A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

9780804172707_p0_v1_s118x184

You’ve probably heard about Yanagihara’s novel. It’s won prestigious awards, been the finalist for others, and garnered mostly rave reviews. You’ve probably heard that it’s about four men, close friends, just out of college and ready to take on the world, starting with New York City in the 1990s.

It’s not. It starts out that way, but quickly focuses on one of the men, the mysterious Jude. While Jude works as a lawyer, Willem, his roommate in both college and their new ratty apartment, wants to make it as an actor. Jean-Batiste, known as JB, is an artist, while Malcolm has started on his architect career.

Only Malcolm comes from a wealthy family, but all quickly become successful, in the sense of being fabulously wealthy and/or famous. That, combined with their not having children, or in some cases spouses, put them for me in the realm of television soap opera. Yes, of course, such lives exist, but that all four should have such over-the-top success strained my credulity.

Of course, there’s plenty of unhappiness to go around. Let no one tell you this is an easy book to read. I often had to put it down and go off and read something else. Despite the glitter and the sustaining friendships, I found the misery so profound that I had to get away.

While three of the friends have their troubles with lovers or drugs, it is Jude whose suffering dominates the book. We learn early on that there is some trauma in his past that has left him with a serious limp and so much pain that he cuts himself regularly. It is the mystery of Jude’s past that keeps us reading. Yanagihara drops bits of information like breadcrumbs leading us ever deeper into the story.

The scenes of Jude cutting his own flesh are almost intolerable. While most of the book is written in an immersive point of view (POV), in those scenes Yanagihara draws back a little, pulling out of the deep dive into Jude’s emotions and instead simply shows his actions leading up to the moment. Then she allows Jude to describe what he is doing with almost clinical detachment.

Immersive POV has become popular in today’s fiction. Whether using first person (“I”) or third person (“he, she”), the author can modulate how deeply to go into the character’s thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. In a blog post, Donald Maass describes the importance of using immersion a tool in service of the story, as well as the danger of overusing it. He cautions: “Overloading the reader with a POV character’s mental and emotional state takes not only page time, but room in the reader’s imagination. Readers need space. Force feed them everything there is to experience about a character and readers may, paradoxically, experience little.”

By modulating this distance, Yanagihara keeps the reader from being completely overwhelmed. For example, compare these three passages, all from Jude’s POV:

A year ago, he had begun working on a defense for a gigantic pharmaceutical company called Malgrave and Baskett whose board of directors was being sued by a group of the shareholders for malfeasance, incompetence, and neglect of their fiduciary duties.

There were two ways of forgetting. For many years, he had envisioned (unimaginatively) a vault, and at the end of day, e would gather the images and sequences and words that he didn’t want to think about again and open the heavy steel door only enough to hurry them inside, closing it quickly and tightly.

He felt a pull of regret after talking to both of them, but he was determined. He was no good for them, anyway; he was only an extravagant collection of problems, nothing more. Unless he stopped himself, he would consume them with his needs. He would take and take and take from them until he had chewed away their every bit of flesh . . .

You can see how these passages progressively go deeper into Jude’s emotions. It’s up to the author to find the right balance for the story.

Another tool Yanagihara uses is changing the verb tense. At certain points in the story while we are in Jude’s POV (with one exception when we are in Willem’s), she shifts into using the present tense, providing a sense of immediacy and upping the tension. Then she falls back into past tense, either with a flashback or by starting a new section. She also moves occasionally into first person POV, always using the same character as narrator, one whose identity only gradually becomes apparent. This, too, changes the emotional intensity.

While I can appreciate how Yanagihara carefully modulates the verb tense changes, POV, and the degree of immersion, I still felt overwhelmed emotionally, if not intellectually. As a writer, I learned from reading this book that a good reason to pull back from immersion is if your story is so disturbing that the reader needs a bit more distance.

I found it a challenging book to read, partly because of the emotional overload and partly because of its length (814 pages in my paperback). Still, I learned a lot about using immersive POV, first versus third person POV, and verb tense changes effectively.

Have you read a novel where you felt immersed in the protagonist’s thoughts, experiences, and emotions? Did you feel there was too little immersion, too much, or just the right amount?

The Grandmothers, by Doris Lessing

9780060530112_p0_v3_s118x184

My friend Jill recommended this collection of four short novels. This book was new to me, though I’ve read a number of Lessing’s books, including a reread of The Golden Notebook and Lessing’s autobiography. In these stories, as in much of her work, Lessing examines unusual relationships with a piercing honesty and deep understanding of human nature.

