Passing, by Nella Larsen

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There is much to be unpacked in this brief novel, first published in 1929. As it opens, Irene is reading a letter from Clare, someone she knew as a child, asking to see her. For some reason this letter angers Irene.

It turns out that while visiting her father in Chicago two years earlier, Irene had run into Clare by accident at a Whites-only hotel. Irene had been feeling faint and the kind taxi driver who’d taken her there hadn’t realised that the light-skinned Irene was Black. Needing to rest, Irene was confident she could pass at the hotel restaurant.

Unlike Irene who lives in Harlem and is married to a dark-skinned man, Clare has been living as a White person ever since she’d left Chicago after her father died, when the two lost touch, and is married to a wealthy White man who does not know she is Black. Clare presses Irene to visit her, seeming desperate to reignite the friendship, but the visit doesn’t go well, as Clare’s husband appears and, taking Irene to be White, launches into racial invective.

Now, two years later, Clare has turned up at Irene’s home in Harlem and, when Irene pretended to be out, sent this letter begging to see her, saying that she needs a break from her husband’s racism. Irene agrees but continues to be wary of the beautiful and charismatic Clare, who rapidly inserts herself into Irene’s private and social lives, winning over Irene’s husband and sons, attending parties and dances whether she’s invited or not.

Irene is afraid of what might happen if, seeing her at Harlem events, Clare’s husband were to learn she was Black. Irene is also afraid for her own marriage, as her husband spends more and more time with Clare when Irene is absent. Although unspoken, there seems to be a fear as well for herself. Irene’s awareness of Clare’s sensuous beauty and her own inability to say no to the woman signal a deeper attraction.

The story revolves around this issue of pretending to be someone you are not. We see Clare’s frustration and weariness at the pretense she must maintain and her yearning to explore the Black life she might have lived. We see Irene’s attempts to maintain her façade of perfect wife, mother, hostess and civic volunteer, knowing she must do more than any White woman if she is to live up to these ideals.

I was reminded of Du Bois’ idea of the double consciousness Black people must maintain, always seeing yourself not just as you but also as Whites see you, and modulating your behavior accordingly. A White friend pointed out that we all do this to some extent, for example, behaving differently at work than at home. This particular example was brought home to me some years ago when I had to take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment twice, once at work and once at home for a class. My results were diametrically opposite. As a result, I began consciously bringing the two closer together.

However, these mild experiences don’t begin to compare to the soul-crushing constancy of the watchfulness Black people must maintain in navigating a world designed for and controlled by White people. The stakes are higher; the potential consequences more dangerous: handcuffs, a gunshot, a noose.

There is so much in this seemingly simple story of two women: the questions around identity, the effects of secrets and lies, the tradeoff between freedom and safety, the absurdity of racial categorisation and the appeal of racial belonging. Larsen offers no easy answers, instead leaving room for the reader to ponder these ideas, indeed to be haunted by them for a long time after closing the book.

Have you read a book by a Harlem Renaissance author that provides insight into today’s issues?

Green Card & Other Essays, by Áine Greaney

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be home. Many people are working from home these days. All the years I worked in offices I desperately wanted to work from home. Even now I remember each and every snow day when I was allowed to work remotely as a sacred and blessed time.

I know there are many who struggle with this new reality, extraverts who miss the interaction with others. And it’s true that I valued being able to step down the hall and get Laura or Jonathan’s input on some task. Still, this being at home to me is nirvana, to be able every day to be in this space that I designed for myself.

But home is more than this house, this place we’ve carefully adapted to our needs. It is also the places where we suddenly and unexpectedly know we are where we belong. For me, that was the first time I crossed the Tappen Zee bridge into New England. And again that early morning landing in England, a March morning, frosty and cold. Faced with a standard transmission car with the gear shift on the opposite side and traffic patterns that challenged my orientation, still, for all that, I knew suddenly that I had come home. I was in the right place. Many return visits over the years have only confirmed that initial sense of belonging.

For Greaney, that’s not the point. These brief essays fold us into the experience of leaving one not-unloved-home for another, of trying to find your way in an alien culture where you don’t recognise most of the references and your accent is legitimate fodder for jokes.

