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A Poem for Salman Rushdie’s New Novel

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I just finished Salman Rushdie’s latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Here’s a brief summary of the book’s premise, borrowed from The New York Times book review:

The central character of Rushdie’s new novel… is…a man who gets cursed and gets blamed for it. Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasing hostility of strangers. “Why do you imagine I consider my condition an improvement? He wanted to cry out. Why, when it has ruined my life and I fear it may bring about my early death?”

But Geronimo’s predicament is not an isolated case. It foreshadows an era of “strangenesses,” where the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” The strangenesses — some meteorological, some natural disasters, some simply miraculous — are the prelude to a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

It turns out that all four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating the world from Fairyland and are bent on causing havoc in the 21st century. The only power that can stop them is a nice female jinnia called Dunia and her human descendants: Geronimo Manezes, the British composer Hugo Casterbridge, the young Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and a femme fatale called Teresa Saca. If Dunia can gather them up in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against the forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.”

It certainly wasn’t my favorite Rushdie novel. The NY Times review is pretty critical, and I agree with its perspective. Reviewer Marcel Theroux notes that Rushdie’s “capcaiousness” and “breadth” as a writer/enchanter is a distinctive feature of his style and something to be celebrated… when “there’s been some compelling principle at work.” As Theroux puts it,

“Complaining that Rushdie’s not a naturalistic writer is like criticizing kimchi for its cabbagey funk.”

And I love Rushdie’s funk. It’s why I gravitate toward everything he writes. As for this novel, though, I’ll quote Theroux again:

“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles a bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.”

Still, I am drawn to the “nice” jinnia, Dunia, who is enamored with the human world. I am fascinated with the contrast between capricious beings made of smoke and fire versus plodding, helpless humans. In the book, Dunia produces a line of half-jinn, half-human descendants, and the line they walk between their human natures and their jinn natures is fodder for us all. It inspired me to think about the “smoke and fire” lurking in myself, and my human company. I jot this poem down this morning. When I refer to “smoke and fire,” I think I’m referring to the ways in which our human limitations give way, the ways in which we surprise ourselves, transcending our human natures and tapping into something more powerful.

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Smoke and Fire

Smoke and fire:
You address me, “Beauty,”
You nick-named my stomach years ago
At a wedding, my arms are wrapped around you
“Python arms” you dub the photo
Then you say, “Hey Beauty, come here”
Insults, terms of endearment,
From You,
They both land lightly,
Almost to lift me up.

Smoke and fire:
I chased you out of the building
Clear sky, hot pavement
You were running for your life
Now we meet again in August
Your trusting smile,
signing your letter “yours truly”
“I’m ready to step up my game this year”

Smoke and fire:
Skin so thin that a hang nail
Threatens hospital beds and IVs
Skin so thick all the same
You weather your version of chronic pain
Far more graciously than me
And so I confide in you, and worry with you
Even when you’re the one hurting

Smoke and fire:
How many times have I rubbed
salt in your wounds
And you’ve called me back
Invited me over
Given me something from your closet,
Your fridge
“I’m so happy to see you,” you always say.

Smoke and fire:
You used to bribe me to type your papers
Your eyes were bloodshot as you
teased me about my first boyfriend
I bought you beer when I visited you at school
even though I was the younger one
Now you grip your newborn
like a football, easy
You’re well-versed in car seats
and choking hazards
And sleep schedules

Smoke and fire:
This life is muddy for you
Thick, brown, halting
Leaves traces of dirt on your shoes
Wherever you go
And yet you keep going,
So kind
Along your way

If only I could rub the magic lamp
Get a fat, blue little jinn
To fight your demons for you
Smoke and fire-like

Instead, I hold onto the traces
Of smoke
Of fire
inside these
soft,
beating
human hearts.

 

Chekhov: A Biography and The Signature of All Things

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I have a tendency to pick up thick, dry (well, actually sort of musty) biographies and stubbornly plow my way through them. Admittedly, I called it quits on page 600 of Chekhov: A Biography by Ernest J. Simmons in favor of the above mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert novel, which is about the same length and which I tore through in the matter of about a week, but more on that later.

The back cover of Simmons’s bio reads: “This work reads like a massive Russian novel, but one in which a real hero dominates a tapestry of real life.” Let me assure you, this is false advertising – it reads like a halting, over-wrought research report in which the minutiae of Chekhov’s day-to-day existence is loyally recorded in painstaking detail. As with biopics, I think there is an art to writing biographies in which the story of a person’s life can be both well-researched and selectively rendered so as to leave the reader with a more memorable, vibrant impression of the essence of who that person was, and I’m fascinated by that art. Simmons’s approach is less than inspiring. But it was certainly informative, and inspires me to delve deeper into Chekhov’s body of work, of which, when I say deeper, I confess I am treading in very shallow waters. My exposure to Chekhov, embarrassingly, is limited to some of his short stories, adapted to the stage for a show I worked on called “Chekhov’s Life in the Country.”

Chekhov was a physician, first, then ever-increasingly, a writer. He called medicine his wife and literature his mistress (quite literally – he married very late in life). He constantly gave away his medical services for free and started writing humorous stories for cheap magazines as a way to make money for his large family. He wrote under a pseudonym, and he wrote hastily. This business of writing was a mercantile one in which he churned out stories for small sums. Simmons never goes into much detail about Chekhov’s early life as a reader; rather, he gives the impression that Chekhov was full of stories and gifted with powers of observation and imagination — that the stories just poured out of him.