You won’t find a typical boy-meets-girl story here. It’s one of the things I love about her work. I’ve always objected to the idea—less prevalent these days but not gone entirely—that a woman’s only story is about love and marriage. How many movie versions of books have you seen that have been Hollywood-ized by the addition of a love interest? Even nonfiction gets distorted this way. I’m thinking of Under the Tuscan Sun, though I heard recently that there were attempts to add a love affair to the recent film about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

By going at relationships from an odd angle, Lessing brings a freshness to weary tropes and produces startling insights.

At first I thought Jill was recommending the book because of the title story, since we’d just been talking about grandparenting. Lessing’s grandmothers are two longtime close friends who live across the road from each other in a small, southern, seaside town far from England. The story follows Roz and Lily as their marriages founder, their sons Tom and Ian, and eventually the women their sons marry and their daughters. I don’t want to give away too much, but their is a quirk in this seemingly normal setup that will make you think about family interactions and what we mean to each other in ways you never have before.

The second novel, “Victoria and the Staveneys”, looks at a mother and daughter and the child’s father. It’s about dreams and talismans and the pressures of society. Each character, even the secondary characters, is so fully realized that you will find yourself inhabiting lives you never imagined.

The final novel shows us quiet Jimmy Reid from his youth, as he introduced by his outgoing friend Donald to a socialist summer school where Jimmy is “dazzled by this largesse of new ideas, faces, friends.” It follows him through World War II and beyond, but this is not a story about battles and bloodshed. It is about one person with a goal, a fantasy perhaps, and how he pursues it. I have rarely read a story so emotionally vibrant. The places and people, the events and motivations, if not what I expected, still ring so true.

As it turns out, Jill encouraged me to read the book because of the third novel, “The Reason for It”, an extraordinarily prescient look at the last days of an imagined culture. It is narrated by the last of the Twelve, appointed as Guardians of the people by Destra, a ruler already old when our narrator was born. Following the reign of her husband, a cruel tyrant, Destra initiated an age of peace and prosperity, an age of stories and songs. Destra selected twelve children to be educated in her house along with her adopted son DeRod, with the understanding that at some point they would elect among themselves a ruler and the remaining twelve would become a council.

Although it was not required, when they were fifteen, they elected DeRod as the ruler. Since then their culture has gradually dissolved.

I would like to have the time to write down the wealth of tales and stories that seem to have been lost. How could they have been lost? I have lived now for nearly a hundred years. For at least half that time the tales and songs were on everybody’s lips. And yet now only old people—my son can be described as old—remember them.

Without memories of the past, what is left is entertainment, insolence and casual violence. Festivals of songs and stories have been replaced by military festivals of army exercises and fighting. DeRod has become obsessed with a new building project, excavating an ancient city.

As in the other stories, Lessing brings these people and their culture to life. With none of his companions to turn to, the narrator sets out to understand what has happened and what, if anything, he can do about it. The first step must be to delve into DeRod’s behavior and choices and see this man clearly for the first time.

To me, the great joy and gift of reading is to inhabit other lives and experience other worlds. Lessing’s stories challenged me and changed me in subtle ways.

What fiction have you read that seems to shed light on our own time?

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

9780802124739_p0_v2_s118x184

Macdonald’s memoir has won prizes and gotten rave reviews; it deserves them all. She lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless. In a rare consensus, my book club all thought it a remarkable, if harrowing, story.

There are three strands to this book. The most obvious is her story of raising and training a hawk—and not just any hawk, but a goshawk, fiercest and most stubborn of them all, whom she names Mabel. Then there is the motivation behind her decision to adopt the hawk: her grief over her father’s death, which is wound tightly through the story of training Mabel. The third strand tells of T. H. White’s life and his attempts to train a goshawk.

The images in the first few pages tell us that we are going to be in for a rough ride. She is headed to an area called the Brecklands: the broken lands. In Neolithic times, it was the center of the flint industry. She gives us half-eaten pigeons and a fragment of a songbird’s leg, bomb craters and crumbled buildings on a base where nuclear bombs were stored. She walks through clearcut forest patches with torn roots, where even the light is broken. Amid all this harshness and death, she gives us a pair of goshawks in a startlingly apt description:

. . . they were loving the space between each other, and carving it into all sorts of beautiful concentric chords and distances. A couple of flaps, and the male, the tiercel, would be above the female, and then he’d drift north of her, and then slip down, fast, like a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl underneath her, and she’d dip a wing, and then they’d soar up again.

