SubText Bookstore Open at Selby and Western

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For those of us who admit to experiencing a sort of contact high from the book smell of libraries, spent our early teen years scribbling lines of poetry on the bottoms of our sneakers, and enjoy the aesthetic of ring-shaped coffee stains on the pages of textbooks, the corner of Selby and Western in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood feels a little bit like paradise. Home of the Blair Arcade building containing Nina’s Coffee Café (pronounced Nye-Nah’s by those who know) and the former site of Garrison Keillor’s bookstore Common Good Books, this little throng of literary pleasure is surrounded on all sides by dramatic brick architecture, historical landmarks, and even sidewalks stamped with poetry, courtesy of Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk: a community art project engineered by St. Paul’s Artist-in-Residence Marcus Young.

Nina’s (named for Madame Nina Clifford who ran a brothel on present-day Hill Street during the prohibition era) is a bustling coffee shop usually filled with regulars. A well-known supporter of the literary arts, Nina’s keeps a sign-up sheet next to the front door where people who have worked on writing books while sitting in the Café can jot their name along with the title of their book. If you’re not too busy authoring the next great American novel, you can always rent a vintage scrabble board by leaving your I.D. with one of the baristas.

When Common Good Books relocated to Snelling and Grand in April, Nina’s handed out survey sheets to customers, harvesting input about the new bookstore that would be opening downstairs. Now, almost three months later, that new bookstore— christened SubText— is all set up and already has two in-store poetry readings under its belt.

Five Minnesota Poets read at the inaugural event on Wednesday, June 13th. An eclectic mix, Carol Connolly (Poet Laureate of St. Paul), Shannon Gibney, Ed Bok Lee (recent Minnesota Book Award Winner), Jim Moore and Juliette Patterson represented the vast array of poetry styles and voices rising the Twin Cities today. Wine and snacks were served from a large red-tufted bar while neighborhood folks and other literary enthusiasts seated themselves on chairs and couches scattered amongst cardboard boxes and half-filled bookshelves. After all poems had been read, Juliette Patterson concluded the event with a found poem made of fragments from every reader of the night scribbled charmingly on a blue napkin.

On Wednesday June 20th, I wandered into the fully-assembled SubText and stumbled upon an event with poet Todd Boss reading from his book Pitch. A new poet to me, Todd Boss surprised me with his quiet but out-of-the-ordinary style. Musical, effortless and precise, his poetry struck me as almost a little old-fashioned. Boss grew up on a farm, and a good portion of his poetry centers around that part of his life. Touching on a range of subjects and styles with ease, Boss has written a series of 35 short poems (35 words each) about the 2007 35W bridge collapse, some of which are featured in Pitch. The entire collection will appear periodically in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

According to Sue Zumberge, owner of SubText, the bookstore will be hosting a literary event every Wednesday night, though I have yet to find a comprehensive schedule. Word on the street is a grand opening celebration will take place sometime in September.

Literary Death Match

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Literary Death Match, held at Nomad World Pub in the Cedar neighborhood of Minneapolis, was a bit of a mystery to me.  I entered the Nomad World Pub in the Cedar neighborhood trying to play it cool, but really thinking, “What the ****(insert curse word of choice) is a Literary Death Match?”

Four writers competed in the LDM and went head to head by reading a piece or two of their original work, after which they were “judged” by a panel of three. The judges were just as much, if not more, a part of the performance than the writers.

Marlon James, the “Literary Merit” judge, awarded points to one writer because “It is a book, therefore literary.” And noted after a poem was read, “Novelists hate poets because they can get to the point so much faster,” or something like that. Danno Klonowski helped the panel by drawing up quick cartoons to illustrate his feedback, after which he would explain their meaning, adding a little too much personal information (“Well, she kept talking about love. And I’m going through divorce right now, so …” Crowd awkwardly says “Awww” in sympathy but doesn’t really know how to handle this public display of bitterness …). Science-fiction writer Dennis Cass, was the evening’s “Intangibles” judge. He recorded random reactions  and read them off one by one. I wish I could remember even one enough to quote him. All I remember is that they were bizarre and set the crowd laughing confusedly.