It took time for Chekhov to see and embrace that he had a special genius, and he slowly graduated from the popular magazines to publications of literature. His relationship to the theatre and playwriting was a bit rocky; his plays were often ill-received at first, as they didn’t adhere to the conventions of Russian drama. Tolstoy criticized him for writing “the world as he saw it,” rather than infusing his work with a moral perspective, but Chekhov and Tolstoy eventually developed a mutually admiring relationship. Chekhov had tons of friends, and when he wasn’t writing, he was usually entertaining a group of visitors – he also loved to garden and became something of a real estate enthusiast near the end of his life. He was extremely close to his sister, and held out on marriage until late in life when his tuberculosis was in full swing, when he married a Moscow actress named Olga. Interestingly, he launched on a journey to Siberia in the middle of his life and wrote a report on the treatment of prisoners there. And… I’ll leave you there. I’m a bit Chekhov-ed out. But suffice it to say that the book only builds up your admiration and even, affection for this literary giant – it does humanize him and portray him as a likeable, relatable figure.

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In contrast, The Signature of All Things was a quick read. It starts with the story of Henry Whittacre, a scrappy, poor boy who grew up the son of an orchard farmer and longed for a bigger, better life. He starts stealing flowers from a famous botanist for chunks of money from aspiring botanists, and ends up going to work for the famous botanist. After sailing the world, he marries a Dutch woman, takes her to America, and builds a formidable estate in 19th century Philadelphia.

From then on, it’s his daughter Alma’s story. Her relationship to her adopted sister, Prudence, her sexual awakening starting in her father’s library, her unrequited love for the printmaker George Hawkes, her silly friendship with a young woman who later becomes George’s wife and later still, goes insane, her mother’s death, her obsession with mosses to counteract the loneliness of spinsterhood, her fleeting marriage to an orchid painter named Ambrose Pike, her father’s death, and upon learning some surprising information from her mother’s nursemaid, the decision to leave the estate to Prudence and sail to Tahiti…

The book gets its title from the Ambrose Pike character, who confesses to Alma that he went insane when he thought he could discern God’s imprint on every trace of the natural world. Alma’s own life story is infused with a deep devotion to and lifelong study of nature, and so, in her own, more grounded way, she sees God’s signature in nature, too.

Following her travels to Tahiti and around the world, when Alma seeks to resolve her conception of the mysterious Ambrose Pike, she settles in Holland with her mother’s relatives. As an old woman, her study of mosses leads her toward her own theory of natural selection, but she resists publishing her theory because she can’t bridge the gap between the self-sacrificing nature of people like her once-despised sister Prudence with the idea that struggle and conquest define human nature. So at the core of this novel is the tension between the natural world, in all its beauty, and the unique beauty of humans.

In many ways The Signature of All Things reminds me of the novels I enjoyed as a girl – and one of my favorite novels to this day, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which Padraic is finally reading this summer, to my delight. You have a precocious, curious, slightly unconventional female heroine free to study or explore in a world buoyed by inherited wealth, a historical setting around the 1800s, and an epic, birth-to-death scope. I couldn’t help but notice that the character Prudence’s story, heavily intertwined with the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, is sidelined, in favor of privileged Alma’s love interests and reverence for mosses. Perhaps it would be more edifying to write, or read, a book about Prudence. The only other book I’ve read by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love – is also steeped in the world of privileged white women.

So it’s in many ways an old-fashioned tale, if such a thing exists, but a delectable, escapist one, perfect for car rides back to Chicago, which still feels like my second home, or outdoor evenings in Saint Louis spent rocking (as in, a chair) and reading.

My parting advice – skip the Chekhov biography for a collection of his short stories, starting with The Lady with The Little Dog (I love this story), or a cold read of The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull, and in the meantime, if you’re looking for a virtual garden in which to explore, curl up with The Signature of All Things. Enjoy 🙂

Lila

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 8.55.59 AMMarilynne Robinson’s newest novel, “Lila,” tells the story of a woman plucked from her family’s doorstep by a migrant worker, Doll, subsisting on farm work from one cornfield to the next. When we first meet her, an adult Lila has been waiting out the days in a small Iowa town, sleeping in a shack and idly tending the town preacher’s garden. She and the preacher, John Ames, develop a strange intimacy borne of Lila’s spontaneous gestures of affection, her poverty and vulnerability, her abrupt, disarming questions about God and religion.

As their relationship deepens, Lila confronts the many hardships of her past, trying to reconcile her pervasive feelings of shame and loneliness with the admiration and appreciation she incites so naturally in the wise old reverend. Between haunting flashbacks of her past, sparse, charged conversations with the reverend in the strange tranquility of their new home together and long passages revealing her passing thoughts about faith, loneliness and love, we get a searing portrait of a mysterious, paradoxical character, reflecting the deep mystery of life itself.

Lila’s relationship with the preacher is often shrouded in long, loaded silences. Her memories of being a prostitute, washing bloodstains off her caretaker after a knife fight, sleeping in the dirt with a wet rag over her face to shut out the dust, are confided to the reader in detail and then guarded from him, replaced by searching, philosophical questions about the Bible and offhand, defensive warnings like “You don’t know me” and “I never trust anyone.”

