Reading Kazuo Ishiguro

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“Then he took the sword in both hands and raised it—and Gawain’s posture took on an unmistakable grandeur.” – The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

My son gave me a signed first edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, for Christmas. The book has been cast in some marketing circles as a fantasy, with allusions to King Arthur and Beowulf and the like, although the author has said he doesn’t set out to write in one particular genre or another and doesn’t like his books to be labeled as such.

Ishiguro is one of my favorite novelists, so I read every new book of his that comes out.

Never Let Me Go (dystopia/science fiction) and When We Were Orphans (in the tradition of the mystery/detective novel but with a literary twist) are my favorite Ishiguro novels. In fact, Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, one of Ishiguro’s more accessible stories. If you want to read Ishiguro, you might start with Never Let me Go, which was made into a movie starring Carey Mulligan. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (pre World War II) was also brought to the screen with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

As much as I enjoyed the screen versions of these books, there is something about Ishiguro’s writing that seems to be lost in a movie, at least for me. His novels are like dreams verging on nightmares from which you can’t awaken. Things don’t quite make sense in Ishiguro’s novels – you know this is not “reality” and that something is off, but what? The main character(s) are usually on a quest of one kind or another. They long for something that seems to be just out of reach.

You come to discern that Ishiguro’s characters are operating under some grand delusion. It’s unsettling, because you sense something familiar about the delusion; you begin to recognize that perhaps you operate under the very same delusion.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroEspecially if you’re of a certain age and you have a son or sons like I do, you might find The Buried Giant particularly affecting. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who leave their village and set off to find their son, whom they apparently haven’t seen in many years. They can’t remember the circumstances under which he left, or exactly where he lives, just as they can’t remember much of anything about their own pasts.

Axl and Beatrice aren’t unusual, though. No one in their village or anywhere else remembers much about their own past, nor do they seem to want to; a fine mist over the countryside, thought to be the breath of the dragon Querig, is said to be responsible for shrouding both personal and collective memory.

It is somewhere around the year 600 AD, and England is in ruin. Axl and Beatrice want to find their son, and they want to regain their memories. As they wander in search of their son, they meet others on their own quests. Clues and sightings suggest a terrible slaughter between the Saxons and Britons that no one remembers, just as no one recalls the dark secrets that lurk in their personal pasts. Perhaps the mist is in place so Britons and Saxons can live side by side without wanting to exact revenge.

As one reviewer pointed out, don’t we all operate under collective memory loss, or denial, that’s partly deliberate? Over climate change, for example, even though climate scientists have been warning us about it since the seventies? Or the atrocities of war?

Axl and Beatrice become caught up in a scheme to slay the dragon so memories can be recovered, but as Sir Gawain, the knight and nephew of the dead King Arthur, asks Beatrice, “Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”

Just as the Saxons and Britons fought a terrible war, you gradually learn there was upheaval in Axl and Beatrice’s relationship as well. What will happen when this couple, who seem to be so in love, recall their betrayals of each other? And what happened to their son?

Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman who they must rely on to help them cross a river in their journey. He says, “When travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years – that we see only rarely.”

Beatrice replies: “But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

Ishiguro builds up to a powerful and haunting conclusion. Like all of Ishiguro’s novels, I can’t get this one out of my mind.

There has been some interest in making The Buried Giant into a movie, but there are no definite plans yet.

Here is an excellent 4-minute video of Ishiguro talking about his novels made into movies.

In this interview, Ishiguro talks about how a book can be the raw material for a movie, which becomes something new and powerful in and of itself; how literary genres are breaking down and overlapping in exciting ways; and how he embraces the Leonard Cohen model of artistry and aging in which the artist looks to aging as new material for his/her art.

 

Kazuo Ishiguro authograph

 

Have you read The Buried Giant or other novels by Ishiguro? Do you have a favorite? Have you seen the movie versions of Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go?

 

 

 

 

 

Why I Write Memoir (Excavating a Life)

SoldiersA long-time friend and important supporter of my work wisely suggested that I come out of the closet and become less close-mouthed about being a writer.

Hence this new Excavating a Life page on Books Can Save a Life, a kind of journal I’ll update from time to time as I work on a memoir.

My friend’s suggestion opened up a host of personal issues for me too numerous to delve into here: some are addressed in my memoir, and some I’ll write about in future posts. But suffice it to say I hesitated, in part because I believe in NOT saying much about the book or poem or essay one happens to be writing. Many writers would agree with this.

But not talking about a specific project isn’t the same thing as not talking about being a writer. And, let’s face it, I gave up a job I really liked and sometimes miss a lot because I needed more time and energy to see the memoir to completion. Since my days now largely revolve around writing the memoir (or they’re supposed to), it becomes very weird not to talk about this when other people ask me what I do with my time.

