Old Florida

SpanishMoss

Savannah, Georgia

BookLadyOn our road trip across the US (south to Florida, then west to Tucson, Arizona, then north to Portland, Oregon) we spent nearly two weeks visiting family in the St. Petersburg area. Along the way, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, my first time in that lovely city. An afternoon wasn’t nearly long enough, but we did visit The Book Lady Bookstore on East Liberty Street.

They had a display devoted to the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived most of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peacocks and wrote short stories and novels. Her shocking story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is taught in many high school English classes. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth your time, I promise you. I’ve never forgotten that story, although I’m not a fan of O’Connor’s novels – her protagonists, obsessed with working out their salvation, are too strange for me.

FlanneryOconnor

A Flannery O’Connor display at The Book Lady

But seeing the display called up memories and reminded me how much I enjoyed her collection of letters, The Habit of Being. Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, the assistant rector of the Episcopal church I attended taught a class on Flannery O’Connor. Fleming, our rector, who was from the South, led us in reading her stories and letters, and I was extra thrilled because The New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell,  a Southerner himself, was in the class, too.

St. Petersburg

There are many things about Florida that I love, but I’m allergic to all the over-development and the acres of generic condos and shopping centers. There is plenty to do near the beautiful St. Pete waterfront though, and when our sons came down we enjoyed some of the shops and restaurants. (They enjoyed the music and night life, too.) We bought red snapper, grouper, and shrimp from a local fish market that had dozens of ice chests overflowing with fresh catches, and our sons did the cooking.

In Florida, I always look hard for bits of nature and local culture, so I was extra happy when we rented a sweet little apartment in a hidden alley in one of the older St. Petersburg neighborhoods. Some of the streets are cobblestone and lined SleepingPorchwith adorable Old Florida bungalows, many being renovated. Even though most of the windows of our airbnb were painted shut, we had air conditioning, and two large windows in the sleeping porch let in breezes from Tampa Bay two blocks away.

In the yard, I found lots of angel hair fern. We used to add this delicate bit of greenery to the roses we sold by the dozen in my family’s flower shop in Ohio.

This part of Florida reminds me of one of my favorite books growing up, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Years later, I discovered, and loved, Marjorie’s memoir, Cross Creek. (There is a Cross Creek Cookery book, too.)

AngelHair

I love angel hair fern.

 
The ‘burbs

We had many happy visits with extended family in the St. Pete suburbs after we left our airbnb.  We walked in the neighborhood every day. It was warm and humid, with occasional light rain that felt wonderful.

 

SandhillCrane

A sandhill crane waits for a bus

 

Ibis

Ibis, following their leader

 

AfterRain

After the rain

 

BigLeaves

They grow them big,

 

Garden

My sister-in-law has a kitchen garden with herbs and veggies, including plenty of Thai basil.

 
We passed by this wind sculpture on our walk every day:

 

 
In the evenings, my niece, my sister-in-law and her mother, and I tried Chinese brush painting for the first time. We taught ourselves how to grind the ink, which is pressed into sticks and colorful rectangles, and mix it with water in an ink stone. Then we practiced brush strokes and painted our first, simple pictures. It was fun!

 

Chick

My attempt to paint a chick

 

RabbitBamboo

My sister-in-law’s mother made a beautiful rabbit and this beautiful bamboo.

 
The Panhandle

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to family and move on to the Florida panhandle and points west along our Deep South route. We stayed in Destin, our final visit in Florida, which had a lovely beach that we had almost to ourselves. It was beside a sea turtle breeding ground and state park, and there was a hidden garden teeming with Monarch butterflies.

DestinBeach

Destin, Florida. There are military bases in nearby Pensacola, so we heard jets taking off from time to time.

 

Monarch

In a garden on the beach in Destin, there were hundreds of monarch butterflies.

 

Tracks

Places to go….

 

DestinSunrise

Sunrise, Destin, Florida. (Photo by J. Hallinan, who gets up much earlier than I do.)

 

TheYearling

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic coming-of-age story, set in backwoods Florida, 1930s

 

CrossCreek

Her memoir.

 

TheHabitofBeing

Flannery was a great writer of letters.

