books

on being tender

Most days, these days, I count to 5 before I read the news. While I’m counting, I ask myself if my time would be better spent reaching out to someone or engaging in joyful pursuit. Or both. Not that I’ve put my head in the sand. Far from it. But I’m interested these days in boundaries that also allow for light. There’s a long, troubling haul ahead culturally, and sustenance for the fight, for me, is going to come from remembering both my impermanence and the importance of celebrating tiny, fierce, joyful things.

I’ve been thinking all week, since my book group meeting, about Brian Doyle.

I first met writer Brian Doyle through the pages of Orion magazine, where his pieces made me giggle and want to read them aloud or memorize them or lean into my husband and whisper them. Delicious series of words that tongue-twist and whirl and leap. “21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by My Children” reminds we humans not to get too big for our britches: “If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one,” reads #20. “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” pokes fun at the preachy earnestness of environmental writing, which so often bludgeons readers with stridency and dire prognostication.

Here’s his last paragraph from that essay:

“And finally the last paragraph. It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or that you actually have not voted in the past two elections despite what you told the kids and the goat.”

Doyle’s writing’s often silly, unwieldy as Faulkner, and this side-door play with language works like a water mark you can see when you hold the artifact up to the light, or a flavor you can taste hours later. That kind of fun with words piques curiosity, keeps you reading.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of his novel Mink River, a book I read faster than I wanted to and stayed up late to do it a few nights running, aware that such fast tour through the pages was a disrespect to the writer’s deft ability to make prose read like poetry. Mostly, when I consider Doyle’s work, I think of the word wonder. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to infuse his characters and their perspectives with an awe about living most of us seem to miss, busy as we are with the big problems, the minutiae, the plans and goals and hiccups.

Time with Doyle always makes me realize that in this short stint of living, I’d be better served to use wonder as my lens. There’s a choice about perspective, after all, and sometimes choice takes both purpose and a bit of work.

I recommended Martin Marten as my book group’s February read. The same friend who sent me Mink River gifted me Martin Marten in early summer as my son was about to leave home for college. It was the perfect gift, and I read it in the hammock in the week before we delivered Owen to his new chapter. Doyle’s story was a reminder that sending a kid out into the world is a new chapter for parents, too; when anyone you love peels off on his own path, he’s both inextricably bound to the place from where he’s come and forever separate in a new way. Both joy and sadness can set up shop next to each other in one’s heart, and that’s the vital rub of living.

Martin Marten, about a boy called Dave, his family, and the colorful collection of characters in their small Mt. Hood town of Zig Zag, Oregon (a town below where I’ve spent some time skulking about in the woods, a magical place), is another testament to Doyle’s wondrous outlook, to his fine ear and artful craft, to his bedrock sense that the world is a brief, glorious journey, and that the people along for the ride with us are full of wonder, too, even if they are also simultaneously curmudgeonly, or afraid, or confused. The novel unspools the twin coming-of-age of Dave, the boy, and Martin, the pine marten, and their stories weave and flirt together and apart as they’re both tossed and turned in life and love.

Dave’s younger sister is as precocious as any child you’ll meet in fiction. But I didn’t mind her ability to so candidly talk about feelings or her spatially gifted genius. Her words to her brother – the same words that ring long after the story is over – are to “be tender.”

Could there be any better words to adopt as your theme song? Especially now, when most days it feels like tenderness is a fleeting impulse, with so much hateful rage and fear on the wind.

A few years ago Brian and I both had stories published in the same journal, and I ginned up the courage to email him and tell him what a fan I was. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he emailed me back within a few hours with genuine enthusiasm and his signature silly swirl of language. Neither too important nor too busy to respond, despite his much more impressive publications. His swift, embracing tone of collegiality is something I’ll remember always and work to pay forward, too.

Our book group meetings always involve a writer review, and a friend came this week prepared to share Doyle’s accomplishments in fiction and essays, his background and family story, and his working life as editor of Portland Magazine. This story isn’t all about joy: I didn’t know until this week that Doyle was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November. He had surgery a few weeks ago and is recovering in the hospital after a complicated procedure that’s made post-surgery complicated, too, not to mention survival.