As for the reverend, we can only glean as much about his feelings and thoughts as Lila shares from the outside: his ongoing attempts to make her comfortable in a domestic, ladylike setting, his fears that she’ll leave, coupled with his pains to give her space, his deliberately unresolved, open responses when they discuss religion. His strong attraction to Lila appears to be connected to his intuitive beliefs about God and grace, as if Lila’s earnestness and honesty strikes a nerve in his lifelong pursuit of Christian truths. He marvels at the doggedness with which she seeks out difficult chapters from the Bible, like Job and Ezekial. The instinctive kind of raw kindness that Lila demonstrates to strangers, including his deceased wife and son, whose graves she attends with roses. The boldness with which she seeks him out, stealing his sweater, and asking him to marry her, then retreats, grappling with openness and trust. He often comments on her unpredictable nature. We can gather that her ability to surprise him is one primary reason she stirs him up. But the mystery of their bond, balanced by small, rich moments that we witness feeding it, reinforces the intensity and sacredness of falling in love.

There’s a scene where Lila returns to the shack she’d been barely surviving in before they met, presumably to retrieve a jar of money hidden under the floorboards but more deeply because returning to that place of poverty and isolation makes her feel like herself again. She feels compelled to escape the reverend’s trusting, forgiving embrace.  When she gets there, she meets a boy who ran away after hitting his father with firewood, possibly killing him. Out of pity she leaves him her coat and the money, wandering back home without protection from the bitter cold. The reverend is out looking for her when she crawls shivering into their bed, and when he gets home, he’s pale, weary, drawn, visibly shaken by Lila’s disappearance and the sight of a potential murderer wearing her things. She tells him she felt sorry for the boy and his eyes fill up with tears, saying “I do know you.”

Given their vast differences — his education, social connectedness and familial roots in the town, her nomadic childhood, piecing together a fluid perception of the world from one field, one odd job to the next — their union highlights a truth that applies to all relationships, though it is exaggerated in their case: the fact that every human being is fundamentally a mystery to each other, no matter how familiar. That loneliness isn’t a product of being alone or even a lack of intimacy, but rather arises from fleeting impressions of the world’s vast contradictions. And so Lila’s loneliness persists. For example, she struggles with the notion that her beloved Doll was apathetic toward religion, and in the most objective sense, a grave sinner. Her loyalty and love for Doll puts her at a distance from the reverend, whose worldview doesn’t allow Doll the same wholehearted acceptance and unequivocal loyalty.

I read the Pulitzer Prize winning “Gilead” about five or six years ago, to which Lila is the prequel. In “Gilead,” the reverend writes to his and Lila’s now seven-year old son as he prepares to die. As with most books, I hardly remember any specifics, only the general impression that it was sad, spiritually rich and beautifully written, that I remember loving it. “Gilead” is absolutely worth a read, but it’s worth mentioning that “Lila” stands alone from it, self-contained in its exploration of similar themes such as the workings of grace and the mystery of everyday life.

And Robinson’s language is a reason unto itself. As with “Gilead,” her writing about Lila is pared down, concrete and immediate, grounded in what Lila observes, remembers and wonders. In Lila’s humble way of taking in her surroundings and weighing her past, never overreaching for meaning or presuming to understand life’s mysterious nature, the prose possesses an elegance and astuteness. On that note, I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite quotes:

“Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”

“She loved the smell of dirt, and the feel of it. She had to make herself wash it off her hands.”

“Lila’s thoughts were strange sometimes. They always had been. She had hoped getting baptized might help with it, but it didn’t.”

“She knew a little about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something.”

“In that letter he had said there’s no such thing as safety. Existence can be fierce, she did know that. A storm can blow up out of a quiet day, wind that takes your life out of your hands, your soul out of your body.”

“The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were.”

“Now here she had this preacher, maybe the kindest man in the world, and no idea what to do with him.”

“She thought for a few days that she must have come to the end of her life, because it felt so much like the beginning of it.”

“So. ‘Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.’”

“‘I can’t love you as much as I love you. I can’t feel as happy as I am.’”

For more about “Lila,” here is the New York Times book review.  

Reading Wonder

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Ian Maclearan

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 8.45.07 AMI just finished reading Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, assigned for a SPED class. In my opinion, the above quote encapsulates the spirit of the book as a whole, about the struggle for kindness in the most petty and mercurial of settings: middle school. The protagonist Auggie suffers from a rare, genetic deformity that leaves his face mangled, and Wonder charts his first year at Beecher Prep following years of homeschooling.

The events of Auggie’s school year are described by several child narrators, including Via, Auggie’s sister, sympathetic classmates Summer and Jack, Justin, Via’s boyfriend, Miranda, Via’s friend, Auggie’s bully, Julian, and Auggie himself. Each narrator grapples honestly with the ramifications of Auggie’s physical differences, from the need to suppress visceral, uncompassionate responses to his appearance, to the resentments created by Auggie’s special status. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Auggie’s special circumstances are explored; no attachment to political correctness dilutes the very real and present challenge of being in the world with an unusual-looking face. There are insights to be gleaned from each character:

Auggie…

possesses forthrightness, courage, and charm. Having been home schooled due to frequent surgeries, middle school presents Auggie with a new, formidable  world in which to immerse himself. He excels academically but is predictably subjected to a high quantity of teasing from his peers.

For example, Auggie is at the center of a game called “the plague.” As the rules go, any student who touches Auggie catches it. So Auggie watches as his peers make conspicuous efforts to avoid him. His charm stems from the detached, matter-of-fact resignation he exhibits toward his deformity, and toward the gaping and staring and knee-jerk immaturity that his appearance inspires.

In the opening pages, titled “Ordinary,” Auggie makes plain the severity of his physical differences — “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” — and makes an equally compelling case for his commonness — “I think the only person in the world who realizes how ordinary I am is me.” I wonder how many children who are marked by visible, defining differences, either physical or behavioral, feel this way, feel regularly misjudged and misread on the basis of what is obvious about their appearance or demeanor, when for them, their differences are simply something to get past.

