Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter Book Cover

“She was a good cook, but she also did the main work that kept us eating. She made the garden, and all we didn’t eat fresh she preserved and stored for the winter. She took care of the hens and the turkeys. She milked two cows. My father was in charge of the meat hogs, but Grandmam was the authority and head worker at the butchering and sausage making and lard rendering and the curing of the meat. In the summers she, and I with her, roamed the fencerows and woods edges and hollows to pick wild berries for pies and jam. She was always busy. She never backed off from anything because it was hard. She washed and ironed, made soap, sewed and patched and darned. Every Saturday she carried a basket of eggs and a bucket of cream to the store at Shagbark.”   Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry

 

Hannah Coulter is a great book club choice. I think that reading Wendell Berry’s novels, essays, and poetry over several months could spark conversations so relevant to our times.

I read somewhere of a woman who began inviting liberals and conservatives to occasional dinners after the election. Maybe forming a book club of this nature, and reading the work of Wendell Berry and others (J.D. Vance‘s  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein come to mind) could be one way to help us better understand one another and heal our cultural divide.

As I wrote in my previous post, Berry doesn’t subscribe to strictly liberal or conservative thinking. Influenced by this Baptist faith and deep bonds with the Kentucky farming community of his birth, he has over a lifetime and in a large body of work mapped out a moral code for living ethically on this earth, with compassion toward each other and a deep understanding of what the land we live on requires of us.

At eighty years of age, Hannah Coulter looks back on her life. When she was a girl, her mother died and was soon replaced with an uncaring stepmother. When Hannah was a young wife and mother-to-be, her husband, Virgil, was killed in World War II. A few years later, Hannah married Nathan, a war veteran who fought at Okinawa. Together they raised three children. Hannah’s is a story of farming and family in a close-knit Kentucky community, a way of life that she recognizes is vanishing.

Or is it? The ending of this short but powerful novel offers signs of hope that maybe it is not. Even though I haven’t lived the farming life, I care about its preservation and resurgence, so I loved the ending of this novel.

Hannah Coulter spoke to me on many fronts, and left me unsettled, too.

After 20+ years in our home raising two children, we’ve been getting ready for a garage sale and deciding what to part with. These words resonated:

“And then we got married and moved in.

Those were fine days. Everything we did seemed to start something that was going to go on and on. I’ll never forget the feeling it gave me just to make this house clean, to fill it with fresh air and the good smell of soapy water, to wash the dingy windows and see the rooms fill with light, to get here one morning and find that Nathan had mowed the yard, sparing the day lilies and the rambler rose. I cut a few blossoms and stuck them in a jar of water in the living room.”

By far, though, one of the most powerful sections of Hannah Coulter for me was when, after Nathan’s death, Hannah goes to the library so she can find out what the Battle of Okinawa was all about. Nathan had never spoken of the war or that terrible battle.

I understand Hannah’s impulse to want to know this about her husband. Writing my memoir, I’ve found it challenging to write intelligently and fairly about my parents in a full-bodied, compassionate way. Parents keep stories from their children and remain enigmas long after they are gone.

A few years after my father died, we went to Metz, France, a town he helped liberate in World War II when he was about my son’s age. We saw the countryside where he was wounded and visited the American cemetery with thousands of white crosses as far as the eye could see. My father always told war stories that fascinated me, but I’d never really known much about the Battle of Metz–what a suicidal mission it was. That day in France, when we found the grave of a young man in my father’s battalion who was killed the same cold November day Dad was wounded, I realized in a way I never had before how much my father must have been censoring when he told his stories.

When Hannah goes to the library, she wants to know what Nathan experienced during the Battle of Okinawa. She wants details: what he saw, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. Wendell Berry gives these to her, in spades. He reminds her, too, of the Japanese farmers and their families who were there when the bombs rained down.

Wendell Berry isn’t keen on runaway capitalism and the industrialization of farming, and I think this powerful chapter about Hannah researching the Battle of Okinawa is, in part, an indictment of the military-industrial complex.

“Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination. They have power. Can you have power and imagination at the same time? Can you kill people you don’t know and have compassion for them at the same time?

Over Easter weekend, I heard someone report, with great satisfaction, of the rising ISIS death toll from our “mother of all bombs,” as troops cleaned up and found more bodies.

Some final, true, and thankfully uplifting words, from Hannah Coulter: 

“The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflies that fly up and flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail.”

