Category Archives: fiction

Beyond the Pale

In the fifties, we had our milk delivered daily. It came in quart-size glass bottles with a pint of cream on the side. There was a little cabinet on our back porch with two doors. Our delivery man opened the small cupboard, gathered the empties which had been washed by my mother, looked for instructions which may have requested either more or less, depending on the time of year, and then placed our milk in its little home and went on to the next house. It was often my job to open the other side, housed as it was in the laundry room, and put the bottles in the fridge. Gifted with a crazy imagination, I went through the small opening, trying to prove that a skinny milkman could rob us blind if that were his intention. Everyone would scoff at my fears because a milkman was always in a position of trust.

We learn in the opening pages of Anna Burn’s Man Booker Prize-winning book, named Milkman, that this is not a cozy tale redolent of all things shiny and secure as we now tend to think about the fifties. This book is set in Northern Ireland in the seventies at the height of what is usually referred to as the troubles, and the milkman was probably not a milkman at all, but a para-military, sinister figure, stalking the narrator.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads, and I did not care about the shooting of this man.” Page 1.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of the Booker Prize judging panel, put it this way: “From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world- threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads- while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman.”

The protagonist, recipient of not only the threat, from Somebody McSomebody but judgments and warnings from the rest of the community went mysteriously, unnamed. Her family is as well, and we distinguish them, one from another, through their place in the grand scheme of things. She is known as “middle sister.” To the best of my knowledge, this is a first. What fills me with enormous curiosity are these two questions: why did she choose to tell the story this way, and how was she not talked out of it?

The book is not given to explanations. The troubles, the author assumes are well-known to everyone and need no history lesson. The same goes for geography, and the nature of the conflict, the violence and mistrust everywhere in the community. People from “over the water,” or “over the border” or “over the road” are the anchors we understand. She never writes of England, or Great Britain, or Ireland or the west. Instead, she chose to write of the state, of the resisters to the state, to organizers and suspected para-military. It gives the setting a surreal, other-worldly aspect. There is something fantastical in the tale that I clumsily struggle to define. By using these devices, leaving names, and place names vague and untethered, we are forced to work a bit harder to find our own place for them. The heart of the matter becomes more prevalent because denied our judgments and bigotry; we must begin anew. The conflict starts to feel everlasting. If you consider that the Anglo-Norman claim to the Pale, the strip of land under their rule, goes back to 1169, one can only imagine what a tangled web, woven over hundreds and hundreds of years can succeed at all. How does one distinguish the occupiers from the occupied when they all look the same?

“Every resident was supposed to know what was permitted based on what was not permitted.” page 24.

“There was the fact that you created a political statement everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to.” Page 25

One can imagine the tension facing mothers in the midst of the era where it all started coming to a head. Sons disappeared and took up arms: daughters must be married, safely and quickly and into the right religion. Occupiers must prove they are superior, which has come down as the ultimate justification for the plantations of the seventeenth century. The occupied fight this concept at every turn, and therein lies the trouble. Stubborn determination, bred in the bone, allows citizens to maintain who they are, no matter what happens. That is the crux of the issue and the territory the protagonist must negotiate. Wearily, putting the book down late at night, I would think, what are her chances?

I know I am a rare bird regarding my love of stream of consciousness writing. When done well, it takes my breath away. I also understand why professors, editors, and publishers may be less fond, but the very best of it is astonishing.

Depression would seem endemic, but the mother speaking of her husband said, “I never understood your father. When all was said and done, daughter, what had he got to be psychological about?” Page 81

Burns answers the question in very characteristic and mind-boggling style.

“She meant depressions, for da had had then: big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along to the grave type of depression.” Page 85

That is a far cry from Winston Churchill’s black dog. The habit of heaping description- upon-description remained consistent throughout. As always, it is up to the reader to decide if this sits well with them or not. With so many books coming out every year, with so many favorite authors from whom to choose, with endless topics and settings, we owe a debt to the judges and the publishers and the editors who find strokes of genius in a great unfolding succession. Milkman was the first choice of 2019 for The Best Food Ever Book Club which has plumbed the depths of the long-list and the short-list lo these three decades we have been reading together. We never even scratch the surface of all the great literature waiting for us to ingest. Where will we go from here?

