How much do the actions and thoughts of our ancestors shape our lives and limit our experience?
Louise Erdrich’s A Plague of Doves tells the story of residents in the tiny town of Pluto, North Dakota, on the edge of the Ojibwe reservation. The town and the reservation are fictional, but Erdrich, the daughter of a man of German descent and a Chippewa woman of Ojibwe and French blood, draws upon her own background to paint a rich picture of life in a small northern American town where descendants of immigrants and native people still feel uneasy with each other. The discomfort is even more confusing for those like Evelina Harp, whose veins are filled with the blood of both natives and colonizers.
All of this unease is exacerbated by a crime, or rather a double crime, that occurred in 1911, more than seventy years before the novel ends. The Lochren family was brutally murdered, shot to death at their farm. Only the baby, Cordelia, survived, found by a group of native men who happened to stumble on the gruesome scene. When the Lochren’s neighbors find out about the role the men played in saving the child, their prejudice finds suspicion in the great act of kindness. The native men are hunted down and killed, except for Mooshum, Evelina’s grandfather. Meanwhile, the murderer lives a long life, barely keeping his terrible secret. He would not have kept it all if the immigrant community had not allowed itself moral blindness rather than pursue the guilty within its own ranks.
What happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough? It becomes your entire history.
Three, and in one case four, generations of the major players are interwoven in the heartbreaking story of a dying community. By the end of the novel, the retired Dr. Cordelia Lochren is alone, unable to reconcile her feelings for native people, especially her lover, with the lies she was fed as a child. Mooshum is an ancient alcoholic, reliving the failures of his youth through painful memories that loom larger than his own life. The Peace family, descended from a man who could not leave a child to starve and was killed for his decency, show a lack of decency and control that lands them in peril deeper than their murdered ancestor. Evelina and the granddaughter of the murderer work side by side at the local diner, barely making enough to get by, never quite connecting the dots that link their patriarchs together. Cordelia alone knows the secret, which she reveals to us quite simply in the last few pages of the novel. It is actually fairly obvious, but obscured by the structure of the community itself, which is built on institutionalized racism. Even our own eyes do not want to see the truth.
Tragically tender and human, Erdrich’s prose is constantly running the gamut from crude humor to profound truth, which, she reminds us, are not mutually exclusive. I found myself identifying with the emotions the characters present and getting caught up in their feelings. Jumping from one narrative voice to another and traipsing back and forth over the decades, we come to know the residents of Pluto in their heroic moments and their feebleness, in their cruelty and their silliness, and we mourn the decline of a community haunted and held together by its ghosts.
The Old Violin, William Harnett, 1886
Erdrich does not leave her community or us without hope. The hope comes, strangely and beautifully, from music, which presents itself as supernatural force, somehow not quite bound by time and place. There is an old violin that has a marvelous part to play, found floating in a canoe, the instigator and only survivor of a fatal rivalry between brothers. It is this instrument that will change the outcome of the novel, saving a young guilty man’s life and ending that of an old guilty one. Then, its debt repaid, it will be shattered.
The music was more than music- at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.
We often hide our true selves from people around us. Perhaps our authenticity is actually what the world needs.
To the upper class people who live in her elegant Parisian apartment building, Renée Michel is a simple concierge. They would never guess the secret that she guards every waking minute. It is a terrible weight on her conscience and a deep embarrassment. Due to a traumatic event that occurred in her family when she was a child, she lives in mortal fear that someone will see through the chinks in her armor, that someone will see beyond the hedgehog spines that protect her soft and vulnerable core. Her secret? Renée loves to read and think about subjects way above her station. She has a taste for cultured things: art, music, film and philosophy. She loves and appreciates beauty and is particularly fond of Japanese culture. One of the few things she does allow herself is a garden with beautiful camellias, which can be passed off as part of her job. There are clues. It just takes the right people to follow them.
Paloma Joss is the world weary daughter of an upper class yet provincial family. At twelve, she sees her family’s shortcomings and fears being sealed in the fish-bowl of modern adult life. She has no one to confide in and feels increasingly alien to the people around her. Seeing nothing but futility, she has decided to document the last six months of her existence and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Best laid plans do so often go awry.
These two women, who meet and become friends very late in the novel, are the narrators of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of theHedgehog, their individual voices being reinforced by a change in font. This is a story that will ring true to anyone who has felt left out of society, anyone who finds that the things they love most are not valued very much by most people. As a tribe, we are most likely to open up to others that don’t fit in: lonely children, alcoholics, addicts and people who are not “respectable”. Those people are less likely to make us uncomfortable than upper class folks who seem uninterested in life, those who have the privilege of being able to afford anything, but don’t seem to have any interests. When we do find kindred souls, we tend to bond deeply. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about those meetings between souls and how they change the world, even in the midst of death and decay.
There is a moment near the end of the novel, when the son of a former tenant comes to see Renée, who he knows as Madame Michel. This young man had a serious drug addiction when he lived in the building and has lived to tell the tale.
“In the flower bed, over there” –he points toward the far side of the courtyard– “there are some pretty little red and white flowers, you planted them there, didn’t you? And one day I asked you what they were but I wasn’t able to remember the name. And yet I used to think about those flowers all the time, I don’t know why. They’re nice to look at, and when I was so bad off I would think about those flowers and it did me good. So I was in the neighborhood just now and I thought, I am going to ask Madame Michel, maybe she can tell me.”
Slightly embarrassed, he waits for my reaction.
“It must seem weird, no? I hope I’m not scaring you, with this flower business.”
“No, not at all. If only I’d known the good they were doing you…I’d have planted them all over the place!”
He laughs like a delighted child.
“Ah, Madame Michel, you know, it practically saved my life. That in itself is a miracle! So can you tell me what they are called?”
Yes, my angel, I can. Along the pathways of hell, breathless, one’s heart in one’s mouth, a faint glow: they are camellias.
“Yes,” I say. “They are camellias.”
He stares at me, wide-eyed. A tear slips across his waiflike cheek.
“Camellias…” he says, lost in a memory that is his alone. “Camellias, yes.” He repeats the word, looking at me again. “That’s it. Camellias.”