 

The Invention of Nature

This is what I’ve been reading on the road. It’s wonderful! More about it later…

Coming up: Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans

Traveling, immersing in nature, visiting bookstores. Do these experiences call up memories of books read long ago?

 

Resistance

resistance

 

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.

Barry Lopez

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.

 

Mask

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.

 

 

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. 

 

The Wonder Garden

The Wonder Garden book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Dawn

Birds on branches in snow

“Christmas Eve he drove all the way to Helena to buy her figure skates. In the morning they wrapped themselves head to toe in furs and went out to skate the river. She held him by the hips and they glided through the blue dawn, skating hard up the frozen coils and shoals, beneath the leafless alders and cottonwoods, only the bare tips of creek willow showing above the snow.” “The Hunter’s Wife,” from The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr.

Photo by Putneypics. CC By-NC 2.0

Redeployment

Redeployment book cover

“Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The Marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear…

In Wilmington you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle ten times checking for it and it’s not there. You’re safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it’s not. 

Instead, you’re stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don’t want to open it again.”      Redeployment, by Phil Klay

 

Redeployment, Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, won this year’s National Book Award. It’s been hailed as THE literary work that captures the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, destined to become a classic of war literature.

Klay served during the Surge as a public affairs officer in Anbar (Iraq), which has now been infiltrated by ISIS. All the stories in this collection are written from the first person point of view: a military chaplain, a Mortuary Affairs officer, a Marine home on leave, and others because, as Klay said in an interview, each person has a different experience of war. He wanted to capture those varied perspectives.

If you read Redeployment, you’ll encounter stark realism, much profanity, and a bewildering array of acronyms: SITREP (Situation Report), RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade), CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation), EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).  There is no glossary, of course. Reading along without knowing what the acronyms mean has a confusing and disorienting effect that adds to the sense of overwhelming fear and danger.

Klay is a master at conveying situation and character through dialogue and idiosyncratic points of view. These soldiers are strangers in an utterly baffling land. They return home as aliens, isolated and unable to relate to “normal” American life. They are ciphers to an American public tragically disengaged from the war being conducted by their own country. I, myself, do not know a single Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran.

There have been a number of interesting interviews with Klay, especially since he won the National Book Award. An NPR interview by Terry Gross is one of my favorites. Terry is adept at asking the hard questions, and Phil Klay is an intense, thoughtful man, a Catholic who attended Jesuit schools. He does not come out in favor of or against the wars, although it’s clear he does not like incompetent leaders or clueless, insensitive civilians.  As any good writer does, he lets character and situation tell the stories, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

In one interview, Klay says that when he returned from Iraq he ran into a friend who said she couldn’t possibly imagine what he’d been through. That did not sit well with Klay. He in fact wanted very much for his friends and American civilians to imagine and understand, which is one of the reasons he wrote the stories.

Klay has also said that asking veterans if they ever killed someone is “the most obscene question you can ask.”

After reading (surviving!) Redeployment, I feel as though saying “Thank you for your service” to military personnel I might encounter would be incredibly lame. I’m not sure I could come up with the right words to show I have even a semblance of an understanding and thatI want to understand more.

Redeployment is not comfortable or comforting reading, but necessary if we civilians want to pay attention.

Prayer of a military chaplain in Iraq:  “I asked God to protect the battalion from further harm. I knew He would not. I asked Him to bring abuses to light. I knew He would not. I asked him, finally, for grace. When I turned back to the Divine Office, I read the words with empty disengagement.”    from “Prayer in the Furnace,” Redeployment

 

The Hunter’s Wife

Northern Lights and trees

“That night he drove her all the way north to Sweetgrass, on the Canadian border, to see the Northern Lights. Great sheets of violet, amber and pale green rose from the distances. Shapes like the head of a falcon, a scarf and a wing rippled above the mountains. They sat in the truck cab, the heater blowing on their knees. Behind the aurora the Milky Way burned.”     “The Hunter’s Wife,” by Anthony Doerr

I liked All the Light We Cannot See so much, I got a copy of Anthony Doerr’s short story collection, The Shell Collector, and read “The Hunter’s Wife” (astonishing) while I had tea at Wegman’s today. One reviewer said about this collection: “Eight stunning exercises in steel-tipped feathery fineness….[Doerr is] able to pin down every butterfly wing and fleck of matter in the universe, yet willing to float the unanswerables….”

