Friday, May 30, 2014

Joyous Hearts and Minds

The move we undertook a year ago brought us down to the south end of Lake Coeur d’ Alene.  We are much closer, happily so, to the Coeur D’ Alene tribe. For centuries and centuries, veritable eons of time, the Sch’isu’umsh lived in a territory that stretched from the Canadian border in the north, to the plains of Montana, to Central Washington in the west, and down south to the lands of the Nez Perce. It was the French trappers who gave them the name Coeur d’ Alene, heart of the awl, referring to the skill and tenacity of the traders.
David Matheson, a member of the tribe, set down his knowledge of tribal teachings, of the oral history passed down through the ages, and describes with remarkable skill and beauty the times lived before the coming of the white man. Red Thunder is an extraordinary book, one I would recommend to anyone. It thrilled me to imagine lives lived in harmony with nature. While we like to think we have improved our lives every step of the way, I found myself lost in thought about the old ways and the wisdom of the teachings.
Passions and struggles remain the same in spite of our advanced technology. All people pray for the well being of their loved ones, in every corner of the planet. Revering ancestors is common to all cultures. The Creator is defined by all people in a myriad of ways. It is the great universal themes that Matheson touches on so brilliantly.
As is common with many books that end up on my shelves, it begins with a recommendation. One of the byproducts of the writing life, is that people will often tell me of a book they think I should read. Often these titles are in notebooks, or scratched on something in my purse, or forgotten about until they re-surface again. Last summer, a new friend told me about Red Thunder while we were enjoying breakfast at the Circling Raven Golf Course. One year later, I had some time to kill before getting a pedicure of all things, and wandered into a gift shop in the lobby. My idea was to pick up a magazine and pass the time on one of the comfy leather couches. Informed that they did not carry such items, but had some books, I browsed through the selection and the title rang a bell. When the clerk told me it was written by the C.E.O. I decided to pick it up. Reading this wonderfully inspirational story has served to increase my gratitude for the years we have enjoyed and cherished on the beautiful lake we call home.
David Matheson has a M.B.A. from Eastern Washington University. He has served as the Deputy Commissioner for Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. He has been an adviser for the President’s Commission on Reservation Economies. In keeping with tradition, he has been a delegate to the People’s Republic of China’s Native American Trade Mission. More honors are listed. This is an impressive man by any measure. As with all writers who strive to bring the past back to life in writing historical fiction, he has met this challenge with extraordinary skill.
“Just to be in nature has medicinal power. It opens your heart and soul. As you turn your mind to nature, your soul is refreshed. When the soul is renewed, the heart and mind are joyous and the body is healed. Nature makes you turn to the Higher Power in thankfulness. Moreover, in your spiritual thanksgiving, the soul rejoices. The healing power of the natural world is magnificent” (page 74)Reading Red Thunder allowed my soul to sing. It reminded me to give thanks, each and every day, to the Creator who bestowed us with the gift of life. I will be forever grateful that I had the good fortune to pick up this remarkable book.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cayenne, Turmeric and Ginger

