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.

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.

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?

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?

The Underground Railroad

the-underground-railroad“She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent – in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart. – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Continuing my post-election reading and holiday gift suggestions, I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which won this year’s National Book Award and many say is destined to become an American classic.

The Underground Railroad was an Oprah Book Club selection. In fact, Oprah Winfrey was so excited about the novel that she persuaded the publisher to release it over a month early so she could feature it as her next book club choice.

As Oprah says, there is “no better book for our times,” given the Black Lives Matter movement and our divisive political landscape.

Cora is a young, orphaned slave whose entire life has been spent on a Georgia plantation. She decides to run and is hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher, as she makes her way north.

At first blush, The Underground Railroad reads like historical fiction, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Cora is caught in a dystopia with many dimensions, depending on which state she happens to be in. The underground railroad is a literal tunnel built beneath the ground with secret way stations. Each state that Cora passes through embodies a unique, nightmarish vision of slavery in America.

Colson Whitehead has said that he had the idea for this novel some sixteen years ago, but didn’t feel he had the chops as a writer to pull it off until his mid forties.

I think The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece but, scanning the reviews on Goodreads, I noticed that, while most readers gave it five stars, others were lukewarm or disappointed. A common complaint was that Cora is one-dimensional; readers had a hard time feeling an emotional connection with Cora and some of the other characters.

For me, this wasn’t a problem, maybe because I view the characters as mythic, and so my expectations were different. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says the novel is “almost hallucinatory,” and that is what I felt, too. Rather than at an emotional distance, I was trapped along with the desperate characters in The Underground Railroad and the people trying to help them. I have a much greater appreciation for the intergenerational strength and resilience of blacks in America and the enormous risks taken by abolitionists and later by activists in the civil rights movement.

Nonetheless, I can see how this novel may not appeal to some readers. I would say it’s well worth picking up: at the very least, you’ll be reading the novel everyone is talking about.

“Cora ran her hand along the wall of the tunnel, the ridges and pockets. Her fingers danced over valleys, rivers, the peaks of mountains, the contours of a new nation hidden beneath the old. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

I’m not fond of the network morning shows, but here is a quick introduction to Colson Whitehead and his novel:

Have you read The Underground Railroad? What did you think?

News of the World

news-of-the-world“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”  – Paulette Jiles, News of the World

I took a break to work on my memoir, and here I am again, with a series of posts to highlight books that I think will make great holiday giving and that speak in some way to our fraught post-election times.

Despite a few setbacks – an unexpected election outcome and the death of a beloved aunt – I managed to finish the memoir draft, though I still have to edit and trim the last fifty pages or so.

Then it’s on to the next draft, with more editing and cutting. The manuscript is 132,922 words. Somehow, I have to get it down to 90,000 words or so. Actually, I don’t find cutting that difficult, it’s the honing and rewriting that seem to never end.

Ann Lamott is famous for saying you have to be willing to write a “shitty first draft.” I think you have to be willing to write shitty second, third, and maybe fourth drafts, too.

I don’t know how many drafts Paulette Jiles wrote of News of the World, but if you are looking for a beautiful, deeply affecting work of fiction to give as a holiday gift or to add to your wish list, this is the perfect novel.

At about 200 pages, it is a gem I will definitely read again. I got my copy out of the library, but I wouldn’t mind adding the novel to my book collection. This was my introduction to Paulette Jiles, who is an exquisite writer.

It’s not often I’m so affected by a story. I immediately fell in love with Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower based on an actual historical figure, and the complicated character of Johanna Leonberger who, for the second time in her short life, is thrust out of one culture and into another.

The premise is based on a sad but true phenomenon: Virtually every Anglo, German-American, and Mexican child kidnapped by Native Americans did not want to return to their original families and cultures, not even those who were kept by Native Americans for a relatively short time.  When they were forced to return, almost all had great difficulty adjusting, and they forever felt like outsiders. Many tried to run away and return to their Native American families. Some starved themselves to death.