I’m better off for having read Hannah Coulter. I draw inspiration from these words about Grandmam, and have written them in the notebook where I record and track my creative work:

“She never backed off from anything because it was hard.”

One of the Wendell Berry novels recommended by readers of this blog is Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, As Written by Himself, so that is the Berry novel I plan to read next.  (Jayber has a few cameo mentions in Hannah Coulter.)

Here is an in-depth discussion of Hannah Coulter on The Diane Rehm Show:

https://dianerehm.org/shows/2010-11-24/readers-review-hannah-coulter-wendell-berry

 

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Hemlocks at dusk in our neighborhood. Wendell Berry’s fiction is infused with vivid imagery of nature and the land.

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Our Only World
“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops, and stores, and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945, did not think of their work as ‘a job.’ Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.”     
Wendell Berry, Our Only World

Ten Essays by The Mad Farmer, an American prophet

A few days before I wrote this post, people in our government were planning to vote on a cruel, senseless health care bill that would have meant insurance companies would no longer be required to cover outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, pregnancy, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment (mental health is a cause especially close to my heart), prescription drugs, rehabilitation, laboratory and diagnostic tests, preventive and wellness services and pediatric care.

I thought about all the working poor and those without jobs in Ohio, where I grew up. This health care bill would have wrought only further misery and suffering, and yet many of those who would have been adversely affected had voted in the current administration.

I was afraid to look at the news on Friday, and relieved and thankful when I finally did. There had been no vote on the bill. The fate of health care in the United States would be determined another day.

For some reason, it seems we are forcing ourselves to sort everything into the categories of liberal or conservative, and pro-government or anti-government, when of course the world is far more complex, and far more beautiful.

To keep myself sane and as a balm when I’m tired of all the vitriol, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry. I’ve wanted to dive into his writing for a long time. Needless to say, Berry doesn’t give much credence to strictly liberal or conservative world views.

He is a long-time Kentucky farmer and a devout Christian who writes poetry, short stories, novels, and essays, brilliantly. Affectionately known as “the mad farmer,” Wendell Berry is an American prophet, a voice of reason, humility, and humanity who has been compared to Emerson and Thoreau. If every person in America, young and old, read a few of his poems or stories, maybe we’d be in a better place.

Our Only World, a collection of ten essays, is a good choice if you want a concise introduction to Wendell Berry. (The book pictured above refers to eleven essays, but my copy had only ten, so I assume an essay was removed before publication.)

There were so many passages I wanted to quote, it was hard to choose. When I read the passages below, I thought of the economic devastation I’ve seen in my home town and in my home state of Ohio:

“….the disposability of people….is one of the versions of ‘creative destruction,’ which is to say the theme of heartlessness, heartbreak, and permanent damage to people and their communities….We now use ‘Luddite’ as a term of contempt, and this usage, often by people who consider themselves compassionate and humane, implies a sort of progressivist etiquette by which, in the interest of the future (and the more fortunate), we are to submit passively to our obsolescence, disemployment, displacement, and (likely enough) impoverishment. We smear this over with talk of social mobility, upward mobility, and retraining, but this is as false and cynical as the association of ‘safe’ with the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels.”

“The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility – and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”

“If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Even more than mental health and health care, I care about our earth and climate change. Here are some things Wendell Berry has to say about our relationship to the natural world:

“…. the limited competence of the human mind… will never fully comprehend the forms and functions of the natural world. With the development of industrialism, this misfitting has become increasingly a contradiction or opposition between industrial technologies and the creatures of nature, tending always toward the destruction of creatures, creaturely habitat, and creaturely life. We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale. We must not put too much, let alone everything, at risk….

….all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements for the use of every place.”

A poet and writer I know writes of “the daily bread of language,” and lately I’ve enjoyed partaking of the daily bread of Wendell Berry. One of my blog readers suggested that I look at Berry’s fiction, too, so next week I’ll write about Hannah Coulter and a few other novels that take place in Port William, a fictitious Kentucky town.

The Bill Moyers interview below is a wonderful introduction to Wendell Berry. Listening to him measuring out wisdom in his musical Kentucky cadence calms the mind and soothes the soul.

*****

By the way, the march for climate, jobs and justice, sponsored by the People’s Climate Movement, will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017, together with thousands of Sister Marches around the world. My husband and I are planning to march in Washington or New York City. Will there be a march near you?

