I'm thirty-one. It's not one of those big ticket ages that everyone looks forward to. Thirteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-five... I enjoyed them all. Thirty should have been a big year for celebrations, but as those who are close to me might recall, turning thirty knocked the wind out of me. I wasn't ready to be in my thirties. Not really. I felt like a huge faker. In the same way that it took me a year or two to realize that getting married didn't automatically qualify one for adulthood (that it should be the other way around, if anything), I needed roughly 11 months to adjust to the idea that thirty-year-old me wasn't different from twenty-nine-year-old me, and didn't need to be. Age is just a number. And birthdays are just an excuse to throw a party.
So, this year, we did. Thirty-one-year-old me and thirty-seven-year-old Zoë, my writing buddy and movie soul mate. We had a kostyme fest (costume party) with a Hollywood theme. After all, if there's any activity which disproves the myth of an age/maturity congruence, it's playing dress-up. My costume (and my honey's costume) were inspired by one of my favorite movies of all time.
How to Steal a Million (1966) Nailed it.
Last weekend, the road rose up to meet me! My flash fiction story "Roots" received the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award, and my win was announced at the Irrgrønn Festival of Contemporary Irish Literature.
Even on an ordinary day, there's nothing I like better than hanging around Oslo's Litteraturhuset. In past years, I've watched many wonderful authors read and speak there. From Ali Smith to Anna Funder to Jennifer Egan to John Irving. But I can confirm that it's even cooler to be the person standing on stage reading to the crowd.
Go ahead and call me bossy. I've heard it my whole life.
"Audrey, quit bossing your brothers."
"Audrey is a bright child, but she's bossy in the classroom."
As Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out in the last few months, the word bossy is aimed almost exclusively at girls and women, and it always has a negative connotation. Where a boy shouting orders to a passel of kids on a playground is commended for his leadership skills, a girl is pulled aside and told that what she's doing is wrong.
"Nobody will want to play with you if you're too bossy."
You should have seen me. I owned the playground and everyone in it (who would listen to me, and there were certainly those who didn't). At school or at home, I was the one who invented the games, made the rules, refereed, and facilitated play. Not that any of this lingo was a part of my vocabulary at the time. It all fell under the purview of bossy, which should have been the purview of leadership, but nobody thought to vocalize that difference until more recently.
In my neighborhood, I was the sole girl among about a dozen boys, all my age and younger. And I called the shots.
"Today we're playing cops and robbers. Cops get bikes. Robbers get a ten second head start. The light pole in the little field is home base. Go!"
Bottom line: there was a T-shaped parking lot off of Joaquin Murieta Boulevard in Newark, California where, if you wanted to play a game outside, you had to play my game. So, we played. I bossed the hell out of those boys, and I'm sure it bothered them, but the games never stopped. It was endless hours of Cops-n-Robbers, Cowboys-n-Indians, football, whiffle ball, basketball, swimming, bike riding, kickball, four-square, Hide-n-Seek. We played tackle football, and it took three of them to bring me down and push my face into the turf. Even when they didn't like me, they loved me.
To those who were in a position of oversight, it was plain that, if little Audrey were added to the equation of a classroom exercise, for example, there were few other kids whose personalities would stand a chance against mine. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Busselen, used to ask us to divide into groups of four and dole out responsibilities: Leader, Time Keeper, Scribe, and Presenter. I was born with a hatred of group projects, mostly because I liked doing well in school and didn't trust the other kids to do what needed to be done in order to get an A. Unfortunately for me, fifth grade isn't one giant aptitude test for sixth grade, the way we're led to believe it is at the time. Rather, fifth grade is about preparing all children with the skills they'll need to, for example, cooperate with other people for the rest of their lives. To eleven-year-old me, cooperation only seemed necessary for more subservient types. That's why I was so torn between the roles of Leader and Presenter when these group sessions arose. I wanted to run the show, but I also wanted to be the face of the group when it came time to give the report.