Thanksgiving Day 2018 was a memorable one. We spent the week in Blanding, UT. Unlike Moab to the north with its trendy, sporty persona, which I don’t much love, Blanding is unvarnished and unpretentious. I would rather feel like traveler as opposed to a tourist, if you get my meaning. In mock appreciation to the sporty set we took up the names Zook (short for Gadzooks) and Dag (short for Dag Nab It). We spent three full days in the area, hiking to House on Fire ruins, traveling Monument Valley, and taking the La Sal Mountain Loop over to Arches NP. It was all quite lovely. Those who know me well know that the desert, especially red canyon country, is the landscape that resonates most deeply with my soul.
I love the grim gaunt edges of the rocks, the great bare backbone of the Earth, rough brows and heaved up shoulders, round ribs and knees of the world’s skeleton protruded in lonely places. —Maynard Dixon
On Thanksgiving morning we decided to trek out to Moon House, a beautiful and well preserved ruin in Bears Ears National Monument. The guidebook advised us to budget 2 to 3 hours and to be ready for some “moderate scrambling”. Best laid plans of mice and men… We took Totoro, our Honda Pilot, 8.2 miles down Snow Flat Road. He did well–very sure-footed on the gravel–but it was a test of Dag’s skills and Totoro’s design, especially when parts of the road were along slickrock shelves. The second half of the drive we took very slowly, almost turning around at a particularly nasty rock that threatened our center of gravity. We managed to ease around to one side and get over it. Finally we made it to the trailhead, where the guide book told us to park and walk up the remaining couple of miles to McLloyd Canyon. Looking at this section of road, sandy and washed out in places, we decided that was a smart decision.
When we reached the rim we did not immediately locate the ruin, which is to the left part way down the canyon wall. There was a better vantage point along the rim to our left, but we didn’t confirm that until we were past the point of visiting that spot. Reaching Moon House is a dramatic descent down one side of the canyon and up the other. It’s an extremely picturesque place and the ruins are plentiful and attractive. About that moderate scrambling…
On the way down there is a rippled slickrock shelf that leans into the canyon and drops off. My husband and I are little people… Dag is 5’7 and I’m right at 5′. If we were a little taller, this might not have been as much of an issue. There are two possibilities. It looks as if someone has piled up some rocks under the lip of this shelf, but that means going straight out over the edge and you’ve really got to trust that the pile of rocks is there for your benefit. Option 2 is to walk to the right along the slickrock, which is steeper on this side, until you come to a small tree that you can grasp and lower yourself onto the trail below. At this point we were the only people on the trail (there would be two more parties behind us, comprised of taller folks) and we spent some time negotiating this perilous spot. I don’t think that a fall here, or more of a roll actually, would kill you, but you’d probably break something and getting help out here in the middle of nowhere is EXPENSIVE. Dag opts for the tree. After some moments of sheer terror, I follow, my running shoes slipping down off the slickrock as I manage to scoot across. I discarded my hiking boots two days earlier after they ate holes in the back of my heels. The tree takes a nice gash out of my jacket as I drop on to the trail. My legs are jelly. We spend a few minutes trying to ascertain whether or not the trail is going to get worse or not, but decide not to turn around after all that struggle. Moon House is closer now, and absolutely gorgeous.
The rest of the way down is rocky and a bit steep but far from scary. There is a lovely wide place to cross to the other side of the canyon, passing by a large boulder. It is a great place to catch your breath before the last moderately difficult task of pulling yourself up to the next ledge. The route goes between two rocky protrusions that keep you from feeling as if you are going to go tumbling. Once you traverse that, you find yourself on the Moon House patio. The ruins are right in front of you.
The BLM allows visitors to enter the outer wall, although we did not feel right doing so. As we came up the ruin side there was a gnarled tree. Usually if anybody sees or feels something weird, it’s me, but in this case Dag swore that he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a Native American man sitting on it. He seemed a friendly presence, but he commanded some respect as well. Moon House was visited by looters many times before it was set up as a park site. There was a smuggling ring in Blanding that was broken up a few years ago, resulting in some suicides in the community. Several of the items recovered came from Moon House. It didn’t feel good to identify in any way with that kind of activity. Instead I thought about my mother, who is very unwell and dealing with end of life issues. I said a little prayer asking for help as we walked the canyon. There was much to be seen, and we certainly missed some things along the way. I feel it is important not to be greedy in the wilderness, be it for loot or experience. Greediness gets you into trouble–gets you over-extended and over-burdened. Perhaps it is not so different in everyday life.
Saying goodbye to the friendly canyon spirits, we hauled ourselves out of the canyon and headed for the car. We arrived at 11am and it was now nearing 3:30. We were several hours overtime and the weather forecast had indicated a 20 percent chance of snow in the late afternoon. As we walked the two miles back to the car, the snow arrived, a gentle dusting. As we took Totoro back over Snow Flat Road, it started to snow in earnest. We managed the 8.2 miles of gravel without incident and were very glad to reach pavement. We jokingly cried out “Tarmac!” in homage to Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman in Long Way Round and headed back to Blanding for our Thanksgiving feast of prime rib, mashed potatoes and megasalad, topped off with pumpkin pie with whipped cream (the real thing, baby!) There’s nothing quite so satisfying as the meal that follows the accomplishment of a quest.
What did all that scrambling tell me, other than I should keep myself in better shape? That I need to let myself risk falling and failing. I’ve always fit Synkroniciti into my other schedules, letting them set her pacing. Part of this is the result of putting my life back together three times, part of it is a legitimate fear that Synkroniciti will fail, or, perhaps more frightening, that she will succeed and draw me into a new place. One does not simply jump off the side of a cliff, neither will I quit everything else I am doing to follow Synkroniciti into thin air. But it is now time to edge my way toward new sights, to puzzle out the landscape before me and, if needed, create new trail.
Nothing is achieved alone. Would you like to join me on my journey for a while? We all have different goals and different challenges such that we can never truly comprehend each other’s journeys, but we can certainly lend a hand when we cross paths and root for each other from our separate vantage points. Let’s get out there and find what 2019 has to offer. And if you slip along the way, take comfort in knowing you aren’t the only one out there.
