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.”

Upstream

upstream“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  Upstream, by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a gift to the world.

I’ve learned many things from America’s most beloved poet, with honoring one’s creative impulse being the most important, followed by: pay attention. She has shown us, through her poetry and essays, how to do both of these across the span of a long and fruitful life.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, American Primitive,  and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems.

Her latest collection of essays, Upstream, (which contains both new and older work) is a look back at a life well lived, steeped in nature and literature. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller Nonfiction List for many weeks.

Oliver writes of the preoccupations and obsessions of the poets and thinkers that most influenced her, including Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. You don’t have to like poetry to appreciate what she has to say about these fascinating writers.

I like those essays, but I love the more personal essays taken from daily life, my favorites being “Bird” and “Building the House.” I say personal, but Mary Oliver often shines a light on some miracle of nature – a wounded gull, or a female spider, or black bear – in a way that tells us much about her own life and her deepest beliefs.

If you have not yet read Mary Oliver, you could start by listening to a few of her most famous poems, such as “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day” and “The Journey.”

 

 

Upstream is a beautiful little book for ringing out 2016, welcoming 2017, and reading on a cold winter’s night.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

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We’ve had this little birchbark canoe for many years.

 

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A favorite house in our village, vintage upstate New York.

My Favorite Things

 

Tulips in Orange

 

Books, writing, creativity, cool media and other delights….

  • Walking book clubs. Did you know these existed? Here are a couple in the UK hosted by two book bloggers who write fabulous reviews: Emily’s Walking Book Club with Daunt Books – turns out the one and only time I’ve been in London we went to Daunt Books, where we browsed for over an hour. Wish I’d known about Emily then, I’d have tried to connect with her; and  The Northern Reader – see also her Flower Power if you love gardening, flowers and nature lit.
  • Book spine poetry. A few weeks back in honor of April being National Poetry Month, I wrote some book spine poetry and asked readers to share theirs. Here is what Naomi at Consumed by Ink came up with. I love her little poems. Try it yourself, and if you’ve created book spine poetry you like, please share in the comments.
  • A good book. My favorite book bloggers always give me titles to add to my to-read list. I love this review of Hill by the French writer Jean Giono that Melissa wrote at The Bookbinder’s Daughter.
  • Instagram flat lays. I’ve been messing around with photography lately, teaching myself to do still lifes of books, flowers, and whatnot, and posting some of it on Instagram. I adore Cristina Coli’s floral work on IG, and enjoyed her “A Day of Creative Connection” blog post recently.

Have a great week!

litricity: a potent form of energy generated by great literature – – from Powell’s Compendium of Readerly Terms

April Lit

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, by Edith Holden. First entry, January 1, 1906.

 

 

 

Barry Lopez brings us I, Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard

Male snow leopard

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

“I, SNOW LEOPARD is both a lyric and an elegy. It is easy to imagine its lines being loudly hailed in whatever country the poem finds itself in. It’s publication comes at a time when people everywhere have begun to wonder what a voice like this, suppressed for centuries, wishes to say now, in this moment when the Snow Leopard’s human brothers and sisters find themselves side by side with him. Imperiled.”   Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez

 

Barry Lopez came to Rochester this week to receive “The Art of Fact” award for literary nonfiction presented by The College at Brockport Writers Forum and M&T Bank.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Barry Lopez is one of my heroes, not quite at the level of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, but close. (See my blog’s header quote.)

Lopez is one of the very best nature writers, and if you love animals and wildlife, you’ll love his nonfiction books, essays, and short stories. He has travelled to 90 countries and has a tremendous respect for the animal world and the many indigenous peoples he’s come to know.

I, Snow LeopardLopez came to Rochester to receive his award and to deliver to us the poem “I, Snow Leopard” by Jidi Majia. 

I wasn’t familiar with either the poet or the poem, but Lopez said that when he found out “I, Snow Leopard” had been published in Asia and Europe, but not in the United States, he had to set things right.

He felt that it was vitally important that the American people hear the words of the snow leopard in this poem. So he saw to its publication here, and wrote the foreword to the English edition.

Jidi Majia, a member of the indigenous Nuosu (Yi) people who live in the mountains of southwestern China, has won numerous literary awards.  As far as I could tell from what I found online, few of his poems have been translated into English.

Majia’s poem is written in the words of a snow leopard, which is viewed by the Nuosu as a wisdom keeper, a being with “biological authority,” according to Lopez.

He told us that when he first began traveling the world and exploring, in his thirties, he viewed wild animals in an amateur, superficial, childlike way, until he learned to embrace the much more refined view held by native peoples.

