Category Archives: What is literature for?

Because I could not deal with Twitter, WordPress kindly dealt with me…apologies to Emily Dickinson.

Here are four poems from my book of poetry which is coming out on August 26th. I tried, believe me, I tried, to send a sample into the blogosphere/webosphere on both YouTube and Twitter, but both apparently require a special (purchased) app to do that, so I decided to go back to something I knew and try WordPress, which always publishes my posts on Twitter in inset tweets anyway. Sorry if this is an inconvenience for anyone with a phone or tablet, as I understand you might not be able to get embedded files, but I did the best I could, and I don’t have any more. As they used to say, I can no more! I sincerely hope you get a read anyway, and that you feel the extra trouble you may have gone to, whatever it may have been, was worth it. All the best, Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Matthew 25:29–A Sunday “sermon” from an agnostic, on the topic of “Them as has, gets.”

I’m taking as my departure point for an essay on creative writing today a Biblical verse which has perplexed a good many people, and caused others to wonder if God was on their side after all. I mean no disrespect to those who are believers, it’s just that the Bible, like the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other religious scriptures the world over, is part of the substructure of the culture, whether we like it or not, and as with all these texts, it has a great many conundrums, puzzles, riddles, and posers in it for even the diligent, reverent, and hardy.

The verse in full runs: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” For those who are more interested in Biblical lore and interpretation than in creative writing, my actual topic, there is a site which I personally know nothing about and cannot vouch for online, but they advertise a whole study guide online on the Biblical topic. They are called ConnectUs Commentaries. At this point, you might want to stop reading me, and start reading them.

Now, for my commentary. The verse is certainly a head-scratcher, insomuch as it doesn’t at first seem suggestive of New Testament standards of justice and fair play. I can remember my grandfather, who was a poor man, a coal miner, but who was deeply religious, and non-resentful of those who had more, still wryly smiling and saying, “Them as has, gets.” And he seemed to see it as an interpretation of the way things went in earthly life, where things are unfair sometimes, perhaps more often than not, and rich people and advantaged people got more of whatever good life they already had, while others not so lucky got nothing, or lost what little they had. His own fortunes improved, I am happy to report, but “them as has, gets” still seems indicative of a lot of things going on in the world today, for a lot of the world’s people. Of course, if it was speaking of spiritual qualities, it’s perhaps my own prejudice, but I think my grandfather had those in spades, and maybe that’s why he was able to remain a secure believer in his religion all his life.

So, what does this has to do with creative writing? Well, we all know what it’s like to suffer from so-called “writer’s block.” It can exist in having a case of “diarrhea of the mouth and constipation of the brain,” or spewing out lots of meaningless garbage that’s clearly useless for any other purpose than being tossed out. Or, it can exist in simply trying to function in a mental vacuum which is not cooperating with you. It’s blank, bare, void: it hates you, it resists your every effort to populate it with images or rhetorical structures, if you’re a poet, with characters and scenes, if you’re a fiction writer, with arguments and provocative thoughts, if you’re an essayist, or if your work is a cross-over which uses the techniques of more than one of these forms, it refuses absolutely to talk to you and let you do anything at all. So, what do you do? If you want to “have” something that will miraculously produce that, “to you much will be given,” what can you do?

First of all, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. I mean, if after a long, hard haul, you then decide you want to run a florist shop instead of write, that is your choice, and you may be someone for whom it’s a good and mature choice, but you’re the only one who can really make that decision. I mean, you may always find that once in the florist biz, you are an excellent writer of your own marketing material. And that may be what you really want to do with whatever writing talent you have. And everybody can develop at least some; c’mon, now! But it’s also true, to honor the opposite position of truth, as I used to tell my younger brother when he said he wanted to be an astronaut, or a concert pianist (he never said those things, I can’t honestly remember exactly what I was bugging him about): “If you want to be the world’s best concert pianist, as long as you’re sitting in the floor by yourself in a cardboard box, you’re it. But the minute you get out, it always depends on the opinions of other people.” I could be a real wiseacre when I was an adolescent, and a real pain in the ass, but I occasionally said something that was pretty much okay.