In News of the World, Captain Kidd has lived through three wars, fought in two of them, and makes an itinerate living reading newspapers from around the world for ten cents a ticket in the isolated towns of north Texas.

In exchange for a $50-dollar gold piece, Captain Kidd agrees to deliver unwilling ten-year-old Johanna back to her relatives. She had been four years with the Kiowa, who kidnapped her and killed her parents and little sister. Now she has been traded back by the Kiowa to the US Army, in exchange for blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.

Fully assimilated into the Kiowa culture, Johanna has forgotten virtually everything about her former life with her birth family. She does not want to return to the “civilized” world.

News of the World is about Jefferson and Johanna’s dangerous 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio, Texas in 1870 in a hostile, post Civil War landscape, and the relationship that develops between this elderly widower and the young girl.

“Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

Along the way, Captain Kidd reads his newspapers to the town folk. In this post-war time, passions are still running high, and there is much bitterness, division, and conflict in everyday life. Does that sound familiar? But for a time, the townspeople are lifted out of their own locality by news of the world.

“He began to read to his audiences of far places and strange climates. Of the Esquimaux in their seal furs, the explorations of Sir John Franklin, shipwrecks on deserted isles, the long-limbed folk of the Australian outback who were dark as mahogany and yet had blonde hair and made strange music which the writer said was indescribable and which Captain Kidd longed to hear.

He read of the discovery of Victoria Falls and sightings, real or not, of the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman and an eyewitness account of a man on the bridge of that ship sending messages by blinking light to them, asking about people long dead. And before these tales for a short time Texans quieted and bent forward to hear.”

Jiles deftly portrays the nuances of characterization and psychological motivation in riveting scenes between Johanna and Captain Kidd that build to a powerful climax. Of Johanna Leonberger she writes:

“She never learned to value those things that white people valued. The greatest pride of the Kiowa was to do without, to make use of anything at hand; they were almost vain of their ability to go without water, food, and shelter. Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts. The baseline of human life was courage.”

News of the World was nominated for the National Book Award.

Have you read News of the World? Are there novels that you are dying to press into the hands of your reader friends this holiday season?

My Last Continent

my-last-cont“Sometimes I wonder whether some other force is at hand–something equally obscured, warning us that none of us should be in Antarctica at all.

I tell them I was here when the massive cruise ship found herself trapped and sinking in a windswept cove of pack ice. I tell them that the ship was too big and too fragile to be so far south, and that my ship, the Cormorant, was the closest one and still a full day’s travel away. I tell them that, below the Antarctic Circle, the phrase search and rescue has little practical meaning. There is simply no one around to rescue you.

I tell them that 715 passengers and crew died that day. I don’t tell them that 2 of those who died were rescuers, whose fates tragically intertwined. Most want to hear about the victims, not the rescuers. I don’t tell them that we are one and the same.”   My Last Continent, by Midge Raymond

My husband is going to Antarctica in January. It’s been a lifelong dream but, as he points out, even though he’s traveled more than I have, I’ve been to more continents. So I think he may be partly motivated because he’s trying to catch up with me. We get competitive about traveling in our family but, given their extensive travel for work, our sons are leaving us far behind when it comes to the number of countries visited.

Anyway, now that the time is drawing near, I thought I’d better pay more attention to my husband’s upcoming trip. When I learned about the recently published novel, My Last Continent, I had to pick it up, though it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the safety of Antarctic cruises, because it’s about a disastrous one.

On the other hand, I comfort myself that my husband will be traveling with a vastly experienced crew, on a polar research vessel expressly made for the perils of Antarctic waters. The Akademik Sergey Vavilov is one of only two polar expedition cruise vessels that conduct active scientific research in the months between the Antarctic and high Arctic seasons.

