Saturday, August 24, 2019

Howie Balaban: Life is a Bunch of Little Stories

One of my favorite comedians was the late, great George Carlin. About 20 years ago, I actually got the chance to see him live at Artpark in Lewiston, and my sides hurt from laughing afterward. Carlin had very few equals when it came to his mastery of the English language and how it could be twisted. 
In one bit of one routine, I remember him talking about how technology has seemingly taken over so much of our lives that even contact lists have evolved. What once was a physical address book with names and numbers has turned into a data file. But in his routine, Carlin asked what should a person do with a contact who dies?

With that brief intro, I welcome you to my thoughts on The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg. 
Like many books I’ve chosen to write about in this space, it was found on the shelf at my local library. Something about its synopsis pulled me in, and the promotional line came from Fredrik Backman, who has written a few books reviewed by both Craig Bacon and I (See links here and here.)
The story within The Red Address Book is told from two points of view. Primarily, we follow the story of 96-year-old Doris in either standard third-person narration or memories of the people in her red address book told by Doris in first person. (Yes, this is obviously how the actual novel got its name.)
When we first meet Doris, she is still living on her own at her home in Sweden and we quickly learn that her lone surviving relative is her grandniece, Jenny, who lives in California. Doris receives regularly scheduled in-home care, and she also is quite possibly the most technologically literate nonagenarian I’ve ever read about because she also regularly Skypes with Jenny.
By the time we meet Doris, she has already come to the realization that at age 96, she’s closer to the end of her life than the beginning. She also has been remembering more and more about her more distant past, and has decided that her life’s stories need to be told to Jenny. 
The first-person narrative in The Red Address Book, I believe, is made up of all the letters Doris is writing to Jenny. Each one tells a story – some longer than others – of a person in her address book. And almost every person we are introduced to in her address book eventually is written with a line through the name, and the word DEAD next to it.
The people in the book helped shape quite a life for Doris. Her travels see her come across some truly interesting people as she makes a living first as a maid, then as a model. Eventually, Doris finds the love of her life, but the timing is off. She also befriends a famous artist along the way.
(This is a minor spoiler.) In the first half of this book, Doris’s impatience at waiting for her home care nurse to show up winds up leading to her falling down. This sets things in motion that eventually lead to Jenny taking a trip to see her aunt before it’s too late. The story picks up the pace greatly from that point forward and tells two very different love stories.
The first story is Doris’s, but to truly get into it here would spoil too much. The second story, however, is that of Jenny and her husband, Willie. It’s not necessarily a primary story, but it is definitely one that any stressed out couple with a few kids can relate to on some level. There is a story there that could probably be told in a separate book, but not as back story. Rather, a continuation would make more sense, as the resolution reached between Jenny and Willie by the end of The Red Address Book is more “oh yeah” than “a ha” and lets us know that sometimes, being reminded of why we are with the person we are with is always a good thing. This is especially true when times are difficult.
While reading The Red Address Book, I found myself thinking of Doris as an older version of Backman’s Ove, with a lot less curmudgeonliness, and a more weary version of the titular character in Tuesdays with Morrie. (Yes, I know I just compared Doris to two very different old men, but I unfortunately haven’t read enough books with memorable old women. Sorry.) Doris is definitely not afraid to speak her mind, and she is quick to encourage people close to her to find their passion in life.
And of course, reading about the names in Doris’s address book started me down a bit of a personal memory lane. While I didn’t crack out my address book (We still have one in our house, and frankly, everyone should.) I did find myself taking a couple extra minutes on social media while reading this, particularly if I happened to come across some old friends from my childhood. A few of them probably have stories about me, and perhaps some of my social media contacts probably have seen my name pop up and have thought about a story in which I’m included. (I hope they’re good stories, but whatever.)
Then, I finally thought about the address book used most in my house. As the years have gone by, my wife and I have had our share of losses on each side of our family. When that has happened, a simply line has been drawn through the name of the person we’ve lost. Neither of us have been able to write “dead” on any page it might be necessary. 
I suppose, though, that makes sense. The people who we cross paths with in our lives each tell part of our story, and we, in turn tell stories to keep people alive, in a manner of speaking.
It is the opposite of what George Carlin once suggested for the more technologically reliant among us: pressing “DELETE.” It’s too permanent. (This line brought a great laugh.) Then he suggested a separate “folder” for the “deceased” to put them in “digital purgatory.” (Another laugh.) 
Frankly, that’s too much work for me. 
I’ll keep the address book in my house as full as it needs to be, and the stories of the people within it will be told whenever the occasion arises.

Howie Balaban’s 94-year-old grandmother still lives on her own and has plenty of stories to tell. We should all be so lucky.