Here I should point out two things: 1) Bossy girls aren't dumb. We know that by snatching the most important roles for ourselves and directing the action thereafter, we're also putting the burden of responsibility for the grade on our own small shoulders, and 2) most other eleven-year-olds are happy to cede that responsibility without a fight.
It took Mrs. Busselen a few weeks of group projects to realize that I was signing up for the position of Presenter, allowing someone else to put his/her name in the Leader spot, and then I was playing the role of de facto Leader anyway. Her answer was to forbid me to do any more presenting.
Spring is coming. Allegedly. Right now, it feels like the worst winter I ever experienced in California: cold rain whipping against the windows, clouds so thick and so gray for so long you start to forget the sky was ever blue. In the interest of my own sanity, I thought I'd look for some proof of past springs here in the wild north.
Almost three years ago, Jonathan and I took a weekend trip to the historic old town of Fredrikstad, about an hour south of Oslo by train. As you can see, it was a bright, sunny day. (Proof!) A tourist's Scandinavian delight.
The Gamlebyen (Old Town) is the center of a fortress and has been impressively preserved. Rather than taking a small ferry across the river from the train station (couldn't find the docks!), we braved traffic and walked across the long, modern bridge. Soon enough, we were passing through the 16th century stone main gate and onto the cobbled streets of old Fredrikstad.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Weighing in at over 800 pages, The Luminaries confounded my expectations over and over again. This is a mystery involving more than a dozen central characters, offered up within the context of historical fiction (the gold rushes in New Zealand in the 1860s). That, and the 2013 Man Booker Prize sticker on its cover, summed up how much I knew about The Luminaries before I began the book last month. I waded in, putting aside my reservations about the volume's heft, because I wanted to know how it had beaten out Jhumpa Lahiri's nomination for the same award (The Lowland). Less than one hundred pages in, I had my answer.
The majority of the characters in this book are male. Every one of them is distinct in physical presentation, personal motivation, and voice. Allowing herself ample time and room to stretch her storylines, Catton made certain that any character she introduced would be essential and, more importantly, memorable. Because the plot is a knot. Because the stars aligned so that these men (and a pair of equally important women) collided, and it is up to the reader to sort things out.
Such sorting is no chore when guided by the steady, confident, divining rod of Eleanor Catton's authorial hand. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire 800 pages. Murder, theft, fraud, exploitation, and blackmail course through the veins of this story, and, impossibly, it never became tedious.
Occasionally I would lift my eyes from the pages and run through the "facts of the case" in my head, ticking off the characters from my interior list, to make sure I was on the right track. But I didn't unravel the knot early, nor did I furrow my brow with fatigue. I wanted to dive back in. There was enough beauty, enough historical information, and enough movement between times and vantage points to keep my interest fresh. There was also enough uniqueness to the individual characters to invite my personal inclination to their stories and subplots, too.
I think that's what impressed me most: the consistency of voice, intrepid and intriguing in the third-person point of view. It never wavers. The narrator is omniscient and discriminating and patient. Catton's descriptions of the gold camps and mining towns reminded me of something I might have read by Dickens or Tolstoy, due to the scope of her vision and her articulation of the details in each scene. She breathed life into the diggers and the opium eaters and the whoremongers and the landlords and the shipping magnates and the sea captains. She underscored the circumstances of indentured Chinese workers, the Maori people, the camp prostitutes, and the convicts. For 800 pages, I lived in a New Zealand mining town, and when I closed the book in the end, I hated to shake the mud from my boots and leave that place behind me.
Here is what The Luminaries wasn't: heavy-handed, cheap, titillating, slow, expected, or easy. Twenty-eight year old Eleanor Catton has my unabashed admiration for imagining and executing this book, one that, had it been written by a man, would have been lifted up as another example of "masculine" literature. Instead, it is evidence of all that literature can accomplish in excellence without any consideration of the author's gender. It is progress manifested. It is an achievement for author and reader alike. I'm proud to own it and, one day, will be eager to read it again.