Milkman was quite beyond the pale.

“Go South to the River.”

 

 

 

sing unburied singTwo time winning ward

Can we write about characters who are broken? Can we write about mothers who cannot seem to feed or care for their children? How does such a narrative hold the reader’s attention? After being in The Best Food Ever Book Club for the past three decades, I have heard many dissenting opinions about characters who fill the pages of our selections. There have been passionate arguments about the merits of books, and some have been quick to weigh in on the likeability of those whose thoughts will fill our heads as we read. The protagonist must capture our hearts; if everyone around them leaves little to admire, we will pull for the hero to break free. This is how I would describe JoJo, the thirteen-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood in Jesamyn Ward’s, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

As the author won the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones and has now gone on to win another, she brings a hefty amount of literary chops to the challenge. In her recent novel, she describes the difficulties before JoJo which seem nearly insurmountable. If anyone reading this is of the age-old belief that we are all born with the same chance in this great country, I would advise reading Jesmyn Ward. Isn’t it the greatest trick, or achievement, to actually change a reader’s philosophy, or understanding of life, by describing a family in the midst of their world and struggles? Will this allow the reader to see how much smooth sailing they may have had in life compared to someone born deep in the swamps of Mississippi whose ancestors were slaves? Through every page of this book, the reader is forced to accept that some families do not need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps because there have not been any boots for generations. How will this end? That is what kept me up at night caught in the grips of this magical tale.

The road-trip story has had a place in my heart since reading Jack Kerouac in my teens. If everyone seems to be rolling along, just barely coping, as soon as they get in the car and attempt to go on a journey, our anxiety begins to increase. In the case of Sing, Unburied, Sing, the destination is a prison. JoJo’s white father is about to be released. His white grandfather will not have anything to do with him, but they plan a visit nevertheless. This knowledge increased his fragile identity, and I wished he was able to stay home with his black grandfather who cared for him.

With all of the families’ frailties, his dysfunctional mother, Leonie stands out above all others. JoJo’s baby sister clings to him by instinct, and it is our hero who looks out for her. Sometimes, as when in the hands of a skilled author, we yearn for the protagonist to turn out to be a fine upstanding man, but feel the deck is stacked against him. What are the odds? What will have to change in his life for this to happen? Of all the suspenseful situations an author can put her characters in, nothing keeps this reader clutching a book more than a baby who needs to be fed. There is no better way to describe a marginalized society than through the eyes of a hungry child.

This book lingered in my mind for weeks. Bits and pieces would come back to me while on walks, or working, or making dinner. It was the mood that would return. There is such a dreamy quality to this work. Ghosts inhabit the characters, as surely as they must remain in those swamps down south. There can never be enough stories of what happened after the slaves were free. Never. When an author can describe the merest remnants of African culture, passed down by the merest of threads, the story begins to inhabit my imagination and dreams.

From Page 174:

“The inside of the store is so cool and the outside air so hot and wet that the windows are fogged up. I can’t see Leonie’s car from inside, only the smeared gray on the glass. The man at the counter got a big brown bushy beard, every hair going every which way on his face, but the rest of him is thin and yellow, even his hair which he’s combed over his head to hide the baldness underneath. It works, too, because his scalp is as yellow as the rest of him, so it’s hard for me to tell where his skin ends and his hair sprouts.”

This is the voice of JoJo relating his impression of the roadside stop.

Ward is at her lyrical best when she writes in the voice of a ghost.

From Page 191:

“Today when Jojo came to Parchman, I woke to the whispering of the white snake, which had dug a nest down into the earth with me so he could speak to me in my ear. So he would curl about my head in the dark and whisper, If you would rise, I can take you across the waters of this world to another. This place binds you. Keep the scale, even if you cannot fly. Go south, to River, to the face of the waters. He will show you. Go south.”