Jhumpa Lahiri’s, The Lowland is a complex and fascinating novel, set in a section of Calcutta called Tollygunde. The title refers to the geographical region where two brothers take up their rendezvous with destiny. Maureen Corrigan of N.P.R begins her review with this sentence: “Geography is destiny.”
Tollygunde fills up with water during the monsoon season and there it sits, home to water hyacinths giving it a striking green color, but robbing any passerby of firm footing. Some creatures lay eggs in the mud, and manage to survive by hiding in it until it is dry and firm enough for them to escape. The lives of the two brothers seem similarly perilous. Subbash, the elder, is responsible, studious and cautious. His younger brother Udayan is the polar opposite, finding adventure and risk in the burgeoning Naxalite movement of the sixties in India. There is high tension in the description of these times. As a decidedly western observer, it struck me as an impossible and thoroughly unlikely dream to bring  Maoist society, with all inherent rigidity, to the multitude of contrasts that make up the rich and complex social structure in India.
While one son goes off to America to study Oceanography, the other ends up leaving a pregnant and lonely widow on the reluctant hands of his parents. Subbash offers to marry his brother’s former wife and bring her to Rhode Island. Adapting to the new country, we see her become strangely distant. She eats an entire package of cream cheese, mistaking it for a candy bar. This image will remain with me forever.  Her interest in studying philosophy is thwarted by the demands of motherhood. It is not a tale of passions flaring, but one rather of quiet resolve on the part of a steadfast man to remain as such, alongside a woman who takes the only way out she can find at the time. As in so many novels depicting different cultures coming together, this is crafted brilliantly. Would someone from New England ever attempt to describe the region’s fall colors in terms of “vivid hues of cayenne, turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning?”
Jhumpa Lahiri is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies. The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Here is a glimpse of her lovely prose:
“The city was called Kolkata now, the way Bengalis pronounced it. The taxi traveled along a peripheral artery that bypassed the northern portion of the city, the congested center. It was evening, the traffic dense but moving quickly. Flowers and trees were planted along the sides of the road. New flyovers, new sectors replacing what used to be farmland and swamp…
It was Durga Pujo, the city’s most anticipated days. The stores, the sidewalks were overflowing. At the ends of certain alleys, or in gaps among the buildings, she saw the pandals. Durga armed with her weapons, flanked by her four children, depicted and worshiped in so many versions. Made of plaster, made of clay. She was resplendent, formidable. A lion helped to conquer a demon at her feet. Se was a daughter visiting her family, visiting the city, transforming it for a time.” page 315In contrast, here is a description of life in Rhode Island:”Both places were close to sea level, with estuaries where fresh and salt water combined. As Tollygunge, in a previous era, had been flooded by the sea, all of Rhode Island, he learned, had once been covered with sheets of ice. The advance and retreat of glaciers, spreading and melting over New England, had shifted with bedrock and soil, leaving great trails of debris. They had created marshes and the bay, dunes and moraines. They had shaped the current shore.

He found a room in a white wooden house, close to the main road of the village, with black shutters flanking the windows. The shutters were decorative, never opening or closing as they did throughout the day in Calcutta, to keep the rooms cool or dry, to block rain or let in a breeze or adjust the light.” Page 35

If geography is destiny then it would be safe to say that Jhumpa Lahiri’s path has been transcendent.

Enthralled with The Goldfinch

Reading is a rare privilege.
 After having spent the past two weeks in the company of a master, I feel as if my life has now changed forever. After reading a book like The Goldfinch, one doesn’t emerge unscathed.The characters remain, concern for them lingers, and the settings have left an indelible imprint.
Donna Tartt’s latest work encompasses a world unto itself. The tale of a young man enduring- post traumatic stress, the loss of his mother, an obsession with a painting, and uncertain care-  had me enthralled from start to finish. Thrown to the winds of fate, Theo Decker is lucky to find one very good and kind man who becomes his guiding light.
By the grace of God, there are writers who have the ability to take the reader by the hand and lead them into the doorway of a world so perfectly described that it ceases to exist in the imagination: it becomes real. Dickens could have written this book; the characters could have been drawn by him as they are that fine.As it turns out, I am not the only reader to come up with this assessment. While browsing on Goodreads, I was surprised to find that Stephen King chimed in:” Theo Decker’s mother is killed in a bombing that rocks the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Theo, unharmed, escapes with a valuable painting called The Goldfinch. He carries this symbol of grief and loss from early adolescence into an adulthood fraught with danger and beset by addiction. The long middle sequence, set in a housing development on the seedy, sand-blown outskirts of Las Vegas, is a standout. Tartt proves that the Dickensian novel—expansive and bursting with incident—is alive and well.”
Years ago, our book club read Tartt’s first novel,  The Secret History, and then the second, The Little Friend and now surely the best book I have read in 2014, The Goldfinch. As in Girl With A Pearl Earring, a  painting is a central theme. The work by Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrant’s,  is beautifully and exquisitely described, and is the thread that pulls us through from start to finish. Depicted is a dear little finch, chained to a perch, sad, and hopeful at once; it is a simple and elegant, much loved painting that has enthralled art lovers and critics for centuries. Tartt describes the masterpiece as one that appeals to children.
Carel Fabritius 1622-1654If you long to read a book that sweeps you away and becomes an experience, if you love antiques, New York, fine painting, and beautiful writing, you will be captured by this novel. As winter drags on, curl up, and treat yourself to some deep thinking as you become taken up with The Goldfinch.

