March 6, 2015 by Reader's Connection
C. S. Lewis wondered if Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus, should be considered the first Christian martyr. According to the account of the risen Lazarus given by Mary, the mother of Jesus, Lewis was on to something. Being raised from the dead was a terrible experience.
This Mary is speaking in Colm Tóibín’s novel The Testament of Mary, and she’s not the Mary to whom I’ve grown accustomed. COSMIC SPOILER ALERT, IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY HEARD ABOUT THE BOOK: She doesn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God. She views her son’s followers as “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers,” and when she is told that “by [Christ’s] death, he has saved the world,” she responds, “It was not worth it.” END OF ALERT.
In the spirit of full disclosure I should say that I’m a Roman Catholic and really bad at it, that I was reading this novel on Ash Wednesday, as the holy season of Lent began, and I found the book bracing. I loved it. Here is Mary, recounting a visit to Cana:
There was in those first days a strange atmosphere in Cana. I noticed the stalls and the stallholders had more things on display than ever before, not merely food and clothes, but also cooking utensils and locks for doors. And there were animals for sale–monkeys, birds, like jungle birds, gorgeous creatures coloured red and yellow and blue, of a brightness I had never seen before, causing a crowd to gather around them in wonder.
Colm Tóibín has surely read Robert Lowell’s poem, “Beyond the Alps,” which begins with a note: On the train from Rome to Paris. 1950, the year Pius XII defined the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption [into heaven].
Then, in the second stanza:
When the Vatican made Mary’s assumption dogma,
the crowds at San Pietro screamed Papa.
The Holy Father dropped his shaving glass,
and listened. His electric razor purred,
his pet canary chirped on his left hand.
The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle
to Mary risen–at one miraculous stroke,
angel-winged, gorgeous as a jungle bird!
But who believed this? Who could understand?
Lowell later said that the poem was “a declaration of my faith or lack of faith.” I’m guessing that Tóibín liked these lines as much as I always have, and wanted that jungle bird in our minds as he gives us this mortal Mary, a fiercely intelligent mother consumed by grief.
He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, when I held him and watched him, my thoughts included the thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died. In those days if I had even dreamed that I would see him bloody, and the crowd around filled with zeal that he should be bloodied more, I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me. The rest is merely flesh and blood and bone.
March 4, 2015 by Reader's Connection
I would like to use Women’s History Month as an excuse to reprint poems by women. This one, by Laura Kasischke, is featured in the March issue of Poetry, and is used with the author’s permission.
Two Men & a Truck
Once, I was as large
as any living creature could be.
I could lift the world and carry it
from my breast to its bath.
When I looked down from the sky
you could see the love in my eye:
“Oh, tiny world, if anything
ever happened to you, I would die.”
And I said, “No!” to the hand. Snatched
the pebble from the mouth, fished it out
and told the world it would choke!
Warned the world over & over! “Do
you hear me? Do you want to choke?!”
But how was the world to know
what the truth might be? Perhaps
they grant you special powers, these
choking stones. Maybe
they change the child into a god, all-swallowing.
For, clearly, there were other gods.
The world could see
that I, too, was at the mercy of something.
Sure, I could point to the sky
and say its name, but I couldn’t make it change.
Some days it was blue, true, but others
were ruined by its gray:
“I’m sorry, little world —
no picnic, no parade, no swimming pool today … ”
And the skinned knee in spite of me.
And why else would there be
such terror in the way she screamed, and the horn honking,
and the squealing wheels, and, afterward, her cold
sweat against my cheek?
Ah, she wants us to live forever.
It’s her weakness … Now I see!
But, once, I was larger
than any other being —
larger, perhaps, than any being
had any right to be.
Because, of course, eventually, the world
grew larger, and larger, until it could lift
me up and put me down anywhere
it pleased. Until, finally, I would need
its help to move the bird bath, the book-
shelf, the filing cabinet. “And
could you put my desk by the window, sweetie?”
A truck, two men, one of them my son, and
everything I ever owned, and they
didn’t even want to stop for lunch.
Even the freezer. Even the piano.
(“You can have it if you can move it.”)
But, once, I swear, I was … And now
this trunk in the attic to prove it:
These shoes in the palm of my hand?
You used to wear them on your feet.
This blanket the size of a hand towel?
I used to wrap it around you sleeping
in my arms like this. See? This
is how small the world used to be when
everything else in the world was me.
March 3, 2015 by Reader's Connection
Julie Crawford left her comfortable life in Fort Wayne and headed for Hollywood, with aspirations to become a screenwriter. Instead, she found herself as an assistant to actress Carole Lombard, who at the time was having a scandalous affair with Clark Gable, who at the time was filming the now classic Gone With the Wind. The starry-eyed Julie saw the juxtaposition of the fictional love story between Scarlet and Rhett and the real-life one between Carole and Clark as an example that love can conquer above all, a feeling made stronger with Julie herself having a romance of her own with a right-hand man of the film’s producer. But, with racial tensions high and the country on the brink of entering World War II, is love enough?