So, now I tell people I’m working on a memoir. Which generates all kinds of interesting questions and comments.

Liars' ClubYou may or may not know that memoirs have a REALLY bad reputation in some quarters. Mary Karr, whose memoir The Liars’ Club I view as a work of genius, wryly says memoir resides in the “low-rent” district of books and literature.

Some literary critics don’t even consider memoirs literature. Navel-gazing, they say, and often navel-gazing not done well.

For a time this bothered me. Was I spending my days navel-gazing?

But I’ve heard this criticism of memoir so many times now, that I’ve lost interest in it. For the most part, (not always) it no longer has the power to make me self-conscious when I write.

Without apology, I can say writing a memoir does require a good bit of navel-gazing. There’s no getting around that. The very nature of memoir is internal, psychological. It is first person point of view, however flawed and unreliable that interpretation of reality may be. (This is not an original thought on my part. See for example Brooke Warner’s thoughts at HuffPost Books.)

It is trying to figure out what the hell happened and then trying to make sense of it in a way that pulls the reader in. The writer’s journey becomes the reader’s journey, because the reader has had his own baffling, mind-blowing life. As the writer works things out on the page, the reader is right alongside her trying to come to grips with whatever blindsided her (the reader) on her own life journey.

If the memoir is powerful and offers a bit of wisdom and insight, that’s a win/win for the writer, the reader, and the world.

(This “without apology” business I learned from Eric Maisel and his Deep Writing seminar. He taught us to honor our writing, to make no apologies for it. He taught us to say this to ourselves when we need to: “That thought doesn’t serve me or my writing.” So if I get to thinking I’m navel-gazing, or if I hear someone else speak dismissively of memoir, I say to myself: “That thought doesn’t serve me if I want to complete my memoir and get it out into the world.”)

Getting back to those comments and questions I’ve gotten about memoir: A few people have a hard time with the idea that I reconstruct dialogue. How can I remember someone’s remark from twenty years ago, let alone an entire conversation? Aren’t I really just making things up? Isn’t that suspect?

If I’m making up the dialogue, what else might I be making up or misremembering? How else might I not really be writing the truth?

Considering how problematic memoir is, why not write a novel? Since I can’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy, why not write fiction? That way if I get something wrong it doesn’t matter. Fiction isn’t “the truth.”

Now, this is a loaded, much-debated issue with many facets. This is what I want to focus on here:

The Glass Castle

Another highly regarded memoir

My memoir is about growing up with a mother who had a serious mental illness. The illness was bad enough, but everyone pretended there was nothing wrong. No one spoke about or acknowledged the elephant in the room. Everyone seemed to feel it was perfectly fine to leave us kids alone with our mother, even though they certainly wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with her. She could be, at best, decidedly unsociable and, at worst, hostile and scary.

(To be clear, my mother was a brave, strong, caring woman, and as good a mother as she could be.)

Not knowing what to do with my feelings of distress, sensing people didn’t want to deal with them and that no one was going to help us, I swallowed them. I pretended I was happy. I became ashamed of the dark feelings I shared with no one.

A parent in the throes of psychosis doesn’t really see her children. Her demons have all her attention, at least for the moment. The children become invisible to her, and the children know this. Between their parent not seeing them, and other people not acknowledging their unfortunate family situation, they begin to feel invisible.

They enter adulthood hollowed out, still feeling invisible. This they bring to their work, their relationships, their life. They pay a heavy price. They don’t really know themselves or why they do some of the things they do. Often, they don’t go after all they can in life. They hold back. They hesitate to take risks. Their lives are the poorer for it, and so is the world, which is robbed of their full talents, wisdom, and unique contributions.

As someone who wanted to write, who wanted to be creative, I found that I’d locked away my most essential, authentic self. I was alienated from my own shadow, my own best “material,” the very bedrock I should have been writing about. So I didn’t write, at least not for a long time.

One way to re-connect with one’s essential self is to write a memoir, as difficult as that process can be. One way to no longer feel invisible is to write a memoir.

I’m writing a memoir because I want to (and feel compelled to) tell my story, my own true story. I want to say what really happened, at least from my perspective. For me, writing fiction just won’t cut it.

Lord knows, the world is full of people far, far more wounded than I. In so many respects, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate. The best memoirists are not out to portray themselves as victims or to gain attention or sympathy. If they’ve made it as far as having a memoir published, they don’t need a reader’s sympathy. They are, among other things, trying to bring valuable stories into the world.

Wild

One of the most influential memoirs in recent years

I believe this is the age of the memoir, and it’s about time, because the world needs memoirs. (Though I acknowledge that reading memoirs isn’t for everyone.)

