Where I’ve been…

Yikes!  Obviously I haven’t been here!  I’m not exactly sure why…though I think it’s a combination of feeling like “meh, not that many people really read my blog or care what I think” and “wait a minute, now that I’m actually (sort of) working again, I’d rather be reading than writing about my reading!”  So where have I been…?

Los herederos de la tierra

Well, first I went back to medieval Barcelona with Los herederos de la tierra (The Inheritors of the Earth) (Vintage Español, 2016), a novel by one of my favorite Spanish authors, Ildefonso Falcones.  This is a sequel to his immensely popular La catedral del mar/The Cathedral of the Sea, which unlike his newer book is available in English translation and is, frankly, a much better read.  Still, I enjoyed immersing myself in the setting, as well as the challenge to my language skills that reading something this dense and complicated provides.  If you like quality historical fiction, I recommend you give one of his novels a try.  In addition to The Cathedral of the Sea,  La reina descalza/The Barefoot Queen and La mano de Fátima/The Hand of Fátima are also excellent options, all transporting the reader to a time in the past that is captured with vivid details and compelling characters.

Then I branched out to a fictional setting in the Mediterranean (or is it?) with Meet Me in Atlantis: Across Three Continents in Search of the Legendary Sunken City (Dutton, 2016), by Mark Adams.  I had really enjoyed his Turn Right at Machu Picchu, and this book also entertained and informed with its combination of self-deprecating humor, solid research, and fascinating subject.  It did, though, also reinforce my desire to go back to places like Malta and Cádiz…

Image result for the girl who saved the king of sweden

However, since that wasn’t in the budget, I instead then went to South Africa and Sweden (at least in my imagination) with an absolutely delightful novel, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (HarperCollins, 2014), by Jonas Jonasson.  Left in my guest room by a dear college friend and her Swedish husband who had been visiting, it was a lovely surprise that had me laughing out loud in parts and then recommending it to anyone and everyone.  The political jabs were just what I needed in my post-inauguration despair, and I couldn’t help but notice a direct line between the early-modern Spanish pícaro (picaresque) genre with its pointed satirical skewering of society and this narrative’s highly unlikely yet compelling and weirdly believable modern heroine.        

My next volume took me into the very real politics and sadly misogynistic world of Early Modern Europe.  Game of Queens:  The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe (Basic Books, 2016), by Sarah Gristwood, starts with the Spanish queen, Isabel, her daughter, the ill-fated Catherine of Aragon, and the other European royal women (and often family members) who shaped that critical period.  She ends with the conflict between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, along the way providing easily readable while also solid academic research into the lives and interactions of some remarkably perceptive and talented women.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

On my daughter’s recommendation, I returned to more recent history and the United States for my next read.  Ghostland:  An American History in Haunted Places (Penguin Publishing Group, 2016), by Colin Dickey, took me to places I’ve been, like Salem and Charleston, as well as new sites with which I was previously unfamiliar.  I’ve always been annoyed by the way modern Salem, in particular, almost trivializes the very real persecution and suffering of its famous “witches” , and using this odd juxtaposition as his starting point, the author takes a fascinating tour of what it is about places that makes us humans think they are haunted.  He debunks quite a few theories along the way, though never quite coming out and saying what he personally believes about paranormal phenomenon.  The research is extensive and top-notch, and the writing is both engaging and intellectually stimulating.  While I know people who insist they’ve seen ghosts, I never have, so I won’t weigh in with an opinion on that.  I will just say that if you like American history and what it has to teach us about who we are in the present, this is an outstanding volume.

Image result for hillbillyelogy book

Set in the uniquely haunted culture of white, working-class, Rust Belt America, the next stop on my reading journey was Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper, 2016).  Author J.D. Vance challenged me to look at current events in a new way, and I appreciate his perspective on a subset of my fellow American citizens that I frankly struggle to understand and empathize with.  The writing is exquisite and engaging, even if I sometimes found it to be overly self-referential.  (Of course, I guess that’s what a memoir is, after all.)  The book is certainly deserving of the praise and attention it has received.  One question it left me with, though, is this:  while I’m seeking to understand the voter who has subjected me to our current occupant of the White House, are the people who put him there even remotely interested in trying to understand me?  I have my doubts.

