Bitter “Olive”

Unknown“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is one of those books I’m glad I read, but which didn’t leave me with a very good feeling. Making the reader feel good is hardly a requirement for good literature, but I was still wishing for a tiny glimmer of hope for the human spirit within these pages.

Olive Kitteridge is a seventh-grade math teacher — the one the kids hate and fear but secretly respect and want to please — in a small coastal town in Maine. She is openly rude, abrasive, and has no concept of the effects of her actions on others. She is like a storm that her husband, kindly pharmacist Henry; and son Christopher have learned to steer around, tiptoe through, and clean up after (sometimes all three). Yet she has an extraordinary sensitivity to what is going on in the hearts, minds, and lives of others. She instantly takes a young woman suffering from an eating disorder under her wing, and her well-honed instincts zero in on a former student who is contemplating suicide. Depression is a thread that runs through the novel, as Olive’s father committed suicide and she herself lives with depressive illness, although she is loath to own it or get treatment.

This is actually a novel in short stories, “Spoon River Anthology” style, featuring other characters, plot lines, and desperation in the same town. All are connected to Olive, if only peripherally. It was a little dizzying trying to keep up with who was who. I wanted to know more about what happened with some of the characters, but others appeared to have been stuck in as an afterthought.

Central to Olive’s story is her disappointment over her son’s move to California after she and Henry have built a house for him and his new bride (who, not surprisingly, she can’t stand). After he has divorced, remarried, and moved to New York City, with a child on the way, Christopher invites his mother for a visit. Henry by this time has suffered a stroke and is confined to a nursing home, but Olive calls every night while she is away and has the staff put him on the phone even though he cannot speak. She is hoping to reconnect with her son, but before she knows it, she’s screaming at him — and he is responding calmly to her accusations, which of course irritates her even more.

I have not seen the HBO miniseries based on the book, but the reviews were positive (you can hardly go wrong with Frances McDormand in the lead). If you’ve read the book, seen the miniseries, or both, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Keep calm and read on

LittleWaysKeepCalmMECH.inddDuring a dark moment of human history, a motivational poster appeared with a crown and the words “Keep calm and carry on.” Published by the British government as World War II loomed, this simple statement urged an understandably anxious populace to keep their chins up and go about whatever was theirs to do.

Mark A. Reinecke, Ph.D., pulls this into our anxious age in Little Ways to Keep Calm and Carry On: Twenty Lessons for Managing Worry, Anxiety, and Fear (2010). The lessons are straightforward, common-sense, and well worth considering, even if you’ve heard some of it before. Each lesson is succinctly introduced, followed by “Key Points,” “What You May Be Thinking,” “Now Ask Yourself…” and “What You Need to Do.”

Let’s look at Lesson 3: We Overestimate Risk When We’re Afraid. “The most important things to do when you feel anxious about a situation are get accurate facts and make an accurate assessment. When something bad happens, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that it will happen again,” it begins. (Don’t we ever.) So it’s important to ask yourself some key questions about what you fear will happen, the likelihood of it happening, the most likely scenario, factors that suggest the feared event might not happen or be so bad if it does happen, and how you will cope. These questions are basically the key points of this lesson.

“What You May Be Thinking” brings in the self-doubt: How can I be sure my assessment is correct? What if I’ve left something out? What if I make a mistake? “Now Ask Yourself …” breaks down the earlier questions a bit for the reader to address particular problems and coping skills. “What You Need to Do” suggests enlisting a trusted friend to help size up the most likely scenario or continuing the work on paper. Reinecke acknowledges the hardest part of all this is managing uncertainty . . . which is covered in the next lesson.

I chose this lesson to highlight here because it resonates with the way I cope when worries go zinging around in my head at night and I can’t sleep. Sometimes I make a list of things to do to deal with the issue the next day. I may make a plan for responding to Scenario A, Scenario B, or both. Just getting it on paper helps to both calm the storm and come up with a constructive response.

The book’s short, sweet, and to-the-point approach is negated a bit by the citations within the text; that’s more akin to academic writing. However — as I have told students and reporters, I’d much rather see sources cited awkwardly than not at all.

Chin up, then.