We’re bringing to light the dark secrets we hid growing up. We’re looking at what it means to be a family, what holds one together and what tears one apart. We’re hoping to change things so people like my mother get the help and support that is their right. We’re questioning long-accepted social values that have brought us to some bad places.

Just think of all the memoir writers – and readers – who no longer feel invisible, whose energy and creativity and wisdom are being liberated, helping all of us achieve a more enlightened world.

Next up: Back to books – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (I’m loving it.) Down the road on Excavating a Life: Memoir and shame.

Please share this post with memoir lovers, memoir writers and memoir skeptics. Do you have a favorite memoir? Do you dislike memoirs? Are you writing one? Tell us about it in the comments.

H Is for Hawk

H is for Hawk

“….her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thunder-cloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell….”  H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald’s reaction to her father dying suddenly was to embark on the extraordinarily difficult task of training a goshawk, one of nature’s fiercest and most ruthless predators.

Goshawks are cold-hearted, lifelong loners with no social instincts whatsoever. They bond with no one, not the goshawk they mate with, not other goshawks, not any human who wants to train them. You can’t look them in the eye, either, because if you do they might attack you.

Goshawks don’t respond to punishment. The only way to train a goshawk is to be submissive and patient, eyes cast down at all times. Tim Gallagher, in a review of H Is for Hawk, likens this to being a kind of monk. It is not a part-time thing. Training a goshawk is all-consuming. It takes over your life.

Helen writes about the hawk she is training, whom she names Mabel:

“Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill. Yesterday I discovered that when I suck air through my teeth and make a squeaking noise like an injured rabbit, all the tendons in her toes instantaneously contract, driving her talons into the glove with terrible, crushing force. This killing grip is an old, deep pattern in her brain, an innate response that hasn’t yet found the stimulus meant to release it. Because other sounds provoke it: door hinges, squealing breaks, bicycles with unoiled wheels – and on the second afternoon, Joan Sutherland singing an aria on the radio. Ow. I laughed out loud at that. Stimulus: opera. Response: kill.”

Two goshawks

Goshawk. Rare Book Division, New York Public Library

 

Helen’s father was a prominent photographer, Alisdair Macdonald, and the two were close. When she was a child, they spent many days roaming the countryside as Alisdair indulged his passion for airplanes and Helen her growing passion for birds.

After Alisdair died, Helen wanted a distraction from her grief, something deeply immersive and challenging. In this respect, H Is for Hawk is unlike other memoirs. There isn’t a lot about Helen’s father or her relationship with him, or about Helen’s feelings of sadness and loss, per se. These are subsumed into an arresting narrative of Helen’s struggle to achieve what seems to be impossible as she grapples with her grief.

As Helen comes to understand, “Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”

Helen was, in fact, an experienced falconer, but she’d never taken on a goshawk before. She brought along a companion in her unusual undertaking: T. H. White’s, The Goshawk, White’s account of his own experience training a goshawk in the 1930s. (Remember T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, The Once and Future King, and other tales of Arthurian legend? Even if you didn’t read the books, you’ve probably seen the movie/musical Camelot and the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone.)

This weaving of T.H. White’s experiences into Helen’s narrative is fascinating; White, who was gay in a culture and time when this was unacceptable, was grappling with his own loss and inner darkness. Helen writes,

“It took me a long time to realise how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationships with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak.”

And this:

“….White wrote one of the saddest sentences I have ever read: ‘Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside.’ He could not imagine a human love returned. He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot hurt you either.”

Helen’s immersion with Mabel, her goshawk, is harrowing. She holds nothing back in the struggle, and she holds nothing back from her reader. Ultimately, Helen has to confront her obsession with the goshawk and her nearly complete withdrawal from friends and family. Where does obsession end and madness begin?

Before you read H Is for Hawk, I highly recommend that you read this fascinating review by Tim Gallagher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds site. Gallagher puts the human-training-a-goshawk challenge into context, and I think it will pique your interest. Not knowing a raptor from a falcon from a hawk myself, I wish I’d read this review first. And I’ve a soft spot in my heart for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the good work they do. We live not far from there, and I’ve seen at least one of their research sites in the Finger Lakes countryside.

Read H Is for Hawk if you want a different kind of memoir that demands to be read slowly, one word, one phrase, one sentence at a time. If you’re willing and want to slow down and immerse in another world entirely.

I expect I’ll read H Is for Hawk once or twice more down the road, as I simply couldn’t take it all in the first time through. If I’ve painted a rather dark picture of this unusual memoir, there is light and wisdom gained, too:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, […]”

Have  you read H Is for Hawk? What did you think? Are there similar books you might recommend?

Excavating a Life

Momphotos-18This is a happy coincidence: I’m starting a new, ongoing theme here at Books Can Save a Life (in addition to my usual book posts) called Excavating a Life on my fourth anniversary, to the day, of blogging.