Of course, there were the writers themselves. The first round featured the poet Juliet Patterson, who involved the crowd by asking them to join her in unison whenever she said the word “love.” The crowd chimed in consistently a few beats behind, which was funny every time. As the first reader of the night, her poem surprised me with its solemnity. I expected the writers to come out swinging, an (incorrect) idea conjured by the night’s title.

Patterson’s competitor Pete Hautman read an excerpt from his novel, a tale of unrequited and slightly creepy (Marlon James pointed out that the boy in the story had potential as a future serial killer) love for a girl. Pete won the round, based on … who knows? Whatever the judges felt at the time.

LDM host and creator, Todd Zuniga, who travels around the world emceeing these events,  guided the evening with a charming stage presence and ability to work a crowd. He appointed himself as a wing-man to everyone in the room: when announcing breaks, transitions, or the end of the show, he advised, “All right, have drinks, make out with someone.” Also, “Literature will get you laid. It’s never worked for me, but it will work for you.”

The second round packed little more punch. First up, Jeffrey Skemp: when he started to read his first poem from memory, a general swoon circulated around the room (or at least around my barstool) at the depth of his raw, growling voice. He added electric guitar, lending a haunting musicality to the poetry itself. The judges were hard on him—they were probably jealous of his ability to sound like a much sultrier Tom Waits.

His competitor also added a musical component: Stephanie Wilbur Ash stepped up to the stage with a passel of women, known as her Prairie Fire Lady Choir, who carried drums and jawbones to musically accompany her hilarious short story/poem. The well-crafted piece, with references to social media, Bauhaus, taboos, and inappropriate age differences, was made to be performed. She was a shoo-in to move on to the finals.

What did the final competition to decide the winner of this literary blood-bath come down to? A completely arbitrary word game! Stephanie Wilbur Ash won the evening by her ability to unscramble letters and spell out a famed author’s name (Poe! Nin! Huxley!). No matter how the victory was ultimately decided, she deserved the triumph for her performance: if it came to a literary smack-down, her reading packed the most punch.

I left the event with a little more understanding of exactly what a Literary Death Match is. The important thing to know about LDMs is that the purpose of the evening seems to be laughter, good-natured mockery, and (if Todd Zuniga got his way) the attendees getting laid by fellow literature enthusiasts.

-Emily

Carol Connolly Readings by Writers Series

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Not every literary event begins with near-death experiences while crossing the usually stoic, overly-polite Summit Avenue. This one did.

Walking to Carol Connolly’s Readings by Writers series at the swanky University Club, located at the top of the Ramsey Hill in Saint Paul, Kasey and I stepped across the empty road in a well-marked crosswalk, the soft buzz of a distant revving engine barely registering in my mind.

Two motorcycles, the source of the buzzing, after stopping at the stop sign at the top of Ramsey Hill, sped toward us. Fast. I expected them to slow down, or at least lay off the accelerator, but instead they increased speed and, to add to the insult, yelled pointedly, “Get out of the WAY!” as they flew through the crosswalk just as we made it to the opposite lane.

Moments later, before we could make it into the safety of the University Club, we heard them coming around the block again. When the assailant, his plaid shirt flapping villainously behind him, glanced our way, Kasey was quick to flip him off and offer some colorful words before we ducked inside.

Thus, we entered the quiet University Club—slightly terrified, bewildered, and energized—but quickly realized that we’d have to take it down a few.

A slightly sour, musty smell permeated the room, reminiscent of old hymnals. People quietly shifted in their chairs as the evening sun angled through the windows and settled on their hair. Carol Connolly, a Saint Paul poetry icon, was at her most charming as she began the night, waiting for everyone to be comfortably seated before the first reader took the stage.