Who cares about mixed metaphors when the montage works so well? She describes her difficulty remembering the days immediately following her father’s death: “The memories are like heavy blocks of glass. I can put them down in different places but they don’t make a story.”

Even individual words shiver and resonate, such as when she speaks of the falconers with “vowels that bespoke Eton and Oxford”, conjuring images of made-to-order suits.

It’s hard for a writer to balance three strands of story. At points, the strands are explicitly intertwined and other times left to echo against each other. Some of us in the book club gloried in the knowledgeable details of training Mabel, while others found that part repetitive. Several people thought there was too much about White’s tragic life and unintentionally cruel attempts to train his hawk.

What moved all of us though, was Macdonald’s growing identification with her hawk, the way they played together, understood each other, partnered in the hunt. While not explicitly stated, it seemed obvious that she saw in Mable not just companionship, not just a challenging task, but an escape from her misery, even a way to control death itself.

Some of us felt qualms about taming a wild creature. Macdonald makes it clear at the very beginning that it is the breeders and trainers who have brought these hawks back from the edge of extinction. Still, when I watch the hawks circling and diving into the woods behind my house, I cannot imagine any justification for taming them to my commands. Our relationship to animals is a complicated business, and it is to Macdonald’s credit that she provides us space and experience to give shape to our discussion.

Macdonald’s long experience with hawks, her wide reading and close attention to her surroundings enrich almost every passage in this book. There are gorgeous descriptions of chalk fields and brambles and forests. There are references to other books, such as to J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, which I read several years ago. Sharing some of her research into White’s life, she comes up with surprising insights into some of the sources for incidents in his beloved book The Once and Future King.

There is a lot of loss in this book, and Macdonald doesn’t flinch from showing you gory death close up. There is also much that is sweet and even triumphant, such as Mabel playing catch with her or the memory of her father’s quirky quest to photograph all the bridges across the Thames. And like the best memoirs, it gives us a chance to live someone else’s life for a bit, experience the world as they do.

Have you read a memoir that has changed your view of the world?

The Constitution of the United States of America

constitution2

One of my book clubs chose to read the U.S. Constitution a few months ago, inspired by Khizr Khan’s speech at the 2016 Democratic convention. This week seemed to be an appropriate time to look at it again. Regardless of your political leanings, if you are a U.S. citizen this is the foundational document and primary source for your country’s government.

I realise that one can spend years learning about all the interpretations and rulings that have added layer after layer to this short document. Some book club members read additional books to expand their understanding, but I wanted to start fresh here.

Some of us had read the Constitution back in our schooldays; others never had. I think we were all surprised by how much we’d forgotten or perhaps not noticed in the first place.

Of course, this week all eyes are on Article I, Section 9: the emoluments clause intended to ensure that our elected officials are not bribed by “any King, Prince, or foreign State.” We expect our elected officials to put the good of the country before their personal gain. You could argue that this possibility is already covered by the treason clause (Article III, Section 3), since accepting a bribe would also be putting another country’s interest before that of the U.S. and therefore giving them “Aid and Comfort.” Still, I’m glad it is spelled out.

The sentence just before that in Section 9 amused me: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” A few years ago I visited Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire, England, home of George Washington’s ancestors. One of the guides told me that a few days earlier a contingent of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members had toured the house. These women had assured the guide that they were the aristocracy of the U.S. I said no, that was just their personal fantasy, and that I was sure they were not representative of the DAR as a whole. I added that my mother, who had been invited to join, had refused. Despite her interest and pride in her family history, she thought it was un-American to think yourself special because your family had been here since the revolution.

I was also surprised that there were only two casual mentions of Native Americans in the document. This was another headslap moment, though, because I certainly knew about tribal sovereignty. Tribal nations are considered “domestic dependent nations” whose relationship to the U.S. is different from that of a foreign nation. There are limitations on tribal nations’ sovereignty just as there are limitations on the sovereignty of states and the federal government.

Whatever else I’d forgotten, I remember the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. I come back often to the first of them which assures freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and rights of assembly and petition. This one seems in most danger today.