Every family has a story, and every one of them is worth telling. The greatness of the endeavor would have to lie in the chosen word, and in the author’s skill. Jesmyn Ward has achieved all of this by winning the National Book Award for the second time.

The Opposite of Nothing is Something

Thien

The very best writing reads like music. It has rhythm. It has style. Madeline Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a symphony. The author weaves a tale of her native China, the tragic and tumultuous history with the stories of interlaced characters pulled through generations. We see history not only as it unfolds, but in the impact, it has on its people. The book is an extraordinary achievement winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize and being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2016. While the competition for both prizes was intense, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a standout.

Thien‘s style is intricate and beautiful. She is deft at moving through settings, characters and time. It is a book that can be described, as Annie Lamont put it, written ‘word by word.‘ From the very start, I found myself inwardly gasping at the beauty of her writing.

The book opens with a profound and engaging beginning. “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.” Page 3.

From this start, we follow Thien’s journey to understand the events that led to this pass. She is living in Vancouver, in an apartment shared with her mother when we first encounter this thoughtful, cerebral girl. Before long a third person arrives without a coat and carrying a light suitcase. She is a family friend whose history is connected to theirs. What links them together is the fact that both of the fathers were musicians forbidden to practice their craft in the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. If music sustained her father, Marie finds a home in mathematics.

From Page 191:

“In the spring of 2000, after my mother passed away, I gave myself entirely to my studies. The logic of mathematics-its methods of induction and deduction, its power to describe abstract shapes that have no counterpart in the real world- sustained me. I moved out of the apartment that my mother had been renting ever since she and Ba first came to Canada, and in which I had grown up. Desperate to leave it behind, I cobbled together every penny I had and bought a dilapidated apartment on Alexander Street. The windows looked straight out into the port of Vancouver and, at night, the endless arrivals and departures of multi-coloured shipping containers, what they held, what they divulged, comforted me.
I kept my parents’ papers in the bedroom closet and a Cantor taped to the wall: ‘The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.’”

This picture finds an easy grace in my imagination. The link between Shanghai and the western ports of North America, where we now receive goods too staggering in size to even contemplate from a nation that was once brought to its knees is both beautiful and sad. That is the tone of the work; it hit the right note for winter reading. Every once in a great while, we pick up a book that deserves to be read twice. Some sentences are so profound that the reader needs to stop and puzzle through them. Sometimes it means putting the book down and returning to awaiting tasks with the thoughts presented rattling around begging for more time.

From Page 419:

“I know that throughout my life I have struggled to forgive my father. Now, as I get older, I wish most of all that he had been able to find a way to forgive himself. In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept, and also, finally, to let it go. That’s what I would tell my father. To have faith that, one day, someone else will keep the record.”

Ideally, a great novel gives us a new understanding, either of times and events or, in the best possible scenario, of the pages of our own story. Madeline Thien’s work carries the power to do this. Could it be possible that I feel as if I am a better person for having read  Do Not Say We Have Nothing? I hope so. For God knows, there is much work to be done.

winning thien    Madeleine Thien

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Rave Reviews for Idaho

 

Idaho ruskovich

 

 

Emily Ruskovich’s debut is causing a stir. The praise for her writing skills is well-deserved. Her prose has a maturity well beyond her years. From the first page, the reader is at home in this book, curious to learn more and is turning the pages feverishly. The book has dreamy qualities where time seems to be on the back burner while a magnifying glass is applied to an horrific event in which all characters are caught. The harsh and beautiful environment is lovingly and emotionally depicted by the author who is no stranger to the scene. She is a native of our beautiful North Idaho who sings the praises of our fair skies. The characters remain with the reader who cannot put them down or explain them away by any of the normal means. If a book lingers on in the mind, the way this one promises to do, one tends to expect its journey out in the world to be full of praise.

How does the place manage to be so central to the story? The first question one would ask is that could this story be transplanted into say, Kansas City, and read the same. No. In this case, the mountains of Idaho are part of the narrative.