Sharon Chmielarz kicked off the night reading several published and unpublished poems. Kim Ode of the Star Tribune read, among other things, a unique prose recipe for rhubarb wine. A highlight was Dara Syrkin completing her first-ever public reading. Her poetry was some of the best of the night, and she wasn’t afraid to display her nervousness before she read, or sense of triumph after. Later, after Matt McConnell read a nature-themed poem about red-winged blackbirds “ejaculating” their song into spring air, Carol Connolly took the podium and “went there” as we all secretly hoped someone would. “I’m trying hard not to say something about ejaculation …” she said, before proceeding to say something about ejaculation.

Many of the poems were about nice things like gardening and rivers. If I remember correctly, three of the readers had poems about lilies. After nearly every poem, a man in the audience shouted out, “Waow!” or “Great stuff!” (i.e. “Amen! Hallelujah!”). A creeping comparison to church surfaced, growing undeniable when a collection plate was passed around the room and filled up with $1 bills. “And don’t be putting any pennies in there,” Carol said.

Despite the comparison to a religious service, the event had its moments of excitement, besides just our crude (but justified!) hand-gesturing outside the door before it started: a few parishioners—erm, attendees—drank enough beer and wine to titter about “ejaculation” long after the moment had passed, writers completed the important and daring task of sharing their work aloud, listeners absorbed it, and of course, we could count on Carol Connolly to say one or two things a priest probably wouldn’t say.

-Emily

Party Like a Bibliophile: Biblio Bash 2012

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If there was ever any question as to whether bookish people know how to get down, last night’s Biblio Bash (a literary carnival/benefit for Coffee House Press) was cold, hard proof. Located at the old Grain Belt bottling house on 13th Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis near the site of the Coffee House office, this vibrant carnival-themed party featured interactive performances, theatrical stagings, delicious carnival fare and ample opportunity for mingling. While I’ve attended several impressive literary events this year (i.e. Super Super Tuesday and the Great Twin Cities Poetry Read) that transcend the foldout chairs/quiet applause model characteristic of readings and book talks, Biblio Bash so far takes the cake in terms of originality and all out party-ness.

As stated on the Coffee House website, “Biblio Bash is focused on engagement and participation. We want to encourage our readers to literally interact with our authors and books, stage dramatic interpretations, play games, and create their own unique experiences of our mission.”

Volunteering at the coat check for the first few hours of the evening, I was able to take pretty thorough stock of everyone in attendance. There were quite a few familiars from Coffee House Press and Milkweed Editions, a handful of authors I’ve seen at other recent events, and a host of pumped-up Twin Cities bookworms ready to party. Dressed in jeans, t-shirts, suit coats or cocktail dresses, guests roved about the spacious and dimly lit venue playing scrabble with authors, making book-related crafts, participating in crowd-based theatrical performances, munching on popcorn and brats, sippin on dranks and dancing to music by DJ Jackie Fuller from 89.3 The Current.

When my shift at the coat check ended, I enjoyed a Summit EPA while catching the tail end of Dylan Hicks performing Sings Bolling Greene, the musical companion to his brand new novel Boarded Windows. I stopped to arrange a few words at the magnetic poetry station, ate lots of veggie pita, and participated in a community text activity facilitated by a couple of actors from Bedlam Theatre traversing the room with a wheelchair and a typewriter. “We were interns,” I soliloquized when they suggested I say something to add to the script, “but now we have black dresses.”

For me, the highlight of the evening was a dance performance by poets Lightsey Darst and Sarah Fox. I sat down on a metal chair in the Coffee House office expecting some sort of recital where they (the poets) were the stars and we (the audience) were the spectators, but the “performance” ended up being an interactive activity where the audience formed human sculptures based on lines of poetry read aloud by Darst and Fox. We all stood in a circle and joined the sculpture when the line or word we had been assigned was read aloud. Beers in hand, we crouched, knelt, held hands, reached for the sky, spread our wings and giggled. Authors, publishers, volunteers and book lovers of all persuasions were united in this playful, physical, slightly awkward literary party game, and it was absolutely delightful.