In Martin Marten, Dave spends a good bit of time exploring the “Daveness” of being Dave. In a note to his readers in the days before surgery, The “Doyleness” of Doyle sounds an awful lot like the character he built for us, so full of light:

“stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives; stories save lives. … They crack open hearts, they open minds…It’s more important than ever before to hold hands and catch and share stories of substance and grace and defiant courage and irrepressible humor…The alternative is to ‘allow nothing in our lives but sales pitches and lies.’”

“We could change the world if we told the right story,” Doyle said. 

Indeed.

I hope, Brian, that you can feel me hugging you from here with defiant tenderness. That you can hear my stories rising up with the stories of so many others.

Doyle Family Support Fund.

 

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Categories: book review, books, community, family, fiction, nature, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

stories in the world

Much gratitude to JuxtaProse for including “Shelter in Place” in a recent issue. They were amazing to work with, and I’m thrilled to be invited to the party of authors they assembled. You can read that piece here.

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If you’re not sick of me after that, you can check the most recent book review of Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Water Knife here.

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Thanks, always, for checking in to this space. I aim to end the year writing, the same as I began it, and to make a dent in the pile of books I can’t wait to get lost in. Here’s to stories of all kinds and the way they shore us up in hard times, plant the seeds of change, and inspire us to be better humans.

 

 

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warrior

Every year, standing at the threshold between years feels bittersweet.  The year in rear view a tangle of experiences powerful and ordinary, some regrettable. The year ahead brimming with possibility.

The new year will deliver another birthday, hopefully, and an age I’ll be surprised about. I don’t feel nearly as old as the data indicates. I’m beginning to understand how my ninety-three-year-old grandmother, even at the end when she insisted she was only sixty-four, couldn’t reconcile how fast her life had gone by.

In 2014 some dear friends spent the better part of the year ill, others navigated divorce, joblessness, financial ruin. Deaths of loved ones meant wrangling fresh grief. I hope wherever those souls are they are at peace.  Raising kids continues to be hard work, so often a befuddling puzzle difficult to decode with any sort of clarity. Looking back, I spent too much of the year wishing I had better tools for living, wishing I was braver.

In 2014 one of my favorite writers, Kent Haruf, passed away.  I considered him a friend, though I never met him. More, I considered him a mentor.  Reading Haruf’s novels helped me understand the fierce tenderness a person ought to strive for and inspired me to take my writing seriously.  His Plainsong – that spare, gentle tale of regular folk who learn to rely on and love each other like family – is the kind of story I hope to write someday. Until his death at the end of November, he wrote, talked about writing and also about getting ready to pass over to another place.  Six days before he died, he even gave one final interview.

I miss his presence in the world.  Though he left his readers with one last book, Our Souls at Night, due out in May, I miss already whatever future stories he might’ve created that won’t be told.  Wherever he is, I wish peace for him, too.

I’m hopeful a new year means my loved ones and I will be healthy and wise, kind and forgiving, productive and successful.  But I know a new year will have its share of struggles, ones I’ll hope to meet with grace and dignity.

In line for bagels this morning I listened to folks chatting over coffee, reflecting, planning how they would celebrate the end of this year.  On the magnetic board above the deli counter, some words by Pema Chodron reminded me to rejoice in the ordinary:

“Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.”

I didn’t know who she was, so back at home I asked Uncle Google about her – the first American woman to become a fully ordained Buddhist nun, an author, a teacher, a spiritual leader, a mother.  She has her own foundation.  She’s a bit of a rockstar. These words are from her work titled The Places That Scare You:  A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, a title that made me chuckle for its timeliness. A little barb to prod me in the direction of courage.

Waiting for my turn in the bagel line, I read her words again and again, comforted by the notion of being a warrior fierce and insistent in celebrating the fact of existence and the daily-ness of it.  It occurs to me that Kent Haruf would’ve agreed with Chodron, that his stories are about opening oneself to the grace of fully, purposefully inhabiting life with all its imperfections.  He seemed to do that himself until the end.

Onward to 2015, then, a year during which I’ll take experiences as they come, and work to be a warrior for gratitude.

 

 

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light

Early this summer I packed up my bookshelves, preparing to move again, though only a few miles away this time.  Each move, I designate a special box of books I unpack first where I’m going.  My old friends.  Rick Bass and Kent Haruf, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Austen, Zola and Hurston, Steinbeck, Ron Carlson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Proulx.