The snow was really coming down this afternoon. I watched people buying groceries for the evening’s dinner, rushing about and remarking on the weather, telling each other to drive safely. I bought some juniper boughs, white button mums, a ruby-red poinsettia. (And a meat loaf for supper.) The snow was still falling when I left. I swept about four inches’ worth off my car.

White mums, berries, snowman, pine cone

 

Tenth of December, National Book Award nominee

“…we all know that one way to do a job poorly is to be negative about it. Say we need to clean a shelf. If we spend the hour before the shelf-cleaning talking down the process of cleaning the shelf, complaining about it, dreading it, investigating the moral niceties of cleaning the shelf, whatever, then what happens is, we make the process of cleaning the shelf more difficult than it really is. We all know very well that that “shelf” is going to be cleaned, given the current climate, either by you or the guy who replaces you and gets your paycheck….So the point of this memo is: Positive.”  -“Exhortation” in Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December book cover

The “shelf” that has to be cleaned is a euphemism for…what?

I don’t often read short stories, but I’d heard so many good things about Tenth of December by George Saunderswhen I saw the book in our local library’s “Most Wanted” display I checked it out.

Saunders has been called the Kurt Vonnegut of our day. He says he’s been influenced by Monty Python. Many highly regarded writers (Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, among others) can’t say enough good things about Saunders, who teaches creative writing at Syracuse University.

Before he became a highly praised short story writer, Saunders lived here in Rochester, where he was a contract worker for Kodak and a technical writer for a local consulting firm.

I was once a Kodak contract worker, too, and that’s partly why I’m so fascinated with Saunders. He writes about the workplace in a liberating, irreverent and hilarious way. In an interview, Saunders has said that he’s grateful for the corporate jobs he held early on that helped support his young family, but that working in a corporate culture long-term can be difficult if you have a creative calling.

You can listen to the full interview with Saunders at the link further down in this post. You’ll hear the writer interviewing Saunders tell how she started off in book publishing (as I did) and at times she considered stealing the toilet paper as a small revenge. Working for a prestigious publisher in a Manhattan skyscraper was glamorous but, on the other hand, her salary was tiny, and many employees were exploited.

Getting back to Saunders’ stories, they are darkly comic, subversive, strange, and compelling. They’ve been called “alarming” and “tender.” Some are dystopian. You’ll be disturbed, aroused and, perhaps, comforted by the fact that someone recognizes and so eloquently expresses the absurdities of how we live our lives and the dreadful possibilities for the future if certain trends continue.

This week Tenth of December was named one of the finalists for the National Book Award.

Pastoralia coverYou can listen to Saunders read an excerpt from one of his older stories, “Sea Oak,” (from his collection, Pastoralia) on the National Book Award website, which features audio recordings of all the nominees. (Start listening at the 10-minute mark unless you want to hear the program host brag about how Brooklyn is now the literary capital of America.)

I’ll warn you in advance, though, that Saunders doesn’t read the ending of “Sea Oak.” He’d prefer that you buy the book, of course. In an interview after the reading, Saunders said it took him four years to come up with an ending to “Sea Oak” that he was satisfied with.

I, for one, can’t get out of my mind the two teenagers in the opening story, “Victory Lap,” in Tenth of December. Or the strange and horrifying lawn ornaments that are the ultimate status symbols in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Or the poor guy who’s in prison and becomes a guinea pig in a pharmaceutical experiment and must choose how it will end.

There’s really nothing like a George Saunders short story.

Great book club reading, too, guaranteed to spark excellent conversation.

“It’s time for you to pull yourselves up by the bootstraps like I done….Let me tell you something, something about this country. Anybody can do anything….It’s the frickin’ American way. You start out in a dangerous crap hole. And work hard. So you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous crap hole. And finally maybe you get a mansion.” – “Sea Oak,” by George Saunders

STELLAR SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Pastoralia, by George Saunders

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Collected Works of Katherine Anne Porter

Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman

The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro (2013 Nobel Prize in Literature)

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