A poem is a door anyone can walk through, Lopez said, and this poem is the mysterious and elusive snow leopard’s expression of grief and a warning to human kind:  “Do not hunt me any longer.”  Human violence toward animals puts everyone in peril, animals and humanity alike.

Before Lopez began, he said he wasn’t worthy to read “I, Snow Leopard,” but he’d try. He said that, as far as he knew, we’d be the very first American audience to hear the poem.

We listened to this exclusive reading in the soaring space that is the chapel in Rochester’s Temple B’rith Kodesh. “I, Snow Leopard” is beautiful, haunting, simply expressed and accessible even to listeners not accustomed to hearing poetry.

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Photo by Bernard Landgraf. CC BY-SA 3.0

 

After the reading Lopez answered questions and spoke informally and earnestly. As we listened, the audience seemed to be hanging on his words.  Here are some direct quotes I managed to scribble in my notebook:

“Each soul is essential to the warp and weft of the universe.”

“I want to see people come alive.”

“We know what to do and we have to do it now.”

Fixing our world “will take people of great courage. People like you. Because Washington is not doing it.”

“We should be holding hands.”

“The only thing that really matters is to be in love.”

I wrote down the following words, too, but I don’t recall if they are from the poem or if they are Barry Lopez’s words. I believe they are both:

“There is no other place for any of us to go.”

“I, Snow Leopard” is available on Amazon. Barry Lopez told me it is also to be published in a future issue of Orion Magazine.

Of Wolves and MenIf you’d like to read Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams, his nonfiction work about the Far North that won the National Book Award, is a great book to start with. I haven’t yet read Of Wolves and Men, but when I saw the mesmerizing cover photo of a wolf on display at the reading, I added it to my to-read list.

Lopez writes fiction, too. I especially liked his subversive collection of short stories, Resistance, which he wrote shortly after 9/11, about surveillance and “parties of interest” to the government.

If you want to know more about the fascinating snow leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s memoir, The Snow Leopard, is a great read.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Ben Stiller and Sean Penn, is one of my favorite movies. Watch it. You might spot a snow leopard.

April is National Poetry Month

Book Spine Poetry.jpg

 

Let’s go poemcrazy.

Here is some book spine poetry to celebrate National Poetry Month.

This is in memory of my brother. His birthday is April 5.

 

A Cancer in the Family

For a little while,

When breath becomes air,

Find me

Braiding sweetgrass &

Burning down the house.

 

If you have book spine poetry to share, please leave it in the comments. 

 

Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

Little girl statue edited

Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

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

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

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

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

 

Little boy statue edited

Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

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

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Where Do Poems Come From?

I recently had a poem published in Verse-Virtual: An Online Community Journal of Poetry.  In this excellent and unique publication, the published poets are encouraged to contact each other to show their support for poems that move them. (No critiquing allowed.) The editor, Firestone Feinberg, is a joy to work with and warmly encouraging of new writers.

I wrote “Nadezhda, If You Were Here” quite a while ago, and as I prepared it for submission I was thinking about where poems – my poems – come from. In this case, I was reading a memoir by Paul Auster (I believe it was The Invention of Solitude.) In it, he includes an extraordinary letter written by Nadezhda Mandelstam to her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, after he’d been sent to a labor camp by Stalin. I had never heard of these people, but I was so struck by the letter I just had to read Nadezhda’s amazing memoir, Hope Against Hope, about her life with Osip.

I was reading the memoir in Wegmans grocery store on a cold winter day, when I was inspired to get another cup of coffee and start writing. That’s where my poem came from. I wasn’t sure I had much to say, but it turned out to be a direction worth exploring.

The Present MomentThis summer I’m enjoying This Present Moment, a collection of poems by Gary Snyder, who is now 85. Remember the Beat Generation? Gary Snyder is one of America’s greatest living poets. This volume includes poems about being a homesteader, father, husband, friend, and neighbor. (I’m paraphrasing the jacket copy because it is a good summary of the subject matter.) The final poem, “Go Now,” is about the death of his wife.

Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, I encourage you to take three minutes to listen to this poem by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, “Life While-You-Wait,” read by Amanda Palmer and passed along by Maria Popova and Brain Pickings. (Scroll down the page to get to the recording.) I think you’ll like it.

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

Mad Men

Mad Men posterI was surprised at how bereft I was the day after the Mad Men finale, as though I’d said goodbye to my childhood forever. The only thing that made me feel better is the memoir I’m writing; nearly every day lately I return to the 1960s.