Other amendments provide a curious glimpse into the country’s history, such as Amendment III against housing soldiers in people’s homes without their consent (except in case of war and then only according to law). This is not something most of us worry about today, but it was a big issue for the colonists.

And the U.S.’s shame is spelled out here as well. Why would amendments be needed to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color (Amendment XV) or gender (Amendment XIX)? Surely Amendment XIV should have been enough since it guarantees the civil rights of “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” and says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Thus we are reminded that there was a time not that long ago when people of color and women were not actually considered “persons”.

I’m glad my book club pushed me to reread the Constitution and reacquaint myself with this country’s first principles.

Have you read the Constitution recently?

No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, by Ann Bracken

NoBarking_front cover

This powerful new collection of poems by Ann Bracken, author of The Altar of Innocence, tells of her work with learning disabled and emotionally disturbed students in settings from inner city Richmond to several Maryland public high schools and colleges.

In the best poems, she helps us see beyond the fierce bravado of the teenagers to the scared child within. The power of these poems comes from Bracken’s attention to detail, her evocation of voice, and her emotional restraint. She holds her sorrow and indignation in check while giving us a chance to get to know these young people before revealing their secrets.

While demonstrating the control that enables the reader to fully enter the experience, Bracken’s generous heart drives these poems. In describing teachers’ struggles with administrators who sometimes appear to care more about numbers and public perception than children, she doesn’t lose sight of the forces constraining the administrators: the numb surrender to seemingly intractable problems, the determination to keep the school running.

In Bracken’s hands, poetry becomes a peculiarly effective way to convey the reality of the classroom. Individual poems are intensely focused on a single person, giving a voice to those whose voices are rarely heard. Together these poems create an unforgettable mosaic of the experience of teaching adolescents, whether they are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, or stressed in other ways.

The understanding gained from experiencing a student-centered teacher as she works with students, administrators, and other teachers will benefit anyone interested in education and the reality of classroom teaching.

Best books I read in 2016

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2016. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought. Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime. This book changed my view of the natural world.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

4. Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

This collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence. Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. Other essays take us further afield. Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

5. The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning.

6. Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

7. The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison. Through a “chorus of voices”, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

8. Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

I love these stories. Actually Carter calls them tales, saying they draw on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. While these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation.

9. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home: a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent. I love Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises.

10. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

As this story opens, fifteen-year-old June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What were the best books you read last year?

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

9780140434248_p0_v1_s118x184

This 1855 novel has much to say about our own times. It is the story of eighteen-year-old Margaret Hale who moves with her parents from a rural hamlet in the south of England to the fictional Milton in the industrial north. There is a bit of misdirection at the beginning of the story, which starts in London where Margaret has been living with her aunt, uncle and cousin Eliza for half of her lifetime.

The story then moves to Margaret’s beloved Helstone, where she has returned to live with her parents after Eliza’s wedding. She says Helstone is “‘only a hamlet; I don’t think I could call it a village at all. There is the church and a few houses near it on the green—cottages, rather—with roses growing all over them.’” While there, she awkwardly receives a proposal from the brother of Eliza’s new husband.

So far it seems like a romance, a novel of manners. But then Margaret’s father suffers a crisis of conscience, gives up the church, and moves the family north where he will become a private tutor.

Similar to the U.S., with its tensions between red and blue states, coasts and midlands, the U.K. has traditionally been divided between the industrial north and the agricultural south. These tensions drive the story. Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Gaskell uses Margaret’s mistakes and misunderstandings to explore issues related to the first-generation cotton mills and those who own or work in them.

When the Hales first arrive in Milton, they detest the noise and hurry and dirt. Margaret takes a dislike to her first acquaintance, John Thornton, brusque owner of Marlborough Mill and her father’s first pupil. She looks down on him as a tradesman, “sagacious, and strong” but “not quite a gentleman”. She criticises him, too, for not caring for his workers outside of work hours, saying he should be giving them moral instruction and making sure they have enough food and a decent place to live. But that is not how things are done in the north, where workers are free to make their own choices once they leave work.

Margaret quickly befriends a young woman, Bessy Higgins, whose father John works in another mill. Horrified by their poverty and Bessy’s “cotton consumption”, a disease caused by the air quality in the mills, Margaret invites herself to their home to bring a basket of food, as she used to do in the south for her father’s poorer parishioners. To her surprise, the Higginses are offended. As she learns to respect their independence, they become friends.