So, what the heck, since I was already feeling pessimistic about America and its current trajectory, why not wallow a bit more?  So I tackled Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption (Random House, 2014), by Bryan Stevenson.  This book had been on my radar for several years, ever since I first heard the author interviewed on NPR, and while it is quite different from Hillbilly Elegy, in many respects it tackles the same issues of how the poor and dispossessed are treated in this country.  It was a difficult book to read.  I was often enraged by the racial prejudice both the author and his clients encountered, as well as by how cavalierly public officials who would probably profess their “Christian” beliefs to you can turn around and toss away human lives in the supposed pursuit of being “tough on crime”.  Of course, I might be influenced by the more than thirty years I spent in the public school system, where I saw first hand bright, intelligent, thoughtful young people ignored, abused, neglected, and then excoriated and punished when they made the mistakes we humans tend to make.  While the overarching narrative of the book is about the case of Walter McMillian, who was wrongly condemned to execution by white law enforcement and judicial officials under pressure to “solve” a murder, Stevenson also examines the many injustices rampant in the American legal system.  Published before the latest election, I can’t help but wonder how the new Attorney General is going to set back the lifetime effort Stevenson has put into advocating for the poor and voiceless among us.  I admire people like Bryan Stevenson, and continue to search for ways I can make my own small contributions to making this country a better place.  I found his chapter, “Broken” to be especially resonant.  In it, he struggles with anger over the imminent execution of a severely disabled client who suffered horrible abuse as a child.  But then…

I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears.  Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others.  Maybe we would work harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized.  I had a notion that if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable.

I like to think that good writing, good books, and deep reading are valid and important steps in this process.

More information about Just Mercy.

More information about Bryan Stevenson.

I received Just Mercy from Blogging for Books for this review.

Searching for a center where “Everything You Need You Have”…

I’ve been struggling lately to find my voice.  Not just here, but on other social media, or even with friends and family, I have been experiencing an overwhelming sense that nothing I have to say will make much of a difference.  Which has led me to the book, Everything You Need You Have:  How to Be at Home in Your Self, by Gerad Kite (Crown Publishing Group, 2016).

Based heavily on Chinese philosophy and medical practices, this volume proposes to lead the reader through a journey into their center, or “Home”, where the pendulum swings of ego and emotional reactions are minimized and where the true and universal essence of each person resides.  There is a calmness to the book that makes reading it almost a meditative experience, and I have found since finishing it that I often reach for the idea of a center where it doesn’t really matter so much how I feel about current events or the dramas unfolding around me.  Having always been a believer in the idea of “moderation in all things”, the practices and suggestions in this book rang true for me, and have definitely helped me navigate the complexities of life.

I won’t say that I understood everything here.  The chapter on “Natural Law” and the Five Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water left me confused and wondering.  But the overarching message of caring for my body and cultivating awareness combined with letting go of “over-thinking” (something I have done my entire life!) resonated with me.  I’ve got a lot of this type of book on my shelves.  Some are more helpful than others, some have stayed with me long after I finished them while with others I would be hard pressed to tell you what their point was.  Everything You Need You Have is one that I keep returning to in my  mind.  The last chapter, “Nothing Matters”, may sound nihilistic, but in fact is deeply liberating.  Kite proposes that “Nothing you can know from your mind will ever be the whole Truth – and come the day that we all wake  up to our Self and Home, there’ll be no need for right or wrong.”  Giving myself permission to stop chasing the “right” words, or the “right” travel experiences, or the “right” interactions, has given me some peace, and that makes this book well worth reading and reading again.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

More book info

 

 

“A few of my favorite things”: author edition…

I’ve been trying to take better care of myself.  Being in a continual state of outrage, upset, indignation, incredulity, and despair is not good for me, and I’ve realized it’s not particularly productive.  So I’ve sent off my donations and made my phone calls and then retreated to some of my favorite authors.  Here’s where I’ve found solace recently:

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris (Back Bay Books, 2013), made me laugh.  Sedaris has a sarcastic  and self-deprecating sense of humor that meshes quite well with that particular streak in my own personality.  With each of his books, I tend to find some of his essays more entertaining than others, but I enjoyed the overall arch of this particular volume quite a bit.  His chapters set in France, Australia, Japan, and England reminded me, in particular, that there’s a big world out there to marvel at and gently satirize.  And while the chapter “Obama!!!!!!” was a bittersweet reminder of how hopeful I was just a few years ago, his conclusion to “Laugh, Kookaburra” reminded me to focus on the present.  Having finished feeding a kookaburra during a tourist outing in Australia, Sedaris reflects:

“I should have gone inside right then, but I needed another minute to take it all in and acknowledge, if only to myself, that I really did have it made.  A storybook town on the far side of the world, enough in my pocket to shout a fancy lunch, and the sound of that bird in the distant trees, laughing.  Laughing.”