This post has spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the last episode of Mad Men, or if you’ve yet to watch the entire 7-season, 92-hour epic, you may want to stop reading right here. (Or click on these links to the New York Public Library’s Mad Men reading lists and NPR’s guide to the music of Mad Men. If you plan to watch or re-watch the series, you could supplement with books and music of the times.)

A few seasons into Mad Men, a couple of friends predicted that Don Draper would commit suicide, given his self-destructive tendencies. Many viewers thought the opening animation of a man in a suit falling from a skyscraper foreshadowed such an ending.

No, I thought. That’s wrong. A misreading of his character. Don is a survivor. (Indeed, so says one of the characters in the final episode.) Cheever Collected Stories book cover

I bristled at the judgmental tone I sometimes heard, as if Don deserved such an end, given his many faults. On the contrary, Don was emblematic of a certain kind of self-made man of his time–raised in poverty and neglect, a traumatized war veteran who became a successful ad man, rich beyond his wildest dreams, yet alienated and lonely. Like all humans, he struggles. Like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, he’s lost.

You can find Don Draper in much of the literature of the 1950s and ’60s. The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, drew heavily on bestselling books of that era, and was particularly influenced by the short stories of John Cheever, as well as Cheever’s journals. In fact, at the beginning of every season of scriptwriting, Weiner read the introduction to Cheever’s stories to the writers as a source of inspiration.

Weiner says that he loved reading the journals of 1950s and 1960s writers and ad executives and found them enormously helpful. While many of us look upon advertising with distaste, or at least ambivalence, Don Draper and his colleagues were in fact supporting families while doing deeply creative work. I think Weiner got it so right as he charted the highs and lows of these highly creative men and women. Weiner also points out that many famous artists have had to do advertising work to make a living.

When I was in college, a couple of my male friends had fathers who were prominent ad men, having commuted from the suburbs into Manhattan every day for thirty years. They seemed to feel pressure to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and I sometimes sensed they were afraid they wouldn’t measure up. Advertising was a difficult, high-pressure career, but also an exciting and fulfilling way to make a living. And, of course, most ad execs were not deeply flawed Don Drapers.

One note of nostalgia for me is that the show ends in 1970, and in 1977 I moved to Manhattan, where I worked in book publishing. For a time I was in the advertising department of a large publisher, where I worked with artists, graphic designers, photographers, and other creative people. Publishing was a different world from high-stakes Madison Avenue advertising, of course, a backwater compared to the pressure of Mad Men agencies. But when I saw Mad Men’s meek Peggy Olson show up for her first job in that office in the sky, I was taken right back to my New York City days. Peggy’s world, where women in the workplace were all secretaries, was to a large degree my world. Needless to say, watching Peggy’s transformation has been riveting. Mad Men poster

In a remarkably candid interview conducted by the author A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library, Weiner says that he often discussed with his therapist the challenges of his work as the creator of Mad Men, and they often talked about Don Draper–his flaws, his motivations, his journey in life. Weiner reveals that his therapist helped him figure out whether it was necessary to be miserable when one is in the midst of creating. (Weiner implies that he was often miserable and concludes that, no, one does not have to be miserable when one is creating.)

Weiner says Frank O’Hara’s poetry in particular helped him understand the zeitgeist of the times. He read Lunch Poems and Meditations in an Emergency (which we see Don reading in one episode), and says that Meditations changed his life. That makes me curious, so I’ve added O’Hara to my reading list.

Here’s another fascinating tidbit: when they were looking for an actor to play the stranger that Don reaches out to at the Esalen style retreat, Weiner told the talent scouts that the stranger had to be an actor who was not famous and that this character “was the most important character in the entire series.” Weiner has more to say about this character and the closing scene in the New York Public Library interview. (The final scene is shown during the interview.)

The last episode concludes with what has been called the most famous commercial of all time: the Coke ad with the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” People critical of this ending feel cynical about pairing this uplifting message, sung in harmony by people of all races, with crass commercialism. As for me, I thought the ending was perfect, in sync with the person Don is, and in sync with the times. Yes, Don Draper the ad man may have risen like the phoenix to create the most popular commercial in history. But I took his encounter with the lonely stranger at Big Sur to be an authentic moment of growth and greater self-awareness. I haven’t been to Esalen, but I’ve been to a place called Spirit Rock, and things like that do happen to people.

If Mad Men were to continue, I think Don Draper would still be the flawed man we know, far from perfect.  And yet, a better man, too. You can hear Matthew Weiner’s thoughts about Don here in the NYPL interview.

I think Matthew Weiner ranks right up there with the great novelists of our time.