Immigration is much in the news these days, but it’s important to notice, as Greaney points out, that there are plenty of immigrants who are welcomed without question. When someone who has been complaining about immigrants says to her “Oh, not you . . . We weren’t talking about you,” Greaney appropriately responds, “’English speaking? White?’”

Interactions like this show up the racism inherent in today’s discussions about immigration. A white friend of mine who emigrated from South Africa, likes to challenge people by saying, accurately enough, “I’m African-American.”

Greaney explores the lingering strangeness. Not just the bizarre experience of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S., but also seeing what U.S. prom night is like versus a quiet 1970s mass after Leaving Cert exams, commuting among pumpkin and alfalfa fields, wondering if the New England Methodist church down the road might hold a way forward for a Catholic girl.

One of the most affecting essays in this collection calls on Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn where

. . . once Elilís Lacey (the daughter) steps aboard that ship, there are two separate and mutually invisible narratives—the tale of Eilís in Brooklyn and that of her widowed mother and stay-at-home sister back in Enniscorthy. Between those stories is an emotional firewall that blocks all knowledge of the other’s experience and, by extension each other’s respective wounds and losses.

Any of us who have left our first home for a new and different world can identify with this dual storyline, this firewall: a parent who cannot or will not imagine our new lives. Excitement and terror and sadness swirled together to forge determination.

These are beautiful essays: short, intense, emotionally precise, moving. I loved the essay about the gifts her father slips to her as she is leaving to return to the U.S. “’You’ll need this over yonder,’” her says, and Greaney pulls us around to see, yes, oh yes, they are needed.

What does the idea of “home” mean to you?

Learning to Die, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky

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While the title of this slim volume sounds tailor-made for this pandemic with its hundreds of millions of deaths, the subtitle clarifies its theme: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. Its two essays and Afterword give us perspective on the environmental catastrophe through which we are living.

These are not attempts to quote scientific studies to persuade us of the seriousness of our Anthropocene Era, though statistics are given and backed by numerous endnoted sources. Instead, the two essays address our inner selves and how we relate to the world, while the Afterword refutes a recent book which proclaims that there is no problem because more progress will save us.

In “The Mind of the Wild” Bringhurst reminds us that life survived and regenerated after each previous global extinction event, though it wasn’t the same life as before. I can’t help but think again about our current time, when it appears our post-COVID 19 world will not ever be quite what it was before.

Bringhurst goes on to say that after the coming catastrophe, it will be the wild—defined as “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control”—that “will rescue life on earth, if anything does, because nothing else can.” Humans may not survive; any that do will find their culture eviscerated.

He refers to an 1858 speech by the physicist Michael Faraday, who in a lecture on electricity said, “I am no poet, but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your mind. ” He goes on:

Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is an exercise in a certain kind of thinking: letting something happen instead of forcing it to happen, and simultaneously letting yourself be enlarged. Letting the facts form a poem in your mind is a way to practise thinking like an ecosystem, thinking like a planet, thinking like a world. But in order to let the facts form a poem in your mind, you have to have some facts to start with.

And of course you must have a mind in good working order. Increasingly we have been learning that one of the best ways to get our minds in order is to go out into the natural world, the wild. Bringhurst says that there we “enter a larger, possibly stricter, moral sphere” and encourages us to bring that “heightened sense of morality” home with us.

There is much more to this moving and persuasive essay. It is reinforced and expanded by “A Ship from Delos” by Zwicky. The title comes from Plato’s account of the death of Socrates, which was delayed by the custom of not allowing any executions during the annual voyage to Delos to honor Apollo. The sight of the ship returning tells Socrates that his life will end the next day.

Zwicky says that “Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with the black sails has been sighted.” Building on Bringhurst’s appeal to our moral selves, she proposes the virtues that Socrates embodied, starting with awareness (attended by the humility to recognise what we don’t know).

Here it is the recognition of our own mortality, which she describes beautifully as “to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music.” She goes through the other virtues, showing how cultivating them will serve us well as we enter our extinction event, both by perhaps postponing it a little and by giving us tools to handle it.

For the Socratic virtue usually translated as piety, she substitutes contemplative practice, saying:

At the heart of contemplative practice of any sort is attention. As [Simone] Weil observes, prayer is nothing other than absolutely unmixed attention . . . The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it.

I recommend this small book to anyone who wishes to go deeper into an understanding of who we are and who we are becoming as our culture rocks and is remade during this time of great change.