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found

The Fires of Vesuvius:  Pompeii Lost and Found, by Mary Beard (Harvard University Press, 2010), made me reflect on our individual place in history.  I’ve previously reviewed Beard’s SPQR, a volume I consider to be a masterpiece of popular historical writing.  The Fires of Vesuvius is a bit more restrained, but just as engaging and enjoyable.  Always basing her conclusions on solid academic research, Beard introduces us to the people of Pompeii as we are able to glimpse them through the archeological record.  The color plates and illustrations make the city, its inhabitants, and its culture accessible and understandable.  While I found myself wishing I had read this book before I spent a morning in Pompeii last summer, I also found that it made remembering that experience more meaningful and relevant.  Looking through my photos again, I could say “Oh!  That’s what’s going on!”  Beard’s conclusions sometimes differ from those communicated by our tour guide (especially concerning the infamous brothel), but that only adds to the mystery of Pompeii and the joy of exploration and reflection.

Finally, Faithful, by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, 2016), made me hope.  Hoffman is one my all-time favorite novelists, and this volume did not disappoint.  Narrating the story of Shelby, who finds herself on a downward spiral as she blames herself for the car accident that has left her best friend in a permanent coma, there is less here of the “magical realism” that permeates some of Hoffman’s other works, and more emphasis on the real world ability of kindness and love and connection with other living things to facilitate redemption.  I actually found that some of my favorite characters here were the dogs that Shelby rescues, and I don’t think that’s accidental.  The message is that often the people who make us the most miserable are ourselves, and that a key path to peace and purpose involves finding ways to be of service.  It was exactly the book I needed to read right now!

Searching for optimism in this New Year when I’m not feeling particularly optimistic…

There are so, so many things I struggle to change about my personality, but certainly one of the biggest is my propensity towards cynicism and a “glass half empty” view of life.  So when I saw The Fix:  How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, by Jonathan Tepperman (Crown Publishing Group, 2016), I hoped it could be an antidote to the pessimism I have experienced as a result of our recent election.

And I was not disappointed!  The Fix has left me feeling like there are real, workable solutions to the problems of income inequality, immigration, terrorism, civil discord, corruption, economic stagnation, and political gridlock.  In ten chapters that also look at energy and resource issues, Tepperman takes the reader around the globe, from countries as disparate as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, or Rwanda, and shows how courageous and creative leaders have been able to attempt solutions to problems that seem intractable.  The writing is fresh and brisk, and while many of the issues are complex, the author does an admirable job of making everything from dry economic policy to profound trauma and genocide accessible, understandable, and – ultimately – solvable.

This is a book that will appeal to those with a global perspective.  While two chapters do deal with the United States,  what I especially liked about it was the way in which Tepperman jolts the reader out of an “American exceptionalism” mindset. His conclusion is a particularly helpful identification of general lessons that he has drawn from his studies, interviews, and travels, with his assertion to “Please All the People – Some of the Time” uniquely resonant in our current political climate.

I had an upsetting lunch with a very conservative friend a few weeks before Christmas.  I have to admit that I always approach meeting this person with some trepidation.  Friends since Junior High, there is much I enjoy about this person, and if we keep the conversation focused away from politics, we do okay.  But eventually she just can’t resist trying to “convert” me, this time to “Trumpism”.  Now, this will NEVER happen.  Paraphrasing one of my favorite writers, Garrison Keillor, I see nothing in this man’s past or present behavior or agenda that I can admire or respect.  In an attempt to tone down the conversation, I remarked that my experiences living abroad have convinced me that we do best as a country when we work in the middle and look for compromises.  “No”, she responded.  “There can be no compromise.”  If you read as much history as I do, you find statements like that deeply disconcerting.  That is the path to the demise of democracy, to dictatorship and brutal suppression of dissent, and to the end of the American republican experiment.  I’m going to quote Tepperman at some length here:

Effective leadership demands more than boldness.  It also requires restraint – often when holding back is the hardest thing to do…leaders were guided by a shared understanding:  that satisficing is key to good management, especially when trying to resolve conflict…[various leaders] could have responded to crisis by pleasing some of their people – their core constituents – all of the time, or at least by giving them all that they wanted.  But because they knew that such winner-take-all tactics would only reinforce the divisions that were wrecking their societies, they chose instead to please all of the people some of the time, or at least to give them some of what they wanted.  This meant that no group got everything it demanded.  And everyone ended up a bit disgruntled.  But because every group got part of what it needed, that unhappiness stayed within limits.  The compromises were broadly accepted, the deals stuck – and the countries finally started to transcend the fractures that had caused them so much trouble in the past.