From Page 113:

“Wade and Jenny are prairie people. Prairie people living on a mountain they had not noticed was so much larger than themselves. An acreage purchased in a hurry because it was cheap, because it was nothing like the prairie. Such arrogance and childishness—an avalanche of a dream. But what kind of person would tell them they wouldn’t be trapped on a snowy mountain, when surely, without a tractor or a plow, they would? Still, they should have questioned it. They should have made sure. And now the only other person in the world who knows the truth of their desperation has tattooed his hatred to his hand.”

In spite of the challenges, the story of this family moves along until the day of the murder. The weapon is an ax wielded by a mother, landing on a child. One girl dies, and the other runs away. Wade is left alone with an even bigger problem: his mind is fading with early onset dementia which runs in his family. He meets a music teacher named Ann who decides, in a moment of clarity, that she can take care of him. She inhabits the story in a way that is almost other worldly. She becomes obsessed as she steps into the story as to what really happened on the day of the murder.

Ruskovich has the skill to let the story unfold through the voices and perspectives of other characters. Since we are caught up in the tension of wanting to know more about the events of the fateful day, there is no shortage of curiosity on our part. The way in which the story unfolds is not at all traditional; one part is told through the perspective of a bloodhound.

From page 282:
“The loose skin of a bloodhound is meant to hold the ground. The ears that drag along the forest floor send the scent up the skin, where, trapped within the wrinkles and the folds, it reminds the hound what the trail is even when the trail is lost. The smell of the trail becomes the smell of himself, trapped between the wrinkles of the neck and all around the eyes, which require an effort to rise under the weight of all that skin. Head down, whatever the dog follows he follows blind; gravity heaps the forehead down to the top of the snout, so that the scent between the wrinkles is more of a means of seeing than the eyes of the wrinkles cover..”
“Off-duty, head up, the bloodhound is a different dog. The wrinkles fall open. The forehead is smoothed, the scent let go.
This is how a dog forgets. This is how a dog moves on.
He lifts his head.”

Emily Ruskovich has written an intricate and beautiful book. While she touches on the deep fears we all carry, she also brings to light the good people who come along to help us through. She describes a place full of staggering beauty: a place we know turns pink in the snowy winter sunsets, a place where roads wash out in the spring, but still bring and newcomers who are ready to roll up their sleeves. It is a place where we roar around in boats in the summer, sing songs around the campfire, cut wood for the winter and vow, once found, to never leave. Idaho is not only a great place to live, but it has also inspired Marilynne Robinson‘s novel Housekeeping, has been described by Jess Walters in Beautiful Ruins, was home to Ernest Hemingway and now has played a role in a wonderful book bearing its name.

mineral ridge trail

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Social Satire

 

the-sellout

Wikipedia defines social satire as the means by which “vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are subject to ridicule.”

William Shakespeare, Jonathon Swift, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain may be the most familiar practitioners of the form, but now we have another member of this illustrious club. Largely the purview of cartoonists in today’s world, a brilliant newcomer steps up to stage.

Long in the habit of reading the winner of the Man Booker Prize, this year’s choice did not disappoint. The committee is given the challenge of reading the longlist and then narrowing the field to the shortlist. While it is a daunting task, it is one I would sign up for any day of the week. Choosing the best work from an astonishing array of talent would not be easy, and I can imagine the lively dialogue of dissenting voices. Bookmakers in England bet on the favorite and the choice is never easy. However, one clear voice emerged over all others. Paul Beatty won the coveted award this year.

The Sellout puts you down in a place that’s miles from where it picked you up.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times.

Social satire is the art of mentioning what we dare not say. If an absolute bumbler is indulging in vile discourse, then we have the luxury of laughing, allowing the architect to escape with his or her life. On the back cover of The Sellout the explanation is offered up this way:

“The work of comic genius at the top of his game, The Sellout questions almost every received notion about American society.”

It is not the subject matter or the form alone that intrigues me. Paul Beatty writes with a voice that is so present, it sings.