The trip is sponsored by a local travel/adventure group, Pack, Paddle & Ski.  Rochester is lucky to have this amazing organization, which leads trips around the world and has raised thousands of dollars for charity.

I don’t tend to like fiction with a message, but My Last Continent by Midge Raymond is a beautifully written love story and a what-would-happen-if novel.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about given climate change, My Last Continent highlights an issue I wasn’t aware of. In addition to polar research vessels that take tourists to Antarctica, there are now oversized luxury cruise ships that travel to both northern and southern extremes. Because the polar ice is melting, such ships can go where they have never gone before.

The problem is, these large ships are too fragile for treacherous polar waters, and they carry way too many passengers. Should the ship get into trouble, it’s not likely all the passengers could be rescued. For one thing, there is no one around – polar waters are isolated and too far away from other ships.

This is what happens in My Last Continent. I learned this on the first page, though not the details of who survives and who doesn’t, and I was of course compelled to read on to see how it all played out.

Another problem is that these cruise ships are highly disruptive to fragile wildlife populations.

There is beautiful writing here; it is not simply a disaster tale. Midge Raymond takes us deep into the heart of Antarctica: its weather and terrain and, most of all, it’s wildlife. At the same time, it is a portrait of two complex characters–explorers and naturalists who are in love with this forbidding land as much as they are with each other.

If you like books about adventure and travel to the wildest reaches of nature, and if you are concerned about planet Earth, I think you’ll love My Last Continent. This is Midge Raymond’s first full-length work of fiction. I look forward to reading more. Midge Raymond is also the founder of Ashland Creek Press.

Here is a Daily Beast essay she wrote about cruise ships in the polar regions: “Cruise Ships in the Arctic Take Titanic Risks.” It is truly frightening.

And one more quote from My Last Continent:

“It is not uncommon in Antarctica to see what does not exist–to see the mountains levitate in the distance, to see the rising tower of a city on the horizon. When the sea is colder than the air, a layer forms that creates a polar mirage. The more layers, the more refracted the light: Mountains are born from the sea; cliffs turn into castles. Such mirages usually last only moments, until the air layers mix, and then they disappear…..Such visions have a name–fata morgana…..”

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Any books about Antarctica to recommend? Which wild and faraway places would you like to visit someday? Let us know in the comments.

 

 

My Favorite Things

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Asja and Sebree. If you’d like to hear a story about them, click on this link.

I’m all over the map with this My Favorite Things post – literally. Here are a few of my favorite things you might enjoy reading, watching, or listening to:

Orcas and making audio essays: This one is my own creation, I confess. “The Ancient Ones” is a new audio essay  in my From Where I Stand series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. Have a listen – I’d love to share six and a half minutes of my fabulous Olympic Peninsula vacation with you, where I fell in love with Asja and Sebree. I’d appreciate comments and feedback here or on the Terrain.org site.

Books about famous bookstores: I’ve only been to Paris once, and I regret that I didn’t stop by the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I don’t know what I was thinking! Someday, I’ll have to remedy that. Now, there is a book about this famous shop, where some of the greatest writers of the 20th century spent their days, and even slept. See Shakespeare and Company: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, by Jeanette Winterson.

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Chunksters, or Giant Translated Novels: I love this LitHub article, “Ten Giant Translated Novels that Make a Mockery of Subway Reading.”   Many thanks to my blogging friend Vishy for letting us know about this.

It’s a great little list if you want to take on some ambitious reading, which I like to do from time to time. Do any of these over-the-top books appeal to you? Which one(s)?

I want to begin Knausgaard’s My Struggle series one of these days (my son loves it), that’s what I keep saying, but I’m dismayed to find his last volume in the series is 900 pages!

a-true-novelI’m fascinated by the sound of A True Novel by Minae Mizumura set in postwar Japan because it has been compared to Wuthering Heights.