Margaret’s mistakes and missteps in what to her is an entirely new culture mirror our own easy assumptions from the beginning of the story: that a London wedding and an awkward proposal in a pastoral rose garden signalled a familiar story of romance. Gaskell’s clever misdirection resulted in my feeling great sympathy for Margaret as she struggles to to look past her preconceptions and recognise what is really there.

Margaret’s coming-of-age story alone is sturdy enough to carry the reader’s attention, but what I found intriguing were the even-handed discussions about the rights and responsibilities of “masters” and “men”. These organically arise in the story as Margaret’s reactions, conversations between her father and Thornton, Thornton and his fellow mill owners, and—most interestingly—between Thornton and Higgins, whom Margaret brings together.

Thornton complains that workers don’t understand the market forces that prevent him from raising their wage, while the workers believe he is just living in luxury while they suffer.

As Thornton and Higgins begin a strange sort of friendship, their mistrust and misunderstanding of each other fade and their respect grows. Thornton has already installed a wheel to draw out the cotton fluff that fills the air and destroys lungs, over the objections of some workers who believe all the fluff they swallow inadvertently helps prevent hunger. Thornton works with Higgins to provide a hot midday meal for the workers, so they at least get one good meal a day.

As workers, our concerns today are less about food and more about health care and other benefits, but the same mitigation holds true. In companies where owners and workers communicate, such as the one where I was lucky enough to work, benefits and the occasional necessary belt-tightening are out in the open.

The novel takes place during a time of great social upheaval. Industrialisation was changing the job market—Margaret’s mother can’t find a maid willing to work for a Helstone wage when young women could be earning more in a factory—at the same time that railroads were revolutionising movement. And everything was speeding up.

We are at a similar crossroads. Globalisation and automation are changing the face of work. Without unions—whose pros and cons are explored here too—workers are at the mercy of the bosses. With so many companies being publicly traded rather than owned by one person or one family, there is no Thornton to appeal to. Income inequality is even worse than during Gaskell’s time. And, yes, things seem to be speeding up even more.

One way to gain a more balanced view of the issues which divide us today is to look at how they played out in the past. This novel, sweetened as it is by Margaret’s story, is an excellent start.

Have you read a novel that’s helped you understand one of today’s issues?

Playlist 2016

Songs, vocal or instrumental, are stories too. And sometimes poetry. These are the songs I kept coming back to this year. Many thanks to my friends for their music. In the end, though, I head back to work, making my own stories.

Bird on a Wire, Jennifer Warnes
Candles In The Dark, Jacqueline Schwab
Oft in the Stilly Night, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Jacqueline Schwab
Isle of Islay, Donovan
Catch the Wind, Donovan
Black Is the Color, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Handsome Molly, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Wagoner’s Lad, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Storms Are On the Ocean, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Kesh Jigs, Scythian
Malt Is Come Down, Sweet Felons All
Singing Bird, Leela & Ellie Grace
Seamus O’Brien, The Latter Day Lizards
Honeysuckle Cottage, Band of Friends
Whately Barn, Band of Friends
Nostalgia, Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo
Cinema Paradiso: Nostalgia, Yo-Yo Ma/Morricone
Fields Of Gold, Eva Cassidy
Under The Greewood Tree, Hubert Parry
The Blackbird, Hubert Parry
The Lark Ascending, Vaughn Williams Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Bach: Concerto For 2 Violins In D Minor, BWV 1043 Itzahk Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman; Daniel Barenboim: English Chamber Orchestra
Get Behind The Mule, Tom Waits

What have you been listening to this year?

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

9780812982855_p0_v3_s118x184

This 2013 debut novel came highly recommended. I approached it cautiously, prepared to be disappointed, only to be thoroughly charmed by the voice of the narrator, fifteen-year-old June. One of the blurbs compared her to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I thought immediately of Cassandra in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Both young women are imaginative and well-read. Both have beloved older sisters who seem to be moving away from them. Both are set apart from their peers, Cassandra by her peculiar family and living situation, June by a special friendship.

The voice alone would have carried me through the novel, but the story is gripping as well. As it opens, June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. It is the late 1980s, when AIDS was still new enough that, unsure of how it was transmitted, people feared and shunned the infected.

For June, who hardly saw her accountant parents during tax season and was ignored or tortured by her older sister, Finn was the one person with whom she could be herself. He took her to the Cloisters and Renaissance festivals and museums. He shared her fascination with the Middle Ages. She would often walk into the woods to pretend she lives in another time altogether. His death has left her bereft.