We classify ourselves into groups which give meaning and order to our experiences. What happens when those groups inhibit growth?
Ronit is the daughter of an orthodox Jewish rabbi, living a secular life as a successful photographer. Disowned by her family and cut off from her roots because of a teenage romance with a young woman, her life is thrown out of balance when she receives a call that her father has died. Returning to her community in order to attend the events surrounding his funeral, she finds a mixture of forgiveness, suspicion, judgement and sympathy. Esti, the girl that Ronit had loved, has grown into a strong but tightly wound woman, married to Dovid, their best friend growing up, a man who trained with Ronit’s father to become a rabbi. Indeed, he has been selected to succeed the celebrated Rav Krushka. Dovid and Esti are poised to take on the most important position in the community. But something is not, and has never been quite right under their roof. Now that Ronit has returned, the fragile life they have built together is rocked to its core.
In making Disobedience, it would have been easy to pit people of faith fully against homosexuals and require us to choose one side or the other. That is not what Sebastián Lelio has done in this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel. Jewish tradition is honored, the beauty, depth and expressive power of its theology and, especially, of its liturgical music is depicted. Neither does the film shy away from the shortfalls of the faith’s adherents, nor the uncontrollable desire that binds Esti and Ronit. Clearly their romance has troubled the waters in this small Jewish community. There is not much sympathy and no support for homosexuality here. Most of the reactions to the unsanctioned romance are lacking in compassion. All are at least somewhat ignorant. And yet, there are enough ambiguities in the faith, in the sacred writings themselves, to create space for new interpretation that may lead somewhere in future generations. The place where we see this revolution of faith is not within the community itself, but within Dovid. I don’t want to spoil the film. The first time I watched it I had no idea how Dovid would reconcile the interior crisis of faith caused by the realization that his relationship with his wife is based on the premise that he, through his caring nature, would be able to convert her to heterosexuality. He has not, and their relationship has caused psychological damage to Esti by making her feel obligated to have sex which she does not desire. His community has required him to violate her personhood and now implies that he, as Rav Kuperman, should require her to completely give up her feelings for good. But is this what God requires?
One of my favorite scenes is of Dovid teaching from the Songs of Solomon. He postulates that surely there is something higher in the love between man and woman than physical sexuality, while the young men in his class agree that the text, bold in its passion, says otherwise. The trouble is understated, as is almost everything in the film, but you get the sense that Dovid is aware that his passionless marriage, as respectful as it is, is not what it should be.
This is a quiet, intimate movie. There isn’t screaming and railing. Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola, who is nearly unrecognizable behind a full beard, all give sensitive portrayals of complex individuals that never behave in cliché fashion. Ronit, Esti and Dovid are controlled people, quietly torturing themselves in their own private solitudes. They are living their experience moment to moment, not knowing where they are going. The cinematography enhances this, as does the musical score, which often goes dead silent. There are many closeups of inscrutable faces and the camera constantly catches small awkward gestures and movements. This renders the erupting passion between Esti and Ronit incredibly powerful in its decisive boldness. The only scenes which are not understated are the physical encounters between the women, culminating in an intense extended love scene. By contrast, the scenes between Dovid and Esti, while containing more nudity, are clinical and cold. The camera reinforces the emotional and spiritual climate that Esti must navigate.
Disobedience gives me hope that there can be space for dialogue within the most conservative faiths. It is in our best interests to expand our definition of ourselves and how we relate to others rather than allowing our institutions to do it for us. No group is a monolith: be it race based, gender based or faith based. It is often said that we join groups or causes to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is also true that how we live our lives enriches and imparts meaning to the causes and groups we embrace. Speaking of our inward beings and granting each other freedom are the very first steps in allowing ourselves and our beliefs to grow. We may not understand each other, but we have to start the conversation somewhere. The healing and wholeness of our communities depend upon it.
It’s the Annual Late Summer Reading List, a bit later than usual! We have twelve more books to recommend in 2018, this time from the realms of fantasy, historical fiction, magic realism, and young adult lit, featuring classics and modern works. I hope you enjoy getting to know some of them.
Watership Down by Richard Adams, 1972
At home in Sandleford warren, the nervous young rabbit Fiver has a vision of the field bathed in blood. Convinced something terrible is coming, he and his even-tempered friend Hazel decide to warn the older rabbits. They are ridiculed and bullied into submission, but a small number of rabbits dissatisfied with their lot join them and they make an escape, despite the efforts of the Owsla, the warren’s military police. This is only the beginning of a harrowing journey to find and establish a new home at Watership Down. The skills they learn along the way and the tales they tell to keep themselves going, as well as the unexpected friends and foes they meet, make this an inspiring and engaging read, full of heroism and mythology. Adams has created an extremely potent world, complete with religion, civilization and culture, all threatened by incomprehensible violence.
Watership Down was distilled from stories Richard Adams told his daughters on long car rides. He insists that it was never intended to be an allegory, but readers have responded to echoes of totalitarian governments and diasporas, seeing everything from the founding of Israel to the Cold War and more. It is a testament to the strong archetypes in the novel that so many marginalized groups have identified with the struggles of these very anthropomorphized rabbits. A classic for all ages.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, 2005
In rural 19th century China, Lily and Snow Flower are sworn laotong, sisters contracted for life, each dedicated to the emotional support and well being of the other. The girls are best friends, going through the excruciating process of footbinding together and writing to each other upon a fan in Nü Shu (a personal writing system for women) taught to them by Lily’s aunt. This novel is the 80 year old Lily’s remembrance of their relationship, including the events that tore them apart, as Lily, with her perfectly bound feet, climbed the social ladder and Snow Flower descended into poverty and then disgrace. It is also an admission of her culpability in events that culminated in her friend’s death forty years before.