Excavating a Life will be my informal, occasional, online creative journal: notes and jottings about the writing life as I try to finish this exhilarating and confounding marathon of writing a memoir, which I’m aiming to complete in 2016.

I hope these musings will speak to you who are immersed in a creative endeavor, or inspire you to begin one, and that you’ll share the challenges and high points of your own journey.

For those who follow me primarily for books, I’ll often highlight an author or work that has taught me something about pursuing a writing or creative practice with intention–so books will be a big part of Excavating a Life, too.

For instance, you’ll see a lot of Vincent Van Gogh here. I’m not a painter by any means, never learned to draw (though I’m making attempts to keep a nature journal), but I find Van Gogh’s letters an endless source of inspiration; I have three collections of them.

Here is a nugget of wisdom from Van Gogh. And it doesn’t just apply to painting (or writing) does it?

Vincent

“If a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam–fine–that’s not unhealthy–if a stable smells of manure–very well, that’s what a stable’s for….Painting peasant life is a serious thing…”  Vincent Van Gogh: Ever Yours, The Essential Letters, Yale University Press 2014

 

I’m thrilled to acknowledge and thank my longtime friend and writing coach extraordinaire, Debra Marrs, who presented this gift of an idea for Excavating a Life when we met up a couple of times in Florida for afternoon tea and some fabulous Cuban food. We were in Florida to spend holiday time with family–a Christmas quite different from our usual upstate New York kind.

Thanks to my sister- and brother-in law, who have the perfect guest quarters, I started off the year with a week of intensive writing. During my mini-retreat, I was able to add 10,000 words to my memoir–not quite my goal of 13,000, but good enough.

Temple

Wat Mongkolrata Temple

My sister-in law, who is from Thailand, took us to the local Buddhist temple, where I meditated and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings. It was a unique blend of spiritualities for me this mid-winter. That, and a change of scene, did wonders for my writing.

Before I close, here is one more tidbit. Have you ever heard of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory of creativity? I hadn’t, but apparently it is well known among many photographers. I found out about it yesterday. I love it and agree with it. Don’t get off that #!?&! bus. And remember, in the first stages of a project, feedback from others or your own emotions “aren’t a reliable indication of how you’re doing.”

Orchids

A different Christmas this year: orchids instead of evergreen. My niece said these look like butterflies, and I agree.

 

Are you immersed in bringing something to fruition? Or would you like to be? It could be anything: writing a book, building a stone wall, starting a business, learning to knit, climbing all the Adirondack mountain peaks, whatever. What’s your biggest creative challenge at the moment?

Journal

I bought this well worn leather journal cover in Florence years ago.

 

Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

Little girl statue edited

Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

I ended 2015 reading Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and this first week of 2016, a poem of mine, “At Casa Guidi,” was published in Loveliest Magazine.

Italy. Children. Creativity. I hadn’t planned this, but the poem and Ferrante’s novel have these in common. (The similarities end there – Elena Ferrante is a world-renowned author; I’m a novice poet.)

First, the poem. Some years ago I traveled to Florence with my sister-in-law, and we visited Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the Oltrarno quarter, where many artists and writers lived. Later, recalling our visit, I was inspired to write “At Casa Guidi.”

Loveliest Magazine, a new venue “for storytelling and togetherness,” caught my eye when I read the words “slow-lifestyle” and “literary” to describe its cross-genre purpose. That’s me, for sure, so I thought my poetry might be a good fit. Beautifully written and produced independent literary and lifestyle publications such as Loveliest often look for good fiction, poetry, and essays; if you’d like to see your work published consider submitting to these in addition to traditional literary journals.

 

Little boy statue edited

Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

If you are ever in Florence, be sure to visit this quieter part of the city, the Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno River.” In addition to the must-see attractions and many great works of art, Oltrarno streets are lined with stationery stores featuring the things writers love: Italian-made note papers and leather journals, ornate fountain pens, inks in every shade and color. When I was there, I bought a small, leather-bound copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, and my sister-in-law bought a print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

I’ve written about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in a previous post.  The Story of the Lost Child is Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. The books are a probing look at the inner life of a writer; a family saga; a soap opera; a history of Italian feminism, culture and politics; and more.

So much has been said about these singular, internationally bestselling novels and their mysterious author, who publishes under a pseudonym, that I’ll simply add my thoughts here. (That we don’t know the identity of the author adds to the power of her work, in my opinion.)

If you look at the book covers you’ll see dreamy, idealized illustrations that are misleading: the story of the lifelong friendship between Lila and Elena, born in Naples just after World War II, can often be raw, brutally honest, and bleak. The book covers belie the content, but perhaps that was intentional, as if to say: think again if you expect a story filled with roses and happy endings….