From Page 11

“When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and a Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of the rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. Putting my homeschool Latin to good use, I’d crank out a motto, then shove it under his heart-shaped plastic nose for approval….
Semper Fi, Semper Funky raised his polyester hackles, and when he began to paw the mattress in anger and reared up on his stubby yellow legs, baring his ursine fangs and claws, I tried to remember what the Cub Scout manual said to do when confronted by and angry cartoon bear drunk on stolen credenza wine and editorial power. ‘If you meet an angry bear-remain calm. Speak in gentle tones, stand your ground, get large, and write in simple, uplifting Latin sentences.
Unum corpus, una mens, una cor, unum amor.
One body, one mind, one heart, one love.
Not bad. It had a nice license plate ring to it.”

Sitting in Quaker State garage, nestled in among an array of tired magazines, the vending machine, and the blaring television set, waiting for the man to come out from the hole in the floor under my car, I was glad to be alone in the small waiting room. If anyone were to observe me reading the last pages of The Sellout, they would have seen a perpetually silly grin on my face. I wished I hadn’t blasted through the book so quickly because the uplift was a welcome respite. I hope I don’t have to wait so long to read a work of great social satire again.

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No Small Potatoes

Map of Idaho potato

There has been a movement afoot in literature to focus on one commodity, and make a book of it. People have written about salt, wine, and chocolate. I wondered if anyone has written about what the great state of Idaho is known for, namely, the potato.
How did this come to pass? How is it that when a person from Idaho travels, he or she is inevitably asked about potatoes. It turns out that Idaho was a trailblazer in this regard when in 1937 the Idaho Potato Commission was founded. This body, funded by a tax paid by potato farmers, set out to advertise on radio and later television, to create a brand identity from a single crop. With a seal fashioned, the customers were encouraged to look for that mark when purchasing what was to become our famous potatoes. Lots of other states grow the crop, but the affection and identity formed by the commission created a market for thirteen billion pounds of spuds, one- third of all those sold in the United States.

Galway Bay

On a past St. Patrick’s Day, a dear friend by the name of Mary, told me about a book she had just read by Mary Pat Kelly. Entitled, Galway Bay, the novel is an actual oral history passed down from one generation to the next. Told primarily through the women, it is the tale of one immigrant family and their travails from Ireland to Chicago. While it is not about the potato famine, called An Gorda Mor in Gaelic, it is the great catalyst of the tale.

“They tried to kill us, but we didn’t die.” The thread of this story, handed down through the ages, is one of incredible hardship and then survival.

When I was in school in Toronto, I recall the day the teacher told us that the famine was caused by a lazy population who stupidly lived on one crop because they could not be bothered to grow anything else.

“When that crop suffered a blight they starved,” she told us, with the implication that they should have known better hanging in the air.

I remember looking out the window, trying to sift through her facts with what I knew about my own family, all of whom are avid gardeners and farmers. At home, I asked if the story were true and heard that food had been exported to England all through those dark days. Imagine having to take the harvest to market, load a ship and return home to a house of desperate want. As the “croppies” were only given a scant bit of land to cultivate for private use, the “pratties” gave the highest yield and provided the greatest nourishment.
These are the facts: 750,000 were confirmed dead of starvation. Bearing in mind that many more died in the coffin ships landing in Montreal and Boston, this would be a severe underestimation. Without the hospitals, or the manpower necessary to deal with the influx, the sick passengers arriving in Quebec were put on an island in the St. Lawrence and left exposed to the elements. Promised, land, cash and food upon arrival, they arrived to find nothing and no way home. The bit of land they left behind on the dear, old sod had been exchanged for the price of their passage. Cecil Woodham Smith reported that during the famine years, 257,000 sheep were exported to England from lands held by absentee landlords. 480,827 swine went over as well as 186,483 head of cattle. Not even mentioning other crops, the picture is clear.
There is a happy ending to this tale. The Irish flourished in both the United States and Canada. Reading Galway Bay prompted me to look up the history of my maternal grandmother, Rose Cahill Gaudette. One of ten children in her family, I learned that her mother was the oldest in a family of ten. Examining records found on Ancestry.com, my blood ran cold when I saw the date. In 1848, Thomas Cahill arrived in Montreal. Famine. Coffin ship. Most of the passengers died, and their bodies were tossed over. Of the living, it was decided to send the Irish on a barge to Toronto. The sun blazed and the fair skins burned. Once again they were placed on an island off shore. Yet the good people of the city rowed out in small boats and volunteered to tend the sick, risking their own lives in the process. The Cahills made their way to the gorgeous Ottawa valley, carved a life in the wilderness, and flourished.