-by kasey

FLO(we){u}R at the Soap Factory

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FLO(we){u}R, the collaborative brain child of ceramic artists Amber Ginsburg and Joseph Madrigal, opened yesterday at the Soap Factory in Northeast Minneapolis. This participatory, performative art project involves the interactive manufacturing of terra cotta test bombs modeled after World War One test bombs. Like the historical bombs, these models are filled with flour, but instead of mimicking destructive explosive devices, they play the role of seed shakers employed in the gentle fostering of new plant life at the hands of community participants. According to Ginsburg and Madrigal, their artistic collaboration (they have worked on other projects together, such as K[ne(e){a}d]: a performative/interactive project based on the intersection of breadmaking and claywork) centers around “the history of terra cotta.”

At a preliminary artist talk at the Northern Clay Center, both artists presented a brief history of their work and ideas.

Joseph Madrigal began, flipping through powerpoint slides of his sensuous, poignantly grotesque porcelain sculptures evoking human genitals, the fecudity of nature and fleshy vulnerability. In his artistic practice, he focuses on the body and its natural processes. Whether working with porcelain, a material valued by Madrigal for its dual connotation with toilets and with fine china, or incorporating knitting and sewing into his work, Madrigal explores “the collapse of the boundary between the grotesque and beauty.”

Amber Ginsburg, whose focus lies in the realm of interactive social craft, says the focus of her work is the performance of knowledge: both historical/archival knowledge and physical repetoire knowledge (like knowing how to rip down a barn or plant apple trees).

I was so enthralled with Ginsburg’s explanations of her past projects that I neglected to write down many of the names or details, but one of the most memorable (and the most simple) grew out of Ginsburg’s curiosity about the namesake of the Betty Rymer Gallery at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. In her research, Ginsburg found that Betty Rymer was a diabetic before the invention of insulin who did all she could to hide her diabetes from the public. As a coping mechanism, Rymer ate massive amounts of sweets, resulting in 32 surgeries in 32 years. A collaborative project with Katie Hargrave, Betty Rymer at the Betty Rymer culminated in students, faculty and staff eating 32 cakes in one hour at the gallery’s 20th anniversary event. When all the cakes had been ingested, 32 found plates inscribed with typewriter text about Betty’s life were exposed, the cake residue remaining as a testament to the participatory aspect of the project.

From Madrigal’s focus on physicality and embodied experience and Ginsburg’s knack for expressing performed knowledge comes FLO(we){u}R, a project that invites communities into direct interaction with basic substances like terra cotta, flour and seed while highlighting the historical detail of terra cotta factories in cities across the nation being commissioned to create test bombs filled with baking flour during World War One. The Soap Factory’s gallery space will house a full-scale bomb manufacturing plant where all aspects of production, from mixing to molding to drying, will be exhibited to the public. According to the Soap Factory’s website, “Two variations of the terra cotta dummy bomb will be produced based on original WWI blueprints. One model is fired for use as a seed shaker. The second model is un-fired will be used for test launches and a one time seed dispersal at the end of the exhibition.”

While seed-bombing is a concept that has oft been repeated in both the art and environmental world, this particular iteration of the seed-bomb concept is unique in its specificity, interpreting a very particular historical context with very particular forms and materials. In addition, FLO(we){u}R gathers a rich contextual relevance from its current staging in Twin Cities: Minneapolis was once the flour milling capitol of the United States.

Through the duration of the project, members of the Twin Cities community (and anyone passing through) are invited to interact with the bomb-building process and participate in gentle, random seed dispersals which, according to the project description on the Soap Factory’s website, reverse “the military’s intention toward accuracy and destruction…” and, using history and metaphor, “insert a poetic undoing of the bombs’ military past.”

While I’m all for poetic undoings, I initially felt just a bit skeptical reading this statement, because we cannot, obviously, un-bomb anything just by turning clay bomb forms into lovely, peaceful seed shakers. However, we can psychologically re-frame and in a sense undo the destruction associated with the bomb form, and psychological re-framing is where all peacemaking must begin.