I wouldn’t say I was always entertained by the books, because they can be relentless in their depiction of Napoli poverty and the battle between the sexes in an era when feminism blossomed. But, as many readers do, I became obsessed with Lila and Elena and had to keep on reading to see what became of them.

  • Ferrante’s work is especially meaningful to me because my father was Sicilian. Now I better understand the values, traditions, and struggles of my Italian ancestors and how these may have had an impact on my own childhood. The cultural history of Italy and its focus on family reminded me of one of my favorite Italian movies, The Best of Youth. Although I have not yet read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard, it sounds as though Ferrante’s penetrating look at the psychology of growing up and growing older may have similarities with Knausgard’s autobiographical series.
  • As a writer, I was especially taken with Elena’s love/jealousy/hatred of her friend, Lila. Though Elena was the outwardly successful one, with several novels published and lauded as a scholar of literature and culture, she always believed Lila was the more talented of the two, the one with wildness, fire, and true originality.  It’s often a struggle when I write to break out of my safe, everyday self and give creativity free reign. The genius of the Neapolitan novels is that Elena and Lila’s story can be read as the author’s own creative struggle with a psyche split in two.

 

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Elena and her friend, Lila, are strong women, survivors. Here is Elena during the earthquake in Naples, 1980:

“I felt that fear in me could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter settled in my mind in orderly sentences, a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, where I was always and no matter what at the center. Everything that struck me–my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake–would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.”  – The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 

My Brilliant Friend book coverThe Story of a New Name book coverThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay book cover

Shop local for Christmas

Corner Bookstore

shelf-sacrifice n: to selflessly give away a book from one’s personal library for another person’s benefit – Powell’s Compendium of Readerly Terms

In our village on the Erie Canal, we have a number of small nonprofit businesses run by volunteers, including a craft shop, a second-hand tool thrift store, and The Corner Bookstore with used and collectible books. All donate their profits to good causes. The bookstore proceeds support programs at our public library.

I love shopping at these small businesses. (The tool shop not as much, but we did buy an old-fashioned push lawn mower there. When my brother-in-law visited us a few years back, we lost him for a couple of hours, only to find him browsing in the tool shop.)

A number of clothing consignment shops are scattered around our village as well. I’ve been thinking about challenging myself this year to buy exclusively (or almost) from stores I can walk or bike to. Our farmer’s market runs from May to November, so it wouldn’t be difficult to purchase a good portion of our fruits and vegetables there, supplemented by our small backyard garden. (Our town has a community garden, too.)

Shelf-sacrifice is what The Corner Bookstore is all about. It’s an elfin wonderland of used and vintage books lovingly displayed in diminutive groupings: children’s books, poetry, graphic novels, history, fiction, local authors, and more.

Vintage Children's Books

The cookbook section has used cookbooks nestled in gift baskets along with vintage ice cream sundae glasses, martini glasses, and miniature ceramic casserole dishes. I found a blank recipe album with Bible verses and beautiful cover art in pristine condition. For my son, I found a Vietnamese cookbook – he loves Asian food.

Cookbooks

In the local authors bookcase, I spotted Reunion in Sicily by Jerre Mangione, a scholar of the Sicilian-American experience, according to Wikipedia. Jerre is the uncle of jazz musicians Chuck and Gap Mangione, who are from Rochester. Flipping through the pages of the book, which was published in 1950, I saw that the author visited Sicily in 1936 when Mussolini and the Fascists were in power. Mangione was watched closely by the police and interrogated more than once as to the purpose of his visit.

Reunion in Sicily

Mangione was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship after WWII so he could return to Sicily to learn more about Italian politics and culture of the times. Reunion in Sicily is not listed in his Wikipedia entry; I’m interested to see what I can learn from the book. My father was Sicilian-American and a WWII veteran with extended family in the Old Country. The war, of course, essentially split Italian and Italian-American families in two, at least for a time.

Another great find was The Fragrant Garden, a beautifully slipcased anthology of garden writing and art, the kind of book you can display open on a small easel. When I noticed the subtitle, Penhaligon’s Scented Treasury of Verse and Prose, I realized that a faint floral scent emanated from its pages. Upon reading the prologue I discovered that, indeed, the endpapers are scented with Penhaligon’s Gardenia perfume. Gardenia is one of my all-time favorite floral scents; I had a gardenia in my bridal bouquet.

Fragrant Garden.jpg

The volume was edited by Sheila Pickles (check out her Goodreads Page) and published in 1992. Never having heard of Penhaligon’s, I had to look that up, too. It was established in London in the late 1800s. There are shops in the US, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to visit the London shop? They have a blog, and here is an enticingly sensuous excerpt from it about the men’s perfume Endymion:

“….a complex blend of sophisticated scents, it opens with the orangy warmth of bergamot and mandarin wrapped in delicate lavender and sage. The dark coffee heart is rich and powerful giving way to the spicy velvet base of creamy nutmeg, vetiver, cardamom and a hint of leather. It is strong and romantic and very masculine.”

