Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Can Someone Help Me with "Language Arts?"

My head is spinning, Stephanie Kallos! I've just put down your latest novel "Language Arts," and I don't know what to think. I need a discussion group - quick! Beth Conrad? Andrea? Pat? You are the kinds of readers who could help me work through my feelings of enchantment one moment and visceral horror the next. I can only hope that the estimable Professor Elaine Newton will choose this for one of her next season's programs.

One writer I know, when asked to write a blurb for this novel, said, "It was like yoga for my heart." I can't imagine a more perfect metaphor. Yoga can be a surprisingly strenuous workout one minute and then a path to deep peace and relaxation the next. Ms. Kallos has a gorgeous writing style that makes you sit up and say "whoa!" one minute, only to leave you sighing in peaceful contemplation the next.

So many of my friends have been teachers. This book is for you! The teachers in Kallos's story are wonderfully complicated, nuanced individuals, from one of the narrators, Charles Marlow, to his grammar school mentor, Mrs. Braxton (Brax the Axe), to the nun, Sister Georgia Maria Fiducia D'Amati. Like so many devoted teachers out there, these characters truly have no idea how much of an influence they've had on their charges.

Charles and his wife Alison are raising their son Cody whose life is severely limited by autism. Eventually the overwhelming stress of accepting their son's diagnosis, prognosis, and special needs, causes a deep rift in the marriage exacerbated by their disparate methods of dealing with Cody. At times I wanted to shake Alison and say, "listen to him, talk with him," when she appeared to be talking at Charles so often.

Communication, between those with and without verbal ability, is a major theme in this complex novel. It may even take more than one reading to arrive at a conclusion as to what actually happened. You'll need to read each chapter carefully to focus on who's doing the talking and which time period you're in but it will be well worth the effort when you witness the joy of people finally making connections.

Charles, now in his late '50's, reflects on his life in Mrs. Braxton's fourth grade classroom where he was the unlikely choice for teacher's pet because of his skills in the Palmer method of penmanship. He recalls his burgeoning friendship with Dana, an exceptional, loving child with learning disabilities for whom, in the prescient way of fate, Charles displays extraordinary patience and kindness, and we meet Alison, watch the courtship, and their early bliss with Cody as a precocious baby before he regressed into his illness.

If you've read Stephanie Kallos's exquisite debut novel "Broken for You," then you'll remember the experience of spending time with a thoughtful, gracious novelist, a writer who cares about her characters and their interaction with her readers. In "Language Arts" you will meet an equally loveable group of people faced with unimaginable obstacles to the contentment we hope to get from life. How they handle these hurdles, learning to accept and forgive even when the transgressions seem unforgiveable, is a life-affirming reading experience.

Still, I'm not sure that I "got" it. Please, if you've read the book, let's talk.

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