Category Archives: lifestyle portraits

“What Pecan Light”–A New “Song of the South” Arises in Strict Self-Examination and the Protestant Confessional Tradition of Witnessing, Through the Medium of Poetry

Just this year, the editor/teacher/professional poet Dr. Hannah VanderHart has given us a monumental though deceptively short book of poetry on Southern life, thought, and tradition which belies the suggestion that a book need be long to achieve a worthwhile thesis and goal. The book is What Pecan Light. While the book goes from picture to picture of Southern life, and growing up in a family tradition of ownership of a chicken farm and farming in general, using images of food, daily habits, work forms, recreation times and religious traditions to which the South remains committed, the past with its Civil War history and history of slave-owning is never only a part of the background, but informs in its seriousness and rhetoric the whole.

The lovingly executed papier-mache in the photograph from the front cover with its mythically descended formation of human silhouettes-becoming-trees (by Rachel DiRenna) is a sort of key to the structure of the book as a whole: I too have had Southern relatives wondering what possible shape the South can take next, if it continues to change so much in its traditions and reverences, and being caught up in false notalgias, false because betraying of basic humanity.

Others such as Jessica O. Stark and Joy Katz on the book’s back cover have communicated at succinct and short length the cultural and societal aspects of this book. Though brevity is often said to be the soul of wit, sometimes a book merits greater length and remark where possible, and it is to this end that I devote myself today, while calling to the readers’ attention their deservedly appreciative remarks.

The book is one of tightly woven individual poems taking place in a loosely put-together structure which allows for visiting and revisiting, layering and relayering, of themes and motifs. The traditions and culture of the Southern United States in the states with which the poet is familiar are examined in an elliptical slide going from facts to Southern topoi and from Southern topoi to facts. “Topoi,” of course, in Greek, or “loci” in Latin, are rhetorical places, places where things happen and where facts may or may not reign. Here, the topoi are richly illustrated by Southern images and lifestyle portraits of the daily life of a family whose past is affected by the ancestors whom they have been taught to reverence, but whom more recent documents or examinations expose as flawed by slaving. This experience, when one thinks of it, is a universal experience in the sense that an appreciation of the facts portrayed and the reactions of the present-tense family committed to a more just existence are experienced by anyone who has imperfect human ancestors (which is all of us). That slavery is the issue here in this book makes it particularly rich for an American audience trying to heal the deep divides of our time, many of the roots of which are buried in older times.

VanderHart’s book is a deeply and seriously wrought picture of a family whose traditions are in the process of renovation despite their otherwise deep Southern ties, as the mother-figure in the poem teaches the newest members about the slave-owning past and the attitudes of prejudice, the practices of repression, that have been perennial in the world every time a subject people have sought freedom and self-determination. Thus, the poetic voice throughout, while not denying some degree of nostalgia but treating it both with reverence and due suspicion, makes from her own consciousness a critical voice arising from the midst of these traditions and cultural ties. She examines them both as they stand separate and apart from the greater life of the whole United States, and as they form the source of the root of Southern loyalty to the whole, where it exists.

For Southerners–and this was true in my childhood in the not-quite-South also, in West Virginia where people regularly divide themselves according to whether they have Southern loyalties of a traditional sort or Northern loyalties of the “West Virginia went with the North” sort–loyalty to the United States has in the past been first and foremost loyalty to a Southern-style home atmosphere, welfare, and traditions unless one is a social critic as for example VanderHart is here in her role as poet. Thus, this “monumental” work, as I called it once before, is a new sort of Southern monument, a Southern testament, a testifying of a religious sort, as poetry always has been, of a word structure rather than a stone or metal structure, but in the public forum just as a literal statue of a Confederate general or widow would be. And it is both long overdue for all of us, Northerners and Southerners alike, and most welcome in its overwhelming gift of a new language plinth to stand in our mutual public square.

This book is available from Bull City Press, at 1217 Odyssey Drive, Durham, NC 27713, http://www.BullCityPress.com . It is also available from Amazon.com.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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“An Incomplete List of My Wishes”–What a Title Does for a Book, and What a Book Can Do for Its Readers

First of all, let me introduce Jendi Reiter to those of you who may not be familiar with their work, as I must admit shamefacedly I was not myself until recently. To list all the awards and accolades they have received, I think I cannot do better than to quote the short biographical credit on the back of this fine book of short fiction: “Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love. Awards include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship for Poetry, the New Letters Prize for Fiction, the Wag’s Revue Poetry Prize, the Bayou Magazine Editor’s Prize in Fiction, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America. Two Natures won the Rainbow Award for Best Gay Contemporary Fiction and was a finalist for the Book Excellence Awards and the Lascaux Prize for Fiction.” Jendi is also one of the editors of the Writer’s Digest acclaimed website winningwriters.com, and a very kind, accommodating, and encouraging model for writers and artists. Their website is at JendiReiter.com and they can be followed at @JendiReiter on Twitter.

