Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The friend that gets you through it
For those of you who have tolerated my comments these past few winters about how healthy my family has been (despite my kvetching about my kids' crappy diet), today is the day you can sit back and say HA! Because the nasty, nasty norovirus hit us and hit us hard. And that is not a virus that you expose your friends to unless those friends are made of paper. But if your friend is The Art Student's War, by Brad Leithauser, then maybe you will get through without losing your marbles (while you continue to lose your lunch).
I won't go into the fascinating details of all the puking and mopping and digestive discoveries we have made over the last few weeks (except for this one--it is way better to puke up ginger ale than to have the dry heaves. Nuff said.) But I feel like I've been through the wringer and without this book I'm pretty sure I would have also gone crazy. Or more accurately, crazy in a lasting, she-might-not-be-ok-until-Spring kind of way.
This is a wonderful book (though I realize I've now wrecked it by making you associate it with puking...) that managed to distract me from my misery. It is NOT a fast read which is particularly good when you are not recovering quickly. The prose isn't impenetrable, but it is rich and layered and you want to savor the observations. It doesn't have a driving sense of plot--it is gentler than that and will wait patiently while you collapse and moan for a while.
The title seemed very accurate for the first part of the book, where we are following Bea Paradiso from her art classes in Detroit to her USO volunteer work sketching wounded soldiers. Her artist's eye is a wonderful perspective from which to view the strange vibrancy of Detroit in this period. When I moved into the second half of the book which takes place after the war, where Bea is married with kids and rarely has time to do any art, it wasn't immediately clear why the author had chosen the title. But it made sense in the end. The war defined who she was for her whole life--it wasn't just an episode that took place and then was in the past. The fact that she was an art student during this momentous period in which she defined herself and became aware of who she was gave the title a poignancy. She may never have become a full-fledged artist, but she will always have been an art student during the war.
I think this book would have a whole other level of richness and meaning for people whose parents lived in Detroit in this period. By the time my family moved to Michigan when I was 7, Detroit was post-riot and not a place we went except to scurry inside the DIA or some such cultural institution and then scurry back to our safe little enclave. I occasionally got a glimpse of people's affection for the city through some friend's parents who knew the old Detroit. I remember being taken to Eastern Market for the first time on a Saturday by a friend's family and being awed that such a teeming, alive place with amazing food (yes, I liked food a lot even back then) existed in a place I had heard referred to as a wasteland on weekends. I particularly appreciated the fact that the author, who clearly loves the city, does not overly romanticize it. He lays down the sources of the later riots, shows the bubbling ethnic mixture of the city and how the war both led to prosperity and excitement and also set down certain patterns that were later to explode.
For those of us interested in Detroit's future who weren't around for Detroit's past, this book is a very helpful way to envision the uniqueness that Detroit offered--it really wasn't like any other city I've ever heard of or envisioned--and to try and see how the best of this past can fit into its future.
And now, since I still have a cough and thus can allow myself to sit for another couple of hours, I'm going to go watch the new PBS documentary Beyond the Motor City.