What writers help you to adjust and find your best life during difficult times?

The Complete Poems 1927-1979, by Elizabeth Bishop

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Although she won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her collection Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring, Bishop’s was not well-known during most of her life except among other poets, overshadowed by poets such as her friends Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, as well as the Beat poets, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell and others.

When she began teaching during the last decade of her life, first at the University of Washington and then at Harvard, she did begin to achieve a wider fame, but it is only since her death that her reputation has risen into the stratosphere. Now she is considered one of the best poets of the 20th century.

I’m not entirely sure why that is. Partly it’s a reaction to the explosion of confessional poetry set off by Lowell’s Life Sentences, the rise of political and feminist poetry, and the general abandonment of formal poetry: all trends that she rejected.

Partly it is an appreciation of her attention to craft. A perfectionist, she labored for years over most of her poems, refusing to publish them until she was satisfied. While she often creates her own form, sometimes she uses forms such as sestina and villanelle. One of her most famous poems, “One Art”, is a villanelle beginning:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

What I like best about her poetry, and possibly the most significant reason for her popularity today, is her use of the things of this world. Her poems have precise descriptions of objects and animals, often insignificant things, such as an old French horn hung on a wall or leaves drifting in the Seine. In the best poems, these descriptions carry an emotional weight far beyond the thing itself.

As a writer, this use of subtext is what I’m always striving for. It’s far more powerful than explicit text because you are leaving space for the reader to have their own experience. You are creating the gaps that Robert Bly speaks of in Leaping Poetry, the kind of gaps that the reader must leap over, an opening for the unconscious or for buried memories to bubble up. This space is also what gives imagery its power.

In this excerpt from “The Fish”, we can see her use of imagery, choice of details, and surprising adjectives not only to bring the fish to life but to invest it with meaning.

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers . . .

We learn that “five old pieces of fish-line” hang from his lip. Through this “battered and venerable” fish we are caught up in her themes of surviving trauma, of loneliness, of grief and loss. And note the resonances around those two adjectives: “battered” carrying also the image of a sizzling frying pan, “venerable” not just old but something to be honored.

There was controversy around the posthumous publication of this collection because it also includes juvenilia and unpublished poems, which seemed to many an insult to a poet so meticulous about what she allowed to be published. Still, it is interesting to see something of her development as a writer and what she still considered works in progress.

Do you have a favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem?

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Lawson

Splendid

I hadn’t planned on reading more about WWII, having grown up in the shadow it cast, but I found A Woman of No Importance with its story of boundless courage and energy so inspiring that I couldn’t resist this book. Also, I knew I was in good hands with Larson, having enjoyed his previous books.

True to its subtitle A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, the story covers Churchill’s first year as prime minister. To say it was a tumultuous year is an understatement. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. Then when Chamberlain resigned on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. That same day, Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. The Dunkirk evacuation was only a few weeks later.

While I was already pretty familiar with events and people, Larson’s dramatic scenes and fast-moving action kept me engrossed. I was surprised by how gripping the story was, given that I already knew what was going to happen.

One factor, besides Larson’s skill as a writer, is all the new information from recently declassified files and intelligence reports—the amount of research Larson must have done is astounding. We get insight, not just into the workings and discussions of Churchill and his cabinet, but also into Hitler’s inner circle. The motivations and misunderstandings on both sides helped me understand some key decisions. We learn about the negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill, who understood that Britain would fall without aid from the U.S.

Memorable anecdotes abound, such as Churchill’s aside after his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. After he finished, Churchill said to someone near him, “‘And . . . we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”

Also, Larson focuses on individuals, making extensive use of personal diaries and letters. We see Winston in private moments dancing at parties, wearing outlandish costumes. We hear his wife Clementine caution him to be less contemptuous and kinder to those around him. We follow their youngest daughter Mary and son Randolph’s wife Pamela as they navigate family and social life through this turbulent year. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville gives us unusual insight into the PM both in public and in private. We learn about the key roles played by newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and Federick Lindemann, a physicist and Churchill’s science advisor.

While I was fascinated by these private moments, my main feeling while reading this book was admiration for the courage of this flawed man who held his country together, even as Hitler expected them to surrender every day—surely they can’t hold out any longer! And for the British people themselves, who patiently put out the fires and swept up the rubble, patrolled fields and put up with appalling conditions in some of the shelters.