Now to the book itself, and that provocative and enticing title: An Incomplete List of My Wishes. How universal the title is, how it speaks to the complete human experience of having many goals, dreams, and wishes, which sadly and tragically sometimes, but also humorously and happily sometimes, we may or may not get to register with whatever recording angel or god we believe in. This book has the greatest virtue of many books which happen to be constructed with at least the permission of the recording angel of the gay experience, that it is accessible to everyone, is for everyone, is inclusive of every truth of the human being, no matter how flawed or partial that person’s individual life is: and it even more explains for everyone who is not a total moral idiot the gay lifestyle and experience, both as it is constituted in itself and as it intersects with the straight ones.

For, this book has one quality in particular which leads even a relatively unfamiliar reader through its maze of situations and conditions, lives and their pitfalls and victories, both major and minor, both saddening and joyous: I can do no better than quote the book itself for the key informing dramatic motif of the whole: “…but she…would henceforth always be someone chosen, someone who had said yes to herself” (p. 99, “The House of Correction”). The sympathetic characters in this book are also those who have said “Yes” to themselves, sometimes at great or even life-changing, life-risking costs. The book overall promotes courage as a feature of human life, as an answer even when the question is dire and unfair.

“Exodus,” the first short short bit of fiction beginning the book, is like the Biblical book that bears its name, a statement about the end of innocence and an objective correlative for the issue of mortality which crops up again and again in the book, not exclusively in relation to the issue of AIDS, but also in conjunction with those issues of indifference, brutality, imperfect love relationships which affect everyone, LGBTQIA+2 or straight. This book bridges the many gaps people imagine they have between them, and this short piece introduces the collection.

Four of the short stories function as an introduction and vade mecum to the novel Two Natures, as they are affecting and short excerpts from the characters’ lives from that novel. The stories are “Two Natures,” “Julian’s Yearbook,” “Today You Are a Man,”” and “Five Assignments and a Mistake.” Though I have not yet had the opportunity to read the novel in which these characters make a main appearance, their short essays in guiding us through the stages of awareness and growth of a gay man and his sister and cohort are fine as they are here, pieces capable of standing alone structurally and rhythmically.

The story from which the title is drawn, “An Incomplete List of My Wishes,” gains part of its sense of incompletion in the fictional element of the story from the fact that a death row inmate appears in it indirectly, who is at the point of ordering his last menu, the last life choice he will be able to make for himself. But the narrator of the story is the woman whose daughter he may or may not have killed, who is also wrapped up in contemplation of choices, last and lasting both.

“Waiting for the Train to Fort Devens, June 17, 1943” is a story “written” by another sort of recording angel, a photograph preserved of men on their way to war, men both doomed to die and fated to come back and live as survivors, their individual conflicts and choices recorded as well in the book of memory.

“Altitude,” as one might expect by the title, deals in clever and short order with the dizzying sweep of differing abilities to scale heights of human endeavor and experience.

The story “Memories of the Snow Queen,” a collection of fictional meditations and variations on a frightening theme from a children’s story in a manner related to that of A. S. Byatt, reveals a grotesque and overwhelmingly dysfunctional secret to a young woman attempting to reconnect with this fragment of her past.

To end off the book, Reiter has chosen a story of an adoption, “Taking Down the Pear Tree,” which along with a finely tuned portrait of all the human actors involved in such an endeavor, is also a meditation upon family, grief, and change as a structural and inevitable part of human life.

All in all, I am delighted to have read this book and to have thus encountered even indirectly the dramas and conundrums some other humans experience, with the residual obligation and joy of developing more understanding and warmth towards these, my fellow beings. That is always of course the point of good fiction, to give its readers a point d’appui for the extension of understanding, but in this book in particular, Jendi Reiter makes it overwhelmingly easy for a reasonable, willing, good reader to comprehend their characters and their own creative reasons for giving them the lives they did. Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Rabindranath Tagore and His “Gitanjali XXXV” (“Where the Mind Is Without Fear”)–A Prayer for Our Modern Country

Though I have often heard the name, Rabindranath Tagore (born Rabindranath Thakur), I have only read a smattering of his works, barely one or two. But this one I wanted to write upon today (and quote in full, as it is short and in the public domain), because it is a universal prayer for any country at any time, and especially for our country, the U.S., right now.

First, a brief biographical note, for anyone who may not be acquainted with this figure of world literature. Tagore was born in Calcutta, India, in 1861, and died in 1941. He was born into a wealthy Bengali family of scholars, religious reformers, writers, and musicians. Though he never took a full university degree, he started an experimental school in 1901 called Shantiniketan (“the abode of peace”) which was based on the ancient schools of India, conducted in the open air, because he did not find the British system of education sufficiently acceptable for his countrymen and countrywomen. It became later Visva-Bharati, an international concern stressing world peace and societal reform. He published his first poem in 1875, when he was 14, and wrote in many different genres, not only the creative (though all genres of writing are in some manner so), and provided by focusing on traditional philosophical thought a bridge between the past and the present.

For his book Gitanjali, which he wrote in Bengali but translated into English himself, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Though the British knighted him in 1915, in 1919 he renounced the title due to the British massacre of many hundreds of people in Amritsar. He is the person who gave the title “Mahatma” (“great soul”) to Mohandas Gandhi. In 1940, he wrote Crisis in Civilization, which had an international humanitarian focus, and centered on racial equality. Both India and Bangladesh have since adopted poems of his as their national anthems. It is customary and frequent to find him quoted in world literatures, where all of his humanistic qualities are thus in the foreground of other countries.