The story moves easily between memories of times with Finn and the present of the story: tax season, with the girls left alone to care for themselves. Popular Greta, who is two years older, is in her last year of high school, having been moved up a grade. She is starring in play at school and struggling with her own demons.

June is stunned by the loss of her confidante, struggling with the idea of death and, later, with the impossible task Finn has left for her.

There is so much I love about this story: June’s imaginative life that reminds me so much of my own at that age, the relationship between the sisters, the absent Finn and his care for his niece, the mounting suspense as events close in around June. I especially love the use of symbols.

I’ve always appreciated the use of symbols, particularly when they mean something a little different each time they reappear. The best at using symbols is Paul Scott, author of The Jewel in the Crown and other novels. In an essay, “Imagination in the Novel”, he describes how he came up with the central symbol of one of my favorite novels, his Birds of Paradise. His idea for the novel began with an image of a woman appearing in a doorway. The idea of her wearing “fine feathers” leads him to his symbol.

Sometimes this thing that glitters appears, sometimes it doesn’t. The thing that glitters is often a symbol. If the symbol can be justified, it is best to use it for all it is worth, to be honest about it, to say: “This is my symbol and this is what it means.” . . .

It was the idea of birds of paradise that glittered, and they became my symbol because, upon investigation, they not only stirred me with the idea of their beauty, but yielded information pertinent to the idea of the woman in the doorway and to the general climate of something having come to an end. Research brought knowledge.

Later he adds a third factor: “an experience of the oddity of life. The imagination, the knowing, and the experience finally cohere into a pattern.”

In Brunt’s novel we have various symbols: the woods where anything can happen, June’s medieval boots given her by Finn. The main symbol, though, is the wolves. June hears a pack of them in the woods—they are part of her secret world, and it’s significant when and with whom she’s willing to share them. And then wolves begin to emerge in unlikely places. At one point she says they are “hungry and selfish.”

This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What are you reading that has moved you deeply?

Calyx, Volume 24, No. 1

24_1_cover

Cleaning out a box, I came across this copy of Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. I’m not sure where it came from, but I could tell right away that I had never read it. The opening story was so gripping, I knew I would not have forgotten it.

In “Goulash”, by Anna Balint, the fourteen-year-old narrator is in Budapest, Hungary with her parents and younger brothers visiting Uncle Zoltan and his family: Auntie Eszter and their daughter Gizi. They are all on their way out into the countryside, a trip Zoltan didn’t want to take and Eszter is still angry about. But Mum fought for it, Mum who refuses to speak Hungarian, who claims she is “English, English, English.” There is much here about language and heritage and what we choose to remember, about denial and loss, all wrapped in a story full of enticing scents and sounds, the taste of apricots and hot peppers, singing in the night, and outstretched hands.

The poetry in this volume, too, is stunning. Each poem resounded deep within me. Such innocent images at first, drawing the reader in, ever further in, through forests of joy or comfort or peace. Take “Doorpost”, by Laurie Patton:

There is a lightness
when we cross a threshold—
. . .
No matter the sorrow,
every door holds a hope

And then the memories summoned by the room’s objects begin to multiply, memories of joys and losses, of days past, days that can seem like a future—all conveyed in just a few lines. And then the final lines subtly tie these memories to the image of the door, the threshold, the liminal space between past and future.

There is art here as well, black and white photographs of paintings and sculptures, starting with four pieces by Leah Kosh that seem to unearth hidden memories in me, truths I once knew but have let slip away. Kosh says, “My paintings most often explore the belief that there are a multiplicity of realities co-existing and that these realities are our shadows and our mirrors—always with us, rarely acknowledged.”

Four substantial reviews of books by women close the volume.

Each piece in this issue is a gem. I am stunned by the quality of the works and their diversity. There are stories of a girl who sees her absent mother as a star floating in a pond, of a young woman whose boyfriend’s age seems to be going backwards, of an older woman who has suffered one too many accidents. There are astonishing poems about crows and dancing and walking in the dark.

There are hundreds of literary magazines out there. I used to subscribe each year to a different one, until I hit a rough patch timewise and decided to get through the backlog before continuing. However, there has always been one so consistently good that I’ve continued to subscribe to it and read year after year.

I think I’ve just found a second one.

What literary magazines have you enjoyed reading?