So, if you 1) don’t give up and 2) rely on someone else, not necessarily on anyone and everyone whom you can foist your problematic manuscript upon, you’re at least part of the way there. And now, I am going to say something more original, I hope, which maybe you haven’t heard so frequently. The other first two observations are standard fare when it comes to advice, but I didn’t want you to think I hadn’t heard them before, or was unaware of them. 3) Keep the manuscript, even just the blank paper with a title or four words on it, if that’s all you have. Keep revisiting it every day or two. Keep looking at it. Try first one sentence then another after the first four words. Use the four words as a suggestive sentence fragment, then write a couple of complete sentences to follow, or a couple of other poetic lines. If you’re trying to write an essay upon a certain topic, and your topic is one you have pre-selected, this may be a little harder to do, but you can always try a different slant on whatever you’re writing about. Always, always, always, always, when writing a poem or story or novel, be willing to follow wherever the thought leads, just to see where it’s going before you decide it’s not what you want. Always let it talk to you for a while, let it run away with you. You’ll know soon enough if it’s sheer crap. And if you doubt yourself, that’s the time to put it in front of your friendly audience, in all its minor and unachieved glory. That person or those persons may be wrong in what they say to you about it, particularly if they tell you to ditch it totally (most thoughts end up leading somewhere that you may even be able to pick up years later and develop), but you can take an angle, perhaps an entirely new angle from what they say to a new stance on the topic for yourself. It’s a debate, after all, a discussion, not a dictation from them to you. By the same token, you can’t make them feel what you feel about it, so if your feeling is strong enough, take their advice with a large grain of salt, thank them for their effort graciously, and go on about the business of grooving along with the poem/story/novel/essay/etc. which you feel strengthened in your pursuit of. And again, remember, however small the portion you start out with, your goal is always to develop it beautifully, meaningfullly, into more: “Them as has, gets.”

Shadowoperator

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Filed under A prose flourish, advice on creative writing from a practitioner, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

“The Pearl”–Fawziyya Abu Khalid and Predicting the Future of Arabic Women

In the midst of so much controversy in the contemporary world about what to do to help people, both women and men, to achieve their rights and to be treated equally by their societies and fellows in those societies, it is refreshing and uplifting to read a poet who has a whole-hearted belief that things can only improve, though she is not incognizant of the problems to be faced, it is clear both from her political involvements as they are reported in her brief biography1 and the determination in the forward-looking tone of her poem, which I will comment on here (it is not possible to print the whole poem, even though it is relatively short, because it is not in the public domain. Brief quotes only are allowed.)

As we are told in the biographical paragraph itself, “Fawziyya Abu Khalid was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia [in 1955]. She studied in the United States, taking a degree in sociology, and has been teaching at the Girls’ University College of King Saud University….Her work celebrates the strength and abilities of women, as well as indicating her commitment to political concerns.”1

In her poem The Pearl, Abu Khalid compares the legacy of generations of Arabic women to the physical legacy of a pearl, handed down from grandmother to mother to her, to her own daughter (or niece, etc., it isn’t quite clear). “The three of you and this pearl/Have one thing in common,” she says, “simplicity and truth,” making the two terms one in a touching poetic figure which conquers ordinary language usage. As she predicts in her poem “The girls of Arabia will soon grow/to full stature.” She further notes that they will find their predecessor’s traces and will say “‘She has passed by this road,'” which in her view, by the end of the poem, leads to “the place of sunrise” and “the heart’s direction.”

Though this more or less fairly reports the entirety of the poem’s movement in time and space, it cannot fairly represent the poem’s delicacy and beauty, as fine as a pearl of great value itself. It is humbling to realize that even though women all over the world are still having major problems getting recognized for their contributions and accomplishments, that a woman in one of the perhaps harder places to achieve this feat is so hopeful and so full, again, of strong determination, both for herself and for others to follow her. We all should have such inspiring and leading women in our lives, and she is one not only for Arabic women, but for women of the world.

This poem can be read in its short but lovely entirety in English translation (performed by Salwa Jabsheh and John Heath-Stubbs) on page 508 in the same volume which I mentioned in my last post just above, for which, see below:

(1In this case, both the poem and my biographical data are drawn from the large compendium text of world literature which I have now had occasion to mention several times 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 back in 1995, and is still valuable today.)

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Good news, and a takedown of a page containing a novel, with interludes

Dear Readers,

Though I suppose I shouldn’t ordinarily assume that I still have readers, after having been away for so long from blogging (but I see on my statistics page that you few faithful are still reading my old posts), this morning I have taken down my novel, Dot and Charlie (A Novel About Love, Sexism, and Infidelity) because it is the source manuscript for a number of poems I wrote to insert in it, which are now going to be published separately in a poetic manuscript. This takedown is for the purpose of not violating the poetic copyright; I expect to be able to reinsert the manuscript of the novel in its entirety as soon as all matters are concluded with the publication of the poetry (3 books in 1).