Now, here is the poem, Song XXXV from Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
     Where knowledge is free;
     Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
     Where words come out from the depth of truth;
     Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
     Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand
           of dead habit;
     Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
     Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

While I do think that this poem is universal in its applications, for every country in every time, I cannot help but think that Americans in this time in especial, with all of our particular distresses and tensions and quarrels and discord in general, may find it uplifting and inspiring.

(My biographical data is drawn from a large compendium text of world literature which I have had occasion to mention before on this site: Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born, edited and compiled by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, with study questions and suggestions for further research. It was published by HarperCollins College Publishers in 1995, and is still valuable today.)

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How Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” inspired an astoundingly beautiful book full of warfare, miracles, and ugly realities

In the “Afterword” of Geraldine Brooks’s book The Secret Chord–the title is drawn from Leonard Cohen’s song, published, I think, in 1984 or so–she states: “David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age. Some scholars have called this biography the oldest piece of history writing, predating Herodotus by at least half a millennium. Outside of the pages of the Bible, however, David has left little trace. A single engraving uncovered at Tel Dan mentions his house. Some buildings of the Second Iron Age period might have been associated with a leader of his stature. But I tend to agree with Duff Cooper, who concluded that David must have actually existed, for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.” (p. 350)

Brooks also mentions that it was her sons who inspired her to write the book as well, the younger by his energy in scouring the Biblical countryside with her where she was exploring, the elder by taking up the harp and later playing a version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for his bar mitzvah. This inspiration led her to her studies of other Biblical scholars’ works on David, his dynasty, his reign, the uniting of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the eventual passing of the united kingdom to Solomon in his youth, at which point the book ends, on an after all triumphal note, and after the recounting of much suffering.

When I say that there is much suffering in the book, and ugliness, it is also because there is a sense of much truth in it, whatever one decides about the actual details and whether or not they are accurate. It is poetic truth, even in the moments when the description is of warriors being disemboweled, the visionary Natan (Nathan, David’s prophet) in the grips of an inspired fit, a fratricide or the incestuous rape which called it forth, the relations amongst David and his many wives and concubines, David’s passionate and dangerous–because traitorous to King Shaul (Saul)–relationship with Yonatan (Jonathan) and many other realities which we imagine that we have curbed, modernized, controlled, or accepted today, but which from all we know of the news from the papers, are still realities that we often prefer not to see. This picture of a kingship calls them back into vivid relief.

As to David’s being a “flawed hero,” there is no question that he is so at least in this retelling; the matter is dealt with very craftily and well by having different people narrate their experiences of him to Natan, who is charged by David to gather the truth about him into one account. Some of the people concerned have kind thoughts, some have bitter and angry thoughts, there are even some humorous, bawdy, and mixed narrations. All of this helps paint a picture of a fascinatingly complex, savage, cunning, and adept ruler, who yet according to this account fears his God and listens when his prophet speaks. And by the end of the book, there is retribution more than enough to go around.

The book is exceedingly well-balanced, well-written, and totally gripping, no matter what you thought you knew about David before. Even if you are not inclined to be interested in Biblical accounts, the book stands on its own as a work of extremely accomplished fictionalized biography, and is not at all “churchy.” In fact, I suspect the churchy would tend to avoid it like the plague. To round matters off, let me say that this is easily the best book I have read in probably the last 5-10 years, if memory serves me correctly, and I used to read rather a lot. Why not give it a try? It is available on some library websites, and should be easily accessible in bookstores, though it is a few years old. Though the research Brooks did is considerable, and is listed in the back with the rest of the “Afterword,” you needn’t fear being intimidated by too much bookishness or academic verbiage, if that should be your aversion: the book, the subject, and the story are all immensely accessible. Shadowoperator

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When is a teenager more than a usual teen, and how are rulers formed? “Mithra: Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah”

I ask my readers to bear with me as I cope with the eccentricities and idiotic difficulties of the new editing systems now preferred by WordPress instead of the Classic editing form. Any more rational company would charge the paid-for plans for the amount of choice selection now forced upon the ordinary (unpaid) user like me, who would vastly prefer the old system of HTML editing by easy access to editing choices. Instead, WordPress has installed a complicated system of choices for editing on the ordinary user, and saved the lovely, simple, ordinary “Classic” editing format for their “business” users for another two years. I wouldn’t ordinarily inject formatting problems in a literary post, except for the incorrect typing, above, of the title of the wonderful book I am reviewing: full book titles are supposed to be put in italics, not in quotation marks, but even finding the system to use for a simple italic form involves one in learning the complete system of new formatting options. It should read, Mithra: Stone Sorceress Hidden Pharoah, but it was not to be. At any rate, that bit of business being concluded (and I hope the author, J. M. Rattenbury, will forgive the apparent citing of a short story when his book is a fine, more than 300-page YA novel), I get down to the more important “meat” of my discussion (flies around the table thus already having been swatted).

