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

 

HemlockTrees

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

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!

Canoe.jpg

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

 

Homefortheholidays.jpg

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

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:

Modiano’s elusive Paris: what my father never saw

Eiffel Tower

La tour Eiffel. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant–“ Emily Dickinson

If you dislike ambiguity and prefer straightforward plots, you may become impatient with Patrick Modiano’s inconclusive and sometimes maddening quests. In his stories of Paris during and after the Occupation, the “missing” person in question is never found; the mystery of his or her identity is never solved.

Modiano tells the truth–what little of it he knows–but he tells it slant.

Reading is a way for me to immerse myself in other times and places, and on our recent trip to France, I wanted to see the country through the lens of World War II, when my father was a soldier there. So I brought along Irène Némirovsky (I wrote about Suite Française in my last post) and Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant (published as Dora Bruder in Europe). Coincidentally, my son had just read three novellas by Modiano: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin, so I read them, too. (These are published in one volume entitled Suspended Sentences.)

I was thinking about my father, who passed away five years ago, and musing about events in 1940s Europe that may soon be all but forgotten. Once I became accustomed to Modiano’s method and spirit of storytelling, I could appreciate the author’s preoccupation with identity and memory, and his attempts to reconstruct and understand the past.

Even as I explored the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, where we stayed, and conjured up the WWII Paris I’ve seen in movies, I realized that a new story is playing out in France, making my father’s time seem even more remote. We passed by many military personnel armed with automatic weapons guarding Parisian monuments, temples, churches, and other sites in the wake of January’s Charlie Hebdo attack.

My father never got the chance to explore Europe as he’d hoped. He’d been fascinated by France and Luxembourg (where he spent the weekend in training before he was wounded in the Battle of Metz in 1944), and he’d planned to visit Sicily, where he was born. Instead, he was shipped out to Liverpool after he was injured, and then back to America, where he spent over a year in recovery. Though he did visit Sicily later in life, my father never returned to France. Suspended Sentences book cover

I found myself imagining what he might have thought if he’d seen Notre Dame (he was awed by cathedrals) or tasted Parisian escargot (which he would have relished) or strolled across the many old bridges spanning the Seine.

During our drive to Metz, I looked out over the French countryside and along the Moselle River, thinking that perhaps my father had been injured in one of the passing fields or forest groves.

In The Search Warrant, Modiano is obsessed with reconstructing the life of a young Jewish girl who died at Auschwitz. In a 1941 Parisian newspaper, he’d discovered an ad placed by the parents of Dora Bruder, asking for information about the whereabouts of Dora, who had run away from her convent school. It’s as if Modiano can’t accept that someone–that so many, in fact–could live lives so brief and obscure and die such senseless deaths, as they did in the war.

The Search Warrant fuses nonfiction (the facts he unearths about Dora Bruder) with memoir (Modiano’s autobiographical speculations about his father during the Occupation) and fiction. As I read, sometimes I couldn’t separate truth from fiction.

The Search Warrant book coverInterrupting the narrative flow are lengthy lists of the names and last known addresses of people deported to concentration camps. Modiano seems compelled to show his readers the documentation and proof behind any fact he asserts about Dora. He meticulously describes the Paris neighborhoods that he wanders in, too: the old, timeworn urban landscapes and the bland contemporary ones that have replaced them.

Such lists and geographical minutia also appear in Modiano’s three novellas. Each story portrays a protagonist searching for a person he’s lost touch with long ago or seeking to understand some incident from the past.

Before I started the three novellas, I read the editor’s introduction to see if I could better understand what Modiano was trying to do with his stories. I learned that his mother had been an actress and was often absent during his childhood, while his estranged father paid little attention to Modiano and his younger brother. Modiano surmises that his father was a black market smuggler and somehow aligned with French Nazi collaborators. Another heartbreaking autobiographical fact is that Modiano’s beloved brother, Rudy, died from an illness when they were young. Modiano’s obsessive search for Dora Bruder is emblematic of Modiano’s search for his lost family, and for a pre-war Paris that no longer exists.

Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2014.

From Flowers of Ruin:

“Little by little, that man melted into the wall. Or else the rain, from falling on him so heavily, had dissolved him, the way water dilutes a fresco that hasn’t had time to dry properly. As hard as I pressed my forehead against the glass and peered at the dark gray wall, no trace of him remained. He had vanished in that sudden way that I’d later noticed in other people, like my father, which leaves you so puzzled that you have no choice but to look for proofs and clues to convince yourself these people had really existed.”

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Cafe in Paris

Where to eat….they all look so good. Can you see the maître d’ beckoning?

Stone carving of two children

Children on a street corner in France.

On Reading the Tough Stuff

The Gorgeous Nothings book coverThis week I’m passing along a few of my favorite bloggers, people who have important things to say and they say it well.

I’ve recently become a follower of Book Guy Reviews, written by James Neenan, a Denver high school English teacher. I love what he says about reading difficult books.