Novelists Are Spy Masters

Did you ever write the words, ‘how true’, in the margins of a great book? Have you picked up a novel in a used book shop and seen the words scratched in pencil from a previous reader? Did you mar A Tale of Two Cities in high school? I was subject to my sister’s hand me down copies, so I was initiated into the ‘how true’ habit. Now I resort to a notebook and copy sentences that deserve this attention.

Ian McEwan is an English writer whom the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing “Sweet Tooth,” describes as, “a thinking persons bestseller whose intelligent, tightly plotted novels, narrated in careful prose, address the pressing social and political issues of our days.”
 While visiting a charming and rustic cabin up in Bayview Idaho, a great friend whose intellect never ceases to astound me, pressed her copy of this work into my hand. As we had both read Atonement, and On Chesil Beach for the Best Food Ever Book Club, I could not wait to begin, Sweet Tooth.
A thinking person’s bestseller is an apt description of Booker Prize winner, Ian McEwan’s talent. Born in Aldershot England, on June 21 1948, he has enjoyed a very prolific career. He lived in Singapore and Lybia while his father, a sergeant major in the British army, worked on campaigns during the years of the Cold War. Ian McEwan’s novel,  Amsterdam yielded a Booker Prize. His novel Atonement was shortlisted for the same award. The film of the same name, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly, was nominated for an Oscar. The story is a family saga set during before and during the days of World War II. It involves an innocent mistake with devastating consequences, and the need to ‘atone’ for both.
A great writer will craft sentences that are truly memorable. When lifted from their context, the sentence may stand alone,  live on, and be quoted frequently.
From Atonement:
“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”
A character in the novel describes why she writes:
“A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her readers. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it”
On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2007. Being that it was one of our summer selections for the Best Food Ever Book Club, I had the rare thrill of reading it on vacation, on the lovely southern coast of England where the tale is set. I could open the hotel window and smell the sea breezes while devouring this depiction of a marriage going off the rails, right from the start.
McEwan writes: “You can spin stories out of the ways people understand and misunderstand each other.”
In Sweet Tooth, chapter three begins with these words:
“I didn’t cancel my appointment with MI5.”
Set in 1972, during the Cold War, an attractive young woman, a bishop’s daughter, is recruited and given an assignment to work for British intelligence, known as MI5. She is to meet with a writer she admires, inform him of a charitable foundation willing to support him on the basis of his talent and  promise. His early misgivings are instantly overcome with the promise of cash and sponsorship. Once he accepts, she is tasked with  holding his hand through to completion. Publication and an ensuing award banquet follow, feeding his belief in himself.  In reality, it is a clever ruse on the part of government forces wanting to steer the conversation to their desired political ends. The Cold War rages on, and certain powers that be fear communist rhetoric infecting the Kingdom. When will she be found out? When will his dream of success shatter into a million pieces? Would this not represent the worst nightmare for any writer, to be seduced into thinking your writing is good, when in truth you are being used as a pawn in a sham production?
McEwan states: “You could say that all novels are spy novels and all novelists are spy masters.”