As many of you may remember, I have earlier mentioned that I was the proofreader of a bracing and energetic YA novel that was to be published late this summer. Well, it has made its appearance, and I would like to recommend it now to the public as the excellent historical fantasy it is. In its basic outline, it follows the adventures of a fourteen-going-on-fifteen year old young woman in Egypt, who suddenly is made aware of her own royal status at the same time as she is deprived of all the adults she had previously depended upon who could guide her steps or help her achieve adulthood safely. Instead, she is forced to make do with the help of a slightly older young Roman soldier and a young boy, at a time when Rome was the predator upon Egypt for the sake of its grain shipments.

Mithra, it turns out, is a Ptolemy, and is the granddaughter of Queen Cleopatra, which leaves her open to the animosity and conquest-hungry behavior of the Roman Emperor, though it helps ensure her popularity with the average Egyptian citizens of her country, who are tired of the Roman occupation and Roman brutality and overreaching qualities. Along with the young Roman soldier, Lucius Crassus, who has been jailed by his own officers for refusing to kill Mithra, she travels by ship up the Nile from her home city of Alexandria to the area around Memphis and the Temple in Saqqara, where she hopes to find a way of solidifying her hold on the country through a mystical rite known as the worship of the Apis Bull, the symbol of the god Lord Ptah. She must deal with the accidental absence of Lucius and depend only upon the help of Inteb, the young boy travelling with her, after a while, when it seems that Lucius has met his mortal match. But although she is alone in some senses, she has with her a magical amulet named Sopdet, which gives her power over stone and metal, and has besides her growing adulation by the ordinary people of her country.

This book is a book for all those who like to ponder what would have happened if….if Cleopatra had left an heir, if they themselves as young adults had been in Mithra’s situation, if it were possible actually to be the possessors of a magical amulet, if the whole situation around them depended upon their own luck and skill at learning about people. But it’s also a book for older people who want to experience what their teenagers like to read about, what they daydream about, what heroic experiences they themselves still fantasize about in their more mature achievement-oriented lives. That is, it’s a family book, which could be read aloud as an evening’s entertainment on various evenings to amuse young and old. As an adventure story, it shares some of the better qualities of the great adventure and travel stories, like The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, The True Game Series, Dune, and others which have coming-of-age themes in them.

The book is available from booksellers in the United States and Britain at least, possibly elsewhere worldwide, but it is also available online from Amazon.com for $12.99, and Amazon.uk for 9.99 GBP (under the author’s name, J. M. Rattenbury), Mithra, and on Kindle. As well, it is possible to acquire it directly from the UK publisher at https://olympiapublishers.com/books/mithra, ISBN number 978-78830-744-4. For those in the Boston area (where the author hails from) it is also increasingly available and can be requested at the public libraries. I have deliberately not mentioned the ending, as it has an intriguing sort of cliffhanger at the end, not in the interests of posing resolution difficulties for the audience, I don’t think, but merely in the interests of taking a new view of the ancient world. Though the age of the protagonist is 14-15, I would recommend this book for anyone from a mature twelve-year old to a curious twenty-year old, or for any parents or family members interested in sharing the adventure. Shadowoperator

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Three Books on Race and Caregiving, and How They Differ

Since the 1950’s, when America’s consciousness of race relations began to be raised willy-nilly (a good thing, one must see, long overdue), books on the topic of race have proliferated exponentially, from both black and white authors.  My topic today centers around three books by three white female authors, and examines some ways in which the three books differ.

Kathryn Stockett’s book The Help perhaps attained the highest degree of somewhat mixed attention and notoriety because it not only drew excellent actors to it on screen, but also because it attracted a lawsuit, which hit the news as well.  In the story set in the 1960’s, a Southern-raised white woman, nicknamed Skeeter, has her awareness of her black nanny’s life reality altered forever by getting better acquainted with her from an adult perspective rather than from that of a dependent child.  She tries to help the nanny, Aibilene, and another black woman, Minny, by engaging in writing a book from their reminiscences of working for white families in the South.  The entire community of black employees ends up contributing bits and pieces of detail, but this book is somewhat disappointing because as has often been said of other efforts of the kind, it has the sort of kindness that comes from noblesse oblige, from giving a hand up rather than offering a hand across.  It’s a feel-good book in many ways, centering its disapproval on obvious villains and acts rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of the many tiny ways in which everyone can use lessons in cultural awareness.  The lawsuit in real life which arose from this publication came about because even though Stockett apparently pledged herself not to use one of the contributor’s names (for this book has a meta-dialogue going on, in that it was researched in somewhat the same way that the fictional book was), she merely spelled it differently (fictional character, Aibilene, real-life nursemaid of her brother Robert, Ablene), with the result that Ablene Cooper was advised even by the brother to sue Stockett.  Ms. Cooper apparently found the characterizations of her in the book insulting and embarrassing.  All in all, this book is one stage, perhaps the first and most elementary, that a reader might travel on the road to awareness.