While I have no illusions about the ability of the man who will assume power in the United States in 2017 to consider anything beyond what will enrich himself and his family while stoking his narcissism and juvenile self-interest, this book left me optimistic that other leaders will emerge and step forward with courage and vision, challenging  him where and when it matters most.  Tepperman published The Fix before the election, but it is particularly relevant now.  I encourage you to read it!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

More info

Author bio

Searching for my voice in a “post-truth” era…

The last month has been rough, and not just because I think the United States has made a terrible – possibly fatal – error in who it elected president.  A cat has gone missing, a family dispute has gotten ugly, and an already traumatized child has lost five friends in one terrible night.

If you’ve read many of my recent posts here, I don’t need to tell you why I’m in despair over the recent election.  If you agree with me, you probably have difficult emotions of your own you are dealing with.  And if you disagree with me (and have even read this far), you probably think I should just shut up and get over it.  It is that “you lost, shut up” that has rendered me incapable of sitting down to write.  When the First Amendment only applies to some people, when reading and careful thought is dismissed as “elitist”, when writers I respect and admire are discounted and scolded, when “truth” now consists of whatever a demagogue chooses to tweet at a particular moment, then it is hard to think that my small voice has any meaning.

Before the election, I had meant to write about The first book of calamity leek, by Paula Lichtarowicz (Flatiron Books, 2013) within the context of trying to understand the stories that inform different perspectives about and experiences of the world.  After the election, the novel has taken on a new poignancy with the advent of “fake news” and a “post-truth” world.  This is certainly an odd little book, the type of thing my husband gave me for an anniversary gift because, according to him, I’ll read anything, and it looked interesting.  As usual, he was right.  The novel, set in a mysterious walled garden and narrating how sixteen “sisters” begin to question the truths they have been taught by their “Aunty” and her “Appendix” is an enthralling read.  I don’t want to divulge too much about the premise, since to do so would deprive the reader of one of the delicious joys of the volume, which lies in piecing together exactly what is going on.  I will just recommend it to anyone who enjoys good writing that also challenges the reader to really think deeply about what they believe they know about the world.  The question I was left with at the end was this:  just because a particular authority dubs something “true” or “right”, does that necessarily make it so?

Seeking a diversion from the steady stream of New York Times and Washington Post articles and opinion pieces I found myself consuming voraciously after the election, my next book was an attempt to move into a past where the “truth” more realistically can’t ever be entirely seen in its totality or understood.  SPQR:  A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015) had caught my eye in a museum gift shop in Rome, so when I saw it in my local book store I picked it up.  And was in for a wonderful treat!  Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, which would seem to indicate a somewhat dull, academic discourse.  Instead, this volume reads easily and passionately, though with an undeniable authority.  Beard has a particular genius for making monuments and texts and statues and tombstones come alive, and I relished reading about sights I had just seen this past summer.  I was delighted to discover that she has also done a series of BBC programs, which are available on YouTube and gave me many happy hours of escape from my current reality, as well as an appreciation for the many things I too easily take for granted in my modern life.

Beard ends her book by stating “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans…But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments.”  A friend who I happen to know is also a Trump voter once proclaimed to me that “you know, Rome fell because it abandoned Christianity.”  This was such a flagrantly untrue claim that I was taken aback, managing only to stammer “that’s not how any historians I’ve read view it.”  (Indeed, Mary Beard questions whether Rome ever “fell” at all in the sense most people think.)  I don’t know where this friend got her “facts”, but it seems unlikely they came from deep reading and engagement with the primary sources.  As we move into a “post-truth” era where major advisors to one of the most powerful people in the world can claim that there are actually no facts anymore, I find myself wondering how it will ever be possible to reconcile or move forward.  In the end, for me, it keeps coming back to the core values I have held my entire life:  reading, study, informed discourse, and deep thought can illuminate our path.  It is the branch I am clinging to right now, the one that I hope will enable me to continue to express my truth through my writing.