This disparity between what a person feels on the inside — ordinary hopes, fears, desires, aversions — and projects on the outside — extraordinary physical or behavioral qualities — is a heavy burden. It demands a heightened level of thoughtfulness and empathy from the outside world, and sometimes the world refuses to give it. Circle back to the need for kindness, the mindset that everyone is fighting a battle, that our eyes deceive us, that a second, third, fourth closer look reveals the shared humanity, the ordinariness, of every human being.

Jack…

is Auggie’s best friend. But even for Jack, it takes time to develop the maturity and compassion that Auggie’s differences demand. For example, Jack admits to the reader that he was initially averse to the principal’s request to meet Auggie prior to the start of school. Then, on Halloween, Auggie overhears Jack talking disparagingly to several boys about his obligatory friendship with him. This incident drives Auggie over the edge, emotionally — a shock, when he thought Jack saw the real person underneath the face. Auggie responds by giving Jack the cold shoulder, a shift that bewilders and flusters his friend. Jack asks their mutual friend Summer Dawson for an explanation and she drops him a hint.

Just before Jack and Auggie are assigned to be partners for a science-fair project, Jack puts two and two together. Auggie caught him in a moment of pettiness, smallness, projecting the attitude toward Auggie that he was supposed to have, according to Julian and the popular crowd. This look at himself, reflected through Auggie’s eyes, kills him. Back to science class. Julian tries to get Jack to switch partners, inciting, “You don’t have to be friends with that freak if you don’t want to be,” and impulsively, Jack punches Julian in the mouth. Underlying the punch seems to be Jack’s frustration with himself for trying to be someone he is not. It’s an overcompensating statement that says, “I am definitely not Julian, not a bully.” Needless to say, this action softens Auggie’s resentment toward Jack, and the two boys resume their friendship.

I like the character Jack because he represents a response to physical difference that is at once sincere, good, human, and imperfect. He has moments of selfishness, as evidenced above, but his feelings toward Auggie are sincere and strong. His friendship with Auggie is an honest depiction of a relationship with a person who is different — sometimes it involves hurt feelings, sometimes loyal friends make mistakes, sometimes the differences get in the way. Jack reassures the reader that he/she can also overcome the small, pettier impulses that strike (well beyond middle school, if we’re honest with ourselves), and that authentically embracing others’ differences is possible even for judgmental, selfish, not-always-so-nice folks.

Via…

is another ally of Auggie’s, fiercely loyal but without a resentment-free relationship to Auggie. As Auggie’s sister, just a few years older, Via has born witness to his unusual struggles more than anyone, to the point that her own identity is partially defined by her brother’s special needs. When kids stare, point, or register disgust on their faces, Via feels it by extension. When the janitor at Via’s elementary school calls the home-schooled Auggie by name, it’s an invitation for Via to resettle into the familiar role of Auggie’s sister. Or when she can’t play so as not to disturb her brother after surgery. Or when she sees mom hovering nervously outside Auggie’s bedroom door, and wonders, for her mother’s sake, how many times she’s done that, and then, if it’s ever been her bedroom door. Or when she lies about taking the subway and gets away with it, because mom is distracted.

Via’s is a lifetime of choices, moments, that link her to her brother, which is both a source of great affection and angst. In “A Tour of the Galaxy,” Via writes that “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun.” Later she recalls a four-week visit to her “Grans” during one of Auggie’s surgeries. For the first time, she experienced normalcy — no Auggie, no one pointing or staring in public. Before she left, Grans let her in on a very taboo secret: she was Grans’s favorite, even more than Auggie. Knowing this meant the world to her, given the galaxy at home.

As much as Via’s self-concept is shaped by forces beyond her control, she demonstrates a strong and consistent ability to step outside of herself, to regard her brother’s problems and her parents’ reactions with a high level of empathy and objectivity. For example, she follows up the comment about Auggie being the sun in their familial galaxy with the admission that her “worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through…” In “August Through the Peephole,” Via wonders what her brother sees when he looks in the mirror — his face, or the person behind the face? She professes to feeling profoundly sad when Auggie cuts off his Padawan braid, associated with his lifelong obsession with Star Wars. This signal of a desire to conform, of heightened self-consciousness, also signals Auggie’s loss of innocence, perhaps, a lagging insulation from the cold, hard perceptions of others, kicking in Via’s protective instincts and her profound sense of empathy.

What does Via teach us? That sibling relationships are complex, enduring, and deep. And the existence of special needs further complicates things. And we shouldn’t forget the sister, the brother of the kid with special needs. Theirs is a ongoing world of “wonder” (and worry): who am I in relationship to this person? To his problems? What would life be like if…? What can mom and dad deal with today?

Summer…

More than any other character, Summer embodies the spirit of kindness invoked by Ian Maclearan. In “Weird Kids,” Summer admits to befriending August on the first day of school because she felt sorry for him. But what starts as a kind gesture — sitting next to Auggie at lunch — quickly develops into something more mutual. “I keep sitting down with him because he is fun,” Summer writes. When an insecure Auggie accuses Summer of befriending him because the principal, Mr. Tushman, requested it, Summer gets the chance to set the record straight directly to Auggie: She just plain likes his company, and “he was such a good sport about himself.” Summer is curious, open, non-judgmental, and in the end, she benefits from Auggie’s friendship.