Another book takes a similar tack, but handles the entire relationship between the white child  and her black caretaker more delicately (this time the white protagonist is a fourteen-year-old instead of  being Skeeter’s home-from-college age).  The child is instrumental in getting her black nanny, Rosaleen, out of a degrading job with the girl’s father and busting her out of a jail cell where she is being kept, beaten and weak, for a small offense and for defending herself against people trying to keep her from voting.  Still, somehow, this child’s version of noblesse oblige is less insulting than that in the previous book, at least in the mind of this reader, precisely because the character is a child and cannot be expected to appreciate all the subtleties of adult discourse.    In this book, The Secret Life of Bees, the child has a sense of natural justice regarding her black companion rather like that of Huckleberry Finn in that eponymous novel, as opposed to the high-handedness of Tom Sawyer.  By a series of fortunate flukes and a sort of natural spiritual instinct, the two women find their way to the household of a group of black sisters with a connection to the girl’s dead mother, and learn the intricacies of the art of bee-keeping.  This book maintains as well a spiritual element, in which the black women and the girl practice the worship of a Black Madonna, represented by a ship’s masthead they once came into possession of.  This book is set in the 1960’s as well (in South Carolina), but the conflicts that arise from racial tensions and stresses are the background for the girl’s coming-of-age; Sue Monk Kidd has wisely chosen to center the novel closely to the subject of gradually evolving maturity and womanhood, and the child becomes a more mature adolescent in the company of her black saviors.  This book is more affirmative of black politics and awareness because it reflects the reality that a young girl/teenager is more likely to be taken care of by a group of supportive women than she would be, or would be able to be, for them.  The sisters are represented as caring for their own, and capable of caring for others, and as the centers of a vibrant and deeply spiritual community.  This is perhaps the second evolution of awareness a person might pass through on the way to a more mature understanding of race relations.

The third book, Small Great Things, is a novel which takes place in contemporary times, in a hospital in Connecticut.  The title is taken from a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, in which he said that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”  I find it the most maturely conceived and executed of the three novels.  First of all, the author took a notable risk:  she is white, but chose to write not only from the perspective of a black labor and delivery nurse in a hospital, but also took the risk of entering the minds of a group of white supremacists, thus tackling the unenviable task of attempting to practice the old adage “to understand all, is to forgive all,” which is of course far from being literally true, but which has a germ of truth.  She uses that germ and the huge overall injustice of what happens to the black nurse together, to show that though our situation is perilous, with difficulties complicating things from both sides of the racial divide, we can still sometimes win out over some of the problems we face.  This book is a challenge to simplicity, particularly simplicities of the sort which arise in The Help.  The nurse is attempting to take care of a white baby who comes under her care in the birthing unit of the hospital, but when the white supremacist parents see her, they demand that no black person be alloted to care for their child.  The conflict comes for Ruth Jefferson (the nurse) when the baby needs to be resuscitated, and she is the sole responsible person available:  does she go ahead and try to save the baby, or abide by the parents’ expressed and written instructions for no black person to touch the baby?  She hesitates, and as another adage says, and as it is true for at least a while in the novel, “She who hesitates is lost.”  The rest of the novel occupies itself with how the follow-up lawsuit against her (which deprives her of her job) affects her, and how her son begins to act out in response to his mother’s troubles, how her friends (and apparent friends) react, and what happens as well in the family of white supremacists.  There is a certain amount of back story for both sides, which deepens and enriches our understanding of the whole conflict.  As well, Ruth Jefferson is not pictured as a saint; she has her own moments of feeling petty or vengeful, which are truthfully related for the audience in the fictional courtroom as well as on the meta-level of the book, so that the courtroom scene isn’t an easy giveaway to one side or the other.  For me, this book represents the best of the three books, with Sue Monk Kidd’s book coming in a good second.  Stockett’s book, a book very popular with a lot of book clubs, just as the other two are, may certainly be considered a place to start in raising one’s own consciousness, the more especially if one has not read a lot of fictionalized accounts of race relations.  I feel that if someone has not read these books before, now is the time to take advantage of being able to buy one’s books, of one’s Kindle account, of the cheaper prices of second-hand books, or of one’s local library offerings, to read them and sort out one’s own impressions.  Keeping up with factual accounts is of course paramount, but fiction has a way of sneaking in that’s more subtle, and it can offer a range of suppositions and positions that can help people feel what their neighbors “across the way” feel, see what can be seen from other vantage points, and of course change their attitudes of prejudice.  Fiction, in its subtlety, also can show us just how insidious such prejudice is, and we can see its trail where we never thought to be on its track.  If I’m going to spend the post spouting adages, then surely the last should be “Know thyself,” which speaks to our ability to know the ways in which we ourselves, however enlightened we think we may be on either side of any situation of racial divide, fall short, with an eye to correcting ourselves.  That’s all for today, and just in case you think I’m too solemn today, you should know that all three of these books are quite lively and not ponderous and preachy, though there are certain things worth preaching about, certainly.  Shadowoperator

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Tracy Chevalier’s “The Virgin Blue”–The Passion and Conflict of Religion in Two People’s Lives

The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier, is a curious and thoughtful book, and a bit of a category-defying one, about how religion affects two different women, distantly related, and how the conflicts about religion play out in the society around them.  It bills itself on the back cover as “part detective story, part historical fiction,” but that is a bit of a misnomer.  The historical fiction part isn’t about a famous person, as most historical fictions are traditionally–but maybe that’s a good thing, as in the huge five-volume non-fiction compendium called The History of Private Life, who knows?  At any rate, Ella Turner, who pursues her family history in alternate chapters, eventually manages to “touch base” through time with her distant ancestress, Isabelle du Moulin, while living in France with her own husband, and getting to know the French people and the French countryside.