Have you read Wendell Berry? Which of his books would you recommend? Are you a fan of other writers of a similar nature?

The Shepherd’s Life

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Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

“…modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.”   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

I was so taken with James Rebanks’ recent column in The New York Times, “An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America,” that I requested his memoir, “The Shepherd’s Life,” from the library.

On a recent trip to the United States to promote his book, Rebanks toured Kentucky and saw the economic devastation and dying towns in rural America, caused in part by industrial scale agriculture that has put small farms out of business. In fact, Rebanks was here the week that Trump won the election.

He and his family are sheep farmers in England’s Lake District; they lead a centuries-old way of life. Rebanks is blunt in rejecting the American model of industrialized agriculture. He believes it has wreaked havoc on families, our health, and the environment.

His memoir is a fascinating, day-by-day account of what it means to be a shepherd and adhere mostly to the old ways in a modern world. He takes us through a full year of tending to 900 sheep with his close-knit family and community.

Woven into this shepherding story is a history of Lake District shepherds and a recounting of Rebanks’ coming of age and adult life path. Determined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a shepherd, Rebanks ended up taking a brief detour to attend Oxford. Then, he recommitted to sheep farming. He went from being an uneducated local boy to a college-educated adult, relatively at ease moving back and forth between these two worlds, but still firmly committed to the old ways.

His views on the tensions between these two worlds makes for provocative reading. As a young boy, his teachers preached that staying on the farm was a dead end, and urged local kids to leave and make something of themselves. As I skimmed through reviews on Goodreads, I saw that some readers didn’t care for Rebanks’ tone, which can be highly critical of the world of so-called progress and intellectuals. But he does have important points to make about the value of his nearly forgotten lifestyle and the happiness and fulfillment it can garner.

He points out that shepherds possess knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, though they may never crack open a book.

“The great flocks of sheep are the accumulation of countless achievements at these shows and sales over many years, each year’s successes or failures layering up like chapters in an epic ancient poem. The story of these flocks is known and made in the retelling by everyone else. Men, who will tell you they are stupid and not very bright, can recall encyclopaedic amounts of information about the pedigrees of these sheep. Sheep are not just bought: they are judged, and stored away in memories, pieces of jigsaw of breeding that will come good or go bad over time. Our standing, our status, and our worth as men and women is decided to a large extent by our ability to turn out our sheep in their prime, and as great examples of the breed.”

And….

“They are sheep that show the effort several generations of shepherds have put into them. Each autumn for centuries someone has added to their quality with the addition of new tups from other noted flocks. There is a depth of good blood in them. They are big strong ewes, with lots of bone, good thick bodies, and bold white heads and legs. They return from that fell each autumn with a fine crop of lambs that are a match for most other flocks in the Lake District.”

I especially enjoyed reading The Shepherd’s Life on the heels of finishing Wendell Berry’s Our Only World, which I’ll write about next week. The two books go hand in hand, with similar themes and messages. Wendell Berry (who has been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau) has been a life-long farmer in rural Kentucky. On his visit, Rebanks saw the economic devastation there that Berry has written much about.

Here is another excerpt from The Shepherd’s Life that I like:

“I have met and talked with hundreds of farmers, stood in their fields and their homes, talked to them about how they see the world and why they do what they do. I have seen the tourism market shift over the last ten years with greater value attached to the culture of places. I see people growing sick of plastic phoniness and wanting to experience places and people that do different things, believe in different things, and eat different things. I see how bored we have grown of ourselves in the modern western world and how people can fight back and shape their futures using their history as an advantage, not an obligation. All of this has made me believe more strongly, not less, in our farming way of life and why it matters in the Lake District.”

My favorite section of The Shepherd’s Life is about the spring, when the lambs are born– hundreds of them in the space of a few weeks. The shepherds and their families must work nearly 24/7 scouting their acreage for ewes and lambs that might be in trouble due to difficult births or inclement weather. Families must be ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. It’s a matter of economic survival and an act of devotion. I was entirely caught up in the dramatic tension of these chaotic and miraculous spring days, as told by James Rebanks.

Some new “nature” words I learned:

Fell: An old English word for hill or mountain. A high, wild mountain slope or stretch of pasture.

Heft: to become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture. In The Shepherd’s Life, it refers to both the sheep and the shepherd.

If you like unusual memoirs and lyrical nature writing (although the editing of this book could have been improved), The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful read.

