Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I used to subscribe to The New Yorker. Eventually, though, I couldn't stand it as the issues just piled up staring at me, saying you can't recycle me until you read me. While I liked most of the nonfiction features (John McPhee anyone?), I felt kinda blasé about the fiction. Too dense, too obscure, too ... ok, I'll say it, literary. Reading it felt like work. Which brings me to Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. I think I would have enjoyed reading these as they were originally published in The New Yorker, scattered over a year or two -- catching up with Olive and the other residents of Crosby, Maine -- but all in one swoop didn't go down easy.

Olive is a retired junior high math teacher, renowned for her strictness and her barbed temperament. Her former students fear her. She lives with her kind husband Henry, the town's pharmacist, but their only child Christopher pretty much got out of Olive's orbit as soon as he could (but this was later than just after college). The 13 stories mostly feature Olive as protagonist, but occasionally she just puts in an appearance. They are all vivid in their description of place, but where the writing left me gave me pause (in a good way) was the way Strout defines a character through the way they stand or dress, or even -- since the author's narrative is what the New York Times calls "free indirect" -- what they are thinking (without it being their actual thoughts). Her writing is literary without density, a reader doesn't have to work to parse what she is saying, yet we recognize that her spare prose is telling us so much than just the words she is using.

The stories are deeply compelling, full of situations that ring completely true about a community that's losing its cohesion as its children move away, about aging and loss, about parents and adult children, about how relationships ebb and flow, how they change or don't change. There's a feeling of melancholy for lost things that runs through the stories. You don't need to live in a small town in Maine to utterly understand the actions and emotions of the people who live there. Strout's characters are universal. And her characters are -- almost to a person -- all deeply real.

But when the interlinked stories repeatedly provided a simple back story (Olive is fat, Henry is kind, Olive's angry at Henry's incapacity, Christopher is ungrateful), I got cranky. I didn't need that information intruding -- again! -- on this new story. And in the few stories where Olive makes just a brief appearance it often felt like she was placed there just to provide continuity to the collection of stories. So, the stories all together failed for me.

I had a brief flirtation (shorter than the time I subscribed to The New Yorker) with short fiction while I was in graduate school, as they met my need for stories with limited reading time available. I rarely go back to them, but I really should. I think I would have enjoyed Olive Kitteridge more in little bursts (to paraphrase the title of one of Strout's stories).

On the other hand, I wasn't crazy about the narration by Sandra Burr. She is prolific, but I've only heard her read one time, before I began keeping this blog. When Burr read the dialogue, she was lively, consistent and interesting; the characters are believable. Her Maine accent seemed a little wobbly to me, not nearly as good as those heard here, but it wasn't disastrously bad.

Burr's narrative voice, though, gave me problems. It rarely changed in pace or volume, its rhythm became lulling. It seemed as if she was awed by Strout's prose, so much so that she could only read it in the most deferential way possible. Does she want to step out of the way, so listeners can appreciate just the words? Unfortunately, reading this neutrally only leads to missing the words altogether as the mind inevitably wanders.

I'm also not sure that listening to something this well-written is the best way to access it. Strout's prose is so excellent that you want to linger over it, to go back and read that perfect, perfect sentence over again. To leave post-it notes (although I'm generally not a post-it-note reader), so you can find it again ... for a blog post, maybe [ ;-) ], although just to revisit may be reason enough.

This was likely the last audiobook for 2011. Some were better than others. The worst was, I think, the other Maine book. And that's all I'm going to say about that 'cause I don't want to end on a cranky note. There were these two books that also took place in Maine; I liked them.

[One of my favorite stories was "Tulips," where Olive is coming to grips with Henry's debilitating stroke. This photograph was taken by Nevit Dilmen and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Narrated by Sandra Burr
Brilliance Audio, 2008. 10:35

1 comment:

nevit said...


Nevit Dilmen