Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Heather King's "Parched"--First Impressions

I’m about halfway through the book, and should finish with one more night of good reading, but I wanted to get something up here for those who are ready to begin the discussion.

I’m enjoying the non-linear story-telling, sort of weaving the different elements of her life into a full portrait of the addict, but that leaves me with a non-linear approach to discussing her work. The following are a few pulled quotes that spoke to me, and a couple reasons why they did.


“When I wasn’t drinking in crappy bars, I was home by myself reading: a life that was achingly lonely, and yet perversely designed to prevent anybody from ever getting close enough to really know me.” (p 12)

Comparing this detail with other addiction stories, “Lit” and “The Edge of Sadness” it seems a recurring attribute of addiction is self isolation. I think it’s interesting how most addictive behaviors (internet use comes to mind) at first appear to be a remedy for isolation, but eventually become a reason to self-isolate.


“When it came to sibling dynamics, this meant we had one basic mode of communication—ridicule; and one base mode of interaction—violence.” (p 35)

For some reason this makes me want to have more kids. It gives me the sense that a lot of what happened in my childhood, and is currently taking place between my children, might not be as out of the ordinary as I thought it was. Sure it’s painful for everyone—but so’s life. And it does sort of confirm my suspicions that these modes of interaction among siblings can help build character.


“And it occurs to me now, as I write, that those two things I did at Nana’s—daydream and snoop—are pretty much what I do today for work.”(47)

This whole scene with her Nana was so touching to me, and also very similar to my own experiences with my Grandmother. I loved every minute of it. And again, it gives the idea that child-rearing is rarely as complicated as we want to make it. Give a girl a drawer to go through and she’ll be happy for a loooong time.


One of the most enjoyable elements of this book for me is the freedom with which she writes about the darker episodes of her life. I know that sounds oxy moronic, but it gives me hope for the kinds of books that can be written, read and accepted into the Redemption Narrative. We’ve discussed here before how glossing over details, like Merton’s illegitimate child, and Dorothy Day’s abortion, causes us to underestimate the immense power of God’s mercy. To me, all these details, though they detail a life of incredible suffering, help to affirm the life of faith.


Melanie B said...


Like you, I'm going to go with a non-linear series of reactions.

Several of your quotes were also passages that spoke to me. That first one about reading and isolation. I think you are dead-on about addiction and self isolation. I have found that reading itself can be that way for me. One Lent I gave up reading all fiction and really found that thereafter I am much better able to identify when I am slipping into that cycle of escapist reading. I try to vary my reading so it isn't too many novels in a row so that I don't fall into that spiral of seeking remedy for isolation in books and driving myself further and further into the hole.

I also concur about the scenes with Nana. The snooping in drawers and cataloging the contents, trying to discern another person from the bits and pieces of jewelry and medicines, books and pictures and such. That was definitely me as a girl visiting both of my grandmothers.

What you say about child rearing and how uncomplicated it can be... I struggle with that. My own inclination is to be rather lazy, to just let them wander about in their own world. I'm happier when they are entertaining themselves. And yes I am very inconsistent. Sometimes I let them snoop in the drawers of my nightstand just to keep them occupied so I have some peace. At other times I get very offended at the invasion of my personal space or at the mess of strewn artifacts.

But I wonder how much of my hands-off philosophy is really rooted in a conviction that children need space to daydream and explore, that space which King's family doesn't really allow her, and how much of it is just selfishness even slothfulness on my part. Indeed how much it feeds my own desire to retreat from interaction and responsibility, to self-isolate in the addictive sort of way you suggest via books or, yes, the internet.

The book grabbed me from the beginning but in the last couple of days I've found Parched very rough going at times. It's the Boston scenes that have really done me in. They feel to me very much like I remember feeling when I read Crime and Punishment: cramped, grungy, claustrophobic. That feeling of a mind turned in on itself, chewing on itself in a desperate attempt to free itself from the trap of its own making. Of course it doesn't help that in the past couple of days it's been bitterly cold out and I've felt like I'm coming down with a cold and so already feeling rather trapped and cabin-feverish. The narrative just intensifies that. Instead of being an escape, it just pushes me further into that mental box.

Honestly, at times all that kept me going were the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, so often from the Psalms or other books of the Bible and always a signpost reminding me where we are headed, that there is a light that shines in the darkness. The Psalms are my own daily anchor and so I feel like they give me something to cling to as I read.

Melanie B said...