This move, before I closed the box lid and taped it shut, I added one more friend:  Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, All The Light We Cannot See.

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It’s important to note before I say anything else that I’ve been a Doerr fan for years.  His short stories are the sort, like Faulkner’s, that stun and sting, surprising and sharp.  Visceral.  You cannot shake the watermark of them.  This latest Doerr work is a complicated arc of character and time, swooping between years before and during WWII and among characters on both sides of that conflict.

At the heart of the novel is the pulse of radio, a tool that comes to mean emotional and intellectual desire, and how and whether one pursues and uses it.  Radio in Doerr’s pages means yearning for innocence and family.  Radio is a tool used for savage murder.  Each sentence crafted, a surprise, the language exquisite and rich, Doerr’s prose reads like poetry.

The story is complicated, full of characters working to survive.  Marie-Laure’s father, the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, teaches her how to survive blindness.  She learns to navigate in their flat with the aid of twine and bells.  She learns to navigate the streets by first memorizing a scale model her father builds out of wood.  She learns Braille, and thereby learns to navigate the world of fiction and the human thrum of yearning, adventuring with Nemo Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Despite these skills, and though she is raised up intellectually by her father and Dr. G. at the museum, Marie-Laure is sheltered and must ultimately navigate a war-ravaged terrain alone.

Werner, an orphan in a coal mining town, has early survival built into his existence. A proclivity for math and electronics leads him to be chosen to attend an elite Nazi school just before the war begins, a boon and a curse, although he does not yet know it.  He will not have to work in the mines like all men before him, like his father who died far below the ground; he will do something much worse.  Early on, we see that Frau Elena and Werner’s sister Jutta guide his heart, act as his moral compass, present in Jutta’s refrain, later echoed by Werner’s friend Frederick:  Is it right to do something because everyone else is doing it? 

The way we use and harness light and energy, and the miracle of what we can do for and against each other, is present on every page of the novel.  Blind Marie-Laure cannot see light, and yet she can:  people, events, and sound have color for her—the world is sensorially rich, fully tactile, layered with meanings.  From within her emanates an energy vibrant enough that Werner, when he sees her on the street, cannot help but mark her gait and her aura, and also remember it.  And Werner, too, possesses a special vitality– his shock of white hair, tiny stature and early ability to solve complicated triangulated problems are an engine within him.

Marie-Laure and Werner are not the only ones compelled by fierce energy.  There’s an insistence of self-preservation in every character Doerr unspools, the desires of each glinting like so many facets of the Sea of Flames diamond Marie-Laure’s father tries to protect and the Nazi Von Rumpel risks everything to obtain.  Von Rumpel is Nero here, racing against the clock of war and the sentence of his own terminal illness, and yet his maniacal pursuit is one a reader recognizes.  For who hasn’t been terrified of death and wished to live forever?  To find the Holy Grail? To shout over the rooftops of the world, even if it is crumbling?

By the time these three lives collide in Saint-Malo, for of course they must, the race to save what each cherishes most puts a reader at the top of the narrative scaffolding Doerr has so intricately assembled.  It’s a delicious tableau:  A gem seeker who’s abandoned all sense of humanity, a girl with nothing left but her hope that humanity still exists, a boy who understands, finally, that he’s forsaken his heart for his mind.

I couldn’t help but think about the artist behind the crafting of such work.  My own stories are often dark, full of doomed folk, the creative effort behind them infected with a baseline Eeyoreness I work hard to inject with any kind of hope.  Yet hope is an undercurrent I look for in the work of others, because who wants to read a story about all the useless desires that elude us?

Anthony Doerr understands how to tell a story we want to read.  More than that, I think his secret might be a fundamental hopefulness in human nature.  How else could he have tackled the dark torment of the Holocaust and nonetheless, what rises to the surface is a world emanating with the light of kindnesses, of bravery, of love?

Doerr talks about the inspiration for his story here in a Powell’s interview.

And also here:

 

 

 

 

 

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it’ll keep you up at night, and it’s worth it

At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event.  We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback.  We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist.  Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Signature of all Things

In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love.  Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it.  What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey.  I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for.  Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations.  Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.

That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less.  And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List.  And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).

Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it.  She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph.  But this much I believe to be true:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.

Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty.  Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world.  And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence.  Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.

And what a stage it is.  What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival.  For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale.  Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all.  Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love.  There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.

It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.

For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book.  I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over.  I am.

Buy it in hardback.  Read it, but not too fast.  Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.

A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times

Elizabeth Day in The Guardian

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famine of the heart

Recently I picked up a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I somehow missed in my literature studies, though a long time ago his story “Barn Burning,” maybe one of the best short stories ever written, inspired me to become a teacher and a writer.  Also, I wanted to see if I remembered correctly that Faulkner’s work might not translate that well to the big screen.  James Franco is either a genius or out of his mind.  When the film comes to town, I’ll be curious to see which, or if it’s some of both.

What strikes me about Faulkner’s “experimental” novel is two things:  the deception in its structure, which is to say a first impression that its short chapters and multiple voices would make for a quick read; and also that the engine in the novel – the problem of how to get Addie Bundren’s body to her native Jefferson, Mississippi to be buried (her dying wish) despite a flood, and then injury, and then fire — is overshadowed by what motivates her husband Anse and her children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman to engage in this journey.  The fifteen voices that tell the story, including one chapter from Addie herself, reveal what undergirds every action in the novel:  The inscrutable world is a dark and hard place full of relentless futility.  The best we can hope for is to survive the world or leave it on our own terms, as Addie herself seems to have done.  Faulkner once said his writing was “hammering at…that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.”   (An interview from 1956 is here).  His characters’ insistence on survival, however misguided or self-interested, is the relentless drumbeat of As I Lay Dying.

Faulkner called this novel a “tour de force,” and I suppose it is in the way it was different, an experiment that flouted conventional storytelling.  I spent more time than I’d like to admit keeping track of the book in the plot way.  Time loops around, for one, and I found myself rereading chapters more than a few times to make sure I was getting it.  Addie shows up for just one chapter to speak her mind long after she’s already a dead and rotting corpse on her way to Jefferson, for example.  Anse and the five kids all help to tell the story, and in each of their pages their mundane, repetitive conversations are interrupted by language in italics that seems to represent the lyrical, internal language each character is unable to give voice to on the surface. I’m not sure this technique really works.

But to be sure Faulkner’s intentions were grand.  The title, a line from The Odyssey, is the first hint that Faulkner’s plan is epic in scale.  (Thank you, Wikipedia, for teaching me that As I Lay Dying is also the name of a metalcore band, whose “lyrics and music take no direct inspiration from the novel.”  Dear Faulkner, are you spinning brodies in your grave? ) But it’s a short epic, chock full of unfortunate events not unlike Odysseus’ journey.  There are broken bones, a rotting corpse, a burned down barn, a bad love affair, a hoped for abortion, sexual abuse, siblings sending their brother to a mental institution, and finally, a marriage. By the time we arrive to Jefferson to bury Addie, digging the hole and putting her in it only takes a few sentences, because by this time, the story is about anything but burying Addie.  What has propelled the family to this place has been eclipsed by the fractured agenda of each character, with Anse, who takes something from each of his children in order to serve himself, at the center of it all.

I had the best success as a reader when I focused on giving myself over to each character’s way of revealing the story instead of tallying up my frustrations.  They’re a heartbreaking lot, some of them despicable like Anse, others tragic like Cash, the one character aside from Vardaman whose volition is not about his own needs.

Still, between the work required to be a thoughtful reader of Faulkner’s book, and what I think is the failed technique of those italics to represent what his characters wanted to say, if only they could, I’m not sure this book would be published now.  Unless I’m reading it wrong, I’m not sure most people are willing to work that hard for an ending so dark, what with our penchant for endings in which all loose ends are neatly wrapped and characters leave the scene with no hard feelings.

But maybe James Franco’s split-screen delivery will work to unspool for audiences the existential question inherent in the gap between a heart that sings lyrically against the grim wilds of a hardscrabble life.  I gotta hand it to Franco for trying anyway.  When the film comes my way, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.

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found books

Spring was full of reading disappointments.  Either the book I chose had a stupid plot.  Or characters I couldn’t access.  Mystifying edits. Writing that made me feel I wasn’t in very capable authorial hands.  By May I had begun to despair.  I used to read every book to the bitter end,  the least I felt I could do to honor a writer’s hard-won journey to publication.  I don’t do that anymore – there’s too much great literature to read, too many bad books out there, and too little time.  Now I give a narrative 50 pages, and if it’s not working for me, I put it down.