I was inspired by this tremendous example of leadership, and saddened too, considering where both the U.S. and Britain are these days. Larson’s book is more than an enjoyable read, more than a fascinating look into history’s public and private lives; it’s a brilliant primer on how to be a leader.

What book have you read about an inspiring leader?

Elizabeth Bishop, by Brett C. Millier

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I’ve been tiptoeing around Bishop’s poetry for many years, intrigued but wanting to carve out a chunk of time to really concentrate on it. The last few weeks have been that time.

Subtitled Life and the Memory of It, a quote from one of Bishop’s poems, this is a critical biography, meaning that it not only tells the story of Bishop’s life, but also discusses her poems. Of course, there’s long been a kerfuffle in the literary community over the relevance of a writer’s life to her work, and in other arts communities as well. Shouldn’t a poem or film stand alone? Don’t we bring our own experiences and outlook to a book or painting?

Well, of course. Yet, many years back, when I finished school and started creating my own study programs, I found that in addition to hunkering down and reading all of a writer’s oeuvre, I wanted to know about their lives. I felt that I knew something about them through their work, but needed to know more, especially in those early years when I was figuring out what my own writing life might look like.

I’ve felt a curious tie to Bishop because I knew that she was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years, very close to her home in fact. From Millier’s book, I’ve learned that Bishop’s time there was brief. Her father died when she was eight months old and her mother was in and out of mental institutions for a few years, moving between Worcester and her family’s home in Nova Scotia, before being committed in 1917. At that point, Elizabeth’s father’s family brought her back to Worcester for a miserable few months before sending her to boarding school. Although her mother did not die until 1934, Elizabeth essentially had no family home for the rest of her childhood.

She made lifelong friends at school and later at Vassar and in the literary community at large. Two friendships in particular shaped her as a poet. While still in college she met Marianne Moore who became a mentor as well as a friend. Moore cheered on the young poet, initially critiquing her work and later suggesting places she could submit her work. Later, living in New York, Bishop became friends with Robert Lowell and the two continued to exchange poems, letters and visits until Lowell’s death.

Those of us who write stories are advised to constantly raise the stakes for our protagonist, or if we’re writing nonfiction—memoir or biography—to point out where the risks and rewards have increasing consequence, thus creating tension and suspense. Millier does this admirably for Bishop.

It’s hard enough to be a poet, let alone one without a home or family, a victim of early trauma. Let her be a lesbian in an era when homosexuals were closeted. Give her some chronic illnesses: debilitating asthma and alcoholism. Make her a perfectionist, and put her in New York’s very competitive atmosphere; then give her some early victories and very successful friends to add even more pressure.

Plenty of suspense, then, to keep this biography moving, interleaved with excerpts from letters to and from Bishop. It’s not all sad; Bishop traveled a lot, had strong relationships, created homes that she loved, and most of all wrote and revised and revised again, never letting a poem go until she was sure it was the very best she could make it.

Plus there are Millier’s insightful discussions of the poems. I was glad I had a copy of The Complete Poems 1927 – 1979 at hand to dip back into. I will discuss the poems themselves and Bishop’s thoughts about poetry in another post.

One of the things I enjoyed here was seeing the humorous side of this poet, as in this excerpt from a letter; Bishop was living in Brazil and had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

Lota went to market, to our regular vegetable man, and he asked her if it wasn’t my photograph he’d seen in the papers. She said yes, and he said it was simply amazing what good luck his customers had. Why, just the week before, one of his customers had bought a ticket in the lottery and won a bicycle.

If you haven’t read her poems, this biography will make you want to read them. If—like me—you feel that there are layers in her poems that you are missing, this book will help open them up for you. Most of all, if you are curious about the life of a poet, particularly one who stands alone, not part of a literary movement, or the life of a brilliant but challenged woman in the mid-twentieth century, this is the book for you.

Have you read a biography that you’d recommend?

A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

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Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

Fluent in French, German and Italian, she initially worked for the US Consular Service before moving to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an early UK intelligence organisation. The US had not yet joined the war and she’d previously been turned down by the US State Department because of her disability. She had lost a leg below the knee after a hunting accident and had a wooden prosthesis, yet that did not hold her back from her active work first in Vichy France, primarily Lyon which she made into the most extensive and effective center for Resistance and intel in France.