If you’d like to meet the real ad man who created the Coke commercial (Bill Backer, who makes clear he has nothing in common with Don Draper), click here.

Mad Men Books and Music Meditations in an Emergency book cover

Mad Men characters love to read. Here are lists of the books they are seen reading on screen:

The Mad Men Reading List compiled by Billy Parrott, Managing Librarian at the New York Public Library

Mad Men Reading List Collection of 25 books read by characters throughout the series

Weiner chose a popular song of the time to close each program:

A Comprehensive Guide (Nearly) to the Music of Mad Men from National Public Radio

Are you a Mad Men fan and have you watched the ending? What did you think? If you’d like, please share your thoughts about any aspects of Mad Men.

Book spine poetry for National Poetry Month

Stack of poetry books

What do we know

This present moment

Our only world

The wellspring.

You come too.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

“On the bedside table by the living Buddha, now dead, was an old copy of Basho’s great travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Hashimoto opened it to a page marked with a dry blade of grass. Days and months are travellers of eternity, he read. So too the years that pass by.”   (Last book read before death by a WWII Japanese commander of the Thai-Burma Death Railway, in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverRichard Flanagan’s father was one of nearly 3,000 Australian POWs who worked on what became known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway in World War II. Flanagan’s father survived. According to Wikipedia, estimates of the death toll are guesses: about 180,000 Asian civilians and 60,000 Allied POWs labored on the railway under inhuman conditions battling cholera, starvation, and beatings. Some 90,000 perished, including over 12,000 Allied POWs. Over 100 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes, and 32 were sentenced to death.

I’m partial to WWII novels, but I don’t know much about the Pacific theater of the war, and next to nothing about the prisoners of war who worked on the Thai-Burma Railway. I’m so glad I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and encountered Flanagan’s extraordinary writing, but do not attempt it unless you can stomach brutally explicit prose about hellish conditions.

An Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, tries to save as many of the men under his command as he can, but his efforts are mostly futile. We see Dorrigo as a young boy in Tasmania, as a young soldier in an affair with his uncle’s wife who is the love of his life, as a prisoner of war, and as an older, successful, but deeply scarred surgeon and war hero.

There are several moving, intimate, stream-of-consciousness portrayals of other Australian POWs under Dorrigo’s command  as well. Especially riveting is a scene in which the Japanese commanders, cruel and relentless in their mission to get the railroad built, discuss the fine points of haiku. Flanagan follows these men after the war, too, those who managed to have others take the fall for their crimes, and their amazingly clear consciences after the war.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker Prize and has received many excellent reviews. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times  is more mixed in her review: she feels that Amy, Dorrigo’s lover, should have been excised from the book for the sake of unity and coherence; she describes Flanagan’s writing about the love affair as “treacly prose,” whereas I found many of these passages beautiful. I disagree with her assessment here.

Have you ever thoroughly loved a book or movie only to encounter a respected critic who points out how seriously deficient or flawed is the thing you absolutely love? At this link is an especially vicious review in the London Review of Books. Flanagan must have poured his heart and soul into writing about a terrible time that his father survived, and he spent years working on the novel. This negative review is not reasoned literary criticism that I value or trust, and I wonder what motivates the critic. Sometimes I think critics analyze so much creative work they become jaded, unable to approach a novel or movie in a fresh, unbiased way.

By the way, I don’t consider my blog posts to be book reviews or literary criticism. My intention is to write about how a book affects me, personally, or how I think it might affect you, the reader, or why it may be especially significant in some way. If I don’t feel a book is well written, or if it doesn’t speak to me in some strong way, I don’t write about it here.

I’ll leave you with a passage I especially love, about POWs newly home from the war:

“He brought the fish and chips to their table, then filled some small glass tumblers behind the counter with red wine and brought them out too. Then he sat with them. As they ate, he let them talk. When they flagged he talked of how such a winter meant it would be a good summer for apricots, yes….Then he started up about his own life….How people told him coming to his fish shop made them happy. He hoped that was true. I really do, he said. That’s a life….The old Greek made his own coffee for them – little cups, thick, black and sweet – and he gave them walnut pastries his daughter had made….The simple chairs felt easy, and the place, too, felt right, and the people felt good….”

The Narrow Road to the Deep North illustration

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North book coverBasho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, written in the 17th century, is a classic work of haibun, which melds haiku with prose. It makes for excellent reading alongside Flanagan’s contemporary novel.

Have you ever encountered scathing criticism of writing that you love? How does it make you feel? Does it alter or influence your opinion of the work?

 

 

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