This is all I have to offer for today, but it’s the start of a bright New Year, which hasn’t started off so very brightly politically here in one sense, in that there have been major disruptions and protests against lawful passage into a new presidency in Washington, D.C. recently. Still, we are all hopeful here in the U.S. that our new President Biden and Vice-President Harris and their cohorts can remedy the ills this nation has suffered, and that others who have doubted it or them will come to see that they are intending and doing well and good. As for the rest of the globe, we have to hope for it as well that it will come back to health and well-being, especially with the virus vaccines now available increasingly to so many. All the best to you remaining from the holiday seasons, and take care. I hope to let you know more when I know it, and possibly can start posting again more frequently, as soon as I finish up some of my crafting projects and have the time to read and review books again (I look forward to finding this time again before too long). Happy New Year!

Shadowoperator (Victoria L Bennett)

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Filed under Full of literary ambitions!, Poetry and its forms and meanings, Time to pay the piper...., What is literature for?

When vanity meets vanity–shilly-shallying and a final decision

Vanity is one of the main ways you can decipher that you’ve been touched by something, one of the main symptoms of an emotional or psychological injury, and while this can sometimes be good, and a sign of personal growth, at other times, it just goes on and on in its own way, until we decide to forget about whatever troubles us and “live for the moment,” as we are often told to do.

But when personal vanity meets personal vanity in one and the same person, it’s a real battle royale, since there are two different blocking figures standing in the way in two different directions, Vanity One (as we’ll call her) on the left-hand side, and Vanity Two (as we’ll call her) on the right-hand side. What can one do then, to prevent being squeezed to death between the two of them as they become overweening, or to prevent being torn apart between the two of them as they pull in different directions?

All this fooferal is simply to announce for my readers and commenters that I finally stopped shilly-shallying (a dialectal expression which originally probably was derived from “shall I, shall I not”). I finally deletetd all the posts which contained my poems, deleted the page which contained my first complete book of poems, and started preparing to be published in print/ebook form, I hope by early next summer some time. The “take down” was necessary in order to avoid copyright violations, and all in all, though I hated losing the comments that people had made on my site in response to the poems (since they unavoidably come down too when the posts come down), it was a necessary stage of personal growth, which if I want to, I am free to feel has made me more mature (there’s got to be some way of getting the opportunity to pat myself on the back, right? Vanity Three is waiting eagerly in the wings).

I will wait to announce the final information for book accessibility and purchase until things are actually completed, and will on this site try to get back to reviewing and commenting on books and articles or just upon life, when the notion strikes me and I feel there may be a use for the comments I make. So, while I apologize for having to delete both the poems, if you enjoyed them, and your responses (and had a hard struggle with myself about losing the material), it was necessary in order to avoid getting torn apart by the two vanities to choose a side, and stick with it. I hope you will still comment and I welcome you to my site for that. I see by my stats that a lot of you are still reading my older articles and reviews, which is all to the good, and soothes all my vanities, but I do hope in the coming months to add some new items to the list. Thanks for your patronage and tolerance, and stay as happy and well as you can during this hard time of the pandemic, when everyone is feeling a bit out of sorts personally and professionally, whether they have had contact with the Covid-19 virus or not. Shadowoperator (Victoria L. Bennett)

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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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Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help, and What You Will Get Out of It

For many, many people, the GoFundMe campaign site is familiar only as a site which helps collect funds for scholars, people who need operations, children who are suffering from some disease which is costly to treat, or homeless people who need shelter.  Some of the requests are even done in memoriam of some person or group of people, to help their survivors out in a time of grief and need.  All of these more than worthy causes deserve your attention and a contribution, however small it might be.  But it can also be uplifting to donate to the beginning of a creative enterprise which will bring interest, encouragement, and joy to the minds of young adults who encounter it, and to this end I am asking for your donation, however small, to the campaign organized by a friend of mine, John Rattenbury, for the novel now operating under the working title of Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah.

As you may or may not be aware, self-publishing even under the aegis of a publisher who covers many costs can be fraught with expense and financial setbacks, and it is to avoid these pitfalls that John is asking for your free will donation to his goal of raising roughly $2000 to cover cover art and initial publication costs.  But I feel that probably at this point, you are beginning to wonder, “Yes, but what’s in it for me, other than a momentary feel-good experience?  When if ever will I see the results of my effort to be helpful?”  To the end of answering these questions, I am going to provide a couple of responses which I hope will encourage you to join this worthy effort and contribute whatever you can to John’s drive.