In opposition to the Western view of Asian women as weak and compliant, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan presents us with a rising current of feminism and change rebuked by the culture of the day. None of the women in this novel are wallflowers, but three dimensional beings trying to do what they believe will benefit their families most while hemmed in at every turn by a society that considered them property. Lisa See reveals the bitter fruits of anger and spite with striking candor. Lily shares with us secrets women, particularly wives and even more so mothers, share with one another, taboo secrets of sexuality, marital matters, feminine hopes and disappointments. These are secrets that, when shared with the wrong ears, can ruin a life and jeopardize future generations. Trigger warnings for violence (including a death march during the Taiping Rebellion) and abuse. This is a heart rending tale.
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, 2008
A flamboyant and tricky stowaway from the distant city of Florence becomes a fixture in the Mughal court in Fatehpur Sikri, India, at the right hand of the Emperor himself, with an influence that stirs up jealousy amongst the Emperor’s longstanding advisors as well as his heir. Emperor Akbar, once a mighty fighting man, is filled with thoughts of his beneficent legacy and motivated by love for the most mysterious of his many wives, an ideal woman that resides only in his mind. Or does she?
Salman Rushdie weaves magical characters that capture our affection while remaining deliciously morally ambivalent: the honorable turncoat, the faithful seductress, the thoughtful despot, the charismatic opportunist, the honorable prostitute and many more. Eroticism, sexuality and violence are vital parts of the plot. The colorful twists and turns that reveal one of the strongest, most fascinating female characters in modern fiction are spellbinding. The Enchantress of Florence is a testament to the power of human imagination and projection to mesmerize people and change the future, as well as a witness to the price that such power exerts on those who wield it.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, 1996
It was 1969, the place a small village in rural India. Fraternal twins Rahel and Esthappen are growing up on their grandfather’s pickle farm. Their mother, Ammu, has divorced her husband because he was an alcoholic and because he sought to loan her to his employer for sex. Due to the rigidity of the caste system Ammu, an intelligent, beautiful, well educated young woman, bears the brunt of intense social stigma and her children are marked by it as well. This difficult situation is exacerbated by the death of a cousin visiting from England, sexual molestation, the flowering of a beautiful but unsanctioned love and the meanness of a relative embittered by the frustration of her own unattainable passion. What follows is a personal tragedy of epic proportions, one that will scar a family permanently.
Arundhati Roy’s passionate novel uncovers the deep pain inflicted by the caste system, revealing scathing contempt and frustration for a poisonous society that has devalued women, compassion and love. Through flashbacks (the twins are now 31 years old and about to be reunited) that feel like the circling waves of a whirlpool, the novel jumps closer and closer to that fateful day when at least five lives were ended, some by death and some by a despair that stifles future growth. All that remains to give comfort are the small things– a look, a smile, a touch– things that are both too strong and too inconsequential to be wiped out. The God of Small Things includes many forms of sexuality, including incest. I must also include trigger warnings for sexual, physical and verbal abuse.
Among Others by Jo Walton, 2011
After an accident which killed her twin sister and left Mori physically disabled and suffering from PTSD, Mori moves from Wales, where she lived with her mentally unstable mother, to England, where she lives with her emotionally remote father and attends a boarding school for girls. Even before the accident, Mori was different. She has been touched by the dark magic that emanates from her mother, a witch, and has also seen and spoken to fairies, who reside in places abandoned by humans and reclaimed by wildness. She seeks escape and meaning in her love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy novels which are mentioned lovingly throughout the novel.
Among Others is Mori’s teenage diary, informed by a sense of her adult self. Jo Walton has called it an attempt to mythologize a certain six months of her own life, and it is the combination of magical elements with a bitingly honest voice of a teenager struggling with things that are beyond her ability to comprehend or manage that make the book so unique and moving. More of a watercolor of a time gone by than an action driven plot, it has a profundity that retains enough whimsy and humor to keep it quite enjoyable and at times, delightful. The magic helps to dissipate the pain of the abuse Mori has suffered, and Mori’s references to her reading life help to break up and distract from Mori’s difficult thoughts on sexuality and the immense pressure that teenagers feel in our modern society. A cathartic read.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, 1957
The summer of 1928 was important for Douglas Spaulding. It contained the first time he consciously marked that he was alive, and consequently the first struggles he had with the knowledge that he would someday die. All of the events that happened in his small Illinois town that summer, from his grandfather’s fear that new strains of grass would kill off the dandelions to the activities of the Lonely One serial killer, from the new sneakers which he worked to pay off to the death of his great-grandmother, are inscribed in his memory. It isn’t just Douglas’s story, though. We enjoy the various voices of his community as they deal with life’s disappointments and life’s happy surprises.
Ray Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical work is unabashedly nostalgic and sentimental. It is also extremely observant and presents a time when life felt more concrete, before virtual reality had captured so much of our attention and imagination. The return to early 20th century small town Americana is both soothing and bewitching. There is a sense of, if not magic, mystery that permeates Dandelion Wine. By presenting opposites: youth and age, happiness and disappointment, routine and newness, fear and confidence, life and death, Bradbury manages to bottle an exquisite tension that unites what was originally a series of short stories into a pleasing, comforting and calming whole. A classic read for all ages.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 1940
John Singer is a deaf mute living in a rural mill town in Georgia in the 1930s. When his roommate, Spiros Antonapoulos, who is also deaf and mute, has a mental breakdown and is institutionalized in another town, Singer becomes profoundly lonely. Due to his easy demeanor and ability to project understanding and compassion, people seek Singer out to tell him their troubles. There’s Mick, a poor southern school girl who wants to be a musician, Jake, a rabble-rouser and socialist activist with a drinking problem, Dr. Copeland, an African American doctor who wishes he could translate his professional success into stability for his family and progress for his people, and Biff, a cafe owner who loves his customers but loathes his wife. These four people drop their frustrations and the disappointments of their lives on Singer, who is unable to discharge or express his own feelings. This sets the stage for tragedy when Antonapoulos dies.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a devastating novel, all the more impressive because McCullers was 23 years old when she published it. Poverty, racism, the availability of guns, sexism– these are issues that still plague America today, despite time and effort. McCullers gives us no answers, but she is honest about these problems and about the need for people to start talking to one another across social lines. If we only speak to a mirror, a sympathetic ear attached to a silent voice like Mr. Singer, we will never sort anything out.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, 2002
Raped, murdered and dismembered by her neighbor, 14 year old Susie Salmon finds herself a disembodied soul, poised between heaven and earth. She watches her family and friends struggle with her disappearance and grapple with the reality of her death, her family breaking apart under the strain. She watches her killer stalk other women. She also watches connections and relationships made because of her death flourish into what she calls the “lovely bones” of her life. Death has a certain sincerity that brings some survivors together and forces others apart.