The book is a sort of a mystery as well, and a love story, because not only must Ella accept and come to terms with a large degree of loss in terms of history, but she also falls in love while in France (spoiler alert) with someone other than her husband, and this has certain consequences.

The two women’s stories shadow and reflect upon each other’s conflicts, Isabelle’s as a Huguenot in changing France, hunted by Catholic enemies, accepting a far less than perfect life with a brutal husband, and Ella’s, lost in a society that doesn’t seem to value her or appreciate her differences, but gives her the famous French cold shoulder.

Actually, to say that the two women’s stories are similar is an understatement, because some of the same sensations, exact experiences, and thoughts occur to the two of them in a sort of spooky and extra-sensory fashion, as if Isabelle were speaking to her descendant from the grave.  And the grave is concerned in more than one way, though I won’t give that matter away.

A lot of men might think that this is a book mostly for women, but merely because it has a female character in the lead (who is also a midwife) and deals with some haunting and emotional experiences are not reasons to dismiss it as not fit to read for half of the human race.  In fact, a lot of men might be improved by a reading of this book, in the sense that they might become more sensitized to some of the ways women think of and process historical data, the more personal way some women choose to interpret data, and the like.

And the picture of a contemporary small French town is yet another reason to reach for this book.  Like small towns everywhere, these are gossipy, close-knit, and somewhat homogenous, but loveable in a lot of their characteristics, as Ella comes to find.  I hope you will pick up this book soon and enjoy it as much as I did.  For additional reading by this author, you might pick up Girl With a Pearl Earring or Falling Angels.

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Somerset Maugham’s “Catalina”–When a satire is good-humored

There are times when I go to my bookshelf without an idea in my head about what I want to read, and different processes by which I select one.  This time, it was almost a sense of obligation that caused me to choose the book, which had sat in my collection for at least 20 years without being touched, even with a little curiosity.  It was a little, old, regular-sized paperback, with extremely brittle and yellowed pages (because it was printed on non-acid-free paper), and the marketing, which is often a large part of a book’s appeal, was as dated as the condition of the book.  I look now at the publication date (1948) and the printing dates listed (1961-1965), and am not surprised.  Though it quite clearly says in small letters on the back in one of the reviews that it’s a satire, the front cover and other, written parts of the book bill it as a historical fiction, even “a lusty historical novel by one of history’s most illustrious story-tellers.”  I guess it’s a case of “you pays your money, you takes your choice,” depending upon the sophistication of the reader involved.  Having a certain amount of pride in my own degree of sophistication, I like to look past the evocative, haughty stare of the beautiful and expensively dressed “dona” on the front cover (Catalina herself, in the illustrator’s imagination, evidently in the latter parts of the book, after she has acquired some money), and the promise of Maugham telling “movingly of 16th century Spain with all its turbulence and pageantry, and intrigue of courts and clergy,” and the Inquisition, and etc., to the fact itself, that he is clearly telling of these things with a satirist’s manner and seeing through satirical lenses, however good-natured he is.

And this is the point:  we are used to reading satire that is bitter in tone, angry even, with pointed queries and sharp rejoinders in the dialogue, sometimes satire that is almost an ill-tempered chuckle a minute.  Maugham is none of that in this book.  We are familiar with him as the acclaimed author of such books as The Razor’s EdgeThe Moon and SixpenceOf Human Bondage.  Though Catalina is by comparison with these a minor work, it deserves a place no less in the writer’s Hall of Fame, and is a good satire to boot, though in this regard, it almost sneaks up on you at first.  To begin at the beginning:

Catalina is introduced to us as a young woman of 16 or so who clearly needs a miracle.  She wants to marry her erstwhile suitor, Diego, the son of a poor tailor, but she has since the inception of his interest in her been accidentally trampled by a bull and is lame.  His parents will no longer allow him to marry her, because they reason that a lame wife cannot help him in the household.  So Catalina is heartbroken, and prays relentlessly to the Virgin to help her be healed.  And lo and behold! on a day when a huge pageant is being held à la Inquisition, to welcome Don Blasco de Valero, an Inquisitor, and his brother, Don Manuel, an important captain in the King’s army, to town in the town where their brother Don Martin, an apparently unimportant baker, lives, the miracle begins to happen.  The Virgin appears to Catalina where she sits with her crutch on the steps of the church, and promises her that “The son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God has it in his power to heal you.  He will lay his hands upon you and in the name of the Father, the Song and the Holy Ghost, bid you throw away your crutch and walk.”  So far so good.