It’s possible my problem this spring was mostly reader error, what with packing and being distracted, but I don’t think so.  Summer’s surprising, random, unexpected reading list broke several months of stories that failed to delight.  One thing I love best about these reads is the way they came to me.

From the “Take Me” shelf at the coffee shop:

When the Killing's Done

While I waited for my latte at the coffee shop, I looked through the “TAKE ME” bookshelf and found a tome about two centuries of opportunists exploiting the natural resources of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.  The promise of a couple generations of depletion from sheep ranching, a shipwreck that introduced rats to Anacapa, and one very passionate National Park Service conservationist Alma Takesue from the 21st century who wants to eradicate the rats on Anacapa to save a species of shore bird, made me take the novel home.  Always rich and believable, Boyle’s female characters tussle with the natural world and with their lovers.  Boyle is masterful at storytelling with a wide lens on generations and place, but he’s also good at the intimate landscaping that captures the dark forest, as Willa Cather calls it, of the human heart.  And while When the Killing’s Done is far from one of Boyle’s best works – even full as it is of shipwrecks, the sticky wicket of conserving species and how conservation is inextricably linked with destruction, and a very one-dimensional PETA-esque bad guy called Dave LaJoy who gets what’s coming to him on the heels of an act of revenge – in all ways that mattered most to me this summer, it was the perfect read at the right time because I was transported out of my world.

From a rusty wheelbarrow selling used books at a garden shop:

San Miguel

I had T.C. on the brain already.  In the city on my way somewhere else, I walked by a garden shop wheelbarrow and out of the corner of my eye caught the name Boyle. For $2 (sorry, T.C.), I picked up Boyle’s San Miguel, set again in the Channel Islands.  It’s another sheep island story, on a different island this time, and most of it set in the 19th century.  But in both When the Killing’s Done and San Miguel (published less than a year apart), Boyle is scratching an itch about generations of people discovering, exploiting, preserving, and resurrecting the natural resources of the Channel Islands, and the human drama behind such ambitions.  Both books are gritty romances, rife with relationships built upon punishment and power, lust and willful misunderstanding.  He’s fantastic at this emotional geography, map-making a world of tortured souls who often don’t know what they want, or worse, they do know, and their sometimes terrible desires become the gears of the story.  I get it.  An island is an interesting Petri dish for storytelling, with an ecosystem you can manipulate and experiment with, not to mention the outside world sailing over to disrupt the narrative.

I couldn’t put it down, because how could you not careen off the tracks with such characters as these?

From a pile of books a friend gave me:

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Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  This book had been on my bookshelf for several months, and I’d purposefully avoided it because of the cover, spring green with a bird and stamp on it that screamed of some saccharine story about women finding epistolary love.  While packing, I left out books from my collection that seemed like good summer reads.  Most of them were mysteries.  Another look at the synopsis of Bradley’s book piqued my interest, so it made the cut.  It took me almost the whole first book to realize that though Bradley’s narrator is a precocious, naughty and very determined eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the book isn’t really Young Adult, though on the surface it seems to be.  I liked the book so well I did a quick search to see what else Bradley has written and was gifted with the knowledge that there are FIVE Flavia de Luce books.  Oh boy.

I checked out the next three from the library, in LARGE PRINT, because those were the only versions they had.  And I was desperate.  In each of the books, set in the 1950s English countryside, Flavia works to solve a murder.  A crackpot chemist with her own chemistry lab in the abandoned wing of their ancestral English home, Flavia comes at problem-solving through science; in fact, a reader can learn a thing or two about chemistry from her.  But some of the best scenes are born out of the passages where we see Flavia acting as a child – mourning the death of her mother, plotting revenge against her two older sisters, looking for a way to talk with her father, who is wracked by grief and who deals with the imminent crisis of bankruptcy by losing himself in his stamp collecting.  The cast of characters flanking Flavia is, of course, also delicious – Dogger, her father’s valet, gardener, butler, and right-hand man, and also Flavia’s closest ally; Inspector Hewitt and his wife Antigone, whom Flavia half longs to be adopted by; her bike, Gladys, which used to be her mother’s and which ferries her to crime scenes and various investigations; and in each book, the characters who come through to people the world of the crime.  It’s delicious fiction – witty, smart, backlit by clever capers for which you can suspend disbelief — and the first time I’ve fallen for any books from the mystery section.