The Lovely Bones is an impressive attempt to find meaning in a horrific death. It contains a combination of gritty realism and supernatural occurrence that keep it, for the most part, from getting overly sentimental and trite. There is one plot point I found a bit hokey, but it is forgivable in context of the complete fearlessness and impressive strength of the novel. Obviously, violence and sexuality figure heavily in the plot, but the way it deals with these taboo subjects is what gives Alice Sebold’s writing its considerable power.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, 1964
Blindsided by the death of his beloved partner Jim, George, a British expatriate and professor in Los Angeles during the 1960s, sees little meaning in his continued existence. This is a day in his life, full of human contact that somehow fails to connect with the depressed 58 year old. A Single Man gives us a window into George’s mind, reporting all of his thoughts congealed into cohesive form. I have to admit that I didn’t take to George, or to this novel, right away. He haunted me for a solid week after I finished the book, winning me over gradually. George is fussy, irritable, repressed and sometimes downright unpleasant. His dislike for many of those around him, especially the neighborhood children, startled me until I acknowledged that I have similar judgemental thoughts, especially at my more vulnerable moments. Cynicism, a valid reaction to disappointment, feels a lot more attractive than it looks.
The enormity of hearing a person’s internal dialogue, comprised of countless thoughts, many of which are inappropriate, off-color and disturbing, is deeply uncomfortable, but as we push on into George’s inner being, we realize what his handicaps and foibles are, and begin to find empathy for this poor soul, made up, as we all are, of contradictory thoughts and actions that only make sense to George himself, and often not even to him. A Single Man is a poignant and disarming journey into what makes us human, especially the ugly bits we don’t like to embrace.
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, 1987
Henri is a committed soldier in Napoleon’s army, working in the Emperor’s personal kitchen. Villanelle is the web-footed daughter of a Venetian boatman, married to an abusive gambler, while she has, quite literally, lost her heart to a passionate, married noblewoman. When Napoleon’s army begins to disintegrate in Russia, Henri finds his idolization of the tyrant empty and decides to desert. He makes friends with Villanelle, now a prostitute sold to the French army by her estranged husband, and they embark on a dangerous journey toward Venice. That journey proves to be merely the first stage of their strange relationship.
The Passion is a surrealist romance between characters who can never quite end up together. The depictions of a wintry Russia and a watery Venice full of wild nightlife are nothing short of enthralling, especially considering that Winterson had never been to either place. The characters are even more memorable, with unexpected quirks that render them each unique and undeniably human. Gender identity and fluidity, magic, unrequited love, hero worship, lasting friendship, sacrifice and madness swirl in fantastic colors toward a heartbreaking and inevitable conclusion.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, 1869
This is perhaps the largest novel in scope in all of literature, weaving together Napoleon’s mad advance further and further eastward to Moscow and subsequent retreat with personal stories of five Russian noble families: principally the Bolkonskis, the Rostovs, and the Bezuhkovs, secondarily the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys. Their interactions, intermarriages, deaths, and struggles (both in war and personal matters) provide the human interest in the tale, while battles and military movements, meticulously researched and grippingly retold, give a sense of the immense importance of the events unfolding at the time and seek to interpret history.
War and Peace is an incredible masterpiece. Although there are sections that depart from the action and discuss the implications of the Napoleonic War, this is not a ponderous, heavy read. It is not thick and unorganized, but it is very, very long. The chief difficulty is confusion created by characters with the same first names and characters who have nicknames. Some translations are more helpful than others in this regard. Tolstoy’s character development rings true and is quite impressive. There are violent depictions of hunting and war, but reference to sexuality is restrained and remains polite, although the extramarital sex accepted in aristocratic circles, especially concerning young married women may be surprising.
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, 1948
Reverend Stephen Kumalo has come to Johannesburg to help his sister and find his son. Sister Gertrude has become a prostitute and his son Absalom is accused of murdering a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who was an advocate for black rights. In one way or another, Gertrude, Absalom and Arthur are all casualties of South Africa’s Apartheid system, which institutionalizes racism and poisons and wastes many lives. Rev. Kumalo does his best to make things right, arranging marriage for Absalom’s pregnant girlfriend and bringing her back home, as well as befriending the dead white man’s father. The connections he makes are fruitful, bringing good things from loss.
Cry, The Beloved Country is a masterpiece, an important work about racism and its impact on society. Paton approaches the situation with enough realism to expose the rottenness at the core of the system and enough idealism to believe that love and dialogue can change the world. The subject matter is not easy, even when one knows what is right.
From the personal to the epic, all in all it is a rather serious group of novels this year, but the colorful, humorous and magical elements of many of these works provide a great deal of delight, despite the seriousness of their subjects. I hope you enjoy exploring them.
In Rapid City, South Dakota, USA, on the edge of the Black Hills, in a peaceful green space on the older side of town, there stands a delightfully unexpected structure: a carved wooden church in medieval style called the Chapel in the Hills. It is in fact a replica of the Borgund Church, a Stavkirke (Stave church) built in the late 1100s, which stands in Laerdal, Norway. So what, you may wonder, is it doing here?
Well, in the 1960s South Dakota native Dr. Harry Gregerson, the creator and preacher of the Lutheran Vespers Radio Hour, was looking for a way to expand his ministry and make something more tangible than a radio broadcast. He decided to build a structure near the Black Hills that could give vacationers a place of pilgrimage and worship. In choosing to make a copy of the Borgund church, he created a link to the cultural roots of the Norwegian Lutherans who settled in South Dakota. The Norwegian Department of Antiquities sent the blueprints of the church and a local construction company spearheaded the effort. The wood carvings were a joint project between the Norwegian master carver Erik Fridstrøm and Helge Christiansen of Rapid City. These fantastic flourishes inspire awe and yet seem quite at home here. Rapid City is right next door, and yet the area recedes into the hills, feeling quite remote and peaceful, an excellent place to meditate. There is also a small Norwegian museum and a stabbur, a small grass-roofed storehouse, that serves as a visitor center. The stabbur was built in Norway, shipped to Rapid City in pieces, and rebuilt here.