Here is James Rebanks on the shepherd’s life:

 

Have you read Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life or any of Wendell Berry’s work? Or do you have a favorite memoir with a similar theme to recommend?

On enemies of the people, William Stafford, and writing

DailyWritingMuses

I was not happy when the President tweeted that our nation’s news media is the enemy of the people.

AmericanaseriesI am not a practicing enemy of the people, but as an undergraduate, my minor area of study was how to be an enemy of the people. I liked it so much I studied it in grad school, too. I have a brother whose previous job at a major newspaper was to help oversee the printing of work by enemies of the people for distribution to an entire city. When I was a librarian, my colleagues and I taught how to tell the difference between authentic enemies of the people and fake enemies of the people.

Given the President’s careless and disrespectful words, it was a comfort to be taking an online class with like-minded people, “Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford,” taught by his son, poet and essayist Kim Stafford.

A poet and pacifist, William Stafford was amazingly prolific, having written some 22,000 poems during his lifetime.

WilliamStaffordHe had an early morning writing practice, and he never missed a day. Kim Stafford introduced us to his father’s writing process, gleaned from the stacks of journals William Stafford left behind. Kim encouraged us to relax into our writing, to be seekers as William Stafford was, to experiment and explore.

Our only requirement in this five-week class was to maintain a daily writing practice and share one day’s unedited writing with the class once a week. As you can imagine, the daily post-election drama weighed heavily on many of us and showed up often in our writing.

I chose not to work on my memoir during the 30 – 60 minute daily writing practice I began in connection with this class. Kim Stafford believes that, though writing can be hard work, it can be a pleasure, too, something to look forward to. When the writing isn’t easy, Kim looks for ways to make it more easeful. Since working on the memoir is goal-driven and often difficult or stressful, I decided to see if I could make my early morning writing time something separate and satisfying.

It did become that, and I now have the beginnings of several writing projects that I could develop further if I choose to:

  • An essay on whether the President has a mental illness, drawing on my experience of mental illness in the family
  • an essay on dystopias – whether we’re in one now and how each of us is a kind of “hero” character with a role to play
  • a personal essay in which I remember a disastrous first-grade art class and contrast it with a watercolor class I’m taking now, my first art class in decades
  • a sample first entry for my next book project, in which I observe, moment by moment, the sunrise outside my window.

I met some wonderful people, writers of all levels, including: a poet who is also a traditional letterpress printer and bookbinder in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains; a professor of psychology and education with a background similar to my own (she also had a mother with schizophrenia) who developed a psychological tool to measure levels of humiliation that is used around the world; and another poet whose dream is to establish a retreat for artists and writers at her home on Whidbey Island.

If you are a writer and would like to know more about Kim Stafford’s approach to writing, you might enjoy his book of essays, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and the Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. My copy is marked up with several favorite passages.

This quote is on the Northwest Writing Institute website:

“The problems of our time are political, ecological, economic—but the solutions are cultural. How do people speak their truth? How do we listen eloquently? If communication is the fundamental alternative to violence and injustice, what is the work of each voice among us?”  Kim Stafford

For a time, twenty of us enjoyed communally “the daily bread of language,” as my new poet/printer friend would say.

Here is a link to William Stafford reading “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

You might enjoy these wise words:

 

It just so happened that at the close of our class, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Natural and Built Environment featured a fascinating interview with the Stafford family, “Talking Recklessly.”

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A poem by printer Emily Hancock of St. Brigid Press. Emily refers to “the daily bread of language,” and that is what we enjoyed in Kim Stafford’s class.

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Visit the St. Brigid Press website, where you’ll see stunning photos of hand-set type, hand-carved illustrations, foot-powered presses, and hand-sewn books. If you frequently contact your representatives, consider ordering “The People’s Post Cards.” And be sure to see “This Is a Printing Office.”

Lincoln in the Bardo

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“I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed, when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief. He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and lovingly, and earnestly, muttering, ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!'”   – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the title refers to Abraham Lincoln, and the bardo is, in Tibetan tradition, the suspended state between lives when the soul is separate from the body. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, has entered the bardo upon death from typhoid, where he meets all manner of discontented souls who are similarly suspended, unable to let go of their former lives and move on to whatever comes next. In this bardo, whatever obsessed the person or remained unresolved at the time of death looms large (literally).