I’ve never heard of vetiver, have you? I had to look that up, too.

Wasn’t that fun? All this from a Christmas shopping trip to The Corner Bookstore.

Christmas lights.jpg

Don’t overlook the independent bookstores and shops near you as you go about your holiday shopping. It’s a good way to support your local economy, and you’re much more likely to find unique gifts and treasures.

Do you have any independent bookstores that you like in your town?

Library window with Erie Canal mural

Our public library on the Erie Canal was recently renovated. Since 1938, it has boasted this mural by Carl W. Peters, created as part of Rochester’s WPA Murals project.

Lift Bridge

Our one-of-a-kind lift bridge spans the Erie Canal. It is an irregular decagon (10 sides), no two angles in the bridge are the same and no corners on the bridge are square. It is lifted by a 40 hp electric motor. When the kids were little they loved watching the bridge being lifted so boats could pass through.

 

Wild Arts!

Five books

Books purchased at the Wild Arts Festival in Portland, signed in person by the authors.

 

Litmosphere: 1. the vast domain of the world’s readers and writers 2. a lively literary mood permeating the air ~ sign in Powell’s Books, Portland

Wild Arts FestivalI love the literary scene in Portland. Our Thanksgiving visit there coincided with the annual Wild Arts Festival, a celebration of nature in art and books hosted by the Audubon Society of Portland in the old Montgomery Ward building, now known as Montgomery Park.

Walking into the festival, where hundreds of artists and authors were on hand, was like getting a gigantic embrace from the creative community.

I couldn’t decide among Ursula Le Guin’s many, many science fiction and fantasy books. In the end I chose her translation of Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, and she graciously signed a copy for me.

Next, we met Robert Michael Pyle, a jolly teddy bear of a man who spent no less than 15 minutes entertaining us with stories about how, in his Honda Civic with 345,000 miles on the odometer, he spent a year searching for as many of the 800 species of American butterflies as he could find. I could have spent hours listening to this man; instead I bought his memoir and travelogue, Mariposa Road, which he signed with, “May these far rambles on bright wings incite your own wild road trips!”

A dedicated ecologist and naturalist, Robert Michael Pyle has written nearly 20 books and is the co-editor of Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings. (The literary genius Vladimir Nabokov was a butterfly expert and had an extensive collection.)

I purchased another of Robert’s memoirs, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land, about Washington’s Willapa Hills, whose forests have been plundered by lumber companies. Robert lives on a farm in Grays River once owned by a Swedish immigrant. I’m descended from Swedes, who were attracted to the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest because it reminded them of home; I’d love to see Willapa country one day. Of course, Robert signed Wintergreen, too, with these words, together with a sketch of a snail: “May these moss murmurs and fern-words honor your own hills of home – and maybe urge you Northwesterly!”

I can’t say enough about Floyd Skloot and Kim Stafford. They are both poets, and they’ve both written memoirs. (Actually, they’ve both written more than one, and I look forward to reading all of them.)

Since I’m writing a memoir myself, I decided to go for the memoirs: In the Shadow of MemoryFloyd Skloot’s first memoir (part neuroscience and part autobiography about a virus that left Skloot disabled and bereft of memories) and 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: My Brother’s Disappearance by Kim Stafford (his brother committed suicide.)

Both of these generous writers spoke with me about their work and asked at great length about mine. Kim wanted to know the working title of my memoir and, when I told him, he gave me a writing assignment to try. As I did the exercise Kim recommended, I discovered that one particular word in the title is especially important to my memoir’s theme. It got me thinking about how I could bring out the theme more vividly as I revise.

The authors I spoke with at the Wild Arts Festival were incredibly kind and gracious. I had instant connections with these generous writers, who are among the best in America today. Don’t be shy at these kinds of events. Writers and artists are the most giving and engaged people you’ll ever meet.

Portland is a book-loving town, and as I walked around the neighborhoods with family, I noticed several Little Free Libraries. It’s also a poetry-loving town, and a couple of the homes I passed by had poems on display – including one by Kim Stafford’s father, the great poet William Stafford.

Slipped inside the Kim Stafford memoir I bought was the gift of a poem that begins, “The only heroic thing is to not be a hero.” I believe Kim borrowed this phrase from a poem by his father, William: “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

Kim’s poem is called “A Few Words, Each Day,” and it includes this line: “The only heroic thing is to be a child of four…of fifteen…of forty…of eighty – trying with the heart and mind to listen to the self, each other, and the earth….”