The flourishes on, in and about the church weave together Christianity with pre-Christian Norwegian symbols. The continuity between the Christian and naturalistic symbolism is both beautiful and striking. It can be interpreted as a refreshing acknowledgement that the same God might choose different ways to speak to different peoples. The first congregants of the Borgund church would have been converted Vikings, with minds shaped by Norse myths and naturalistic rituals.
Runestones are stones decorated with naturalistic motifs. The Vikings and the Celts were masters at making runestones; many of their descendants Christianized the art form so they could keep their artistic language. These two feature serpents and dragons, symbols of chaotic forces which shape time and nature, ambivalent forces which both destroy and build up. The rectangular, seated runestone on the left shows that time and Creation have been forever marked by the Cross. In the crucifixion, life has also been destroyed and rebuilt. Common themes were important to encourage conversion and promote understanding.
The entire church is circled by an antechamber/corridor. Weapons were to be dropped in this space and were not allowed in the house of worship. In case you think the Viking converts were progressive, you should know that men and women entered through different doorways and did not associate with each other in the church building. Children entered with the women until the young boys came of age. Young men were then allowed to use the men’s doorway inside the front entrance.
The men’s entrance with intricate carving. More dragons and serpents.
The women’s entrance on the side of the church, featuring carvings of lionesses, a rather ferocious symbol of femininity. Note the lioness faces at the bottom of the pilasters. I imagine these Viking ladies were not wallflowers.
One of the outside doors features a metal ring. In medieval Borgund, any criminal who was touching this ring could not be apprehended by authorities. It was apparently not unheard of for such people to starve to death on the steps of the church, covered in their own excrement.
Inside the church, there is a plain door with no adornments next to a sliding window that opens into the corridor. This was a station for people with leprosy, so that they could take Communion without entering the church proper.
III: A Ship of a Different Kind
The church interior is fashioned as an upside down Viking ship, cleverly using the most familiar of forms, but also turning it on its head. Look at those ominous faces carved on the high posts!
The altar and chancel area stand out for their simplicity. The pan fixed in the front served as a baptismal font.
IV: There Be Dragons
High atop the church building there are four dragons, fashioned like those that would have been at the prow of a Viking ship. In addition to serving practically as aids to drainage, they functioned much like gargoyles, impressing people and “chasing away devils”. The detail and the care that goes into each shingle, each cross, each flourish is absolutely marvelous.
I happened to catch a squirrel sunning himself on the high branches, mimicking the dragons astride the church. Nature seems playfully at peace with this Stavekirke from another land. On another day, in another post, I may take you on the walkway that leads back toward the hills, where the rabbits feed lazily, and the forest is peopled with life-sized stone figures that range from moving to creepy. But for today this magnificent building is more than enough.
After eight years marked by three floods, my husband and I are thrilled to announce we have a new home. We are reunited with our cat companion, the furry fat man we call Yuri. I love watching him find all the new spots where he can lounge and spy. I’m attaching a “Yuri around the house” gallery at the end of this post for your enjoyment.
It feels amazing to be together again. It also feels wonderful not to have to rebuild a home. We did that twice, almost finishing the second time when Harvey brought the third flood, a staggering four foot and eight inches of water. There are always things to be done in any house, but it is all “elective surgery” now, as my husband says. At the end of the work day I’m always excited to go home; I want to pinch myself to make sure it is real.
The home on Pagehurst was sold last December. After repeated floods crowned by the one Hurricane Harvey brought, the old street is now owned largely by investors hoping to flip and sell. The houses are shell-like and dead, waiting for someone to care enough to start remodeling. The process is slow; not many homeowners have stayed and one wonders how wise an investor is to buy multiple homes there as several have done. We are a few miles away, in a place with better than average drainage for Houston, some twenty feet, give or take a little, higher. It rained heavily here last week, and I could look out my window and see the street. No water in the yard at all. Rain still produces an anxiety in me, but it is a vague discomfort. In time, perhaps that will fade.
I am so excited to return to normal. For me, that means a return to creativity, to being able to have the space to make things and the leisure to read, attend events, and feel human again. Well, I’ll get out of the house more once we finish building all of our new furniture! It means I can return to you, friends, and to making the kind of environment that helps the mind and spirit to flourish. The themes for the next few months have been provided by some of my Facebook friends. They are things I hope we can all cultivate and share together. Flourish is the first of 34 words that we will explore. If you would like to contribute a word to that list, please don’t hesitate to leave it in the comments. See you around!
Here is a link to the NBC News spot that covers the opening of the Houston Grand Opera season in the brand new Resilience Theater in George R. Brown Convention Center. I was happy to speak about my beloved company and to share the roller coaster ride we have been experiencing since Hurricane Harvey.
During Hurricane Harvey our home flooded for the third time, this time with a staggering amount of water… the high watermark stood at 56″. That’s 4’8″. Enough water to come up to my eye level. Thankfully we were long evacuated at that point, and were able to remove many precious items. Our grand piano flipped over, crushing the television and landing upside down on the other side of the room, the lid floating down the hallway. We are tired of flooding. The silver lining is that we will be able to move on this time.
To add to the pain of losing a home, which we were somewhat prepared for after the previous floods, my beloved work home, the Wortham Center, where I have performed in the chorus for Houston Grand Opera for 12 years, was rendered inoperable for the entire season. During past floods, it had been a place of normalcy for me. Now I found myself without the stable work environment that had steadied me in the past. Difficulties loomed. In the midst of all of this a miracle happened, and continues to happen.
Here is a link to the NBC News spot that covers the opening of the Houston Grand Opera season in the brand new Resilience Theater in George R. Brown Convention Center. I was happy to speak about my beloved company and to share the roller coaster ride we have been experiencing since Hurricane Harvey.