The Great Twin Cities Poetry Read

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On Saturday, April 21, the third annual Great Twin Cities Poetry Read took place at Hamline University. About thirty poets, of vastly different writing and reading styles, sat in a line at the front of the room, facing the large audience and filing up one by one to read one poem each in quick succession. The event was sponsored by Coffee House Press, Paper Darts, Pocket Lab, Hamline University Creative Writing Programs, Water~Stone Review, Maeve’s Cafe, and Lowbrow Press.

Thanks to an energetic emcee, Matt Mauch, the pace of the night was ridiculously upbeat. Matt introduced the poets with randomly chosen Shakespearean descriptions drawn from the “ceremonial beaver-skin hat”—for instance, the “motley-brained” Deborah Keenan and “bear-baiter” Carol Connolly (“How are you spelling that?” she wanted to know).  These seasoned poets were accompanied by the likes of Dylan Hicks, Feng Sun Chen, and John Jodzio. Seeing Carol Connolly pat thse young writers encouragingly on the back when they finished reading was an endearing sight.

Hearing and seeing so many poets one after the other was a little dizzying. A few highlights were Lynette Reini-Grandell’s humorous but stirring poem about Tennessee Williams choking to death on the cap of a pill bottle, John Colburn’s lyrical and lengthy tribute to his personal history, (“In class, we were asked to write about monsters one day, and ancestors the next, and I realized I was writing about the same thing”), and Jeffrey Skemp’s sensual growl of a reading voice. Lee Ann Roripaugh read a poem called “Animony” about the way her mother’s mispronunciation of words gave them new meanings. Some poets explained a little about their piece before they read it, offering disclaimers (“I only like one poem of mine at a time,” Adrienne Mathiowetz said, “and this is that poem”), while others dove right in, like the theatrical Lightsey Darst.

At the end of the night, a deserving poet was randomly chosen to win a ceremonial thrift-store blazer (like the jacket won at the Masters Golf Tournament) with $500 in the breast pocket. Another won the opportunity to have one of their poems published as a broadside. The event, held in a meeting room at Hamline, could have used a more casual setting. The attitude of the host and tone of much of the work called for having a good beer.  We’ll have to hope for a cash bar at next year’s Great Twin Cities Poetry Read.

-emily

The Lives of Women, According to Men, According to David Wong

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It’s like that for most men, most of the time. We’re starving, and all women are various types of food. Only instead of food, it’s sex. And we’re trying to conduct our everyday business around the fact that we’re trying to renew our driver’s license with a talking pair of boobs.” –David Wong in  5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women | Cracked.com

So speaking as two pairs of boobs, we’d love to share our boobographies with our readers!

kasey’s boobography:

I boobed up in Boobmount, Minnesota where I graduated from Boobmount High. I attended college at Boob University in St. Boob, Minnesota, where I obtained a major in boob as well as a minor in boob. I participated in College Boobocrats as well as the Gay-Boob Alliance, and during my last semester I completed a boobitorial internship at Boobweed Editions, a nonboob booblishing company in Boobeapolis. This aided in my obtaining the Booblications Coordinator position at Holden Boobage, a wilderness retreat center near Lake Boob in Boobington state. During my year at Holden Boobage, I pot out boobletters, boobraising appeals and thank-you boobs, and also managed the boobsite. In my free time I boobed whiskey, did some great boobpacking trips, and generally had a boob old time.

Other boobventures of the last few years include boobing at a boob farm near Boobington, D.C., boobing at a great boobing community called the Boobegon Extension near Boobland, Oregon, and generally boobing around. All around, I’m a pretty boob gal.