Litmosphere definition sign in Powell's Books

We stopped by Powell’s Books for good measure, where I learned a new word.

 

Books: Braiding Sweetgrass; Notes from No Man's Land

At Powell’s I bought Eula Biss’s collection of essays and the latest book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatoni Nation.

 

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

 

Kim Stafford: “That is my story.”

 

 

Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night book cover

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.”

“What? How do you mean?”

“I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.”

He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious….

….he stood at the door watching her, this medium-sized seventy-year-old woman with white hair walking away under the trees in the patches of light thrown out by the corner street lamp. What in the hell, he said. Now don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

There is no writer quite like Kent Haruf. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long time. I wrote about his other novels, Plainsong (my favorite), Eventide, and Benediction here.

Haruf passed away a year ago, and his final novel, Our Souls at Night, about the blossoming of an older couple’s relationship, was just published.

Like his other novels, Our Souls at Night takes place in the fictitious eastern Colorado town of Holt. I’m not going to say too much about this book because Haruf’s writing doesn’t lend itself to heavy analysis; I think that might ruin it for readers new to this author.

Instead, I’ll refer you to this review by Ursula Le Guin, who greatly admires Haruf’s writing and does a good job of summarizing Haruf’s themes, characters and style.

If you are new to Kent Haruf, you could start with Plainsong. I think you’ll be entranced by the characters in the lonely little desert town of Holt and you’ll want to read the other books.

Our Souls at Night would make a wonderful holiday gift.

“They stopped in one of the towns for hamburgers and then drove up the highway through the Arkansas River canyon, the beautiful fast water, steep red jagged cliffs on each side, there were Rocky Mountain sheep along the road, all ewes with short sharp horns, and went on and then turned off toward North Fork Campground on County Road 240 and entered the national forest…..They could hear it running and rushing. The clear icy water, with brook trout holed up in the hollows below the rocks. There were tall fir trees and big ponderosas and aspen along the creek and back in the hillside.”

The Wonder Garden

The Wonder Garden book cover

“She opens her eyes and looks at the television, a car commercial. An American couple achieves the top of a mountain, commanding a vista. She breathes in and breathes out. It is all right to retreat. She will pull back, she will redraw her boundaries. She will find her balance. When she emerges again, she will be refreshed, reenergized. She will be the best Rosalie she can be. The best and only.”

The Wonder Garden is a collection of exquisite short stories by Lauren Acampora, a new writer whom I’ve added to my “read-everything-by-this-author” list.

I’ve been reading more short stories lately, and I especially like these because they are linked: a protagonist in one story appears as a supporting character in the other stories, so that the collection reads like novel.

The stories are wickedly funny, psychologically complex, dark, uniquely American, and occasionally bleak – but leavened with an understated joy in the ebbs and flows and seasons of life. Living in suburbia and having raised children there, I find them so resonant.

Fictitious Old Cranbury is John Cheever and Mad Men territory, except post 9/11: an upscale Connecticut town on Long Island Sound, the home of a few have-nots but mostly haves. There is a memorial dedicated to five fathers who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and were killed on September 11.

The houses of Old Cranbury form a motif that further links the stories. The restored salt boxes and farmhouses, pretentious mansions, and humbler ranches fitted with granite countertops and fake shutters reflect their inhabitants’ aspirations and obsessions.

Acampora has compassion for her characters, but she can be scathing, too. Rosalie, for example (see above quote) is the type of hyperactive suburban mother who does everything and knows everyone and gives over her life to her five children: she is on the school board, she is prominent in the PTA, she hosts a book club, she makes themed halloween costumes for the entire family, including her brain surgeon husband. She is a good Christian woman who understands she has been greatly blessed and decides to host a poor Bangladeshi foreign exchange student for a semester.

There is a wonderful turning point in the story when the student, Nayana, expresses her sympathy for Noah, Rosalie’s youngest.  Rosalie is puzzled by this, and Nayana explains that Noah had revealed his true history to her: he was adopted into the family, having lost his birth father in 9/11. Noah’s story is sheer fabrication and Rosalie is horrified, having seen to it that her children have lacked for nothing.

Confronting Noah, she is undone by this previously unseen side of her son: it may as well be true, he says, because his neurosurgeon father is never around, implying that Rosalie, too, is lacking as a mother. Concurrent threads in the story reveal that the all-male members of the school board condescend to Rosalie and, most chillingly of all, her husband seems to view her with contempt.

I disliked Rosalie and was highly entertained by her, but at the same I recognized that, though she works hard and means well, she is an aging, marginalized woman in what is still a sexist culture. She is in many respects a throwback to the 1950s, pre-feminist, stay-at-home wives.

Another story is about a young single mother who meets a brain surgeon (yes, Rosalie’s husband) and really believes he will whisk her away to a glamorous life in Paris.