I will admit, it’s been years since I have read the book or seen the film. Even when I had, they certainly did not rank in my favorite books and movies of all time. Yet, I love movie trivia- and when I heard that the fictional A Touch of Stardust was going to cover the factual antics going on behind the scenes of Gone With The Wind, I could not resist picking it up and found the book to be a pleasant read for the most part, focusing mainly on Old Hollywood and the intrigues surrounding that world. I appreciated, though, that Alcott did not shy away from the more serious issues happening at the time and gave her characters space to acknowledge and react to these issues, most notably the unchecked racism against African Americans and the onset of World War II. Every main character was affected in some way by one or both of these events, and the varying reactions illustrated the divisiveness of the American people during this time.
Alcott also provided the reader with deep character perception for both real and fictional characters. Out of the real characters in the book, though, Carole Lombard was definitely the most fleshed-out. Alcott vividly captured Carole’s irreverent and mischievous spirit and made the developing friendship between Julie and Carole fun to read. Also from Fort Wayne, Carole was a supportive mentor to Julie, and in turn Julie was protective of Carole from the public.
I was fascinated to read about the affair between Carole and Clark Gable. They were creating quite a scandal at the time as Gable was married, but they were too smitten with each other to care. As celebrities, they were larger than life but Alcott humanized them, giving the reader a glimpse into their personal everyday lives that did not revolve around a camera. By all accounts, their love affair was deep, only ending with Carole’s untimely and tragic demise just a few years later.
Julie’s relationship with Andy, however, tended to fall flat. While the pragmatic and cynical Andy was a good foil, disillusioning starry-eyed Julie from her naive misconceptions, his behavior towards her could be a little patronizing and reticent. Julie herself was a doormat at times with Andy, almost so desperate to keep the relationship that she does not stand up for herself when she should. That imbalance does work itself out once Julie starts finding success as in the screenwriting business, but other things crop up that will prove a hindrance. The road to happiness will never run smooth, I suppose.
Overall, I would highly recommend Alcott’s novel. While not perfect, her depiction of Old Hollywood is interesting, and her incorporation of actual facts about the film and its cast makes the novel even more meaningful. If nothing else, the nostalgia factor alone will make you want to revisit the film and the book, followed up by other films from that time. It certainly did for me.
February 28, 2015 by Reader's Connection
Jennifer Michael Hecht had two friends who committed suicide within a couple years of each other. Hecht was so upset that she wrote an open-letter essay for the Best American Poetry website, for which she sometimes blogs. First she wrote of how she was feeling “rattled” by the most recent suicide.
Then I addressed the reader with a bold imperative: “So I want to say this, and forgive me the strangeness of it. Don’t kill yourself. Life has always been almost too hard to bear, for a lot of the people, a lot of the time. It’s awful. But it isn’t too hard to bear, it’s only almost too hard to bear.” In the West, I wrote, the dominant religions had told people suicide was against the rules, they must not do it; if they did they would be punished in the afterlife. “People killed themselves anyway, of course, but the strict injunction must have helped keep a billion moments of anguish from turning into calamity. These days we encourage people to stay alive and not kill themselves, but we say it for the person’s own sake. It’s illegal, sure, but no one actually insists that suicide is wrong.” I announced: “I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means suicide is also delayed homicide. You have to stay.”
Hecht’s blog post “drew a large response on the Internet,” and it was later reprinted in The Boston Globe. She was moved by the response, but it got her to thinking about whether everything she had said was true. The result of her subsequent research is Stay : A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.
And it turns out that yes, knowing a suicide can incline one to suicide. Hecht finds studies on “suicide clusters.”
In the canvassing of the literature and of survivors, the answer is that suicide strikes most people with crushing force. Close friends report grievous suffering over many years. Casual friends report an increase in suicidal thoughts, also for years. It must be recognized that staying alive though suicidal is an act of radiant generosity, a way in which we can save each other.
Stay is not aimed at people who are terminally ill and in great pain. Hecht leaves that discussion for others. “This book is chiefly about despair suicide, rather than what might be called end-of-life management.” But she hopes that it may be of help to those who are ill and suffering from depression.
She writes of ancient responses to suicide, religious responses, and modern responses, both philosophical and sociological. Some pretty downbeat, non-God-fearing authors–Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Camus–have come out against suicide.
Waddy took his own life when he was twenty-one or twenty-two. My family had moved to Indiana seven years earlier, and Waddy and I hadn’t kept in touch. I wasn’t traumatized by his suicide, but I was mystified, and over the years I’ve thought back on him, thought about how the earth has revolved and circled the sun, how the corn has grown again every year, and how Waddy has missed all the living–all the grief and joy–that has gone on.
Which is probably why I was so moved by one the principle reasons that Hecht gives for her rule against suicide: our future selves.