From one noun a great story may unfold.

Still Thinking

My Name is Lucy Barton

It has been four days since I finished reading My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. Having enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge, I picked up this book with great anticipation. It did not disappoint – not in any way. The reason I did not write about this book immediately has to do with the fact that I am still thinking.

What is it that keeps a reader mulling over phrases, words, ideas, scenes and aspects about a book for days after the book is shelved? It is most likely a by-product of tremendous skill. What is the technique or turn of phrase that would keep resonating in the reader’s mind? A page-turner will have me gallop through the plot, desperate to find out what happens, and then once all loose ends are resolved, I barely give it a second thought. In fact, those sorts of stories go into a to-be-donated pile. There would be no reason to re-read it, and therefore, I doubt I would even hang on to it any longer than necessary.

My Name is Lucy Barton could be described as a quiet novel. I applaud Random House, New York for publishing this work because there are legions of people who dislike such stories. Any writer who attends workshops or conferences will hear a great deal of advice about staying away from this style. It is true that it requires a unique skill set to do it well. It has to do with being in the mind of a created character that has sprung to life on the page.

Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton is confined to a hospital bed due to complications from surgery. Her mother, with whom she has had no contact for many years, comes to be with her. It was at the request of Lucy’s husband that she is there, and we learn that right away. So there is tension. Lucy is trapped, and her mother is reluctant. Ordinarily, you would not be able to create a novel around this premise. What keeps the reader engaged is Lucy’s innocence and child-like longing for a response from her mother.

From page 55:

“But it turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly-it was just stupidity- I blurted out, “Mom, I got two stories published.” She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said that I had grown extra toes, then looked out the window and said nothing. “Just dumb ones,” I said, “in tiny magazines.” Still she said nothing.”

My stomach goes into knots reading this exchange. If a terrorist had suddenly burst into the hospital room and shot both of them, the tension would be less in this reader’s imagination. Why would her mother continually behave in such an unloving manner? Perhaps she simply couldn’t, or maybe she was jealous, or maybe that is just who she was, but for whatever reason, I, as the reader, only wanted to close the gap. This is where the story is very unquiet in my mind. Lucy is going to be all right. We know that all along. She says she came from nothing, but she managed to go to college, marry well, raise two daughters and become an accomplished author. We know that she did all this with precious little support- financial or otherwise. She did it all without becoming bitter or hard-nosed. She values kindness and speaks of it often. That makes her heroic in my eyes and makes me think of her as a living entity, long after the pages are shut, and the book takes a well-deserved place on the shelf.

 

 

 

 

Finding Character

“Characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found.” Elizabeth Bowen

200px-Elizabeth_Bowen
This is true. I have no authority to make such a statement, but there it is. Actors speak of finding characters. It is much more than saying the lines, or putting on the costumes. They try different things, talk in front of a mirror, obsess about it, work it, and then one day they will arrive at the set and describe how they found their character. They speak of the precise moment when it happened. It may have sprung from tying scarves around their heads as when Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow, or it could be something that happened with the walk. Somewhere along the way, they become inhabited. That is how I would describe the experience.