Stone Sorceress, Hidden Pharoah is the story of a teenage girl, an Egyptian citizen of dual descent (she is also Persian), who learns to deal with challenges in a world which seems determined to underestimate her and her ability to influence affairs, whether small or world class events.  It is a historical fantasy in the sense that it retraces not necessarily what actually happened, but what could have happened, in the Eastern world soon after the death of Cleopatra, always accepting that Mithra, the heroine, has a magical stone, thought to be behind some of the efforts to build the pyramids, which helps her and strengthens her considerable powers of personality.  She and Lucius, a friend and cohort from a Roman legion whom she meets up with by accident and forms a lasting friendship with, make a perilous journey along the Nile to escape the Romans pursuing them, whom they both have reason to fear.  This is a tale full of adventure and magic which both intrigues the imagination and provokes the support of young people everywhere in their search for justice and equal treatment of themselves and those whom they champion.  Though Mithra relies upon her magical stone as she travels along the Nile, the resounding “message” (which doesn’t detract from the “fun” of reading the book) is that loyalty, personal fortitude, and persistence outweigh evil-doing and brutality and that however young, every person can make a positive difference in the world around them, with or without the fascinating powers of magic and mystery (which, however, also abound in the book to compel our interest).

As to when you may expect to see this book on shelves and on sites for purchase, John has been encouraged by the fact that his prospective publisher finds the book already well-written and compelling, which we hope will lessen the time needed for its finalization and presentation to the public.  If you are interested in contributing to the fundraising for the publication of this book, please visit this link:  Funding a Young Adult Novel for a Contemporary Audience–How You Can Help and What You Will Get Out of It

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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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How to write a how-to book–Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”

Most of us who write, have aspirations to write, or just like reading about good writing and how it’s done have heard of Anne Lamott.  She’s the fine essayistic voice behind such classics as Bird by Bird (her book on teaching writing) and other, more obviously spiritual books such as Help, Thanks, Wow (her book on what prayer is all about) or her books about her son’s and grandson’s youth (Operating Instructions: My Son’s First Year and Some Assembly Required:  My Son’s First Son respectively).  The breadth of the things she can write about (because she also writes fiction) is astounding, but behind it all is a firm grounding in just what makes us human and reachable by others; for Lamott, it’s our sense of humor.

Today, I would like to share just a little of what I think makes for success in her work, and it is this sense of humor she shares with us so readily.  Even when she’s discussing situations in which she has encountered the most fragile of writers’ egos, or the most obnoxious of them, she does so with a rich appreciation of their underlying connection to her and her own experiences.  She shares little snippets of these experiences constantly, and while being aware that she must once have agonized over things just as much as the rest of us do, we are coaxed along through the narrows, shoals, and dead falls of being writers by her amused look at her own trials and difficulties with other writers, publishers, editors, family, and day-to-day confusions.

True, it’s often hard for us to laugh when our own work is concerned, and Lamott discusses at length in several spots how some of her students seemed nearly to want to call her a fraud because she couldn’t give them quick and easy answers about how to get published.  Her take on this whole conundrum was that one should write for the sake of writing, and publish when possible, if possible.  Her final encouraging word seems to be that writing is a spiritual task, a fulfillment of personal goals more precious and worthwhile than the mere search for fame and fortune.  Now, one could also believe that it’s easy for her to say, since she is a famous and respected writer.  Except, of course for the fact that she discusses freely her own search, at first, for fame and fortune, and the sum and total of her book’s argument (though it’s really important to read the whole of her book and not rely just on my word) is that true satisfaction comes not from finding fame and fortune through one’s writings, but from the process, as I know you’ve heard it said before.  It’s just that Anne Lamott makes the best argument for this frequently-cited idea with a grace and hilarity which you won’t find in other writing guides I’m familiar with, where everything is self-serious and clunky, even, full of nice one-liners supported by lengthy paragraphs, which, however well-intentioned, rely on some particular set of tricks of the trade some of which even contradict those in other writing guides.

Lamott is nothing if not blessed with a light touch; this makes her book easy to read, which is not a curse:  it’s free of causing that overwhelmed feeling one often has after reading a writing guide, that feeling of having too much responsibility weighing one down, that feeling of being unequal to the task of writing as advised.  This may be because Lamott doesn’t come up with a particular theory of writing, or support a particular style; instead, she gives general advice about where to seek for material starting out (from one’s childhood, from overheard conversations, etc.), about how to accept criticism in a beneficial manner, about how to know when criticism is not based on good fellow feeling, about how to deal with what publication is really like, about how to deal with writer’s block, and other issues facing those who are rank beginners and who are seasoned writers equally.

Anyone who is interested even in the issue of how other people write whether or not they write themselves might find a good read and more than a few chuckles in this book, which though funny as hell is also gifted with an underlying commitment to the subject that it’s easily possible to sense.  After reading this book and finishing it a couple of days or two ago, I felt the impulse to write an essay other than a literarily-based essay on a work of literary fiction, such as I ordinarily publish here.  Though it doesn’t have the comic power of Anne Lamott, it’s a piece such as she advises us to write, based on things from our own lives, and so I want to share it with you, my audience, and will use it as my next post.  Until then, make an effort to get a read of Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, or indeed any of her others while you are waiting to read that one, and I promise you will be entirely delighted with her material and her voice alike.

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