Julian…

is, in many ways, the opposite of Summer. Julian is anxious kid, and decidedly unempathetic. He’s a jerk to Auggie for the majority of the school year; to the point that he gets called into the principal’s office for bullying. But Julian gets the last word — his chapters close out the book — perhaps this is the author’s way of asserting that his and Auggie’s stories are deeply intertwined.

On the one hand, Julian has special needs of his own, albeit psychological and behavioral, making it easy to write him off before putting his behavior in context. Julian has nightmares and anxiety issues, and Auggie’s face exacerbates them. In the chapter, “First Look,” about Julian’s first time meeting Auggie, Julian says about the moment he first saw Auggie’s face, “I think I said that word [dude] a thousand times to myself.”

However, Julian’s anxiety about Auggie is separate from his outsized, mean-spirited response to that anxiety, which includes trying to turn all kids in the grade against Auggie, creating “the plague” game, and posting taunting notes in Auggie’s locker. Julian’s tactics don’t work in the end. While he ends up switching schools, Auggie becomes a class favorite after a school camping trip, and wins a big award at the end of the school year. Julian is left to feel embarrassed by his lack of kindness.

Like Auggie, Julian has a chapter called “Ordinary,” in which he defensively claims that despite being mean, he’s just an ordinary kid responding to an anxiety-producing situation in an ordinary way. Julian’s mom encourages him to justify his mean behavior — she’s a member of Beecher Prep’s board of trustees who engages in her own acts of meanness, such as photoshopping Auggie’s photo in the class picture and expressing outrage at Mr. Tushman, the principal, for allowing a “special needs” child in a non-inclusion school. Julian mimicks his mom’s tendency to translate anxiety into anger.

It’s not until Julian spends some time in Paris with his grandmother over the summer that he breaks down and admits that he was in the wrong, that he was afraid of Auggie, that his fear drove him to do unfair, immoral things. His grandmother, who lived through the Holocaust, tells him a moving story about being hidden by a crippled classmate that she had previously mocked. Her admission of similar guilt allows Julian to fess up, and motivates him to change. He writes a letter of apology to Auggie and Auggie responds generously.

So what do we learn from Julian? That angry, intolerant kids are fighting their own battles, ones they don’t know how to handle. That it’s a choice to let one’s fear of someone else’s differences translate into anger and bullying, it’s not something to be justified. That parents set the tone for their kids…and sometimes, grandparents need to intervene!

Wonder

So…Wonder. The title of this book seems so appropriate to the reality of living with special needs — from the wonder of how one individual’s circumstances, differences set in motion an altered reality for so many other people (think Julian switching schools to Via’s identity being defined by her brother), the wonder of the ordinary and the extraordinary being embodied in one person, the wonder of the human body, its strange complexity magnified by having certain limitations, the wonder of how families and individuals push through challenges and overcome tremendous obstacles.

As teachers we are trained to use people-first language, as in, “students with disabilities” versus “disabled students,” as a sign of respect for the humanity of the children in question. But I think the best way to dignify the experience of students with special needs is through storytelling. And Wonder, with its kaleidoscope effect of multiple narrators exploring all sides of Auggie’s story, keeps the reader questioning, and marveling, at the richness and the struggle of an utterly special, utterly ordinary life, fully lived.

Nora Webster

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 11.47.49 AMChristmas came a little early to my house this year. Padraic bought me the novel, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, touting the fact that Toibin has been compared to Henry James — the author of my favorite novel, Portrait of a Lady — in his rendering of female characters. It took me about two days of intensive reading to make my way from front cover to back, and here are my reflections:

I get the Henry James comparison. While Toibin writes in a very simple, declarative style that couldn’t be less similar to James’s sprawling, intricate prose, there’s a subtlety to the narrator’s relationship to his protagonist. In Toibin’s straightforward, unapologetic observations of his central character’s thoughts and actions, we readers experience a sensation of hovering, hugging close to Nora Webster’s every move in an attentive but non-judgmental way. USA Today writes that Toibin “sneak[s] up on readers” which, in retrospect, seems true; suddenly you feel yourself rooting and looking out for Nora Webster without knowing exactly how the author manipulated your sympathies. Looking back, there’s only sentence after sentence of concise, resolute declarations to draw you into Nora’s world. I recall a similar feeling in reading James — it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the narration turns Isabel Archer into a sympathetic figure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nora Webster is the story of a recently widowed middle-aged woman of Wexford, Ireland, charting her attempt to put back the pieces of her life and maintain normalcy for the sake of her four children. Nora is strikingly honest, independent, and nonconformist, and Toibin makes us privy to her consciousness as she confronts the challenges of her newfound solitude.

Nora’s relationship to her children in the aftermath of her husband’s death is decidedly unsentimental. For example, she confesses to moments of awkwardness with her young sons and struggles to know what to say to her daughter, Fiona. We, the reader, follow her far into her own thoughts while in the presence of her children, which highlights the very individual, internal process of grief that shrouds the interactions of the family.

As Nora settles into her new independence, she accesses a rebellious streak, expressing itself in her decision to join the union at work, regardless of her friendship with the boss, or her open disdain for certain proprieties while visiting her sister — it’s amusing to witness her character flirt with the possibilities for nonconformity, to see her grow into her new role as solitary mistress of her house. But there’s also a weariness about Nora — we sense the struggle it takes to make it through the days and nights, and the sense of resignation that she carries with her, reluctantly giving into the visits of neighbors or the exhortations of “Sister Thomas.”