On Reading the Tough Stuff

Enter my book giveaway: Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

Been traveling for the Thanksgiving holidays and forgot to mention here at Books Can Save a Life that I’m giving away a free copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

Flight Behavior book coverAll you need to do for a chance to win the book is check out my recent post, Now is the time to read Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and leave a comment about where you stand on climate change, or if you think a work of fiction such as Kingsolver’s can make a difference one way or the other.

I’m extending the deadline to December 3, when I’ll put the names of all who comment in a hat and draw the lucky winner.

I read an essay the other day in which the author mused that perhaps New York City will no longer exist in a hundred years. Or it will be located in Westchester County.

What do you think?

I welcome all thoughts and opinions (as long as we’re friendly and polite!)

So, comment away, please!

Agatha Christie – few heroes, but justice prevails

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self, and then there were nine.

Growing up, I knew few real-life heroes. Therefore, I wanted the books I read to have heroes, and I wanted escape and redemptive endings, as well.  Agatha Christie’s mesmerizing stories and blazing honesty about human nature would have fascinated me but, ultimately, I wanted to be comforted and given hope that people can change for the better.

Not so my friend from high school, Doug, whose take on reading was braver and more mature. I admire it. We didn’t discuss books back then, but now I wish we had. My reading life would have been all the richer.

I didn’t know what Doug was reading, but I did know he could take command of a stage like no one I’d ever met. I always thought there was something rock-solid real about Doug, and that carried through in the roles he played in our high school productions. Whatever “character” he portrayed came so naturally to him, with such depth and nuance, the rest of the actors seemed mere shadows. That sprang from Doug’s talent and hard work, of course, but I can’t help but think that, as a discerning reader, he started off with a close and perceptive reading of the script.

Of the many hundreds (thousands?) of books Doug has read, he had this to say about one in particular:

And then there were none book coverRecently, I discovered that the thriller I loved as a child, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, is in sixth place among the best-selling novels of all time.

Ten people, mostly strangers to each other, are mysteriously invited to an isolated island.  On the island, a disguised, recorded voice accuses each of having gotten away with a murder. One by one, in circumstances resembling the children’s rhyme, “Ten Little Indians,” they are punished for their crimes.

If you read the original 1940 novel after seeing the stage version (“Ten Little Indians”) or a subsequent film adaptation, you may be jarred by the absence of anything like a redemptive ending. On stage and film, two romantically linked characters (Vera and Lombard) among the ten doomed to destruction manage to outwit their persecutor. Coincidentally, these two are revealed as innocent of the murders for which they were condemned.

Christie’s novel offers no such hogwash; the wolfish hero and the fast-shooting heroine are both guilty as sin, and they pay dearly for it.

Thoroughly bored by “children’s literature” as a 10-year-old, I savored Christie’s descriptions and plotting. Three matters fascinated me: the structure of effective stories, the accountability of adults who are hypocrites, and the assurance that justice will somehow be done.

As to structure, Christie is marvelous. The book wastes little space on peripheral matters: the characters are introduced, the problem presented, and each succeeding crisis fluidly developed.

On the accountability side, I was thrilled as a child that each adult was truly guilty behind all the posturing. Agatha Christie wrote a story without heroes; to me, that was heroic honesty.  I knew enough about school teachers who practiced petty cruelty, clerics who were status-driven, and older family role models who considered the law something to break when getting caught was unlikely. I had a child’s faith in the abstractions of good and evil described in the Bible, but I was sharply aware that no one was completely one or the other.

Conversely, the inevitability of justice satisfied me. For all my contempt for two-faced authority, I still relished the idea of wrongdoers punished by divine oversight.  My sense of my own weakness as a child needed that reassurance. (When Vera discovers a waiting noose, I was convinced supernatural justice was at hand, a conclusion with which the character herself concurs.)  To me, Christie’s revealing the true killer in a post script seemed logically necessary, but somehow anticlimactic.

Today, I reread Christie mysteries and still admire her superb craftsmanship, though I wince at the stilted dialogue and wooden characters. But it was Agatha Christie who showed me when I was a child just how enthralling a well-plotted book can be.

Without And Then There Were None, there might not have been copies of Crime and Punishment or The Sea, The Sea sitting on my bookshelf.

One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

Doug Hoehn’s to-read list isn’t too ambitious, just all the great works of philosophy and the most critically recognized novels of every nation on earth, while he rereads mysteries, westerns and science fiction – as he says, the snack between meals. I hope to entice Doug back some time for a guest post on his international reading.

Doug has starred in countless amateur theater productions, including the title role in “Macbeth,” the role of Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and a one-man show of readings by Edgar Allen Poe.  His favorite playwrights are Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams.  Doug is a job coach for Toward Maximum Independence, an agency that supports people with developmental disabilities in the workplace.  He lives in El Cajon, California with his life partner.

Visit the official Agatha Christie information and community website.

Quotes from And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2011.

Book cover from Wikipedia.

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