After being betrayed and hunted Javert-like by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, she made a daring and arduous trek over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees to Spain without even a walking stick to help. Once the U.S. joined the war she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), returning to Occupied France to organise Maquis units to harass the enemy, gather intel, and assist the Allies before, during, and after the D-Day invasion. Her intel was crucial to the D-Day planners.

I can’t begin to list all she accomplished despite her wooden leg and, more importantly, despite being held back every step of the way by male superiors who couldn’t accept that a woman could do useful work other than typing or making tea, hence the title of this book. This discrimination persisted after the war when she eventually found work with the CIA after the OSS was disbanded, yet was belittled and confined to desk jobs by men with no combat or espionage experience.

Yet, her intelligence and adaptability, her drive and charisma, her intense love of France and determination to drive out the Nazi invaders together won her the loyalty of the people she worked with on the ground. Only Virginia thought to use a brothel as a safe house and its workers as intel-gatherers. Only Virginia had the organizational and planning ability to organise jailbreaks from the Nazis’ most forbidding prisons.

It’s a stunning and inspiring story, brilliantly presented here. I learned much that was new to me about conditions in Vichy and Occupied France and the Resistance, things I thought I knew pretty well. The action is as breath-taking as any thriller. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favorite actors, and often couldn’t bear to stop. I fumed about the discrimination, grieved for the losses, raged at the Nazis’ torture of captured spies, and rejoiced in her victories.

What a woman!

Have you read a biography of a “forgotten” historical figure?

In the Wake, by Per Petterson

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It’s curious how the somewhat random choice of what to read next can bring two books into conversation with each other. This 2000 novel by Petterson, author of the marvelous Out Stealing Horses, has been lurking in my to-be-read pile for a while. I pulled it out primarily because of its stunning blue cover and the comfort of knowing I could count on this author for a thoughtful read.

Imagine my surprise on discovering that it begins with the same situation as the last novel I reviewed: with the protagonist struggling to come to terms with a traumatic disaster. Yet the two books could not be more different.

It has been six years since the ferry accident that took the lives of 43-year-old Arvid’s parents and younger brothers. He is still consumed by grief, unpacking memories of his father and mother, wrestling with both the past and the terrible present, questioning everything. He starts a new file on his computer and thinks “I am writing myself into a possible future.”

Since the accident, his marriage has fallen apart and his work as a writer has dried up, his novel-in-progress abandoned. He drinks too much—we first meet him surfacing from a blackout—and has almost no human contact. There’s his Kurdish neighbor from upstairs who has one word of English: “thanks”. And a woman in the opposite apartment block whom he sometimes sees in her window.

He’s had little to do with his remaining brother, three years older and a successful architect who lives with his wife in a gorgeous home he designed himself. That is, until his brother calls him at two in the morning, drunk or getting there, to say that he too is getting divorced, a conversation that quickly devolves into sibling sparring.

Here we are deep in Arvid’s consciousness, carried by his voice—so calm and forthright, so candid, so obviously containing oceans of emotion. The contrast is irresistible. You might think this novel is more narration than dramatic scenes, but the narration is so vivid and in the moment—present or past—that it creates scenes we experience with Arvid. They accumulate, relentless as the waves, pulling us in.

Petterson also uses very specific descriptions to ground all this ruminating. Here’s a wonderful example; Arvid has shown up at his twelve-year-old daughter’s school and, instead of getting on the bus, she’s gone with him to a cafe.

After a little while the man comes back with our order on a big tray he carries high above his head as if the place was crammed with people, but we are still the only ones there, and he lowers the tray in a sweeping circle and with a flourish sets white cups and plates of waffles on the table and a bowl with a silver spoon and jam. He pours the cocoa from a big white jug and when the cups are full he puts the jug down on the white cloth. He does not spill a drop. We just sit quietly watching. Everything is so white and sumptuous that half would be sufficient, and the waffles are lightly toasted and make the jam glow in the light from the window . . .

“Kidnappings not half bad when you get waffles,” says my daughter . . .