Perhaps the most memorable, distinct aspect of the novel is that it invites us to watch Nora Webster move through her loss and come out the other side. She takes up singing lessons, finding refuge in music; she takes on house projects, knocking down the fireplace and repainting her living room, finding refuge in the rythms of housework. She purchases new clothes and loses herself in TV movies with her young sons. She returns to the same office where she worked as a young, single woman, and she vacations with her children on the strand. We witness Nora putting one foot in front of the other, and learn to appreciate her resilience. There’s an understated, muted quality to Toibin’s writing, and it’s in the precise, small, mundane steps forward that we witness Nora’s transformation from overwhelmed, grief-stricken widow to a self-possessed mother and worker.

Getting Existential: Another Reason We Read

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.43.47 AMWhat can I say, snow makes me glad of heart and reflective of mind — that is, white, powdery snowfall on a weekend. In the swirl of so many million, sparkling flakes dropping mutely onto the city pavement, I find myself asking why… Why is the sky blue? Why am I hopelessly addicted to Nutella? Why does lying on a couch sifting through a stack of books for the entire day sound like the epitome of leisure to me? (Wow, this post makes me sound lazy. For the sake of full disclosure, the real problem is my ongoing desire to be working.) Back to stacks of books — is there really a good reason to inch your way toward death with your nose buried in a book? I mean, beyond the types of expansive motivations that “English majors” and “avid readers” cite, from gaining a broader worldview to a deeper understanding of “the human condition,” yada yada.

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.47.49 AMHow about honest personal growth? I think the English major variety tends to gloss over this earnest, unglamorous reason. Our painstaking efforts with meaty works of literature can yield more “highly effective habits” than simple endurance — it just takes a little digging to find the guru lurking inside a Melville or a George Elliot, as well as a desire for made-up characters on our path to enlightenment. In my existential angst (actually, my drafting of literary themed pitches) I have amassed several author’s versions of the same mantra — seize the day! Take them as my personal invitation to read these books (starting with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Gilead) in lieu of something from the self-help section. (Or, I suppose if seizing the day is the point, you could ditch reading altogether and hitch a ride to the 2014 national tour of Newsies.) Here goes:

1) “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”  

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.49.36 AMI have a tendency to remember random fragments of books, often forgetting entire characters, and occasionally, the plot itself: this quote ends one of my favorite random passages from Annie Dillard’s poetic nonfiction narrative about the unfolding of the seasons outside her home, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. So often descriptions of nature conjure Puritan virtues (stoicism, endurance, resourcefulness), but Dillard celebrates an entirely different force: larger-than-life, more like France during the baroque period, or a Lady Gaga concert. What is enlightening about this characterization? To me, there is an underlying injunction that if nature is brimming with superfluous creatures, we are meant to follow suit, despite our short-lived creations.

2) “A man who farts in bed…is a man who loves life.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMGourmet Rhapsody is the story of a dying food critic, told through multiple characters with varying degrees of bitterness. As such, it is chock-full of “aha moments” on the nature of happiness, mortality, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This particular observation comes from the critic’s butler, who has a soft spot for his boss’s audible ability to enjoy life.

3) “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.57.20 AMContrary to the “regular bastard” in Gourmet Rhapsody, the terminally ill protagonist in Gilead is a thoughtful reverend writing to his son. This is one kernel of wisdom he imparts. Gilead is one of my favorite books, and it’s another ripe context for page after page of poetically worded existential truths. I have an inkling that other lovers of this book (and Marilynne Robinson’s writing) are reading for the sage soundbites as much as they are for the characters and their poignant circumstances.

4) “If you can get by with quotes from The Godfather and nothing you say matters, that’s pretty bleak, don’t you think?”

 Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 9.59.11 AMA few words of encouragement for bloggers or creative types, and what more credible source than a satirical novel about a fledgling ad agency? (Again, death, corporate death this time, lurking around the corner.) If there is a moral to a story about lazy copywriters facing impending lay offs, coping with their anxiety via paintball rampages and vicious cancer rumors, it’s get out of the office and live your life.

5) “It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 10.02.46 AM Okay, this quote isn’t quite related to seizing the day. But for someone writing about cannibals, oceans and sperm whales, I think Melville is remarkably apt at describing the bearded, flannel-sporting, beet-pickling type who thinks he knows something special. If I was a hipster, this is what I would wear on a faded gray t-shirt to let the other hipsters know that I wasn’t impressed with them.

So! Fellow two-for-oners, that is my case for “the importance of reading in earnest,” to get all meta and Wilde on you. What’s a more highly effective habit and purpose-driven pastime than reading to be entertained, intellectually stimulated, and ever so slightly enlightened? Who doesn’t prefer their search for meaning with a side of petty office politics, florid food descriptions, ridiculously protracted whale hunts, and/or creekside ramblings?