(Sort of) non-election reading: two short novels and two very different settings…

My reading tastes are pretty eclectic, and nothing demonstrates that more than the last two novels I read.  (I’m pretty stressed out about the election, so have been trying to divert myself…)  Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf (Vintage Books, 2015) and Chronicle of a Last Summer:  A Novel of Egypt, by Yasmine El Rashidi (Crown Publishing Group, 2016) are short, almost sparse books that explore lives in two very different parts of the world.

Our Souls at Night: A novel by [Haruf, Kent]

First, I’m going to say this:  if you are a reader of fiction and have not yet read anything by Kent Haruf, YOU MUST DO SO!  IMMEDIATELY!  He is simply one of the most original and evocative American voices I have ever encountered.  His Our Souls at Night returns to the setting of many of his novels, the fictional town of Holt, which sits somewhere on the eastern plains of Colorado.  In this last novel before his death, Haruf narrates an unlikely relationship between an older widow and widower, exploring the themes of second chances and simple pleasures.  Like all his other books, the prose is careful and precise, reflecting the prairie setting.  Reading Haruf for me has always been like visiting my Nebraska relatives.  (In an interesting coincidence, Haruf graduated from the same university – Nebraska Wesleyan – as my mother and grandparents.)  There is an overarching decency and thoughtfulness, with undercurrents of small-town grudges and prejudices that make all his books a true cultural experience.

I’ll be honest and state that I didn’t like Chronicle of a Last Summer nearly as much.  I can’t say it’s because of the writing, which is readable enough.  I just never found myself caring about the characters, many of whom seemed stilted and one-dimensional.  I did enjoy the setting, Cairo, and the (sparse) descriptions of the family home and neighborhood, but that probably reflects more on my interest in travel than my appreciation of the novel.  In fairness to the book, this could be a case of me juxtaposing my own shortcomings.  I have been wondering if it’s a cultural issue, if it’s a historical knowledge issue (the author assumes of the reader a deeper understanding than my passing acquaintance with Egyptian political developments over the last thirty years), or an age issue.  It might be that a reader my daughter’s age, one with experience living in the Middle East and with a stronger grasp of Nasser/Sadat/Mubarek/Morsi dynamics might savor this novel more than I did. And while I had difficulty identifying a clearly delineated plot, one thing I did take away from the book is the sense that political uncertainties that land dissidents in jail or exile (or worse) can exert insidious pressures on relationships both in and beyond a family.

I received Chronicle of a Last Summer from “Blogging for Books” for this review.  And I’m glad I read it.  Sometimes what we don’t particularly love gives us just as much to think over and ponder as what we do.  In my case, the contrast between Holt, Colorado, and Cairo, Egypt has me thinking about the vast differences in our world and in our political systems, but also about the bonds of love and family that unite us in our shared humanity.

Part of what is stressing me so much with our current election is the dystopian future and threat to our republic I foresee in a Trump presidency.  I didn’t particularly set out to write a political post this time, but what has emerged as I consider these two books is the contrast between the quiet assurance of continuity in Holt and the “who is in charge today?” uncertainty of Cairo.  Those of us who dismiss this possibility in the United States would do well to read a bit more about what authoritarian leaders and their “everybody needs to think like we do or else” followers can do to a society.

 

A reminder of the redeeming power of friendship…

Fairly soon after starting a new teaching position in the fall of 2001, the department chair who had hired me was in the office writing a card to her husband.  He was leaving to attempt a new climbing route on a mountain in India, and she very matter-of-factly observed that he might die in the attempt.  I had never heard of the mountain, Kalanka.  In fact, I knew almost nothing about climbing at all, and was taken aback by the prospect of such extreme danger and loss.  The truth is that even though I grew up spending almost every weekend in the Colorado mountains, the climbing world was alien to me.

I learned a lot in the ensuing years.  I read Jon Krakauer’s fairly mainstream Into Thin Air.  I asked questions and listened to the stories.  And along the way a friendship grew with that department chair and colleague, Pam Roberts, that I cherish.  I also got to know her famous husband, Jack Roberts, and developed a profound admiration and respect for both of them and their insatiable curiosity about the world.  So in January of 2012, when I got an e-mail from Pam  – who was traveling in Cuba at the time- telling me that Jack had died from an ice-climbing fall in Telluride, I was devastated for my friend.