The brain surgeon gets his own story, and we find out he has a few really bizarre secrets of his own.

I loved the aging artist and his wife who transcend themselves to make one last work of art.

Then there’s the newly married advertising executive compelled to leave his job so he can follow his animal spirit.

And the 50-something real estate broker caught in traffic who decides to just stop; she turns off the ignition as cars maneuver around her and spends a long night in the driver’s seat, reviewing her life.

Here is a couple who live as though it’s the 18th century and regularly attend early American reenactments. I recognize this ritual of the children leaving home after a holiday visit:

“The next morning, Cheryl and Roger drive them to the airport. They embrace at the security gate. Both parents resist the itch to remind and advise, to command their son to complete the semester, to tell their daughter to skip Afrikaans. Instead, they let their children pull out of their arms and join the security line. They watch them remove their shoes and put them on the conveyer belt….They watch their children pass through the metal detector’s trellis and, on the other side, give a brief wave and disappear around a corner. They will sit together for the six-hour flight, then part ways in San Francisco, one aimed south, the other east. By the time the sun sets in New England, they will be speeding over freeways their parents have never driven, along the lurid blue coastline at the edge of America….”

In another story, the young adult children of some of the characters we’ve met go to a music festival, including Noah, Rosalie’s son, now a few years older. I love the final image in this passage, where we see Old Cranbury from the perspective of a young person who grew up there:

“Eventually, she will distance herself from the incident, tamp it into a story she tells at parties. She will put herself apart from the man who died. He was fundamentally different, she will rationalize, not from Old Cranbury, unanchored by good parents and constructive surroundings….Far off to the side, before the parking lot, Bethany notices a gathering of people on an open field. This would be the morning yoga session, offered to those able to rise early enough, still interested in breathing. The rows of people move in sync, adopting the same poses, configuring and reconfiguring their limbs like children experimenting with their bodies. Bethany watches as they all bend at once to plant their hands upon the bare field, then arch up in unison, a hundred arms saluting the sun.”

Oh, and, by the way, we haven’t seen the last of Rosalie, who rises like a phoenix in the final story.

Lauren Acampora lives in a suburban town much like the one she depicts. Her husband is an artist, and one of his works is the cover art for The Wonder Garden.

This is one book to add to your holiday wish list, and it’s a great book club choice.

Here is a video that features Lauren Acampora and her husband:

The Collapse of Western Civilization (in 50 pages)

WesternCivilization“The year 2009 is viewed as ‘the last best chance’ the Western world had to save itself…”

The Collapse of Western Civilization is a disturbing 50-page work of fiction that reads with the authority of nonfiction.

In the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393, a scholar writes an account the Great Collapse of 2093, brought about by failure to take action on climate change.

Pair it with CCR’s Bad Moon Rising; you can read it in an hour or two.

The book came about when co-author Naomi Oreskes, a geologist and historian who teaches at Harvard, reviewed the scholarly literature on climate change to see if indeed there was a lack of consensus among scientists, as is often claimed.

After looking at 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, she concluded that in fact scientists do agree that a high concentration of greenhouse gas is causing climate change.

When Oreskes published her findings in Science, she was championed by the likes of Al Gore. At the same time, to her astonishment, she began receiving hate mail. As she said in an interview, articles published in the scholarly literature are typically ignored by the public.

She and coauthor Eric Conway hoped a work of fiction that remained true to the facts of science might change opinions. Conway is a fan of science fiction and has been especially influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogies about Mars and climate change.

It’s unsettling to read about ideas and ways of life that we take for granted portrayed as extreme short-sightedness, self-delusion, and magical thinking.  The Collapse of Western Civilization will give you a jolt. It’s a quick, page-turning read to put you in a receptive frame of mind when the UN/Paris Climate Change Conference begins on November 30.

Here are some excerpts:

“There is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering. Suffice it to say that total losses – social, cultural, economic, and demographic – were greater than any in recorded human history. Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.”

“At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state.”

“…survivors in northern inland regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”

Commonly used terms that we don’t question are cast as old-fashioned and obsolete in the Lexicon of Archaic Terms at the end of the book:

“capitalism: ….One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself.”

“invisible hand: A form of magical thinking, popularized in the eighteenth century, that economic markets in a capitalist system were “balanced” by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which both ensured that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs. Belief in the invisible hand….formed a kind of quasi-religious foundation for capitalism.”

“Period of the Penumbra: the shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”

Coming Back to Life book coverFor an antidote to all the doom, read Joanna Macy‘s books, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. See also her short film, Joanna Macy and The Great Turning, about civilization’s shift from industrial growth to sustainability.

Have you read any good books about climate change? Are you planning to follow upcoming events related to the UN Conference on Climate Change? Are there local activities planned for your area?

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