There are a number of cool things about this excerpt: the humor, the sentence variety, the specificity. One of the brilliant aspects of it is the way Petterson bypasses the emotions one would expect from these two—the guilt, the resentment, the sadness—and goes for the unexpected: a luxurious, sensual joy. As Donald Maass (literary agent, writer, and writing teacher extraordinaire) points out: we readers can fill in the commonplace emotions while the surprise grabs us.

This is an intense book, made bearable by moments such as this and by the steadfast voice, recounting ordinary events, dreams, memories, moments of violence and betrayal, joy and communion all with the same calm and with no self-pity. It feels genuine, more so than usual. No wonder, perhaps, since Petterson himself lost family members in the 1990 Scandinavian Star disaster, like Arvid. His description of the video Arvid watches to identify bodies in the ferry is particularly chilling.

Yet the story does not seem self-indulgent. It is a deep dive into the question of how we find or create meaning in our life, how we bear tragedy, how we begin to find the faint threads of connection.

Have you read one of Per Petterson’s books? What did you think of it?

Mouths Don’t Speak, by Katia D. Ulysse

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A member of my book club heard Ulysse speak and was fascinated by her descriptions of Haiti and the experience of living in a new country, far from family. My friend recommended this book—Ulysse’s first novel; her previous book Drifting is a collection of short stories—to our group, and we happily agreed. We’d previously read novels set in Haiti by Edwidge Danticat and Madison Smartt Bell, and were eager to read another, especially a book by someone from Haiti.

The story opens days after the devastating Haitian earthquake that occurred on Tuesday, 21 January 2010. Now living in Baltimore with her husband and three-year-old daughter, Jacqueline is desperate to contact her parents who still live in Haiti. “She had not changed her clothes since she learned about the earthquake three days prior. She had not eaten, and she had forgotten to sleep or bathe.” All this time she has been watching the repetitive tv coverage and compulsively dialing and redialing her parents’ phone number. She hasn’t bothered to go to work (she teaches at a public school).

I found this unrealistic. Yes, I remember after the World Trade Center attacks how we couldn’t stop watching the coverage, even though there was nothing new. Some of us tried to contact family or friends. I also sat out the first days of the tsunami and Fukishima disaster with a woman from Japan. So I’m not unfamiliar with the reaction to a catastrophe. Still, Jacqueline’s stupor seemed extreme to me, especially when there’s a three-year-old in the home.

Jacqueline continues in this vein for a month before finally going outside–not bathing though; she just “put her coat on top of the clothes she’d worn for days.” And the school holds her job for her, not pressuring her to return as month follows month. Really? I taught in the Baltimore Public Schools for a few years and can’t imagine such leeway granted to a teacher. A month later, when she is almost ready to give them up for dead, her mother Annette suddenly contacts her; she and Paul, Jacqueline’s father, have been in Florida all this time, not bothering to let their daughter know that they are alive.

While some aspects of the story are hard to believe, the essential story question is not just timely, but important. How can Jacqueline forge a relationship with the parents who, fixated on their own pleasures, essentially abandoned her? Forced to practice the despised piano until her fingers bled in order to impress her parents’ friends at parties and then sent to boarding school in the U.S. when only ten, Jacqueline has had almost no contact with her parents in the intervening years. Suddenly her mother will not leave her alone, needing Jacqueline’s help now that Paul has been permanently disabled because of the earthquake.

A good story question, yet the story itself seems insubstantial. It’s narrated quickly, skipping over much that could have been explored, leaving it feeling superficial. Characters make abrupt changes for no reason. There are a number of subplots alluded to but not really explored: Jacqueline’s husband has PTSD; she’s stopped attending church after—for some never-explained reason—throwing a hymnal at the new pastor; Jacqueline instantaneously becomes BFFs with a white woman who teaches Haitian dialect. Disturbing and sometimes tragic incidents are inserted, apparently to goose up the plot rather than growing organically out of the characters and their interaction.

The underdeveloped characters are a large part of the problem. Instead of multi-faceted individuals, the characters are two-dimensional, each sounding their one note over and over. One member of my book club observed that they are all broken people, thrust together. And broken people do obsess over and over about their point of fracture, bending your ear with the same story over and over. No matter how accurate psychologically, though, it does not make for interesting reading or a convincing plot.