Then tonight I read the amazing scene in chapter 23 where she and Terry go to eat at Bella's and it felt like someone opened a window finally and I'd escaped.

For one thing, it sounds so much like Dom's stories of going to visit his Sicilian aunts and the tables of never-ending food. And all the stories he recounts of his father's childhood too. Who knows, Boston being not really such a big town as all that, Bella might even be an acquaintance of someone in the family. Perhaps even a friend of one of Dom's many aunts.

I just want to quote the whole passage; but here are some of the highlights:

"I knew we'd entered the eighth culinary wonder of the world. When we walked into the kitchen-- linoleum, doilies, crucifixes-- the table was already covered with huge platters of food."

I just love how she evokes both the room and the person of Bella and really the whole Boston Italian culture with that trio of words: "linoleum, doilies, crucifixes." I am so there.

". . . but gravy to Bella was spaghetti sauce and hers was so loaded with sausage, chicken and pork chops that you could have stood a spoon up in it." Sounds like my father-in-law's gravy, served up at family events.

And then there is the dish of potatoes and eggs "which doesn't sound like much but was a revelation, a could of textures and tastes that could only have been made by someone with the kind of sublime culinary intuition that knew the exact size to mince a clove of garlic, the temperature butter should be to scramble eggs in, the number of turns to take with a pepper grinder." I only wish I had that kind of intuition. At my best when I'm cooking something I love that I've made countless times so that I don't need a recipe I think I start to see where that kind of cooking is possible.

"I was stupified by their failure to fall on their knees and give thanks, but throughout the course of the afternoon learned this was because Bella more or less cooked this way all the time."

That especially sounds like Dom's Sicilian aunts. No matter when you show up be it Sunday brunch or Tuesday afternoon you will have so much food shoved at you. What else do they have to do all day but cook?

"This was cooking on a level I hadn't known existed, cooking that couldn't be taught or learned, cooking that came from some deep wellspring of knowledge that the only reason for having been given any kind of talent is to share it. She was like an artist with an easel, painting a big beautiful picture of hospitality and generosity and nurturing abundance."

It is such a reminder that all meals are Eucharistic in nature. That even a peanut better and jelly sandwich shared can be bread broken together and can echo the great Eucharistic feast. I note that the chapter heading is Luke 24:30-31 "And they knew him in the breaking of the bread. . . " The whole scene reminds me of Babette's Feast, a movie I really need to see again.

"Out of some subconscious innate respect, for once I stayed sober enough to remember the whole night. All in all, it may have been the most glorious meal I ever had." So far it is definitely the most glorious passage of the book. Hopefully a foretaste of more to come.

BettyDuffy said...

I was thinking about that dark grungy aspect you mention, Melanie, and it occurred to me that this book covers many years of drinking. Ten to fifteen years of alcoholism, and the reader essentially swallows all those drinks over the course of a few days.

For me, one of the best parts of the book, and I hope it's included in yours, is the author interview at the end where King discusses memoir, and why she chose the genre in which to tell her story. She explains that to her, memoir is a gift, an offering up of her own body and blood. Not as a means of exploration or with intent to understand and make sense of her experience. But because the suffering led to a new life for her. She would not have written the memoir, if she didn't know where this part of her story led.

I thought that was interesting, and put all of that suffering of body into context for me. I almost wish that I had read that first.

Melanie B said...

Oh no the author interview is not included in the edition I got from the library. That sounds fascinating. I'm going to have to track down a copy.

"the reader essentially swallows all those drinks over the course of a few days." Very true.

I followed this up by reading Room, at Pentimento's recommendation. Another dark and claustrophobic view with a beautiful thread of grace. I think I'm going to take a break from grungy, though. Next in my queue is Agatha Christie's autobiography. Sticking with the memoir genre but she begins with a happy childhood.

Emily J. said...

Melanie- Your comment about the Sicilian aunts reminds me of my first experience with an Italian dinner. One spring break I stayed a couple days with an Italian friend in New York City. At dinner the first night, I was dismayed to be served this puny plate of pasta. No one else at the table asked for seconds. I ate my three bites of noodles and thought I might starve before the visit was over if this was all they ate for dinner. Then the antipasto came out. Then the marinated squid. Then the meat plate. Then the salad. Course after course was presented over a period of a couple of hours. I was so thankful that I hadn't given in to my hunger and asked for seconds of pasta because I could barely roll away from the table by the time dinner was over.