In Madeline L’Engle’s case, she woke up from a nap and saw him, Charles Wallace Murray. He was sitting in her room. Other accounts describe dreams or even visions. In my experience, it is dialog. The character starts talking. I am only doing the typing. When this happens, I can barely contain my excitement. I fear that to stifle my imaginary friends would be wrong, so I let them run on. They may have accents, wear funny clothes, or seem a bit strange, but I assume it is not my place to question anything. They may take the story in a new direction. They will be full of surprises. In some cases they will take over, shove me out of the way and tell the story themselves. That is the greatest gift. Every word will flow like a river.

madeleine_lengle_2    Madeline L’Engle

Years ago, a young friend who wrote songs told me that the Creator likes creating. He said that he felt well in his soul when the tunes came to him. It is a strange unknown impulse that drives us all. So if what Elizabeth Bowen said is true, how do we go about this process of finding our characters? I wish I had the answer. It would be a great boon to all kinds of creative people if the method were that simple. In all disciplines, it seems that getting in the mode is the key. Even stage performances will vary from night to night, and when the magic occurs, it will be very fleeting. Those who happened to be at that performance, or at that game, or in that moment, will know it. The greatest characters in all of literature did not start when the author attempted to describe a middle-aged white man or a beautiful young girl. I would hazard a guess that those fantastic beings arrived fully formed. Maybe great souls have a desire to jump back into life this way. If it isn’t happening, don’t worry because if you stick with it for long enough, I am convinced that someone will show up.

While writing My American Eden, I wanted to bring Mary Dyer’s story to life. Since she was the only female inhabitant of Boston in 1635 that Governor Winthrop attempted to describe in his journals, I learned that she was “comely and of no mean estate.” Years later, on Rhode Island, the Governor wrote that she could converse with any man, as well as any man on any topic.” That was my start. I searched and begged for more clues. One night at The Best Food Ever Book Club in Spokane, I was elaborating on my research to date when a great friend said, “Mary Dyer? I am a direct descendant of Mary Dyer.” Next I learned that the model for Sylvia Shaw Judson’s statue commemorating this rebel saint who gave her life for the cause of religious freedom was none other than my husband’s paternal grandmother. The list goes on, but I still yearned to see her. To really meet her. While obsessing about Mary and writing the first draft I had to choose between internal dialogue, what I imagined she was thinking while alone in her house, or show her conversing with someone. Of course, who would have been alone in their house in 1635? I added an indentured servant. Not even beginning to create any sort of picture, she was there. By the fourth draft I had gone from nine hundred pages to four hundred and fifty, and switched from third person omniscient to first person. Only it was not Mary’s voice in my head following the discipline of the narrative; it was Irene, the servant, the one who arrived fully formed. I started getting a better look at Mary through her eyes.

count of monte christo

A fully formed character could be anyone. What they are is visible and memorable. The Count of Monte Christo. Tom Sawyer. Scarlet O’Hara. Jane Eyre. Harry Potter. Romeo of the House of Montague. Portia. The list goes on and on. You can’t name a great classic without a memorable character, or several coming to mind.

More Bliss

snowy deck

It was at the checkout counter of my favorite grocery store that I received encouragement regarding this topic. Answering the question of my new year’s resolutions, I answered, “Just one. Two words. More bliss.” Both the cashier and the woman helping her bag my veggies and fresh sourdough baguette applauded the concept.

As far back as my recorded resolutions state, I have begun each new year of my adult life with these two words: lose weight. What is different this year? I would still like to continue my weight loss journey, but that is not the leading resolution. Why not?

Bliss is not something one bumps into by accident. It is also not something one can micro manage or plan for entirely. What is is exactly? Where do I find it? Where does it abound? I would say Idaho. Windy Bay, Lake Coeur d’ Alene; it can be found right out my door. Communing with nature on a daily basis is the first step. Yet there is a difference between simple enjoyment and bliss. Bliss is defined as supreme happiness.

All guilt aside, Protestant work ethic and Calvinistic upbringing urging me to discard these thoughts in favor of everyday nose- to- the- grindstone good works, I can say that I will keep on with those traditions. Since I know that bliss is fleeting and short-lived, I do not need to fear going down the drain over seeking moments of profound joy. I can reconcile these two concepts by acknowledging that I am in training. For this to occur everything needs to be in place.