Giacomo Leopardi’s 2500-page Zibaldone may be worth dipping into, though not reading straight through, because of my Italian heritage. “Zibaldone” is what this great poet and thinker called his gigantic notebook, and these are his collected writings. I’m curious about it – there are SEVEN translators, including Ann Goldstein, who translated Elena Ferrante’s novels.

Several of the others appeal to me, too. Do any appeal to you enough to take one on?

Geeky things like an old video about the first Kodak Colorama made from a photo taken under water: For years and years, a giant Kodak photograph, known as a Colorama, hung over the crowds passing through Grand Central Station in New York. I was in those crowds; little did I know that in a few years I’d be living upstate in Rochester and working for Kodak.

Rochester is still steeped in the mythology, lore, and beauty of photography, despite Kodak’s decline. The Rochester Institute of Technology, where my son studied photography, is one of the top photo schools in the country. Fabulous photographers and photography teachers are plentiful here, as are photo galleries, photo equipment retailers, and photography experts. The George Eastman House is one of the world’s largest repositories of photos and films.

Neil Montanus was one of the elite Kodak photographers who documented America and baby boomers coming of age for Kodak advertising. I found this vintage video on the site of Jim Montanus, his son. If you’re fascinated by how things are invented and how they work, you might enjoy this.

 

People who make things: I think the trend of calling people “makers” is a little weird and pretentious, but I do love the movement back to “old soul crafts and lost arts,” in the words of one of the artisans in this delightful little video. I guarantee it will lift your spirits, especially your creative spirit. The With Love Project will soon be made into a book – I would buy it. After you watch this, tell us in the comments who your favorite maker is in the video. I’m partial to the shoe maker/designer, myself.

 

 

What do you think about anything on this list? Might you read any of the chunksters on the LitHub list? Are you especially enchanted by any of the makers in the With Love Project? 

Read Harder 2016

Have you heard about Bookriot’s Read Harder Challenge?

I thought it would be interesting to see which books I’ve read in these categories, since Ann Patchett just wrote about her own progress in making her way through the list.

I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading, too, so let us know in the comments. Book suggestions are appreciated and welcome, especially for those categories I’ve left blank.

commonwealthBy the way, Ann just released her new novel, Commonwealth. Many of you know she’s one of my favorite novelists, so I’ll be sure to get my hands on it as soon as I can.

True story, when Ann was a girl, one morning she woke up to find kids she didn’t know in the kitchen. Turned out, her mother had gotten remarried, and these were her new half siblings.

Ann has translated some of that strange family experience into a novel that isn’t, literally, a true story, but that I imagine has plenty of emotional truth, as writers of fiction often say about their work.

If you’re looking for other suggestions, check out the New York Public Library’s Read Harder recommendations. See also the reader-generated lists on Goodreads.

If I’ve left the category blank, it means I haven’t read that category and don’t have any particular suggestions. If you do, please let us know.

BOOKRIOT’S READ HARDER CHALLENGE 2016

Read a horror book

Read a nonfiction book about science: Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. (I’m reading it now). It has gotten excellent reviews, a memoir about a female scientist. It’s an eye opener, in part about what women in science are (still) up against, but there’s a lot more to this memoir about a woman passionate about plants.

I just borrowed Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson from the library. Nearing the end of his life, Wilson felt compelled to sound the alarm once more. He proposes that we devote half the surface of the earth to nature.

Queen of the Fall book coverRead a collection of essays: Queen of the Fall, by Sonja Livingston; and Why We Write About Ourselves, edited by Meredith Maran.

Read a book out loud to someone else: The Harry Potter series; The Giver; and Hatchet. Not this year, but when our sons were growing up, these were unforgettable read alouds. Harry Potter is especially captivating read deep in the woods at night when you’re camping.

Read a middle grade novel: see above, none this year for me.

Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography): Charlotte Bronté: A Fiery Heart, by Claire Harmon is on my to-read list. See the feminist category below.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroRead a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Find Me, by Laura Van Den Berg. I read everything by Ishiguro. The latter novel by Van Den Berg was well reviewed and is excellent, though it didn’t really speak to me.