Monday, September 9, 2013

Anne’s Beauty Loving Eyes and The Place Driven Story- Part One

When curled up with a good book, do you remember being transported to the moors of northern England, to the red roads of Georgia, or to dear little Prince Edward Island? The importance of place in a novel, or story, can sometimes be tantamount to the telling of the tale. Take Scarlet out of the old south and what do you have? Take Heathcliff out of the moors and who is he?

A sense of place puts the reader in the story, puts the character up against something- whether it is a harsh environment they are grappling with, or a cultural imperative which leaves them feeling as though the deck is stacked against them. What are the underlying layers of the place your character’s inhabit? What are the threats? Did the place start as a swamp, or a thriving port? Did they have to beat back the forest, or are the bushes full of snakes? Who came there first? Was it miners, or homesteaders? Who was indigenous? What was the climate?

Do you remember those green felt boards kindergarten teachers used to use as props? Remember how they would stick felt things on to the green board to teach us how to count ducks, or whatever. The setting of a novel is kind of like the green felt and the characters are then the ducks.
These are details that can make or break a story.
By taking a look at the great ones, we can gain many tips, as we set out to describe the places where our characters live and the role that place plays in the story.
It occurred to me that I actually love place driven stories. While a place can never be the whole story, it can be a huge part of shaping the action of a story. There is nothing that defines a writer more completely than the concept of really honing in on the character of his home town, or region, and then becoming synonymous with that place. Consider Margret Mitchell with Atlanta, James Joyce with Dublin, the Brontes with the moors and Pat Conroy with South Carolina and then my perennial and personal favorite and the best selling book of all time, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island.
Other writers may not be from a region, but can go there and define it nevertheless. Take James Mitchner with Hawaii and the middle east, Leon Uris with Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Passage to India’s, E. M Forester and then of course, Shakespeare himself. The place will shape the lives of the characters as they adapt to changes through time.
Here are some pages from the opening chapters of Anne of Green Gables:
“They had driven over the crest of a hill. Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, were an amber hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues- the most spiritual shadings of of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows. Here and there a wild plum leaned out from the bank like a white-clad girl tip-toeing to her own reflection. From the marsh at the head of the pond came the clear, mournfully- sweet chorus of frogs. There was a little gray house peering around a white apple orchard on a slope beyond and, although it was not yet quite dark, a light was shining from one of its windows.
“That’s Barry’s pond, “ said Mathew.
“Oh, I don’t like that name, either. I shall call it- let me see- the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that’s the right name for it. I know because it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?”
When they had driven up the further hill and around a corner Mathew said, “We’re pretty near home now. That’s Green Gables over-”
“Oh don’t tell me,” she interrupted breathlessly, catching at his partially raised arm and shutting her eyes that she might not see his gesture. “Let me guess. I’m sure I’ll guess right.”
She opened her eyes and looked about her. They were on the crest of a hill. The sun has set some time since, the the landscape was still clear in the mellow after-light. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” she said pointing.
It was broad daylight when Anne awoke and sat up in bed, staring confusedly at the window through which a flood of cheery sunshine was pouring and outside of which something white and feather waved across the glimpses of blue sky.
For a moment she could not remember where she was. First came a delightful thrill, as if something very pleasant: then a horrible remembrance. This was Green Gables and they didn’t want her because she wasn’t a boy!
But it was morning and, yest it was a cherry tree in full bloom outside of her window With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash- it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.
Anne dropped on her knees and gazed out into the June morning her eyes glistening with delight. Oh, wasn’t it beautiful? Wasn’t it a lovely place? Suppose she wasn’t really going to stay here! She would imagine she was. There was scope for the imagination here.
A huge cherry-tree grew outside, so close that its boughs tapped against the house, and it was so thick- set with blossoms that hardly a leaf was to be seen. On both sides of the house was a big orchard, one of apple-trees and one of cherry-trees, also showered with blossoms; and their grass was all sprinkled over with dandelions. In the garden below were lilac-trees purple with flowers, and their dizzily sweet fragrance drifted up to the window on the morning wind.
Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and were scores of white birches grew, springing airily out of and undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things generally. Beyond it was a a hill, green and feathery with spruce and fir; there was a gap in it where the gray gable end of the little house she had seen from the other side of the Lake of Shining Waters was visible.
Off to the left were the big barns and beyond them, away down, over the green, low sloping fields, was a sparkling blue glimpse of sea.
Anne’s beauty -loving eyes lingered on it all, taking everything greedily in; she has looked on so many unlovely places in her life, poor child; but this was as lovely as anything she had ever dreamed.
She knelt there, lost to everything, but the loveliness around her, until she was startled by the hand on her shoulder. Marilla had come in unheard by the small dreamer.
“It’s time you were dressed,” she said curtly.”
So the stage is set. We are caught up in the drama of Anne’s situation, and we want her to be able to stay at Green Gables because we know how much she has fallen in love with the place. This rapture has drawn thousands upon thousands of tourists to Prince Edward Island ever since the book was published. The powerful description not only puts us in this place, but makes us want to go and see it for ourselves. I doubt there is a writer, living or deceased, who has ever captured the beauty of a place better than L.M. Montgomery.