Currently, I again reside in St. Boob, Minnesota, near the Selby-Boob neighborhood. I’m an associate boob at BoobDealer.net, a company that creates boobsites for boob companies. On the weekends I sometimes like to hang out at the Booby Gnome, the Muddy Boob, and even Boobulous Ferns. When I feel booby enough to pay for parking, I like to boob out in boobeapolis. The Twin Boobs are a really boob place to boob.

emily’s boobography:

I was boobed in Maple Boob, Boobiesota. I attended college at Bethel Boobiversity, where I boobed around with some real good boobs for a while, but eventually settled on boobies. My junior year, I studied abroad in Boobland with a some other wonderful boobs, boobing around the UK and reading great boobs as we boobed. That trip was very boob to me: I learned much about boobing and boob-acceptance.

I boobed and worked for a summer on the Boobie Trail in Northern Boobiesota. I joined in the boob races, worked at the Front Boob and Boobkeeping, and boobed every day in the lake. There were many great boobs and sad boobs, but all around, it was a fantastic boob. That next semester at school was the tittiest of them all. I met great Boobs and lived with some incredible boobs. I was a boob at Boob House Press and learned how to boob better than I ever had before.

After boobuation, I moved up to Boob, Boobiesota, and joined the Boob Corp of MN. It was a boob year, and I learned so much, from boob-sawing, to boob-fighting, to planting boobs. I met a great boob. I loved living by Lake Boobies and hiking on the Superior Boob Trail. Upon moving back to the Twin Boobies, I managed to find a new boob, move in with a great boob, and boob it up in our new boob. My new boob as Coboobications and Titnology Boobministrator at a small boob-profit is quite boobies. I boob the boobsite, edit the newsboober, and create the Annual Boob Report.  In my spare boob, I like to ride my boob, boob around the streets of Saint Boob, read great boobs, and boob up to Booby to see my boob.

Thanks for stopping by our boob! We really hope to share our boobs, and are always grateful for other boobies who share our boobs!

-kasey and emily

Natalie on the Street: A Book Review

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Published by Calyx Books in 1994, Natalie on the Street is author Ann Nietzke’s account of her unusual friendship with “Natalie,” an elderly schizophrenic bag lady who sets up camp on the corner of Nietzke’s neighborhood block.

Memoir-like in tone and structure, the majority of Natalie on the Street consists of brilliantly presented interactions between the author and Natalie. The dialogue between these two women ranges from nonsensical to heartwarming, and one of Nietzke’s greatest gifts as a writer is her ability to convey with such precision the rhythm and shape of Natalie’s often garbled and delusional language:

No, I don’t hear any voices, honey…I have had trouble with people disappearing, though. I’ll look up and they’ll be gone. Just like that. Boy-o-boy-o-boy. What would you make of that?

Natalie’s belongings include the clothes on her back, a shopping cart, and a multitude of grocery bags filled with what most would consider garbage. Despite the apparent uselessness of these items, Natalie is extremely protective of her belongings, often claiming that passersby are “jealous” of what she has and intend to steal her things. Because of this, Natalie refuses to leave camp even long enough to use the restroom (or bushes). Instead, she releases her bowels in pie tins, Styrofoam cups, or whatever receptacle is immediately available. Though Nietzke’s interactions with Natalie begin with small offerings of food and conversation, she soon takes on the duty of bringing layered plastic bags with which to collect and dispose of Natalie’s feces. Human shit plays an astoundingly prominent role in this book, and I applaud Nietzke for her bold descriptions of these nauseating episodes.

I think the most difficult thing about writing a book such as this one would be to avoid (as a published author and thus a person with a certain measure of privilege) taking advantage of another’s unfortunate predicament for one’s own profit and recognition, and also to avoid coming across as self-congratulatory. These concerns apply broadly to the practice of literary arts and may be in some ways irresolvable, but I believe Nietzke, in refusing to remain paralyzed by shame and guilt, has written an important book. She accomplishes this by bravely and directly conveying her relationship with Natalie, offering minimal interpretation and letting the experience speak for itself. In the brief passages of interpretation that she does offer, Nietzke covers all angles of coming face-to-face with madness and poverty: shame, disgust, the savior complex, hope, despair, futility. Says Nietzke:

More and more it seems to me that compassion dwells in the heart of the tough, not the tender-hearted, because it requires us to come to terms with our own capacity (or incapacity) for suffering, and it calls for action rather than sentiment. It also requires us to get past the guilt and resentment we feel when we come face-to-face with someone whose suffering is greater than our own.