Bradley’s got another installment in the wings, Book Six, due out January 2014, and I’ll wait, mostly patiently, to continue the saga.

Also, there’s going to be a television series.  Oh dear.  Mixed feelings.

In the mail from a friend, because she knows I adore him:

Benediction

Kent Haruf’s Benediction.  A master at impaling his characters on the prongs of their foibles and choices, Haruf’s stories teem with regret and redemption.  His characters labor under the aftermath of failing to act, or emotionally sealing themselves against the world, and the reckoning that comes as a result of hiding from themselves.

His latest, Benediction, is again set in Holt, Colorado.  It’s more ambitious in some ways than his previous novels, in that it braids the lives of five or six sets of characters.  At the center of the narrative are Reverend Lyle, a newcomer from Denver who’s been transferred to Holt for some transgression we can only guess at, and Dad Lewis, dying of cancer, owner of the town’s hardware store, father of two children — one estranged son and one daughter who’s come back to care for him as he’s dying.  Writers are generally advised not to scaffold a story around cancer, a character dying from cancer, so I was skeptical such a seasoned writer would take this plunge.  But the presence of Lyle, a man of God, works to offset Dad’s life of harsh mistakes and complicates one of Haruf’s central questions about what it means to live an upright life.

Readers know, of course, that Dad Lewis is going to die from cancer.  Haruf establishes this on the first page.  We know his wife Mary is there to take care of him, that he’s agitated by regret.  While he waits to die, we see Dad’s life in flashback, which is to say we are transported to times for which Dad feels he must make amends – the firing of an employee and that man’s ultimate suicide, the way Dad alienated his son Frank.  The big question pulling a reader through the narrative is whether and how Dad’s going to see Frank again before he dies.  Except through morphined hallucinations, he never does see his son again, which is inevitable and heartbreaking and earned.  Dad’s absentee and sometimes harsh parenting and his tender care of others instead of his own family have brought him to this place of being alienated from his son, and it hurts like hell.

Readers also know that Reverend Lyle will do something to alter his path — he must have agency where Dad can only recollect his version of it from his deathbed, after all – but we don’t understand why Lyle doesn’t have a better relationship with his son, and what makes him fall away from the church, though it seems admirable enough after a life of passivity.  Still, I’m not sure he’s working to his potential as a character.

The heart of the story, then, is the disconnect between fathers and sons, the bond between mothers and daughters (Haruf has an affinity for stoic women; Benediction is rich in pairs of two generations of women holding what crumbles together), and the way, as in all of Haruf’s work, people quilt family out of the dust of loss and need.

I’ll forgive Haruf for the left turn at the end and its half-hitched deus ex machina with Alice and her bike, since I can see he was grappling with how to deliver the point home.  I was already crying my eyes out about Dad’s death, about Reverend Lyle’s inability to make a relationship with his son, even there in that dark garage.

We have to work for grace however we can, but there’s never enough time, which I guess is largely the point.

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Just the Haircut Stuff

Riley and I are home alone on a warm Friday afternoon.  We’re not very frisky at the end of the week, both of us happy to curl up with a book or a movie.  But the weather is so lovely, and the espaliered fruit trees I’ve let grow wild are in need of pruning.  We go outside before the day fades and gather our tools.

Clippers in hand, Riley cuts back the dead hydrangea blooms that wintered on the bush.  Up on a ladder, I prune the cherries and then the apple trees, throwing the boughs into a pile in the yard.  Not too far into our work, as the air cools, we decide what we really need is a fire.  Our yard is too small for a proper burn barrel, but we’ve got a portable fire pit, so we haul that out, as well as the pieces of the Christmas tree Owen cut and stacked a few months ago.  Riley goes inside to get the matches, and I realize I’m excited it’s just the two of us, about to share an important rite of passage – a girl learning to build a fire.  We love our boys, but their presence changes the time.