[Photos: “Snowflakes,” Moonrhino’s photostream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, “Reading a Book at the Beach,” Simon Cocks’ photostream, CC BY 2.0, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” cdrummbks’ photostream, CC BY 2.0, “gourmet-rhapsody-muriel-barberry-connected-interactive,” ConnectedInteractive’s photostream, “Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, colinjcampbell’s photostream, CC BY NC-ND 2.0, “Joshua Ferris: Then We Came to the End,” Wolf Gang’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0, “Moby-Dick Book Cover,” Hyokano’s photostream, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Turning the Page

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.37.10 AM‘Tis the season for list-making! I recently shared a fantasy smorgasbord of Christmas cookies (one down, four to go), and today I feel compelled to share a few books on my shortlist, an homage to that other, all-consuming winter pastime: curling up on the couch with a good read. From literary criticism to historical fiction to memoir to spy novel to a book lover’s self-help manual, Forrest Gump might liken my selection to a box of chocolates, as in, “you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’m cool with that — it aptly describes the pleasure I derive from bookstore browsing. Here are some of my far-flung finds:

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.38.41 AMAt least once before on this blog, I have tried to put my finger on what is so doggone compelling about Henry James, going so far as to cite Zadie Smith’s insights and dignifying the ridiculously overwrought The Golden Bowl with a detailed book review. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my desire to understand James — how he crafts such highly sympathetic, surprisingly tragic characters — is still burning. It’s a nerdy fixation, but one that evidently plagues other members of his fan club, including Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel, which I discovered in a September 2012 issue ofThe New Yorker. In essence, Gorra’s book distills James’s literary genius into an analysis of his most famous and critically acclaimed novel. Reviewer Anthony Lane is another ebullient fan, and points out the dramatic potential of a “book about a book” by emphasizing how James’s poised, understated prose somehow left “the equilibrium of [its] readers shaken,” all starting with this innocuous opening line: “‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’” For obvious reasons, Lane reserves his recommendation of Portrait of a Novel — part biography, part textual analysis, part literary criticism — for those with an established attachment to Portrait of a Lady. However, he ends his review with a message for less ardent fans, saying we “need him [Henry James] more than ever,” referencing Gorra’s assertion that Portrait of a Lady’s greatest accomplishment is exposing the “limits of self-sufficiency.” Yes, I’m wholeheartedly onboard — Isabel’s misplaced trust in her own bright and promising future, with such an all-American commitment to her own destiny, is what makes the failure of her choices “shake our equilibrium” as cock-eyed, optimistic Americans. If the current state of our economy has made many people more open to the fallacy of the American dream, if TV shows like “Girls” garner accolades for depicting modern-day Isabel Archers on their hapless journeys toward self-actualization, then perhaps there’s never been a better moment to explore the coming-of-age story of the twenty-something author who called us out on our false pretenses circa 1880.

The Paris Wife

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.29 AMA few months ago, I spent some time perusing this 2011 historical fiction novel in a bookstore. It seemed like a light diversion, telling the story of a 28-year-old midwestern woman, Hadley Richardson, and her whirlwind relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Rich with references, it contains a glamorous cast of real-life legends — Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, in addition to Hemingway — a fabled setting — Chicago and Paris circa the roaring twenties — and the intensity of a love affair in which wife equals literary muse. According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, The Paris Wife is addled with clichés and clumsy pastiches of the characters that populate its pages, but who really cares? I have a feeling that much like Woody Allen’s disjointed film, Midnight in Paris, this book earned its popularity for more sentimental reasons, serving as a wistful ride back in time and across the atlantic.

A Story Lately Told

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.39.53 AMI enjoy the fact that memoirs are a kind of inclusive, “bottomline” writing endeavor, concerned with honestly sharing the writer’s experience rather than word-smithing. More than other genres, the art of writing a memoir (and the pleasure of reading one) seems to be purely about the transfer of information, about illuminating the myriad layers contained in a single life. I’m drawn to Angelica Houston’s recently published memoir as a way to glimpse into pop culture history. She touches on the marital dynamics between her flamboyant, self-absorbed film director father and her young, beautiful, ballet dancer mother, her pastoral upbringing in Galway, Ireland, her power couple status vis-a-vis Jack Nicholson, even her unapologetic embracement of fashion as a source of aesthetic pleasure and self-expression. It cracks the surface of a life mostly known through images, whatever your generation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.40.56 AMI’ve never read anything by acclaimed crime writer John Le Carré, but he’s been on my radar via book reviews and recommended reading lists since the publication of his 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man. His name seems to pop up with increasing frequency, from film adaptations (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011) to new works (A Delicate Truth in 2013) to the increasing relevance of espionage in our culture (the NSA, Edward Snowden, the popular TV show, Homeland, to name a few examples). Touted in Anthony Boucher’s 1964 New York Times review as “a novel of significance, while losing none of the excitement of the tale of sheer adventure,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seems like a good place to start within Le Carré’s formidable oeuvre. The protaganist, Alec Leamas is disillusioned with espionage work, undertaking one last assignment before quitting the field. The story doubles as a suspenseful account of his assignment and a deeper, psychological portrait of a man “permanently isolated in his deceit.” Having just finished season two of Homeland, this description sounds eerily like Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, and their mutual experience of being “isolated in deceit.”

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 4.41.39 AMI read de Botton’s The Art of Travel last summer, which I have written about at length on this site. After confiscating the book from my husband during our road trip down Highway 1, I quickly became smitten with de Botton’s ability to expound upon broad, timeless topics in a manner both original and unexpectedly practical. De Botton has a singular focus on essay writing, and rather impressively sticks to large, universal subjects, such as Art as Therapy, Status Anxiety, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If the measure of a good cook is their most basic dish, the same test applies to writers — the best ones can take on well-worn topics head-on, infusing them with flavor. The Art of Travel mustered a lot of flavor, and from what I’ve read, How Proust Can Change Your Life contains the same mixture of insight and practicality. According to de Botton’s website, the book developed out of the notion that literature is a transformational thing, a belief widely proselityzed by English teachers but rarely examined in-depth. So de Botton examines Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, characterized as “a byword for obscurity and irrelevance,” to demonstrate some of the ways in which literature can literally be a guide to real life. I have never read any of Proust’s books, which may speak to the unsubstantiated claims of English teachers, but why not start easy, with “a self-help book like few others”?