VIP gondola

I want to be in really good shape. To this end, my ballet, yoga, and pilates program of my invention are essential. I need to be strong enough to ski with my husband who is a wonder. Yesterday, Silver Mountain was spectacularly beautiful. While cross-country skiing, breaking trail on a quiet, wooded road, with the sun glistening and a massive eagle soaring overhead, it happened. I was awestruck. My jaw drops in such moments.

thirteen ways of looking

Reading Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann, yielded many such moments. When a person can write in a way that barely seems mortal, it can send my spirit soaring. Looking ahead, I am envisioning sailing with our son on Lake Coeur d’ Alene this summer. There will be a moment. I know it. The wind will grab the sails, and we will look at each other and laugh knowing that we are having an absolute blast out on the water. I also look forward to rafting, swimming, kayaking and boating down to dinner at Conklin’s Resort, and dancing under the stars.

Will I be sad, will I be angry, will I be depressed and discouraged? Yes. Will it matter? No.

It was in the seventh grade when I took this poem by Sara Teasdale to heart. It is called Barter.

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder in a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

I will read, I will write, I will study, I will spend time with old friends and new, I will laugh until I cry, I will eat good food, and I will get stronger with each passing day. I will devote myself to serving others. When bliss comes along, I will be ready. It will be duly noted.

Good Books for Damp Days

 

Elena Ferrante

 

It is raining and damp on Windy Bay today. The lake is still and apart from the odd shot fired now and again, we hear almost nothing, save the delicious sound of raindrops falling on a metal roof. After a long walk and discussion about driving to town to see a movie, we opted, as we so often do, for a cozy afternoon with our books. My goal was to finish this month’s selection for The Best Food Ever Book Club.

If we had first come to see Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, the two main characters of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, as young women, it would have been our loss. By describing the friendship of two little girls with all of its inherent passion and intensity we, as readers, never lose sight of those children. This device, whether intentional or not, gives the book much of its power.

Set in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, we learn of a society struggling to cope with post-war conditions in Italy. As the girls observe events in the neighborhood, we see the volatile and frightening conditions in which they live. Girls are neither highly valued nor are kept very safe. It is this anxiety that creates a never-ending tension in the book.

As in most tales of girlhood friendship, there is a divergence in their respected paths. One will be continuing her education, and the other will have to work in the family shoe repair shop. As fate would have it, the girl with the greatest ability is the one who is stymied.

Knowing the rivalries, the competition and the gut- wrenching power these emotions have with both girls, the split is painful to imagine. Perhaps readers with a memory of such times and similar decisions made regarding the fate of sisters and neighbors, feel this more keenly. I will wait until the Best Food Ever Book Club discusses this work to see if anyone agrees with me. Perhaps I will share a personal story. It happened in a similar fashion. Sent to a private school, and then to compound matters, moving to a new house, drove a wedge between  my best friend from childhood and me. She went on to new friends as did I, and we were not able to maintain our former bond.

Even if the parting of the ways had not been centered around school, I was reminded of other factors that seem to break those incredible ties of friendship one feels in elementary school, and how something along the way always seems to come between cherished friends. If it isn’t school, it is a boyfriend, or lack thereof, or some change that often splits them apart. After reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables so many times over, and at least once per decade throughout the course of my life, my last go-round brought me to the understanding of the diverging paths between Anne and her friend Diana. With mouths to feed and a farm to run, Diana’s father decrees that she will not go on to further her education while Anne receives a scholarship. There is no remedy, no matter what the intention. Neither girl will be the same.

Anne of Green Gables

Elena Ferrante does a brilliant job of zeroing in on the truth of these girl’s circumstances. Neither one is safe. Not entirely, and the women who should be protecting them seem unobservant, distant, and oblivious. For how many centuries were girls and women told to accept their lot in life without complaint. For how long did we have the merest of choices over our destinies? While I would not call My Brilliant Friend a feminist novel, it certainly stirred those emotions.

My Brilliant Friend is the first in a series of four books. Whether I continue, or leave off here remains in the hands of my book club. Knowing some have already galloped on through, I expect to hear some heavy lobbying.