But the rub comes in when it’s a choice amongst the brothers.  In a richly satiric section which comments upon the mercy and grace of the Inquisitor (who grants small favors to those whom he is about to have tortured or burned), it becomes obvious that everyone who hears of the Virgin’s promise–if they aren’t assuming that Catalina was visited by a demon in the shape of the Virgin–thinks automatically that the Inquisitor is the man being referred to.  They are all afraid to speak of the sighting of the Virgin, because just as God is said to be a jealous God, the Inquisitors are typically jealous of their own special province, and don’t usually respond kindly to people who claim to have experienced miracles, even some of their own clergy.  When Don Blasco hears of this miracle, through many channels, he asks God for a sign.  In front of some of his own friars, he is levitated in the church by mysterious means, and that God might be a satirist does not, of course, occur to anyone.  But when Don Blasco attempts to heal Catalina, it doesn’t work.  With some fraught humility, he and his society question Catalina, and find that after all, the Virgin did not identify Don Blasco specifically in her visit, but only mentioned the brothers as a group.  So, the town next asks the military brother, Don Manuel, to try.  Again, it doesn’t work.  They are ready to asssume that Catalina has been visited by an evil spirit, until it occurs to them, after much difficult thought, that there is a third man, the humble and generous baker, Don Martin.  They are loathe to try his powers, but Don Blasco’s friars are visited by Catalina’s drunken playwright of an uncle, a former childhood friend of his, who quotes the religious statement about the stone which was rejected by the builders being the cornerstone of the church.  They ignore him, but Don Blasco seems to get the inspiration, and they try the bewildered baker’s hands on Catalina’s head:  it works, and she is healed.

The remainder of the story is a sort of spoof saint’s legend, with Catalina as the saint in question (she is emphatically not a saint, because she is a lusty young woman very much in love, who evades a temporarily  interfering Prioress’s attempts to make her part of a nunnery, and instead escapes and succeeds in marrying her sweetheart, Diego.  They go on to become members of a travelling theatre troupe, and become quite famous by the end of the story, not exactly a fate in line with their contemporary Church teachings). This is particularly the good-humored part of the satire, because it is almost a love story, and yet the occasional whimsical though pointed remark whizzes its way through the fiction like an arrow.

Though I have told the main parts of the story with nary a spoiler alert, it is still well worth a read to see the craftsman Maugham work for yourself.  A satire of the Inquisition and the entire hypocrisy of its containing society, this book also inspires generous and loving laughter at the foibles of religious man and his bona fides.

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A Record of Birth and Death, and a History of a Community–Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year”

Anne Lamott sneaks up on you, every time she writes.  She makes it seem so easy, and she makes you laugh your way through the most serious trials and traumas, yet, as they are usually her own or her friends’ trials and traumas, she only invites you to be amused at yourself and your friends and acquaintances as well, without attempting to force it on you.  She gets your attention from the very first, with her whimsical and tantalizing titles.  Bird by Bird.  Travelling Mercies.  Help Thanks Wow.  Operating Instructions:  A Journal of My Son’s First Year.  This last mentioned book is what I want to comment upon today.

No one who thinks in categories is likely to remain unsurprised by Anne Lamott.  She writes from the heart for everyone.  She identifies herself as a Christian believer, yet many Christian believers who are of the narrow-minded or even reserved variety would be shocked by the things she says about belief, and about the challenges of life and friendship.  She’s a writer’s writer, but one who pooh-poohs many of the accustomed bywords of the profession, and instead captains her own canoe, and tries to teach others to do the same.  She is preternaturally wise about people, yet doesn’t mind looking clueless or foolish in the pursuit of raising a child, which for everyone not trained in childcare is a new experience at least the first time, sometimes with every child.  And she has been a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, yet without mouthing all of the expected pieties or begging for pity or understanding:  she understands herself, and is willing to share the experience of new realizations and inspirations on this and other life challenges.  And she is a member of a warm and loving community of friends, to whom she spends a lot of time in Operating Instructions giving due credit for all the things they did for her and helped her with during her pregnancy and her son’s first year.  You’d think that all of these things would be a large order for one book to fill, but Lamott manages it all.  Indeed, my question to myself wasn’t why I was reading her when I myself have never had a child, live without a large community of friends, have never been an alcoholic or a drug-user, am not a strict Christian believer, and etc.,:  my question to myself was why I hadn’t run across her work and read it before now, for the sheer overwhelming qualities of humanity and fellow-feeling in it.  Indeed, Lamott herself becomes a new friend through her books, and I only regret that if I manage to read all her works, assuming I can find all the titles and copies, that I won’t be able to hear her wonderful voice resounding through any new works.  But then, it’ll be time to re-read the ones I’ve already read!

There is a price to be paid by all of us for being alive, and that is the one of someday having to die as well, whether from old age, or infirmity, or sheer cussedness.  In the last third or so of the book about her son, Lamott begins to extend her subject, beyond that of her son and his acceptance into her community of friends and fellow church-goers, who all worship him and seem to adore her, and value her as she should be valued (except for a very few, whose defection she recounts with perplexity and consternation, but also with humor); in the last section of the book, she also documents with love, affection, and sorrow, extreme sorrow, the gradual passing of her friend Pammy (Pamela Murray).  Pammy was the most frequent, perhaps, of all Lamott’s friends to be around and to help, and they continued by Lamott’s record to support each other to the very time of Pammy’s death, in 1992 at the age of 37.