Not long after, Pam started telling me about a former climbing partner of Jack’s who had gotten in contact with her and was writing a book about their experiences together.  That book has now been published to much acclaim in the climbing world.  Simon McCartney’s The Bond:  Two Epic Climbs in Alaska and a Lifetime’s Connection Between Climbers (Vertebrate Publishing, 2016) is an extraordinary volume.  While it may seem like a “niche” book, written for a very specific audience, it transcends that and is a gripping combination of travel narrative and psychological study.  Reading it was like immersing myself in a foreign culture, with terms like piton sending me off on internet searches.  It also gave me a new insight into the thinking that spurs people to look at massive cliff faces in some of the remotest parts of the world and think “I wonder how I could get up that.”

Image result for simon mccartney the bond

Jack and Simon barely survived the two climbs they attempted together in Alaska, first of the north face of Mount Huntington in 1978 and then of the south-west face of Denali in 1980.  In the hospital after the second climb, a doctor says to them “I don’t understand what drives guys like you to do what you do.”  My thoughts exactly, though this book actually goes a long way towards explaining that.  In the process, it also examines that extraordinary bond that develops in these life-or-death situations, and affirms the lengths to which humans will go in order to help each other in impossibly difficult situations.

At one point in the narrative, which includes primarily Simon’s voice but also that of Jack’s through his journals, Jack writes: “I’m not sure that I need climbs like this any more.  When I get out I will probably work more on a good woman, a job and less-risky climbs.”  He definitely found the “good woman” with Pam, who adored him and knew herself to be adored by him.  Simon only met her after Jack’s death, when she was subsumed by grief.  I feel fortunate to have been able to witness their strong, resilient, and devoted relationship, one that does come through as Simon gets to know Pam.  This book stands as a testament to Jack and his passion, courage, decency, wry humor, and thoughtfulness, as well as to Pam’s love.

I must confess to a certain level of nervousness in tackling this review.  The Bond is a fabulous book, well-written and compelling and unusual, and I want to do it – and the friends I see reflected in its pages – justice.  It is a beautiful evocation of the human spirit, that spirit that compels us to challenge ourselves, explore our world, and push ourselves to our limits.  I’m not a climber, but I found much to enjoy, admire, and respect in this volume.  I hope you will, too.

Us -v.- Them: Salem, 1692 edition…

I’m writing this during the first Presidential Debates, which I am NOT watching.  I dislike debates.  In fact, I dislike all arguing and conflict.  And in the case of this election and these debates, I’m also not watching because I’m saddened and amazed that anybody can listen to Donald Trump and not be terrified about the future of our country if he were to actually win.

What does this have to do with the subject of my post, the book The Witches:  Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown & Co., 2015)?  Just this:  we Americans have succumbed to our baser instincts before, and I worry it’s distinctly possible we’ll do so again.

The Witches: Salem, 1692

The Salem Witch Trials would seem to be a historical event that has been studied ad nauseam.  But in the talented hands of Stacy Schiff, they take on a new vibrancy, malevolence, and relevance.  She sets aside theories about food poisoning, taxes, or teenage hysteria and instead lets the extant (though surprisingly sparse) documents speak for themselves.  In the process, the reader is inexorably drawn into a dark, rigid, superstitious, and confined world where people truly believed it was possible for an old woman standing in shackles right in front of judges to simultaneously be biting or pricking with pins girls in the same room.  That we can view the accusations as ridiculous from our three hundred year remove makes them no less deadly at the time.  The fact is that innocent women (and a few men) went to their deaths because of these beliefs.

Schiff has a deft, wry style of writing that makes reading this book every bit as compelling as the best crime fiction.  What struck me was that as she pieces together the puzzle of who, what, when, and where, the elusive why lurks around the edges, showing itself in inheritance disputes, economic jealousies, and pigs who ravage a neighbor’s garden.  My mother’s family has just descended into a nasty argument over a parcel of relatively low-worth farmland in Nebraska.  Before a lawsuit was threatened, I had difficulty understanding how families could turn against each other.  Now I have a better idea.  Which made reading the book that much more poignant.

I can say that I am something of an expert on witch beliefs, and not because (as some former students might believe)  I taught for over thirty years.  My MH thesis studied the way witches were depicted in Spanish literature and art, from Fernando de Rojas and Cervantes to Goya.  Schiff does a good job in the book of tracing how European ideas translated to New England.  What was clear in my research, what shows up repeatedly in Salem, and what I think we are seeing in our current election, is a strong dose of misogyny.  Women are not to be trusted, and women who move outside acceptable social bounds are especially suspect.