After Willie’s funeral, a stricken Abraham Lincoln came to the cemetery alone in the night to assuage his grief, according to historical sources. In this extraordinary novel, at the cemetery, Lincoln is unable to see the panoply of ghost-souls around him desperately trying to persuade the young Willie to move on because, in Saunders’ conception of the bardo, children who remain suffer a terrible fate.

It is the early stages of the Civil War, which weighs heavily on the President. Three years of staggering bloodshed loom and over half a million deaths, mostly sons of other grieving parents.

During this one chaotic evening, all of the restless souls, living and dead, are changed.

“The gentleman had much on his mind. He did not wish to live. Not really. It was, just now, too hard. There was so much to do, he was not doing it well and, if done poorly, all would go to ruin. Perhaps, in time (he told himself) it would get better, and might even be good again. He did not really believe it. It has hard. Hard for him.”

Lincoln in the Bardo is not an ordinary novel by any means, but Saunders is no ordinary writer. (See my post about his collection of short stories which I loved, Tenth of December.) Bardo reads like a play, and I believe plans are already in the making to produce a play. If so, I predict it will be every bit as popular as Hamilton. 

George Saunders is a consummate writer of short stories, and he has often said in interviews that novels aren’t his thing – he’s tried without success to write three or four. And then, Lincoln in the Bardo, came along.

It took me a few pages to acclimate to this strange story, which is essentially a collection of formally cited historical sources, a few brilliantly conceived fictional sources, and lots of dialogue by a grand chorus of characters. It’s a quick read and vintage Saunders: funny, heartbreaking, with piercing, essential truths about life. When I reached the end, I went back to page one to begin again, so I could pick up on what I missed. I missed a lot, there is so much nuance in every scene.

You must read Lincoln in the Bardo. Besides, everyone is talking about it, and you want to be in on the conversation too, don’t you? If you love it, I recommend you follow it with Tenth of December.

“And there was nothing left for me to do, but go. Though the things of the world were strong with me still. Such as, for example: a gaggle of children trudging through a side-blown December flurry; a friendly match-share beneath some collision-tilted streetlight; a frozen clock, bird-visited within its high tower; cold water from a tin jug; toweling off one’s clinging shirt post–June rain. Pearls, rags, buttons, rug-tuft, beer-froth. Someone’s kind wishes for you; someone remembering to write; someone noticing that you are not at all at ease.”

Here, George Saunders talks with Stephen Colbert: (Fair warning, there is some talk of Trump here and the cultural divide.)

 

 

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo or any of George Saunders’ extraordinary short stories? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

the-oregon-trail “I turned left after the bridge over the Snake and headed east along the trail country. The basalt cliffs along the river gleamed in the sunlight, and the austerity of landscape reminded me of the austerity of mission.

Journey is all, and we did it, we made it, we got there. We had followed the Platte to the Sweetwater, the Sweetwater to South Pass, and then we slid the wagon down Dempsey Ridge to the indescribable beauty along the Bear. Broken wheels and a thousand miles of fences couldn’t stop us.

The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”    The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

Things have been mighty serious here on the blog the past few months, so it’s time for a book that is guaranteed to make you feel good, satisfy your armchair travel cravings, and restore your faith in humanity. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is a perfect delight, especially if you love American history, travel, nature, a dash of memoir, and immersive, challenging expeditions.

Rinker Buck, a former reporter for the Hartford Courant, and his brother, Nick, crossed the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in a covered wagon a couple of years ago, along with Nick’s dog, Olive Oyl, and a team of three mules: Jake, Beck and Bute.

They probably wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t been experienced drivers of mule and horse teams. Even given their expertise, wagon transport presented scary and nearly insurmountable challenges along sometimes very hostile terrain. I don’t have a technical bent, so I wouldn’t have thought I’d be fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics between three mules and their drivers or the intricacies of harnesses and wagon paraphernalia. But Rinker Buck is an excellent writer, and he conveys beautifully how you have to get these important details right for such an undertaking, and the disasters that can happen if they go wrong.

Rinker Buck is funny and self-effacing, too. He gives just enough personal and family history to explain why two guys well past middle age might be inspired to take on the Oregon Trail. There are at least three levels of story braided together: Rinker and Nick’s personal, psychic journeys; the challenges and unexpected blessings of the landscape and people they met along the way; and vivid historical portraits of the colorful trailblazers who pioneered the trail in the mid 1800s.

