Penny handles AA better than I would have expected, although she still comes firmly down on the side of it being a positive thing. The only dissenting voice is that of an alcoholic who is still drinking and makes an ass of himself at parties. But for the most part Penny simply reports on the facts about the program, and lets us see that the people within it are all there for different reasons and not all of them are noble. There are characters who claim to have worked the steps and be at peace, and Penny shows us that they are hypocrites.

The mystery is intriguing - there are plenty of suspects - and though the last scene, with a storm thundering outside and Gamache saying, "Someone in this room is the murderer," is a little much, I was willing to go with it. Penny does seem intent on unveiling the unpleasant sides of her recurring characters of late, and while that worked with Olivier in a way that kept him sympathetic, the more we learn about Peter Morrow the less sense it makes that anyone puts up with him, whether as a friend or a spouse. And at a certain point it's simply not fun to read about his feelings of inadequacy and spite.

Still, this was not a disappointment, and I will continue to be very excited every time Penny issues a new book.

And oh, she can write about dogs.  The following is from Bury Your Dead; it comes halfway through and it marks the point at which I, struggling with the grief the entire book provoked, just started sobbing and didn't stop the whole rest of the way.

Though Gamache would never say it to Henri's face, they both knew he wasn't the most courageous of dogs. Nor, it must be said, was Henri very bright. But he was loyal beyond measure and knew what mattered. Din-din, walks, balls. But most of all, his family. His heart filled his chest and ran to the end of his tail and the very tips of his considerable ears. It filled his head, squeezing out his brain. But Henri, the foundling, was a humanist, and while not particularly clever was the smartest creature Gamache knew. Everything he knew he knew by heart.

Yeah, that got you too, huh?

(And yes, there was a post earlier this week which I have taken down. It was a revenge post and I want to be better than that. More importantly, it was poorly edited.

I shall keep the good part from it, though, to remember:

I want the word for 2012 to be "delight". I want to find something in which to delight every day. It can be the dogs, or a warm bath, or a silly TV show. It can be a big personal triumph or just the fact that I've laughed that day. It can be my own body, which can do yoga and walk long distances and lift weights, or Bingley's excessively round head. I am justly proud of the equanimity with which I handled 2011, but I'm going to be greedier than that in 2012. I want to be quietly delighted with something every day.)

Next up: Why Read Moby-Dick?, by Nathaniel Philbrick, in preparation for the Moby-Dick marathon this weekend.


  1. And while one can argue that any addiction has to be replaced by another, that an addictive personality doesn't stop being so and it's a matter of finding something less self-destructive, the addiction to the group and to the meetings makes me a little wary. I do believe that there has to be a replacement addiction - mine is exercise - but think that ideally your replacement addiction is something you can do by yourself if you can't find anyone else

    Um, yeah....I know some people think I talk up AA a lot, and in truth I probably wouldn't be alive without it (just as I wouldn't be alive without antidepressants, blahblah), but....a lot of people drift away from AA the more sober they get, and I think there's a reason for that. I realized at one point that a lot of people I knew in AA only had AA friends, went to at least one meeting a day, went to AA parties and functions, and LIVED by AA....and that's....just not me. Not that I wanted to go partying or anything. If I feel that way about anything, it's books. Not AA, not other people and not meetings. (And ohmygod, the number of openly Christian AA meetings I have gone to, and have had to sit through until a decent time arrived to flee.)

    I actually have a few non-AA recovery memoirs! Let's see, Pete Hamill (it was reading an excerpt from his memoir that got Caroline Knapp thinking about sobering up), Wilfrid Sheed (I think you'd really like that one, he's terribly funny), and....hmmmmmmmm. Two. Yeah.

    -- Oh and did you see the Catherine Tate/David Tennant Much Ado? I kept thinking about you. It was FANTASTIC. SO FUCKING FUNNY. And so well-done. It has all the things I usually don't like about Shakespeare productions -- celebrity casting, updated setting, they cut some bits -- but damn if I don't LOVE it. A friend of mine wrote some great stuff about it here:

    Also 1) David Tennant in a navy uniform.
    2) Catherine Tate in a Blues Bros suit complete with shades.
    3) David Tennant in a denim miniskirt.

  2. I haven't seen the Much Ado yet, but am REALLY looking forward to it.

    Hmm, never heard of Wilfred Sheed! I will check that out.