I am so proud of Houston Grand Opera and so touched by the generosity they have shown me at a time when they, too, were homeless. This generosity shines in the kindness of donors who sent money to staff families flooded out of their homes and in the dogged persistence that refused to give up a season. Be inspired!!
From the whimsical and fantastic to the challenging and devastating, here is our second annual late summer reading list. Enjoy! There is something for a variety of tastes.
Haroun and the Sea of Stories – Salman Rushdie, 1990
When Haroun’s mother, Soraya, leaves his father, the celebrated storyteller known as Rashid the Ocean of Notions (to his friends) and the Shah of Blah (to his enemies), Haroun is horrified to find his father’s talent drying up and his own concentration shortened to small bursts 11 minutes long. The ensuing turbulence will not only threaten his family and his hometown, but people in neighboring regions and even the citizens of a fantastic world parallel to his own, where the fabled Sea of Stories has been poisoned.
Full of youthful exuberance, this wonderfully compact fairy tale combines delightfully wicked humor with a deft combination of personal and national turmoil. If these characters don’t make you laugh out loud you are made of sterner stuff than I am. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is highly recommended for any and all readers.
The Onion Girl – Charles de Lint, 2001
Another tale of the intersection of the dream world and reality, this is the story of artist Jilly Coppercorn, a forty-something survivor who has overcome a childhood of abuse and a stormy young adulthood, managing somehow to retain her empathy and optimism. When she is struck by a car, her apartment robbed and her paintings destroyed, all in quick succession, no one can think who might wish to harm her. Meanwhile, in a coma, Jilly has found rest in her dreams and is beginning to wonder if she wants to come back to everyday life at all. Native American myths blend with fairy tales as her friends, several of whom are dream walkers, work to save her life from a powerful foe.
The Onion Girl is the eighth book in The Newford Series, but reads well by itself while making you curious about the rest of the books. If you are squeamish, you should know that the descriptions of abuse get the point across without being gratuitous. The beauty and detail of the fantasy world and the closeness of Jilly’s interesting set of friends eclipse the darker elements of this excellent and unique story.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith, 1943
There is a tenacious tree called the Tree of Heaven, which manages to grow despite scarcity of water, poor soil and general lack of attention. One of these trees grows in the courtyard of twelve year old Francie Nolan, the daughter of immigrants doing their best to provide a stable home despite desperate poverty. Her mother, Katie, has become a fierce breadwinner with her emotions tightly in check, while her beloved father, with his easy manner and beautiful singing voice, has a depressive streak that sets him on a path to an early grave. As a teenage female in the early twentieth century, Francie experiences a vicious series of setbacks, betrayals and disappointments, including her father’s death and her mother’s decision to send only her brother to high school.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is heavily autobiographical and a testament to human, especially feminine, resilience. Francie’s (and Betty Smith’s) confidence grows as she writes, making the reader feel like she is a close friend.
A Death in the Family – James Agee, 1957
James Agee’s posthumous masterpiece is also an autobiographical novel. It explores the events surrounding the death of Agee’s father in an automobile accident. We see Rufus, Agee’s foil, a ten year old boy in 1915, growing up happily in Knoxville, Tennessee, enjoying warm summer nights in his neighborhood and watching a Charlie Chaplin film with his father, Jay. He feels safe with his father near to watch over him and protect him from darkness. The senselessness and randomness of death takes away this security. Jay was not baptized, which creates conflict and fear within his wife, Rufus’s mother, Mary, and the community. This conflict spills over Rufus and his younger sister Catherine, and is brought in to clear focus by a priest who first suggests that the children should not attend their father’s memorial service (they are, in fact, not allowed to go) and then refuses to read words of comfort over Jay’s grave since he was not a believer.
My father died when I was ten, and though my experience was quite different, I am astounded by the vulnerability Agee manifests in A Death in the Family and the clear, naked pain of his voice. I’ve never looked at butterflies the same way, and you may not either.
Beloved – Toni Morrison, 1987
Former slaves Sethe and Paul D. are reunited in Cincinnati, Ohio after years of tremendous hardship and injustice. They would like to build a new life together, but there is a ghost in Sethe’s home, a result of an unspeakable ordeal many years ago. As this creature morphs and seeks to strengthen its hold on Sethe, Paul (and the reader with him) slowly learns the truth that everyone in the neighborhood knows. Will his love and affection be enough to silence Sethe’s demons, demons that have been fitted to her by the whip of slavery and solidified by her own peers, or will it be polluted as well?
Beloved is a rich and heartbreaking novel, spiritually sensitive, eloquent and astute. Horror takes on love and there is never a moment when you don’t have doubts as to which will be victorious.
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver, 2003
In the midst of a successful career, Eva decides to have a child, although she has doubts. The decision will change her life and the lives of everyone around her in a profound and unexpected way. Kevin will grow from a calculated, vengeful and unemotional baby into a young murderer capable of taking multiple lives in cold blood. Eva will always wonder whether her lack of connection to him at his birth gave him a large capacity for rage or whether it was always a part of his nature. It is an unanswerable question. No amount of background (which is copiously provided) can prepare the reader for the gory details of the day Kevin explodes, setting in motion an intricate, gruesome and risky plot that culminates inside his school cafeteria.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not for the faint of heart, but it is told with such frightening raw honesty that it makes the reader tremble at how much research must have gone into Shriver’s writing. From beginning to end, she pulls no punches, creating an illuminating horror story from a dirty corner of American society.
Dune – Frank Herbert, 1965
Duke Leto Atreides of the planet Caladan has been named Governor of the immensely valuable planet of Arrakis, better known to outsiders as Dune. The spice Melange, an addictive drug which extends and enriches life and is required for interstellar space travel, is mined in the dangerous deserts on Arrakis, presided over by deadly dust storms and colossal sandworms. Aware that this appointment is a trap set by the Harkonnens, a rival house within the Empire, but unable to see any other course of action, Leto moves with his concubine, Jessica, and his son, Paul, to this new and fearsome planet, unaware of the extreme power beginning to awaken in Paul, who is destined to become a super being who will fulfill prophecies across the cosmos. The personal tragedy and loss of innocence that results will play out on a grand scale, setting fire to conflict that will engulf Arrakis, the Empire and worlds yet unknown.