 

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The Oregon Trail spans Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Up to 45,000 pioneers died along the trail.

 

I was especially taken with the story of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, an upstate New York couple who were among the first pioneers to successfully maneuver the trail. Narcissa was a missionary and Marcus a doctor. Both wanted to head west, and they married essentially for convenience and companionship so they could travel together.

Along the way, Narcissa fell in love with Marcus, and she wrote eloquent letters to family describing their adventures. Narcissa gave permission for the letters to be published in the local newspaper, and soon her latest installments were being read by people across the country. Readers were mesmerized, and the Whitman success inspired the great wave of pioneers who came after.

The Oregon Trail is a great read if you like a blend of travel, history, nature and adventure, and Rinker Buck is a wise, funny, unsentimental writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

If you have similar “epic journey” books to recommend I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

do-not-say-we-have-nothing“Sparrow, she slowly pieced together, had been one of Shanghai’s most renowned composers. But after the Conservatory was shut down in 1966 and all five hundred of its pianos destroyed, Sparrow worked in a factory making wooden crates, then wire, and then radios, for two decades. Ai-ming heard him humming fragments of music when he thought no one was listening. Eventually she came to understand that these fragments were all that remained of his own symphonies, quartets and other musical works. The written copies had been destroyed.”

***

“She wanted to tell him that whatever happened, whatever they chose, one day they would have to come awake, everyone would have to stand up and confront themselves and realize that it wasn’t the Party that made them do it. One day, they would be alone with their actions.”  Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is an engrossing, disturbing, heartbreaking novel about three generations of a Chinese family who survived (or didn’t) the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1965 and the Tienamen Square uprising in 1989. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and has been widely reviewed.

Among the central characters are three music prodigies studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory: Sparrow, a renowned composer; Kai, his concert pianist student; and Sparrow’s 15-year-old cousin, Zhuli, a violinist.

There are so many riveting scenes in this book, it’s difficult to single any out, but one that haunted me is when Zhuli is beaten by a gang of fellow students because she’s an accomplished violinist who plays Western music, thus contributing to the “bourgeois” corruption of communism. It is beyond Zhuli’s comprehension how she could ever abandon her music and forsake herself to such a degree that she could fit into this new China. The “traditional” music she loved would eventually be banned. What’s truly frightening is how readily people turned on each other, doing Mao’s work for him.

One of the reasons I wanted to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing is because I knew very little about the Cultural Revolution, and I’d always been curious about that bizarre period in China’s history. I didn’t know much about the Tienamen Square uprising, either, even though, to the degree the world was allowed to see into China at the time, I saw snatches of it played out on television. I’ve always been curious about how these events affected people personally.

It’s difficult to imagine the level of chaos that ensued with Mao Zedong’s program to purge all traces of the “old ways” and capitalism: public humiliation, imprisonment, the banishment of millions of urban young people to rural areas where they were deprived of an education, the suppression of art, culture, and intellectual life, and the closing of universities across the country.

Lives were lost or ruined, and an entire generation of Chinese young people were not permitted a university education or fulfilling careers.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is so rich and layered, it’s hard to grasp it all in just one reading. It’s a thick book that requires a commitment of time, but with the advent of “alternative facts” and fake news and other trends, I would say it’s well worth it.

“Was there anyone in this world who could taste something delicious–economic freedom and political reform–a taste that was salty and fattening and sweet and promising, and only be satisfied with one mouthful? Who would wait patiently for nearly a billion people to also have a taste? No, anyone would try to get a second mouthful, a third, a whole bowl for themselves.”

There is a fascinating essay by New Yorker writer Jiayan Fan, who was born in China and came to the United States when she was eight years old. She writes of how totalitarian regimes blur the line between fact and fiction, and how citizens come to accept a manufactured reality.

Have you read Do Not Say We Have Nothing? Are there other books in the same vein that you recommend?

Resistance

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Off the Beaten Path

“The letter’s authors informed us of the nation’s persisting need for democratic reform. Each of us was told of widespread irritation with our work, and the government’s desire to speak with us.”      Resistance, by Barry Lopez

This is a remarkable collection of short stories by Barry Lopez published in 2004, in the wake of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. If you’ve been following Books Can Save a Life, you know I’m a huge fan of Lopez. I read Resistance a couple of years ago and thought about it this week as the inauguration approached.