How like Lamott to center something with the subtitle A Journal of My Son’s First Year on her son, yet instead of making the book wholly about him and his development, (with a certain amount of misdirection) to place him in the center of what would be his community as he grew up.  One appreciates the absence of the gaa-gaa goo-goo kind of baby silliness, and instead the distinct degree to which Lamott admits her lack of expertise at this parent game, and takes the reader along as she herself grows up too, in a sense.  And one of the pieces of growing up is to accept and to mourn the loss of a friend, whose cancer took her away from Lamott and her family and friends in an untimely fashion.  A life begun, and a life ended, and Anne Lamott negotiating her way in between with her masterly and humane craft.

I have no choice but to read now, as soon as I can locate a copy, Some Assembly Required:  A Journal of My Son’s First Son, to continue to follow this small and yet extended-by-friends family through the story of Jax, Anne Lamott’s son Sam’s first son, who came along when Sam was nineteen.  That is all I currently know of the book, other than that it was first published in 2012, but I’m hoping to know a lot more.  I also hope that you too will follow Lamott through her books about writing, faith, family, and also her fiction books, which are perhaps undeservedly lesser known because so many people (like me) are in love with her essayistic voice.  I know that I urge readers to follow certain writers with the “if you read nothing else this year” line so popular with reviewers, so I’ll just say, “Verbum satis” (A word to the wise is sufficient).  Don’t miss the opportunity to make a new writer friend.

 

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The Best-Laid Plans–Sarah Dunn’s “The Arrangement”

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” which is just to say that no matter how well we think we’ve planned, destinies have a way of coming along to f–k us up, the more as we’ve planned the harder.  In the upscale suburban community of Beekman in Sarah Dunn’s hilarious comic novel The Arrangement, the planning concerns marital conditions which range everywhere from ordered though mildly boring to outright acrimonious and divorce-prone.  Different couples in the community, though different in various ways, are mostly the same in the ways they’ve organized their lives around their children’s schools and future well-being, mostly college-bound young people as they are.  Trendy stores and shops are there too, but they are trendy in a very recycling-cum-farmer’s market-cum-craft shop-cum-socially conscious sort of way.

Enter Lucy and Owen, an apparently loving and overwrought young couple dealing with a child under ten, Wyatt, who shows characteristics both of autism and ADD, or even ADHD.  They have done all they conscientiously can to improve his life, but he is totally out-of-control a good part of the time.  This eats away at Lucy, whereas Owen deals with it by strategically (and usually successfully) coming up with redirects for Wyatt’s attention.  The couple also socializes with other couples in the community mostly just as they would were everything “okay,” which is an odd way of pretending that nothing is wrong when it clearly is.  Yet, no reader who has covered the first fifty pages or so would assume that there was anything wrong with the marriage itself, so the “remedy for no disease,” as it were, is odd.  What I mean to refer to is their assumption that they might benefit by adopting an “arrangement” which another couple tells them about at a private dinner they are sharing:  the open marriage.  The couple tells them that the arrangement is only for six months, and that there are ground rules.  They are intrigued, but at first don’t assume it’s an arrangement meant for them.

After a while, however, they finally decide to go ahead with it.  Their ground rules include things like “No texting (or sexting) to the other man/other woman inside the house,” “no falling in love,” “no more than a six month’s time span,” “no discussion of the situation in depth,” etc.  At first, Owen is all excited over the plans, and finds someone almost immediately, a craft store owner named Izzy.  Lucy takes a little longer, but finds someone, Ben, through a friend.  They’ve agreed that they don’t need to discuss things about their meetings, but the funny thing is that they end up lying to each other and being deceitful as if there were genuine, old-fashioned, unequal affairs going on.  And, Izzy ends up intruding into their marriage in a way that’s entirely inappropriate to the arrangement; Owen, over the course of time, realizes that she is sort of “crazy,” as her ex had conveyed to him when they spoke.

A lot of the humor of this book arises from the fulfilling of expectations which should have been perfectly normal with a regular old-fashioned affair, and the odd way both Lucy and Owen are startled when this happens.  There’s also a marvelously funny scene in which the whole community participates in a “blessing of the animals” at the local church, with mismatched and unlikely (and dangerous-to-mix) animals, who abruptly rebel from their owners and commit havoc on the surroundings and on each other:  this is the perfect symbolic scene for the themes of the book, or perhaps I should say the scene is the perfect objective correlative, for the people themselves and how they run their lives.

That the book ends more of less happily is due partly to the fact that Lucy and Owen, after spending time living apart while Lucy is falling out of love with her own friend, Ben, as Owen has done with his, Izzy, manage to get back together.  But for the satirical light of the book, this happens against a backdrop of other couples breaking up or making less happy arrangements for their lives.  To make Lucy’s and Owen’s way a little easier, Wyatt shows some signs of getting less erratic and concentrating more on what people say to him

Note that this book is in no way a heavy duty intellectual challenge.  It’s funny in a light way, well-written and free of most grammar and style errors, and a delight to read for its witty dealings with upper middle-class lives and mores.  It would be good to see other offerings from this author to see if there’re more scintillatingly satirical works in store.

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