I’ve just finished reading a book with a daunting title by Dr. Leonard Sax:  Girls on the Edge:  The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls–Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins.  I don’t feast on a regular diet of self-helpish books, but this one was recommended by a friend, and it was worth the read.  Sax’s perspective has made me think even more concertedly about what and how we teach girls on purpose and through example.  A girl emerging from girlhood with a sense of who she is and a confidence in that identity makes a perilous journey, and not enough of us are paying attention in the right ways, Sax suggests, especially in a culture that pushes girls to be objectified, consumed, subservient.

How well John and I buffer Riley from being awash in pursuits of pop culture and also guide her toward survival and resistance keeps me up some nights.  Most days I think we’re doing okay, even if she does know every stinking lyric to Taylor Swift’s songs.  I have to admit, they’re catchy, but they reek of teen angst; it’s disconcerting to catch my daughter, gripping her hairbrush like a microphone, sing-shouting “We are never ever ever getting back together” to herself in the bathroom mirror with just the right amount of venom.

While she’s inside the house, it occurs to me Riley’s nine already.  Much older than I was when I learned to make a fire.  What am I so busy doing we can’t make time for this?  And if I’ve shanked teaching her this elemental skill, what else am I shanking?

But she knows a lot, I discover.  She’s been reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and also paying attention.  Close attention.

“I’m a good watcher,” she says.  She builds a teepee of dried leaves and kindling she’s culled from the wood pile.  She chooses a good fire-poking stick from the cherry boughs I’ve hacked.  We talk about safety and how to feed a fire.  She nods and tells me she’s got it; she knows what to do.  I show her how to strike a match, and then hand her the matches and let her begin, enjoying her delight at this responsibility.  She’s brought her clippers and found a small saw, and she uses both to manage the size of her fuel.  Pulling a chair close to the heat, she’s a serious fire tender, watching the flames with intent.  She feeds the fire while I finish pruning, our conversation across the yard meandering and associative.  We walk about the stars and planets, what animals we’ll have on our imaginary ranch, how she reached her record of 213 jumps in a row on a pogo stick.

cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms

Dark falls around us, but we don’t go inside.  She wants to know if the green limbs of the cherries and apples will burn, so she conducts an experiment and learns wet boughs kill the fire and the tinder-dry Christmas tree creates a fire so high it makes its own wind.  She wonders whether the cuttings will grow if we stick them directly into dirt, so we choose a few to experiment with in that way, and a few others to bring inside and force bloom.  “What does that mean?” she asks me.

“It’s a trick,” I say.  “The plant is fooled that it’s spring, so it lets the blossoms come out of the buds early.”  As I form my answer, it occurs to me we could just as easily be talking about the journey of girls today, and the way culture sexualizes them, tricking them into acting like adults before they know what that means emotionally.  The loud metaphor makes me stop for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs.  I watch Riley choose stems and put them into an old metal pitcher we use as a vase.

I’m sick at heart at the thought of her forced to bloom out of her magical world by pressure to become a woman too early.  Growing up will come for her eventually, and she’ll lose interest in climbing trees and playing her imaginary dragon games, in challenging herself for the next pogo stick record and building seven room forts out of blankets and pillows in the family room.  Innocence won’t last, is already leaving, I know, but I send up a please to the trees that Riley’s safe passage into her pre-teens also means she holds onto the person she’s becoming, and not a version of the girl she thinks she ought to be.

We cut red currant and Daphne boughs to bring inside as well, because if a few stems are good, more are better, and we’re talking about how the whole house will be full of spring. Maybe it’s the jasmine-lemon scent of the Daphne that has bloomed already, on its own time, or my penchant for drama fueled by remembering a few of Sax’s less savory anecdotes about girls gone wild, meant to be cautionary tales.  Down the Rabbit Hole I go, imagining a version of Riley that trawls the mall and has Bieber Fever, hinges her fashion choices around her five pairs of Ugs and gives up sports for cheerleading.  Then there’s a boyfriend who’s too old for her with some gold chains and a red Mustang, and she fails out of school and is having sex in the back of a car, and she has a couple of piercings and maybe there’s some pole dancing, and I’m working myself into a vicious panic and feeling like I need a beer or maybe six, and I know my visions suffer under the pathetic weight of being cliché and cast in a low-budget-made-for-television-glow, and I’m supposed to be good at narrative but I can’t even make a scary-daughter-dystopia that’s interesting.