It’s hard to capture the essence of these nine singular and unusual stories–I don’t think there is a collection quite like it. If you want to read something off the beaten path, these stories are perfect. The characters are not your ordinary, everyday people.

If you are looking for courage, strength, and inspiration in difficult times, give this book a try.

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Barry Lopez speaking in Rochester in 2016.

The stories are fictional testimonials by a translator, an indigenous rights expert, a doctor, a cabinetmaker, an architect, a historian, and others. They live and work in China, Brazil, France, Germany and across the globe.

Each has undergone a spiritual or political awakening and chosen to resist the mainstream. For them, the personal has become political. Their causes include environmental degradation, materialism, indigenous rights, war, and mindless conformity.

Because of their resistance, they have become “parties of interest” to the government. All have gone into hiding.

This isn’t entertaining, light, or necessarily comforting reading, and the collection won’t appeal to everyone. I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with Resistance in the days before the inauguration.

Here are selected excerpts:

“We regard ourselves as servants of memory. We will not be the servants of your progress. We seek a politics that goes beyond nation and race. We advocate for air and water without contamination, even if the contamination be called harmless or is to be placed there for our own good. We believe in the imagination and in the variety of its architectures, not in one plan for all, even if it is God’s plan. We believe in the divinity of life, in all its human variety. We believe that everything can be remembered in time, that anyone may be redeemed, that no hierarchy is worth figuring out, that no flower or animal or body of water or star is common, that poetry is the key to a lock worth springing, that what is called for is not subjugation, but genuflection.”

***

“Our strategy is this: we believe if we can say what many already know in such a way as to incite courage, if the image or the word or the act breaches the indifference by which people survive, day to day, enough will protest that by their physical voices alone they will stir the hurricane.”

***

“We are not to be found now. We have unraveled ourselves from our residences, our situations. But like a bulb in a basement, suddenly somewhere we will turn on again in darkness….We will disrupt through witness, remembrance, and the courtship of the imagination.”

Resistance also features the work of artist Alan Magee.

 

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Photo by Peter Hallinan, Melanesian art expert.  I didn’t know Peter well enough to know his political beliefs, but his unconventional life reminds me of the characters in Resistance.

 

 

He said to honor ourselves

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Somewhere near Lake of the Coheeries, a place that can have cruel winters but is nevertheless enchanting. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

New Year’s weekend I retrieved from the closet the boxes of letters I’d saved from my younger days, back when people took up pen and paper to communicate. I thought it was about time to sort, organize, and purge.

I’m not sure why I saved these missives, but I’m glad I did, especially now that I write memoir. Picking up an old letter and hearing the voice of a friend from long ago can take me back in an instant and call up a stream of long-lost memories. After decades, I still recognize a friend’s distinctive handwriting.

You may be familiar with the mega bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, which advises readers to keep only those items that “spark joy.”

Well, that’s great advice when it comes to saving or not saving old letters. I found many letters that sparked joy, so I ended up saving more than I discarded, but that’s OK.

I’d like to share excerpts from one of those letters with you. I’m quite sure the author wouldn’t mind.

The letter is from my first manager at Eastman Kodak. Ronn hired me into his department of instructional designers and media producers when I moved upstate, after 7 years in New York City and then grad school.

I was having a tough time getting acclimated to Rochester after the big city. It’s a family town, and I was single and lonely. I’ll give it a year, I thought.

I was lucky, though, to meet Ronn, a brilliant and eccentric outlier, and to get the interesting Kodak job that I did. To me, instructional design was ho-hum, but as one of the department’s media producers, I worked with photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and other creative people. It was stressful, sometimes consuming, but fun, too. I remember visiting the photo lab one day at Kodak’s State Street headquarters, where one of the gigantic Colorama photos that always graced a wall of Grand Central Terminal was being assembled.

At the time, Kodak was the home of world class photographers and innovators who brought the science and art of imaging to the world. Rochester had reaped the benefits of the altruistic genius, George Eastman, and as I began to discover the riches here, I felt more at home. Rochester had art films, dance, world renowned schools of music and photography, and medical research. This was before cities marketed themselves, and Rochester had always been quiet about its cultural and technical riches and quality of life. If it tended to be overlooked, that was just fine with the people who lived here.

My old copy of Ronn’s letter was a photocopied good-bye and thank you to our department. After I’d been at Kodak about a year, Ronn took early retirement. I believe he was in his late forties or early fifties at the time. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of employees who would take early retirement or be laid off over the next decades as Kodak had to dismantle itself.

