"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

This summer, I read what is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever come across: Jen Hirt’s Under Glass:The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees. I’m prone to hyperbole, I know (people who’ve eaten Chinese food with me know that every crab rangoon I try is “the best” I’ve ever eaten), but this I say with no exaggeration: I LOVED this book.

I’ll tell you why, but first, a disclaimer: Jen is a friend of mine. That isn’t why I love the book, but it’s something you should know. I’ve worked with Jen at Penn State Harrisburg for a year now—she was on the hiring committee that offered me the job. Ever since I met her—actually, since I first read her Pushcart winning essay, “Lores of Last Unicorns,” which my brother had photocopied for me and passed along because, A) he worked with her (I didn’t yet), and B) I’d been obsessed with unicorns as a little girl and had owned and often poured over a particular book, the sequel of a book Jen talks about in detail in the essay—I’d been wanting to read her memoir, but it took me this long to finally get around to it.

I’m sure I was putting it off for a reason: it’s strange to read creative nonfiction by people you know. I suppose it shouldn’t be, with Facebook these days you can learn intimate details about people’s lives that they’ve never told you face to face. Still, a Facebook post is very immediate—they write it, you read it, they assume you read it, and all is well. With a published essay or book, the lines get muddier. Does she know I know these things about her past? Does she want me to know these things? What might have changed in the years between writing these details and their eventual publication?

As a result, I always feel awkward about bringing up that I’ve read a friend’s creative nonfiction. I want people to know I’ve read their books—I’m a firm believer that writers should support each other, and I make sure to buy and read the books written by people I know. Part of that support, too, means telling them the things I liked about their books. This is easy with poets and fellow fiction writers. Less easy, you see, with nonfiction.

So I suppose, on some level, this is my timid attempt at pouring out all my thoughts about this wonderful book, which made me feel so emotional by the end. Hirt’s prose (I’ll call her Hirt from this point forward—Jen is my friend and colleague; Hirt is the author of this amazing book, and though I know the two are the same, it’s difficult to reconcile them in my mind) is elegant and beautiful. I could pull pretty much any sentence out and display it as its own work of art—this is a writer who knows how to write!

Under Glass is at once both a memoir with a single narrative string and a collection of self-sufficient essays. It’s a style I’ve seen attempted but never quite pulled off in fiction. Books like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit fromthe Goon Squad and Tom Rachman’s TheImperfectionists are labeled as novels, though they’re comprised of individual short stories. The idea is that the individual parts work together to create an overall narrative, complete with beginning, middle, and end, as the cliché goes, but I’ve found that, though the individual stories might be excellent, and as a collection of linked stories, I love both of the example books (especially Rachman’s), I can’t get behind the “novel” label for them. The stories don’t work together to create a single narrative string, in my opinion.

But in Under Glass, the essays stand on their own, but they also work together to paint a full picture of both the history of this family business—from inception to destruction to rebirth as an online store with a new name—and Hirt’s connection to it. There is a definite beginning, middle, and end, an overall narrative arc, and ultimately these essays combine to create something much larger than a collection of linked creative nonfiction—there is a whole here that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final essay, which describes Hirt’s grandmother Onalee’s unfinished journal. In her journal, Ony (ah-nee) chronicled the purchase and development of the swatch of land on which Hirt’s grandparents lived for most of their lives. Hirt describes the pages and pages of description of the different plants and trees Ony and her husband Hobart planted, the years of waiting to eventually have the money to build a house, the backyard swimming pool and greenhouse Hirt remembers from her childhood.

Through Ony’s journal, we can piece together the narrative of the family business, too, the ups and downs and eventual grand success of a thriving set of greenhouses. But Ony’s journal ends before the end of the narrative, and Hirt takes it upon herself to chronicle what followed: the demolition of the carefully planted and nurtured trees to make way for parking lots, businesses, the “city.” The controlled burning of the house, used as practice for the local firefighters. The Pier 1 and Famous Footwear that fill the space where the backyard greenhouse and house once lived, which calls to mind the CVS that now stands where the family business greenhouses once flourished.

This final essay, which would be powerful enough on its own, carries that much more force because of the essays that precede it. We know, by this point in the book, about Hirt’s childhood playing and working in the greenhouses. We know about the destruction of the greenhouses, just like we know about the destruction of Hirt’s parents’ marriage, Hirt’s mother’s health. We know that, as a young adult, Hirt found herself more concerned with the potted houseplant her neighbors had left on their porch to die than the vicious fights her neighbors themselves were having with each other (perhaps, the essays when read in conjunction suggest, because the plant is a problem Hirt knows how to handle). We know, too, about the reincarnation of the once named Strongsville Gardens and later, Hirt’s Greenhouse: Hirt’s Gardens, an online store that is, after it all, blossoming in the cutthroat world of e-commerce with Hirt’s brother, Matt, at the helm. We understand, then, the full meaning of Hirt’s final line: “Those woods are no longer here, but they are not too far away.”

I can’t do this book justice by just telling you about it. You should read it for yourself. Never have I so unreservedly wanted to recommend a book by a friend to everyone that knows how to read. Never have I been so in awe of the writing of someone I know. Read it! Read it! This book will not disappoint.

No comments:

Post a Comment