I so wanted this story to be good. How many children today are suffering the effects of growing up with distant, distracted, or self-absorbed parents? The bones of a great story are here. Some of the descriptions are vivid, though there’s actually very little about Haiti itself. Jacqueline’s parents are super-rich, Annette in particular loathing the worthless poor. I did appreciate that Ulysse stepped outside the stereotypes to write about the rich in Haiti and how the earthquake might have affected them, yet I had hoped for more about Haiti and its people.

Writing a novel is hard. It’s different from writing short stories. I wish the author had taken more time with this book, so she could have made it the great novel it promises to be. Dave King wrote an excellent blog post on WriterUnboxed.com about “The Practice Novel”. He says:

The problem is that novels are huge. They involve moving parts you may not even be aware of and require skills with language and tension building and insight into characters that take years to develop. You don’t just have to master these skills, you also have to develop a feel for how they all work together.

So my sympathies are with Ulysse. She’s got the emotions and the plot structure. She’s got good descriptions, strong and varied sentences, and a genuine understanding of human nature. More work with developing characters would go a long way, as would less narration and more dramatic scenes; as readers, we prefer to learn about characters from what they do rather than from what they say about themselves. Maybe this novel feels a bit rushed because she was pressured to publish it quickly. I’d like to read her short stories now, and will look to see what happens with her next novel.

What novel have you read about the immigrant experience? What did you think of it?

Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle

grace notes

These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort. I welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father.

In this collection of short essays—a form he excelled in—Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the darkness; in “The Sin” he describes losing his temper with his son, grabbing his shirt collar and roaring at him, frightening them both. He doesn’t avoid his own responsibility or pretend it didn’t happen. Instead, he confronts himself, “ashamed to the bottom of my bones.”

Then he goes big: “I do not know how sins can be forgiven.” As he ponders that question, and the further one of who must do the asking and who the forgiving, he is led to consider the grace alluded to in the book’s title.

Doyle is a Catholic and makes clear in his Prologue that many of these essays “use . . . Catholicism as a prism, a way of being, an approach”. Yet he keeps these works accessible for those of us who do not ascribe to that or perhaps any religion by using terms we can all believe in. Like Mary Oliver, whose work he much admires (and vice versa), he links prayer to attentiveness. And when he talks of grace, he speaks not of the Catholic God but of the experiences we all yearn for: the unearned gifts, the moments of being, the love that descends on us.

I call his essays unforgettable because each pierces me in ways I cannot describe. I often use his essays in my writing classes and, reading aloud an essay I’ve read fifty times, still, as I near the end, my voice trembles and tears start in my eyes.

How does he do it? In just two or three pages he builds a world that fills my heart.

Partly it’s his word choice, the unexpected verb or adjective that surprises and transports me. And there are the startling images he uses. Both can be seen in this excerpt from “Cool Things”:

. . . the way the young mother at the bus-stop has her infant swaddled and huddled against her chest like a blinking extra heart, and the way a very large woman wears the tiniest miniskirt with a careless airy pride that makes me so happy I can hardly squeak . . .

A blinking heart. Airy. Squeak. They shock us, these revelations; they draw us in to the world of the story by linking it in new ways to the world we know.

Partly his essays are unforgettable because he does go big. He doesn’t hesitate to take on huge ideas, universal themes, and look at them in new ways, connecting them to our ordinary, our extraordinary lives. For instance, in “On Miraculousness” he uses an exquisitely described encounter with a little girl who is terribly crippled, out on the beach with her family, to—implicitly—look at the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Another technique he uses is to take on the voice of someone else, easing into it with the slightest of transitions, but giving us this genuine voice, this glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. For instance, here is the beginning of “A Child is Not a Furniture”:

One time when I lived in Chicago I spent an hour talking to a woman who was wearing a dress of the brightest red I have ever seen in all my born days and I have lived fifty years. This was on the Cicero Avenue bus at three in the morning. She said she was returning to the apartment where she lived with her husband. I inquired after children and she said,

My husband and I trying to welcome children but as yet we have not been blessed. I would like to have five children. I am myself one of five. My husband however an only child of complex circumstances. He have misgivings and forebodings.

Most of all, though, what makes Brian Doyle’s work so profound is that, as dancers say, he leaves it all on the stage. He doesn’t hold anything back. He lets us into all his secrets, shows us his warts and his wonder, his deep appreciation for our flawed and amazing time on earth.

He is missed.

What books are you turning to for comfort and courage?