The Salem Witch Trials pitted town against town, neighbor against neighbor, even husbands against wives and children against parents.  It was a case of Us v. Them taken to lethal extremes.  Those who dared to speak out against the excesses were very likely to find themselves the next to be accused.  What worries me about our country right now is that you could substitute Muslims, African-Americans, or Mexican immigrants for witches and hear the same angry, fearful rhetoric.  Arthur Miller used the Salem court papers to write The Crucible as a response to the hysteria of the McCarthy Communist “witch hunts”.  Schiff assures us that:

It turns out to be eminently useful to have a disgrace in your past; Salem endures not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt.  It glares at us when fear paralyzes reason, when we overreact or overcorrect, when we hunt down or deliver up the alien or seditious.

I hope we reflect and remember before we go down the path of a Trump presidency.  I really do.

 

 

Ruminating on the “woulda/coulda/shoulda” life…

After an exciting spring and early summer, I seem to find myself out of sorts lately.  I’m not sure if it’s because of the crispness in the air and the falling leaves, the recent passing of my father-in-law, or the impending birthday of a child I’m lucky to see once a year (and am guaranteed not to see on their birthday).  Which seems kind of pathetic, because really, these are all relatively small issues in the grander scheme of war and illness and loss.  But there you have it.

Alternative view 1 of Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

As tends to happen with me, my reading either reflects, or is informed by, where I’m at elsewhere in my life.  So my last books have had me thinking a lot about the life I might have led if I had made different decisions at key junctures, or if I had summoned just a bit more courage or self-confidence.  Missing Out:  In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips (Picador, 2013) promised to be, according to Amazon, “A TRANSFORMATIVE BOOK ABOUT THE LIVES WE WISH WE HAD AND WHAT THEY CAN TEACH US ABOUT WHO WE ARE”.  Hmmm.  I didn’t find it even remotely “transformative”  Heavy on Freudian psychology and its attendant jargon and preoccupations with the mother/child relationship, it tended toward being more pedantic than helpful.  As near as I could decipher, the key point seemed to be that by THINKING about other lives, we in fact derive more satisfaction than by actually living them.  Which does make sense.  I’ve long known, for example, that I get almost as much enjoyment from planning for and fantasizing about upcoming travels as I do from the actual experiences.  The chapter titles pretty much tell you what you need to know about what you’ll get from this book:  “On Frustration”; “On Not Getting It”; “On Getting Away With It”; “On Getting Out of It”; “On Satisfaction”.  None of which really clarified anything common sense and life experience hadn’t already taught me.

Another book I had been anticipating reading for several months (the amount of time I was on the wait list for it at the library) was The Road to Little Dribbling:  Adventures of an American in Britain, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2016).  I love to read any type of travel narrative, which then of course feeds into my constant “what would my life be like THERE…” daydreams.  And Bryson is one of my favorite authors of that genre.  He has a witty style that I always enjoy, and an honesty bordering on cynicism that perhaps reflects my own.  I did enjoy this book immensely, though at the end I found myself wondering if I come across as being as grouchy, even curmudgeonly, as Bryson.  As the author explores what he dubs “The Bryson Line” from Bognor Regis in southern England to Cape Wrath in northern Scotland, the reader experiences lovely coastal walks, quaint villages, fascinating museums, and mysterious standing stones.  But they are also subjected to random rants about everything from urban sprawl to incorrect grammar to litter to incompetent McDonald’s cashiers.  There seems to be an idiot lurking around every corner, just waiting to ruin Bryson’s day or send him into apoplectic diatribes.  Sometimes it is amusing, like when he quips “I like the Scots, especially the ones who don’t look at me like they might in a minute have to shove my head through a wall” (I have a Scottish ex-brother-in-law), or “Returning to my book, I learned that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country.  It was a wonderful evening.”  But  sometimes they’re just mean, and I occasionally  found myself feeling sorry for someone who seems so very annoyed so very much of the time.

My sister lived in England and Scotland for several years, so I have been to some of the spots mentioned by Bryson.  I also know from her that there are plusses and minuses to living there.  A couple of weeks ago, I read a fascinating article online entitled “Psychology debunks the idea that we’d be happier if we lived somewhere else.”  It makes the valid point that sooner or later, the allure and newness wears off, and that what makes us truly happy is the “social capital” that we build in a place we have been for a while.  Last weekend, my husband and I decided to try to escape the seemingly endless Colorado crowds by driving to Fort Laramie National Historic Site, in Wyoming.  I had been there before, but never really noticed how beautiful the area is.  I also was struck by what we had come for:  the absence of people and crowds.  “Maybe we should move here”, I thought.  Then I went into the only grocery store nearby and was frustrated by the bad country music blaring overhead and by the absence of much choice in the picnicking department, and realized that maybe I wouldn’t be as happy there as I like to imagine.  They did just open a White Fence Farm takeout location right by my house, after all.