Read a book originally published in the decade you were born: I’ve been wanting to re-read Australian Neville Shute’s chilling dystopian novel, On the Beach. His  A Town Like Alice blew me away in 1981 as a 5-hour Masterpiece Theatre production, and I would love to watch it again. (It’s only available on VHS.) I don’t believe I ever read the book.

Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award: 

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Dorothy Kearns Goodwin. OK, I haven’t read this book or even listened to it, but I gave it as a gift to a friend who loves Teddy Roosevelt. It won an Audie in 2015 for the best History/Biography category. This would qualify for the over 500 pages category, too, which is reason enough to listen to the audio version. I should read this or listen to it, considering that I believe journalism today is in a sorry state.

There is an Audie Classic Category, which I didn’t know about but just may entice me to finally start listening to audio books. Here’s a suggestion that sounds intriguing, also an Audie award winner: The New York Stories by John O’Hara.

I will try audio books soon, but I resist them. I don’t want to constantly fill my head with media, I need plenty of silence to think and to let my own writing germinate.

I’ve read and hear often that print books will disappear. Some people announce this with a great deal of glee, and I don’t understand why. Can we have both? Why does it seem to make some people happy that print books may disappear?

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay book coverRead a book over 500 pages long: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I’m counting this as a long read, even though there are four in the series. Had a great discussion about these books in a book club attended by many Italian-American women. One day I’ll read her other novels, which I’ve heard are rather devastating.

Read a book under 100 pages: Tribeby Sebastian Junger. (130 pages, close enough)

Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorites. Read this a few years back, superb.

Read a book that is set in the Middle East

Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia

To the Bright EdgeRead a book of historical fiction set before 1900: To the Bright Edge of the World by Eown Ivey; De Potter’s Grand Tour, by Joanna Scott.

Read the first book in a series by a person of color: Not a series, but this year I read and loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. 

Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years: This book is older than three years–I picked up Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, but didn’t finish it. I may get back to it someday. It’s becoming a classic.

Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better:

I did see the movie, Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, but didn’t read the book, don’t plan to. The movie was pretty good, mostly because of the acting, otherwise predictable.

I also saw this year the movie Carol based on the novel, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith. I thought it was excellent, haven’t read the novel. I was flabbergasted when someone I know said the main character in the movie was a predator. That is not how I interpreted the character in this movie about a lesbian relationship in the 1950s. I saw her as sympathetic. If anyone else has seen the movie and can comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I felt the predator comment revealed perhaps unconscious LGTBQ bias; but then again, Highsmith’s novels have disturbing characters. Perhaps the actual novel was darker, and some of that came through in the movie?

Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes:

My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem is a big bio this year, though I haven’t read it. I HAVE read, this year, and in the case of Bronté’s novel, many years in the past:  Jane Eyre’s Sisters, by Jody Gentian Bower and Jane Eyre. These, because my memoir has a Jane Eyre theme. Last year I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Fabulous.

Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction): After Buddhism, by Stephen Batchelor. (On my to-read list)

67 ShotsRead a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction): 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence, by Howard MeansThis one is personally meaningful.

Read a food memoir: On my to-read list is Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen. Classics I love are Laurie Colwin’s food memoirs. Elizabeth David was a superb food writer, though her books aren’t really memoirs. Ruth Reichl has come out with a new food memoir this year that I haven’t read, My Kitchen Life: 136 Recipes that Changed My Life.

Read a play

Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness:  A Common Struggle, by Patrick J. Kennedy. This is a memoir. I also read the riveting memoir, A Mother’s Reckoning. The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes is fiction, and it’s absolutely great.

Here’s a smidgen of The Masterpiece Theatre version of A Town Like Alice.

Have you read any books in these categories, or do you have any suggestions? Are you following the Read Harder challenge? Let us know in the comments.

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