Nietzke does not claim to speak for Natalie, but explores her own capabilities and limitations:

I think when we see someone who is genuinely crazy we are similarly shamed by the superficiality of our own day-to-day emotional anguish and confusion and despair and by the depth of self-pity that accompanies them. It is terrifying to face the “givens” in life, both what we are given and what we are spared. I could be Natalie, she could be me. It’s not as if we somehow earned our individual fates.

At once a snappy page-turner and a bone-grinding lesson in what Nietzke (and Buddhists) call “joyous participation in the sorrows of the world,” Natalie on the Street is the best, most genuine Easter Sunday sermon I could have asked for. Preach it, Ann Nietzke.

-by kasey

The Cider House Rules: A Book Review

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The Cider House Rules by John Irving: Required Reading for Politicians?

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s, abortion was illegal, and in rural Maine, women seeking to terminate unwanted pregnancies had two choices: get an abortion from a back-alley clinic despite the possibility of dying from a poorly executed procedure, or go to St. Cloud’s, an orphanage and doctor’s office where one doctor, Wilbur Larch, performs  abortions  discretely and safely. Larch, along with two steadfast nurses, cares for women in need and runs an orphanage for unwanted, but born, children, in John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules.

A very special orphan, Homer Wells, grows to become Dr. Larch’s protégé in all things medical. Homer learns to help women through labor and perform safe abortions. Eventually, after some consideration and an unpleasant encounter with the remains of an unborn fetus, he finds he has moral qualms with performing abortions. When Wally and Candy, a dazzling, wealthy young couple from the coast come to St. Cloud’s for Dr. Larch’s services, Homer leaves with them when they leave, ready to live a life apart from the destiny Dr. Larch had in mind: that is, to take over at St. Cloud’s when Larch becomes too old—a reality which is not far off.

The book is about choice, among other things. Homer chooses to reject Larch’s plan and leave the orphanage, but only because Candy and Wally show up and give him the option. Larch decides to let him leave, despite his necessity to the orphanage and women in need of  safe, if illegal, abortions. Larch chooses to perform abortions. He says in a letter to the wayward Homer, “Here is the trap you are in…. And it’s not my trap—I haven’t trapped you. Because abortions are illegal, women who need and want them have no choice in the matter, and you—because you know how to perform them—have no choice, either. What has been violated here is your freedom of choice, and every woman’s freedom of choice, too. If abortion was legal, a woman would have a choice—and so would you. You could feel free not to do it because someone else would. But the way it is, you’re trapped. Women are trapped. Women are victims, and so are you.”

This kind of astounding insight permeates the whole novel, however, any message Irving intended is never louder than the story that tells it. The prose incites immediate familiarity between not only the reader and the characters, but the reader and the story as well. Everything that happens is both surprising and expected, from an unwanted pregnancy to someone we know, to the way World War II alters the characters, to Homer’s ultimate decision at the end. Dr. Larch’s eventual senility is both tragic and hilarious, and his scattered thoughts and complex fabrications make perfect sense, much the way that Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar managed to make readers feel that insanity is relatable.

Though set nearly a century ago, and published in 1985,The Cider House Rules has a special relevance to the present social climate, in the face of the current conservative political attack on women’s health. It provides a glimpse into what could happen if lawmakers succeeded in making abortion illegal again. This book is not “pro-choice” in the way that we would recognize it, thus driving away readers who are “pro-life.”  Instead, it is a revelatory, at times humorous, exploration into an issue that is viewed as black and white, and offers valuable and necessary perspective that rarely enters into political conversation.

-by emily

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