And how did I get here from being excited about teaching her to build a fire? Which I didn’t do anyway because she already knows how.

Riley finishes her arrangements of cherry boughs in the vase and turns to me.  “So.  It’s kind of like cheating and being the boss of nature,” she says.  “You wouldn’t want to cut too much, though.  Just the haircut stuff.”

Clever girl.  I’m swimming back to the surface, where I send my B-Rate-Riley production packing and I nod, thinking about a week from now, when all the stems we bring inside will be in full bloom, a reminder of building a fire, and the way my girl knows herself so well already.  “Yes,” I say.  “Just the haircut stuff is perfect.”

red currant

red currant

Categories: books, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

i could be that bird

Kathleen Dean Moore’s book, Wild Comfort, is a gorgeous and rich collection of essays.  Moore’s writing is lyrical and dense, not the kind of prose you can gobble up in one sitting.  I found myself carrying this book with me wherever I went all week, comforted by its presence in my bag, anticipating having ten minutes (more if I could get them) to read a passage.  Her pieces are reflections of what we give and take from the natural world; how we grieve and what that means; the ways our culture invites us to fall away from nature in the name of progress and how, still, we find we need the solace of wilderness.  To be a naturalist, Moore suggests, is to have a kind of split personality – part grim reality, the byproduct of seeing environment through a scientist’s lens; part heady joy of one whose senses are on full alert.

For my part, I find grim reality is a space I occupy too often.  I forget, in my obsession with humanity’s dark underbelly, evident especially in this election season, that there’s so much to be grateful for – the kids I work with in the school garden who’ll try any vegetable I ask them to because they love the space they’ve helped to cultivate, the bumper crop of Jonagold apples bursting from my tiny, espaliered trees.  The color amber.  How my dog’s feet smell like Fritos.

I could choose to find joy more than I do, focusing less on how the world seems determined to forget history, or how any shopping excursion is proof we really are zombies and don’t know it yet, or how a generator and a crossbow are probably the best tools in preparation for the end-of-days.  I could choose to be the bird of Emily Dickinson’s poem, the one singing her heart out through the storm:  “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul…”  I could be the bird and live a more intentional life with less cynicism.  I could be that bird…

In her book, Moore frets about not living an intentional enough life.  As an exercise in gratitude, she decided to establish a “happy basket” on her desk, into which she put pieces of paper with notes recording times she felt really happy.  Her plan was to document things that brought her joy for a year, and then go through and evaluate the data.  Ultimately, she didn’t make it for the year, which I love.  One crummy day eight months or so into the project, she tipped out the basket to see what those scraps could tell her – chiefly, that none of the ways the world said she should be happy actually made her happy.  Not stuff or success.  Ideas, solitude, her kids, and moving in the outdoors delivered joy and grounded her.

Yesterday I was talking to a dear friend on the phone, lamenting the way I am built to be dissatisfied, suggesting I, too, should start a happy basket.  She was quiet for a minute, and then said to me, “But that’s what your blog is.  You don’t need a basket for your desk.”

Which I guess is true as I look back over my posts.

While we were on the phone, I stood at the window and watched the caramelized colors of autumn in my backyard, the quilt of leaves I would have to rake again before the rain came.  There’s one holdout of summer’s gaudy blaze left in the yard, a fuchsia in full bloom.  Fuchsia have a reputation for being difficult to grow, temperamental without diligent fertilizing, and prone to dying easily if you don’t baby them.  I have utterly neglected this plant, which lives in a planter box on my deck.  While everything else around it is closing up shop for winter, this fuchsia is hardy, saucy, showing off with her pendulous bloom, her firecracker bloomers.

I was about to ring off, promising to post a missive worthy of a happy basket if I could dip into the well and find something, when a female Anna’s Hummingbird arrived to my fuchsia, sucking down nectar as fast as she could.  Not all of them migrate from our part of the state, I guess, and maybe this one intended to meet some friends in California or Mexico later.

But she stayed for a while, immersed in feeding on each one of those sweet fuchsia globes long enough to allow me a good look at her red-flecked head and peacock-colored wings. Although my friend is thousands of miles away, we saw it together.  A gift to witness and to share, a thing I would’ve written on a scrap of paper and put in a basket.

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