At the intersection of parenting and presidential politics…

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors assigned an article from The Atlantic, with the recommendation that if we subscribed to only one magazine or journal, it be that one.  Twenty years later I have followed this advice faithfully, and have never been disappointed.  Atlantic articles and writers have shaped -and challenged- my views on a wide variety of issues.  So when I saw a book by a writer I have come to respect and admire, Ron Fournier, about his own parental journey (a topic I still struggle with), I decided to read it.  And was, again, not disappointed.

Love That Boy:  What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent’s Expectations (Crown Publishing Group, 2016) take its title from a visit Fournier and his family made to George W. Bush’s Oval Office on the author’s last day covering the White House for the Associated Press.  The story is charming (I’m abbreviating it here to get to the gist of the title):

“Where’s Barney?” my son shouted.

The five of us stood in front of Bush’s desk, which, like everything else about the Oval Office, had a history…”Where’s Barney?” Tyler shouted again, in a voice so inappropriately loud and demanding that I jumped slightly.

Bush smiled and nodded – first to an aide and then to the lawn.  “He’s coming.  He’s right there.  He likes to sit out there.”

Tyler launched into a one-sided conversation, firing off one choppy phrase after another with machine-gun delivery…I cringed.  Tyler was a loving, charming, and brilliant boy – he had a photographic memory – but he was somehow different.  His voice was jarringly deep and loud for a kid his age.  He fixated on topics, like presidential history and animals.  He was, in a word, quirky.  But the president was enchanted.  He laughed, listened, and asked Tyler several questions about dogs before gathering us together for photos…

A few minutes later we were walking out of the Oval Office when Bush grabbed me by the elbow.  “Love that boy,” he said, holding my eyes.  I thought I understood what he meant.

I didn’t.

It took me years to understand.

Now, I was never a Bush fan.  In particular, I thought the Iraq war was a mistake from the start, and events have, I believe, proven me correct.  But a high school friend I deeply respect and admire was one of his advisor’s, and this story shows a side of him that moves him up several notches in my estimation.  It also underscores a basic truth about parenting:  sometimes our children are not going to be who or what we expect, and how we handle that, how we love them in spite of that, makes all the difference.

The discerning reader will have guessed at what it took the Fourniers years to figure out:  Tyler has Asperger’s.  This diagnosis, and the attendant guilt it brings up in his father, serve as a catalyst for a series of road trips designed by the author’s wife to encourage the father and son to bond over a common interest:  presidents and their history.  Together they visit several Presidential Libraries and homes, as well as meeting with current and former Presidents.  Along the way, Fournier reflects on what he learns about his parental expectations, about Asperger’s, and about how to help his son grow into a happy, thriving young adult.

My daughter and I have had a lot of conversations lately about “parenting”.  She and her husband are considering this next step in their lives, and I suspect it terrifies her.  I do think that it is harder to be a parent than ever, not least because “parenting” via Pinterest/Facebook/Instagram/the Internet in general has made us think there is one correct way to do the job, and that if we screw up we’ll be single-handedly responsible for another person’s lifetime misery.  What I like so much about Fournier’s book is that he tackles these myths head-on.  He is very honest about his own failings, and about his false starts and mistakes with his son.  He also offers hope and encouragement.

I’ve been thinking about this book quite a bit lately within the context of the presidential election, obviously because it deals specifically with presidents past and present, but also because of what we learn about the presidents we meet as humans beings beyond their public persona.  It will come as no surprise to anybody who knows me that I consider Donald Trump to be not only an unacceptable presidential option, but an actual threat to the survival of our civilization.  And I wonder: how would he handle an autistic five-year old in the Oval Office?

My children are both grown and gone and (I hope) reasonably happy.  But I still ask myself what I could have done better, or differently.  My youngest keeps the family at a remove, and that is painful for me.  Fournier’s book helped me step back from my perennial self-doubt and see that I was doing -and continue to do- the best I could with the information I had.  He also helped me see that the gap between what we expect and what we get can not only be overcome, but celebrated.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

More info

Author bio