In Dune, Herbert has created several multi-faceted worlds, complete with multiple races, languages, religions and customs. In addition to this fantastic world building, he has given us an immensely moving story, which is probably at its best when it dramatizes the formidable bond between a mother and her child.
The City of Your Final Destination, Peter Cameron, 2002
Omar has been approved for a fellowship at The University of Kansas. The subject is an autobiography of the late Latin American author Jules Gund. The only problem is that he doesn’t actually have permission from the author’s estate to write the book. To be honest, they have denied his request completely. His intrepid girlfriend, Deirdre, talks him into traveling to South America to meet the author’s eccentric and charming family at their remote home, Ochos Rios, in an attempt to convince them otherwise. When he arrives unannounced, he gets quite a reaction from the Gunds. What he doesn’t expect is how Ochos Rios and the Gund family will change his life forever.
The City of Your Final Destination is a romantic and sweetly humorous tale of what can happen when you leave your comfort zone and let yourself live. Cameron’s light touch and immense talent for subtext keep the piece from waffling in sentimentality.
Reservation Blues – Sherman Alexie, 1995
One evening the local storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire picks up blues musician Robert Johnson at a crossroads on the Spokane Reservation. Johnson, who has faked his own death, is looking for help with a certain Gentleman (the Devil) who is on his trail and Thomas takes him to the foot of Wellpinit Mountain so he can look for Big Mom, an earth spirit who might be able to help with his troubles. In return, Johnson leaves Thomas his magical guitar. After Thomas meets up with Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, the three get into a fight and the guitar is damaged. The guitar then tells Thomas that the three of them are to start a blues band to make music for the reservation, and Coyote Springs is born. Before long, the trio is practicing in a defunct grocery store and begins booking gigs. This irreverent, absurdist tale is the story of the rise and fall of the band and its hard drinking, fist-swinging, blue-streak swearing members who, faced with a world that is prejudiced against them, find unlikely success and then lose it all.
Sherman Alexie’s style is original and mesmerizing, making Reservation Blues both hilarious and moving. It also features sex, violence, rough language, drinking and drugs, so don’t expect a Boy Scout picnic.
Snow Falling on Cedars – David Guterson, 1994
Carl Heine’s body is pulled from the sea off Puget Sound on September 16, 1954, caught in his own fishing nets, his watch stopped ominously at 1:47 am. Circumstantial evidence armed with the crushing weight of prejudice points to Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese American fisherman and war hero. The island of San Piedro stands ready for retribution. An ex-marine who lost an arm fighting the Japanese in World War II, journalist Ishmael Chambers finds himself covering the case. What he conceals behind a mask of racial hatred and anger is that his first love and sexual partner was a young Japanese girl named Hatsue Imada, who is now the wife of Kabuo Miyamoto. History is retold in flashbacks that reveal the intensity and fragility of young love, the detention of innocent Japanese Americans at Mazanar internment camp and the suspicious and duplicitous treatment these people received upon their return from captivity. Somehow, Ishmael must wade through all of this memory to answer the question at hand: How did Carl Heine die and was Kabuo Miyamoto involved?
Snow Falling on Cedars is a gorgeous and stirring novel. The extreme restraint of the characters only heightens the depth of their emotion when they break and we get a glimpse into their souls. There are frank and intimate descriptions of teenage sex which may make some readers uncomfortable.
Death of a Red Heroine – Qiu Xiaolong, 2000
The year is 1990 and the massacre at Tiananmen Square is a recent memory, creating a deep sense of fear and uncertainty across China. Guan Hongying, a celebrated Chinese National Model Worker (an employee honored for industriousness and patriotism), is murdered, stuffed naked into a trash bag and thrown into a Shanghai canal. Chief Inspector Chen is called in to investigate. More erudite than the typical police officer, Chen is a poet and a translator by education and inclination, assigned to the Police Department by the will of the Communist Party. When he and his subordinate, the old fashioned and hardworking Detective Yu Guanming, manage to uncover this very public woman’s carefully concealed private life, they find that all evidence points to the son of a a high ranking party official. How will they bring the murderer to justice without ruining their careers or losing their lives?
Chen’s musings frequently include poetry, which is an extremely alluring literary device, giving the illusion that we are reading a personal document or manuscript. The formal beauty of the verse also serves to balance the gruesomeness of the murder. Written by Chinese dissident Qiu Xiaolong, who works and lives in the U.S., Death of a Red Heroine is more about political intrigue than murder. The search for justice is perilous when the criminal can use the system to cleanse away his guilt.
Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes, 1966
Charlie is 32 years old. Due to conditions at his birth, his IQ stands at 68 and he is barely able to function as an adult. His uncle has found him a menial job at a bakery, but Charlie desires something more, so he enrolls in a program for adults with learning difficulties. His attitude and innocence charm the teacher, Miss Alice Kinnian. When she is approached by two scientists, Dr. Nemur and Dr. Strauss, looking for a test subject for a promising experimental brain surgery Alice immediately recommends Charlie. Nemur and Strauss have already performed the surgery successfully on a mouse named Algernon, increasing his cognitive capacity exponentially. Charlie embarks on an amazing journey to explore himself, but his increased awareness causes him pain and anxiety. People that he believed friends turn out to be cruel and abusive and his own sexual desires prove difficult to understand and manage. As he begins to find a fragile balance between his increased intelligence and his humanity, Algernon the mouse falters, and Charlie begins to sense that he may not have much time.
Straddling several genres: science fiction, romance, drama, Flowers for Algernon is a powerful and poignant exploration of what it means to be human, from the enchanting to the repulsive. Daniel Keyes taught English to special needs students for a time, and possesses rare insight into the experience of people who lie outside of “normal” cognitive development, as well as appreciation and wonder at the immense dignity and value of people that are so often dismissed by society. His writing is extremely perceptive and fearless.