Saturday, August 18, 2012

August 16: A Rainy Day, a Wonderful Book

When We Argued All NightWhen We Argued All Night by Alice Mattison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: my sister gave me this book, is friends with the author, and did the interview with Mattison in the back of the book. Also full disclosure: that means nothing, because Ann and I have always had different tastes in books since we were little kids, and I'd have no qualms about telling her I didn't like it for whatever reason.

But: I LOVED When We Argued All Night. I started reading it on the way home from camp on Saturday, misplaced it for two days in my knitting bag, found it, and finished it Wednesday night. The narrative style drives the book forward: as many European-published books seem to do, it uses dashes instead of quotation marks, and while the early sections of the book are delineated by years, the last 1/3 or so may make big jumps in time without much indication of change. In addition, a paragraph may start with a character's comment, but Mattison might seque right into his/her thoughts without any ado, so it's important to keep one's attention on what's happening.

Mattison certainly crams a lot of the 20th/21st century into this story: the Depression, the acclimation of immigrant families to living in the US, WWII, the Red Scare, the civil rights movement, the 60's, the development of the LGBT rights movement--but it doesn't feel like a textbook or a list. Instead, she creates a rich tapestry of what it must have felt like to have lived through those various events, how they changed (or didn't change) people's daily lives and outlooks. Artie stays more or less the same, while Harold reinvents himself and reflects deeply on that reinvention; by the end of the book, when both men are 94, I had a vivid sense of how human experience just keeps unfolding and reoccurring. Mattison's ability to recreate historical environments reminds me of Michael Chabon's work in Kavalier and Clay--rich, deep, and somehow feeling real.

I also have to recognize the fantastic cover design by Robin Bilardello--the book looks appealing, with the cover photo reminding us that actual people populate the photos from the past! Other bonuses: lots of references to New England--somehow books that mention familiar territory delight me. Also, Mattison does a fantastic job with her descriptions of the joys and traumas of teaching: Harold and Artie love teaching for different reasons, but her description of each man's reasons is insightful, valid, and respectful: they're not just in it for June, July, and August, as so many people think.

Good people, honoring teaching, a wonderful, familiar setting. . . there's also terrific writing. I'll close with some of my favorite passages. This is a terrific book. Bravo, Alice Mattison!

"Boredom and hostility are easy to detect." (112)

"Harold couldn't resist the curious ones." (116)

"Jumping from a subway platform was such an easy, obvious way for New Yorkers to die that it was unthinkable and unspeakable, and for the first days and weeks the primary effort of them all--parents, relatives, doctors, and nurses--was to look past Nelson's act and only at the bruises, the broken leg, as if he'd fallen when out for a walk. Harold could not ask why, . . . because the answer had the coming train in it: it was what Nelson had chosen to accept, the train reaching his body." (184)

"She enjoyed marching too much for someone who was supposed to be angry." (194)

An amazing passage about parental worry: "Nelson lived in Harold's upper abdomen--maybe where his diaphragm was. It had loosened, just because Harold had found him and his face looked better, but while he washed his hands, it was as if someone behind him had tightened a band around his body." (234)

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