I would go on to have two other managers at Kodak, both male. All three of them made a point of paying me well. Kodak definitely had its flaws, but in the 1980s it was a progressive leader in employee development and training and equitable treatment of women. In my view, my years at Kodak would turn out to be the only time I was fairly compensated, except for when I was a consultant and could set my own rates. Although I’ve had other satisfying jobs, they did not pay well for a variety of reasons: they were more creative than technical; some were traditionally women’s occupations; I got further behind when I became a mother;  and we’ve had decades of stagnant or declining wages. I mention this in light of what Ronn had to say to us in his letter.

Ronn had never been a corporate type. He could get away with wearing jeans among the suits because everyone loved him. He’d been restless, and was eager to make a change so he could have more time to write, paddle his canoe, read, and go fly fishing, among other things.

When I hear Steve Jobs’ famous words, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” I think of Ronn. He wasn’t hungry in the ambitious, Silicon Valley sense of the word. He was hungry for life, and he was never afraid to open himself up to others, even if some might see him as sentimental or naive.

winterstale2Before he left, Ronn made a point of spending some time with each of us. He wanted to introduce me to the founder of one of Rochester’s ad agencies, so we drove there one afternoon. On the way, we talked about Mark Helprin’s remarkable novel “Winter’s Tale,” and how it had affected our lives. I told him I’d been astonished to encounter one of my very own dreams among the pages of that novel, and we speculated on the meaning of dreams in our lives.

I remember Ronn speaking to us at his going away party, holding next to him the tall, graceful canoe paddle carved from hardwood that we’d gotten him as a farewell gift.

Later he sent us the letter which I ended up saving. He’d gone off to Vermont and had been consulting, reading fiction and poetry “like a bandit,” and paddling among the waterfalls, ponds, lakes, rivers and granite cliffs of Western Quebec and the Adirondacks.

He wrote:

markhelprin_winterstale“Please take care of yourselves (and I don’t mean that as a pseudo-parent statement.) Remember to honor yourselves. I know what it’s like to be a developer or producer. The crap can be overwhelming. And not all clients can recognize your talents.

Know that I think of all of you. (I truly mean that.) In fact, in a strange way I think that I see each of you more clearly than when I saw you every day. To be very old fashioned, I think that I see each of you as individual souls – which is very nice.”

If it sounds like I was a little bit in love with Ronn, I was, though I don’t think I realized it at the time.

There are some wonderful people in the world, aren’t there?

Do you save old letters?  Which remarkable people have you crossed paths with in your life?

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Another view, by M. Hallinan

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I met my husband here, and so I stayed. (He is a paddler, too, by the way.)

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A village near Lake of the Coheeries

2016 Favorite Books & Posts

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Under the tree this year

 

Several of my favorite books read this year were published in 2016. My top read, a memoir, was first published in Germany in 1938.

You’ll see plenty of memoirs on my list. Almost all the fiction is historical. Two are set in the northern Arctic regions.

Why I Write Memoir was by far my most popular post in 2016.

My Most Unusual & Memorable Read in 2016

A Woman in the Polar Nightby Christiane Ritter (memoir)

Favorite Fiction Read in 2016

To the Bright Edge#1 To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

#2 News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

#3 Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien (not yet reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

#4 My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout 

Favorite Memoirs Read in 2016

#1 Lab Girlby Hope Jahren

#2 Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston

#3 The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nahesi Coates

#4 H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

Favorite Nonfiction Read in 2016

67 Shots#1 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard Means

#2 The Road to Character, by David Brooks (not reviewed on Books Can Save A Life)

Favorite Author New to Me

Sonja Livingston (Ladies Night at the Dreamland; Queen of the Fall; Ghostbread)

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS, 2016

#1 Why I Write Memoir

#2 A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, by Sue Klebold (memoir)

Also popular

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (memoir)

The Cancer Survivor’s Garden Companion, by Jenny Peterson

MOST POPULAR BOOKS CAN SAVE A LIFE POSTS OF ALL TIME

Daughters of Madness book cover#1 Meeting the Dark Matter of Mental Illness

#2 Reading Junot Diaz

#3 Do Genes Shape Our Mental Health?

#4 Children of Mental Illness, Part I

What were your favorite books read in 2016, and what is on your list for 2017?

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