Some random thoughts from 2017…

So.  It’s been a few months since I wrote anything here.  I can’t really explain why.  I enjoy travelling.   I enjoy reading.  I enjoy writing about those things.  So why I’ve lost my voice and motivation is something of a mystery to me, though I think it has a lot to do with my general feeling that if way better, smarter, more engaging writing than I’m capable of have had no discernible effect on the awfulness we’re currently seeing in this country, then what’s the point?  But, of course, that IS the point, so I’m back to giving this a try…

Since it’s been so long, I’ve decided to take a somewhat haphazard approach here and share random thoughts from the last months…

…On Books

Because I spent part of July and August in Spain, I ended up with a quite lengthy reading list from what I saw in bookstores there.  If you read Spanish, I can recommend La hija de Cayetana/The Daughter of Cayetana, by Carmen Posadas (Espasa Calpe, 2016).  Loosely telling the story of the black child “adopted”  by the Duchess of Alba of Goya painting fame, this is an engaging journey through the political and cultural world of late 18th century Spain.  Slightly more predictable and formulaic, but still enjoyable, is El regreso del Catón/Return of the Cato , by one of my favorite historical fiction writers, Matilde Asensi.  (Planeta Publishing, 2015).  A sequel to her widely acclaimed (and available in English translation) El último Catón/The Last Cato, I would guess this entertaining novel will eventually make it also into English.  Other books that looked great but frankly didn’t impress me all that much are En tiempos del Papa Sirio/In the Times of the Syrian Pope and Las ventanas del cielo/The Windows of the Sky.  

My English reading hasn’t particularly contributed to a sense of optimism about current events.  Spain In Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is an outstanding piece of writing that captures both the promise and the despair of that time period in Spain.  If you think things in the United States are just great right now, I would especially challenge you to read about the Spanish Civil War.  Related to this topic, though less well-written, is The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot: Marranos and Other Secret Jews:  A Woman Discovers Her Hidden Identity, by Trudi Alexy (Simon & Schuster, 2006).  The subtitle is slightly misleading, and I think I expected more from this book than I should have.  Still, it is a fascinating collection of stories about hidden Jewish identities through history as well as the surprising way in which Spain, still struggling to come to terms with its Civil War, helped thousands of Jews to escape the Holocaust.  Unrelated directly by topic, but no less discouraging in its rather bleak assessment of the human condition, is the novel I read for Blogging For BooksThe Mortifications, by Derek Palacio (Crown Publishing Group, 2016).  Narrating the story of a family split apart by the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980 only to eventually reunite in the Cuban countryside, I didn’t dislike this volume.  I just also didn’t love it.  It felt forced, and the characters never quite seemed believable to me.  But its point about how fanaticism of any sort ultimately only results in destruction and dehumanization dovetails with the other books I’ve mentioned as well as with concerns I have about current events, and deserves thought and consideration.

On Travel

I’ve taken some fabulous trips since I last posted here!  In July and August I joined a friend in Spain for a course at the University of Santiago de Compostela, then had another friend meet me for a week in the Basque region of southern France and northern Spain.  This was sort of the last corner of Spain I hadn’t experienced, and I loved the food and culture!

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About a month later, my husband and I went back east to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey in order to indulge his interest in the American Civil and Revolutionary Wars.

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I was only home for two days before I then left again to visit Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, and the Olympic Peninsula with my Mom and sister!

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And then I was only home for about ten days before I embarked on the grand adventure that my oldest daughter and I had dreamed about for years:  a stay in Rome combined with a cruise to Greece, Malta, Sicily, and Naples.

All of this travel provided a welcome respite from the over-thinking to which I am prone, and provided me with precious memories I will always cherish!

…Other Random Thoughts

  • The Eclipse was really cool!
  • Food in Europe just tastes better.
  • Coffee in Europe also tastes better.
  • I really love Rome.  And I think that with time and a concerted effort, I could actually become somewhat conversant in Italian.
  • I’m seriously wondering if I shouldn’t move to Europe.
  • People are capable of incredible cruelty (how many mass shootings were there in the U.S. since I last posted?), but also incredible acts of kindness.  An image that I will never forget:  The guard standing next to the “Do Not Touch Marble”  signs at the Acropolis reaching out and gently helping a blind Spanish woman to…yes…touch the marble so that she, too, could experience this unparalleled wonder of human achievement.

 

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Viewing the world through other eyes…

There are lots of compelling reasons why I read, but certainly one of the primary ones is because it provides me with a way to view the world through other eyes, in the process helping me to better view it through my own.

I chose the autobiography Approval Junkie: My Heartfelt (and Occasionally Inappropriate) Quest to Please Just About Everyone, and Ultimately Myself, by Faith Salie (Crown Publishing Group, 2016) because I’m more than a bit of an “approval junkie”  myself, and because I’m always looking for ways to deal with that sometimes distressing tendency.  I have to be honest, though…I didn’t love this book.  I can’t put my finger on why.  The writing is excellent and sometimes hilarious.  The story of Salie’s life is interesting enough, and there are intermittent bursts of genuinely helpful reflection, like her “Face for Radio” chapter.  But more often I had a vague feeling throughout (alluded to in the subtitle) that I was just getting Too Much Information.  It might be a generational thing, it might be a class thing, it might be a regional thing, it might be a famous person thing… I don’t know, but I found that much as I wanted to like the author, and much as I empathized with some of her heartbreak and longing (including the loss of a parent at a young age), I just didn’t connect with her experience of the world.  So while it was amusing to read her refer to her ex-husband as her “wasband”, I cringed at some of the information she shared about their marriage, thinking “I wonder what his version of events is”.  I imagine the name-dropping and casual mention of things like having the opportunity to make out with Matt Damon and turning it down might entertain some people, but it left me indifferent.  I know from Salie’s epilogue that she finds lukewarm reviews like mine more upsetting than outright rejection, and for that I apologize.  But since I picked up the book looking for ways to deal with my own sometimes debilitating need for approval, and since I found a somewhat self-absorbed heiress instead with whom I just couldn’t relate, I’ll just say that I was unable to make any connection with this book.

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Which was not the case with the next novel I picked up, A Man Called Ove. Written by Swedish author, Fredrik Backman (Simon & Schuster, 2012), this book was mentioned by a dear friend and her Swedish husband (thanks, Ulf!), and I absolutely loved it!  The story starts with newly retired and decidedly curmudgeonly Ove right as he is contemplating suicide after the recent death of his beloved wife, only to have constant interruptions from new and old neighbors not only disrupt his plans, but ultimately prod him into finding fresh reasons to engage with the world.  And while it doesn’t seem like the premise would be funny, this sweet novel is actually hilarious in places.  It is also heartbreaking and thought-provoking…just what a good novel should be.  One of the lessons I learned from my years of teaching was that the more challenging a person might be on the exterior, the more likely there is to be a back story deserving of your empathy, and this book challenges you to look at the grouchy people in your orbit a bit differently.  The writing style has a deft wit to it as well as a quiet optimism, both traits that I’ve come to identify with the Swedes -okay, Swede- I know.

Also, the somewhat dilapidated cat Ove rescues and adopts is awesome!

FTC Disclaimer:  I received Approval Junkie  from Blogging for Books for this review.

More info about Approval Junkie.

Author bio for Faith Salie.

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.

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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.