[Photos: “Turn the Pages,” Krissy.Venosdale’s photo stream via Creative Commons, and photos of the books’ front covers]

Victorian Novels + Hearing The Grass Grow

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 1.24.41 PMI have always liked nineteenth century Victorian novels. I find them only too true. They have a keen way of getting at the heart of things, you know. (I just finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Please pardon me if I can’t quite shake his roundabout, flared-nostril rhythms.)

When asked to describe my favorite books — George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – it can be awkward to enthusiastically endorse white male authors who wrote about aristocrats. (Okay, George Eliot was a white female writing under a pseudonym.) However, like a hipster with her Indie musician, I take reverse pride in my appreciation for these thoroughly vetted classics.

What is so revelatory? George Eliot puts it this way, in her masterwork Middlemarch:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

It’s the nuanced narration of ordinary life that turned me on to Henry James when I read Portrait of a Lady, often cited as his best book and inconveniently for me, his first book I read, sending me down an ever-loyal slope of slightly more underwhelming reads from Daisy Miller to Wings of a Dove until I hit bottom with his last and most excessive book, The Golden Bowl.

Zadie Smith has an essay called “Middlemarch And Everybody,” which I discovered in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. She talks about James, Eliot, and a variety of other topics. I had always felt the similar strain of psychological complexity running through Eliot and James, but I was glad to find a kindred, more articulate spirit in Ms. Smith. As a successful writer of contemporary fiction and not inconsequentially, a person of color, she states with added authority and eloquence what the Victorian novel offers to our modernized sensibilities:

“Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so humane. We are moved that…[Eliot] is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence.”

She summarizes George Eliot’s unique style as poetic, in the language of one of Eliot’s characters:

“To be a poet is to have a soul…in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge…”

This discerning, feeling voice sounds a lot like Henry James’s “sympathetic narrator,” the stylistic gift that led me to suffer through all 1496 pages of The Golden Bowl. I have emerged less blinded by the light, and can provide a bottom-line analysis for anyone who is entertaining a first-time foray into James:

Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer is a young, single, recently orphaned American facing a precarious financial situation and possessing a strong will to live independently. We meet her on an estate in London, the home of her British aunt, Lydia Touchett, who has invited her to experience Europe. James paints a vivid profile of Isabel’s charms — her combination of naiveté, sincerity, pride, curiosity, and innate intelligence — capturing the reader’s sympathies and the affections of Isabel’s uncle, Daniel, several rejected suitors, and her sickly cousin, Ralph. When Daniel dies, Isabel inherits a vast portion of his estate.

Ironically, Isabel becomes less and less in control of her destiny after inheriting her uncle’s estate. Due to her own misjudgments, her seemingly charmed fate slowly deteriorates. After turning down several suitors, she accepts the proposal of a snobby American expat who objectifies her and cheats on her.

Isabel’s disappointments feel tragic because James so carefully establishes her competence, then carefully, sympathetically describes how she faces the task of living with her mistakes. Maybe it’s such a beloved classic because it’s an eloquent meditation on the simple fact that life isn’t fair. “Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived… Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand” — this is Zadie Smith’s succinct analysis.

As for The Golden Bowl? Yawn. It’s all this stuff about seeing through the glass darkly, being deceived, plus oppressive, repetitive symbolism (a golden bowl that shatters at the peak of the deception, really?) told through choppy, cloying syntax, separated by oh, so many commas. But I can’t say it was pure misery. It transports you to a different universe, and true to form, the seemingly naive protagonist turns out to be the most interesting and calculating character of them all. Feel free to read the plot summary below, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, the whole thing. I’ve finally had too much of a good thing and I’m ditching Henry James in favor of Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, with sentences like “my first therapist’s name was — I shit you not — Tom Sawyer.”

The Golden Bowl

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 6.49.45 PMMaggie Verver is the daughter of a rich American art collector. She and her father have an unusually intimate relationship, having served as each other’s primary companion for many years, traveling the world on behalf of his collection. The book opens as Maggie prepares to marry an Italian prince. He takes a patronizing view of his future wife, openly wedding her for financial gain. Meanwhile, Maggie has trouble cutting emotional ties with her father.

To assuage Maggie’s guilt and to escape the older women now vying for his attention, Mr. Verver eventually marries Charlotte, Maggie’s childhood friend, a poised, cosmopolitan young woman, less privileged than Maggie. However, Charlotte and the Italian Prince have a lingering romantic connection that is first established when Charlotte and the Prince go shopping for Maggie’s wedding present and come close to purchasing a golden bowl.

Charlotte gradually enters into an affair with the Prince, Maggie becomes increasingly suspicious, and her suspicions are confirmed when she visits the London antiques shop with the golden bowl. The shopkeeper shows her the bowl and she suddenly realizes the truth.

The golden bowl then becomes a metaphor for the pristine, perfect deception that all four parties have partaken in, living in close, claustrophobic proximity on a lavish London estate. Maggie observes it in restrained silence with increasing comprehension. When she eventually confronts the Prince, her restraint seems to alter his perception of both Maggie and Charlotte, to Maggie’s advantage.

In the end, Charlotte and Mr. Verver move back to America. Maggie triumphs, given a fresh start with the Prince and their son. Wah wah.

[Photos: “Henry James,” mr lynch’s photostream, under CC by NC SA 2.0, “Golden Bowls,” mararie’s photostream, CC by SA 2.0]

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