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.

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?

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