The whole of humanity suffers when someone opts out. The suicide is also a real victim because he or she had a future self that may not have wanted this . . . To put the matter another way, we are complex beings who feel very differently at different times, such that the “you” in any given moment should not have the authority to end life for the many yous of many other moments.
Of course I thought of Waddy when I read that, just as I had thought of him when Frederick Buechner tweeted the following back in January. Buechner’s not saying the same thing that Hecht is saying, but it’s related:
GOD SPEAKS TO us through our lives, we often too easily say. Something speaks anyway, spells out some sort of godly or godforsaken meaning to us through the alphabet of our years, but often it takes many years and many further spellings out before we start to glimpse, or think we do, a little of what that meaning is. Even then we glimpse it only dimly, like the first trace of dawn on the rim of night, and even then it is a meaning that we cannot fix and be sure of once and for all because it is always incarnate meaning and thus as alive and changing as we are ourselves alive and changing.
I wish Waddy had stayed.
February 26, 2015 by Reader's Connection
The Groundhog didn’t accomplish much in February, so let’s see if the March Hare can get us any closer to spring. Here are ten new books to keep us warm while we wait, reviewed by librarians around the country.
The Love Song of Miss
Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce
Miss Queenie Hennessy, who we met in Joyce’s first book, is in a hospice ruminating over her abundant life experiences. I loved the poignant passages and wise words peppered throughout. Readers of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will enjoy this book. There’s no fast-paced plot or exciting twists–it’s just a simple, sweet story of a life well-lived. — Andrienne Cruz, Azusa City Library, Azusa, CA
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
In cinematic terms, this dramatic page-turner is Das Boot meets Titanic. Larson has a wonderful way of creating a very readable, accessible story of a time, place, and event. We get three sides of the global story–the U-boat commander, British Admiralty and President Wilson–but what really elevates this book are the affecting stories of individual crew and passengers. — Robert Schnell, Queens Library, Jamaica, NY
Prudence by Gail Carriger
I was hoping we’d be seeing Prudence in her own series. Baby P–Rue to you–is all grown up and absolutely delightful. First-time readers will think it’s a wonderful book on its own merits. However, it becomes spectacular when we get to revisit some of the beloved characters from the Parasol Protectorate. Gail Carriger is always a delight! — Lisa Sprague, Enfield Public Library, Enfield, CT
The Witch of Painted Sorrows by M. J. Rose
Rose weaves a passionate tale of sensuality, heartbreak and despair, exposing readers to a side of Paris that is as haunting as its main characters. The melding of time and generations transform Sandrine and La Lune into a single force to be reckoned with. The unexpected ending will leave readers wanting more. — Marianne Colton, Lockport Public Library, Lockport, NY
Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss
Cats don’t live nine lives. They survive eight deaths. There’s something special about Roger, the cat, and it’s not that he can talk. Truss spins readers through a hauntingly, portentous tale. When my cat’s tail thrums, I’ll forever wonder what devilment will follow. — Ann Williams, Tippecanoe County Public Library, Lafayette, IN
Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver
Reminiscent of E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, this book begs for a re-read after you finish it. Nick, the main character, is recovering from a devastating trauma. Her family life is turned upside down, and a longtime childhood friendship is strained due to her sister’s exploits. I recommend this book to anyone who loves to read multi-layered stories. — Sybil Thompson, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Cleveland, OH
Delicious Foods: A Novel by James Hannaham
How can you not be immediately intrigued by a novel that opens with a teenage boy driving from Louisiana to Minnesota after both his hands have just been cut off at the wrist? When you read this novel, you’re dropped right into a world–darkly funny and audaciously bold. — Meghan Hall, Timberland Regional Library, Lacey, WA
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel by Ian Caldwell
A murder on Vatican property begins this tale of religion, politics, and family. Two brothers, both priests, struggle to make sense of their friend’s murder. When one is accused, the other must go to extreme lengths to prove his brother’s innocence. Caldwell’s second novel is a book to savor. This is a heart-wrenching book you will want to read more than once. — Elizabeth Kanouse, Denville Public Library, Denville, NJ
The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford
Dana is a ‘pocket wife’ because her lawyer husband barely gives her the time of day. One afternoon, she drunkenly argues with her neighbor Celia, takes a nap, then wakes to find Celia dead. Could she have murdered Celia? Dana, suffering from manic episodes, tries to solve her friend’s murder before she loses all self-control. Highly recommended for fans of Gone Girl. — Katelyn Boyer, Fergus Falls Public Library, Fergus Falls, MN
Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
This beautifully written novel juxtaposes the glory of the Appalachians against the despair of everyday life. Jacob McNeely recognizes his family’s brutality, but Maggie, the love of his life, gives him hope. Achingly told, the visceral prose will stay with readers long past the conclusion. Fans of the Southern fiction of Ron Rash and Wiley Cash will fall in love with this new voice. — Jennifer Winberry, Hunterdon County Library, Flemington, NJ