Love the Idea

When writing about Anna Karenina recently, I remembered a passage from Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries. I only had to type a few words into Google, and voila, there it was. I copied it into my blog post, but something else regarding his thoughts stayed with me. What lingered was this:

“Yesterday L.N went to his table, pointed at his notebook and said “Oh how I long to finish this novel (Anna Karenina) and start something new. My ideas are quite clear now. If a work is to be really good there must be one fundamental idea in that one loves. I love the idea of family; in War and Peace I loved the idea of the people because of the 1812 war; and now I see clearly that in my next book I shall love the idea of the Russian peoples powers of expansion.”
His great novels had to do with being in love with an idea. Authors are commonly asked this question: How did you come up with the idea for your book? It speaks to the heart of the matter. We all have tons of ideas; we may even have notebooks full of concepts for novels. Once decided upon, our love for the idea must remain in the forefront of our minds for years.
When my father died, I did not want him to go. I didn’t want to forget about him either. I wanted to cling to everything I could remember about him and keep it in my mind forever. It is this idea I am currently in love with, bringing my father back to life. Folly? Yes, no doubt. Can a person we loved appear as a character whom the reader can picture? Can I recreate a certain time in my life, 1961 to 1971, to be exact? Can my interpretation of the sixties rekindle memories for others? Can I bring readers into my story? As I have other family members I am missing now who have gone on to join my Dad, I am in love with remembering them too: I am in love with this idea of family, just as Tolstoy was when he wrote Anna Karenina.  Even though I am not in possession of his talent, not within a country mile of it in fact, I still persist. Why? The answer is simple:  love. I have a love for my Dad, for my Mom, for my sister and brother, who are all up in heaven now. I have a love for my old neighborhood, for my old home, for my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I have a love for my city and my country. There is no end to my love. Being in love with an idea, can fill up a lot of pages. The one fundamental idea of my story can be boiled down to the old adage that blood is thicker than water.
Where does it come from, this love? Does it spring from the same wellspring of our most universal emotion, or is it more academic than that?
If you write a novel and get on a talk show, someone will ask you how you came up with the idea for your story. You will have to think back to that first spark and be able to elaborate. If your face lights up and your speech becomes more animated, so much the better. Enthusiasm is infectious: people see it and want to have that same feeling. Readers want to be in love with ideas too. When I gaze at the picture above, knowing I was the baby stuffed into the snowsuit, I see us all as a fun loving, keen and zestful bunch with good times, too numerous to count, just around the corner. When this picture was taken the Queen was beginning her reign and we were part of suburban life, in the post war years, in Toronto. The future looked bright and rosy back then. We were on the dawn of a new era, marked by hope. We all had our parts to play and we certainly played them.How does this story end? Stay tuned…

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