Literary Fiction

Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Picador, 2010.

Years ago, before I ever read one of her books, I saw part of an interview with author Hilary Mantel. I didn’t know anything about her and I had no reason to continue listening, until she said something that grabbed my attention and has inspired me ever since. “I only became a novelist because I thought I had missed my chance to become a historian.

Mantel repeated this idea in an interview for The Paris Review and proceeded to explain how she found herself in the midst of historical fiction:

“I’d read all the history books and novels [about the French Revolution] I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing. There was no novel about them. I set about writing it—at least, a story about some of them—so I could read it. And of course, for a long time it seemed as if I were the only person who ever would. My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts. Then, not many months in, I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up. At the end of it, I thought, I quite liked that.”

My mind has been captured by this idea—writing fiction to cover the territory that history leaves out—ever since. And I, too, feel as if I have missed my chance of becoming a historian. I am hours from the resources that interest me, tied to the schedule of running a house and raising children, and undoubtedly lacking the education that would make me a respectable member of the historical community. Given my love for literature, maybe I should just start using my historical imagination and write a story.

In her novels, however, Mantel proves that it’s possible to be both a good novelist and historian. There are academics out there who would debate that statement based upon the spin she puts on certain historical figures, but I think it’s safe to say she has revolutionized the way we view Tudor history. In her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which opens with Wolf Hall, Mantel takes everything she could find about Cromwell and dramatizes it, creating her “documentary fiction.” Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from near the end of his service to the powerful Cardinal Wolsey through the years in which Cromwell insinuates himself into Henry VIII’s innermost circle. He engineers the downfall of Queen Katherine and the rise of Anne Boleyn, prodding Henry away from the Church all the while. By the end of the novel, Cromwell’s rival Thomas More is dead, Anne has failed to produce a male heir, and Henry is on his way to Wolf Hall, home of Jane Seymour’s family—and it’s a little less certain who Cromwell really is.

The White Tower within the Tower of London

Cromwell is a fascinating enigma in Mantel’s hands. He is at times tender, patient, generous, and terribly cold and calculating. He serves Wolsey and then the king, yet is secretly an evangelical who despises the abuses of the Church. He is the blacksmith’s boy with a murky past, yet he rises to advise and turn the heart of the king. Cromwell hides—even from himself—behind a cloak of ambiguity. The reader is never sure what Cromwell believes. He masters the “defensive art of facing both ways, faith and works, Pope and new brethren, Katherine and Anne.” Early in life he adapts the motto “Choose your prince”—and then serves his prince in whatever way is expedient, becomes whatever his prince needs him to be. “That is what you do, you choose him, and you know what he is. And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him.” Over and over we are left wondering, How can such a man go along with this? How can he be party to something so terrible?

We get the feeling that Cromwell orchestrates every Englishman—and Frenchman and Spaniard and Pope—to his purpose. And he loves it. “Henry says, ‘Do what you have to do. I will back you.’ It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life to hear. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.” Yet Mantel is sure to remind us what a horrifying place Tudor England is. Each man is out for himself—out to raise his family’s name and out to better his own station. Lives change overnight at the king’s whim and the world dances to stay on his good side. Cromwell, after making a last ditch effort to save the life of Sir Thomas More, receives from Henry a chilling dressing-down and reminder of the razor-thin edge between even his life and death: “‘Do I retain you for what is easy? … I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm… Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.’”

This Tudor world, with its plagues and beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake, is so vivid that it’s hard to look away. Even though I know the end of Thomas Cromwell, and seeing his life unfold is something like watching a train wreck, there’s enough tenderness and humor in him that I cannot help but like him. The book is undeniably hard to read—Mantel doesn’t tell us everything, and understanding Tudor history is like unraveling a Gordian knot—but I’m looking forward to diving back in with the second volume of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies.

★ ★ ★ ★/5

**Reading tips: Wolf Hall is not only hard to read because of the complexity of Tudor history, but also because Mantel has an annoying tendency to use the pronoun “he” all the time. Before reading the book, I was lucky enough to find a book review telling me to assume that “he” usually refers to Cromwell. It gets easier to follow as the book goes on. Also, as “documentary fiction” about a corrupt foreign world, there are some adult elements in the book.

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

My grandmother’s childhood home in Center Point, Indiana.

Both sets of my grandparents moved into assisted living in the last couple of months. One of each couple is struggling with mental or physical difficulties, and living at home came to be too much. All four of them are in their nineties, so you might say that they are lucky to have made it this long on their own. Yet there is something indescribably sad about watching an elderly person’s world grow smaller while, at the same time, your own grows wider. It does not require much imagination to think of how it must feel to have a lifetime of independence stripped away, bit by little bit.

One of my grandmothers, possessed of unusual foresight, wrote out the story of her youth for her grandchildren some time over twenty-five years ago. Maybe she had always felt loss at not knowing enough of her own grandparents’ backstory and determined to record her own story for posterity. Whatever the reason, I have a handwritten journal from her, filled with her earliest recollections of childhood on a west-central Indiana farm—learning at a one-room schoolhouse heated by a pot-bellied stove, bottle-feeding a pet lamb, using a chamber pot at night, and picking corn by hand in the summer.

About the time these written recollections leave off, the slide photos pick up. One of the favorite family gathering pastimes of my young cousins and I was asking to have the slide projector set up for a slide show. We soaked up the story of our grandparents and our mothers through pictures of different houses, road trips across America, funny clothing, and hilarious hair styles. Aside from all of the fun, sitting together in the darkened living room and watching the snapshots as they shuffled through the projector grounded us in a sense of place and the kind of people from which we came.

Hannah CoulterReading Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter is like sitting and listening to your grandmother tell stories about the people she knew and the corner of the world in which she lived. Recently widowed for the second time, the elderly Hannah sets herself to remembering life and laying up the lessons it taught her. Her life is not my grandmother’s life, but their need to tell their stories brought them together in my mind.

Hannah came to adulthood shortly before World War II, and her life grew from the farmland of northern Kentucky. She was dirt poor—but bright and intelligent—and had the advantage of a grandmother who prepared her with everything she would need to know simply by teaching her how to run a farm. Her insulated world was scarred when her first husband was killed in the war, but Hannah rebuilt her life a few years later with a survivor, Nathan Coulter. For Hannah and Nathan, carving a living out of the land, raising responsible children, and dwelling in “membership” community with their neighbors was the only right response to an outside, foreign world that had been on fire and consumed so much of what they loved. Hannah discloses her hopes and expectations for her children and grandchildren—even though in them she begins to see her way of life, lived for hundreds of years before her—aging and dying with the members of her own generation. She shares her tender sorrow at the change and loss of her world.

Hannah tells her story gently and with a lifetime of wisdom; I found it as thought-provoking and inspirational as if it were told to me by someone that I respected and loved. She describes the years of work in building a marriage by love and kindness and how to survive grief and the loss of expectations with thankfulness in all things. Peeking through Hannah’s words is a vision of a God of love and a communion with Him and our loved ones in that love.

Hannah Coulter is the first novel I have read by Wendell Berry and he certainly strikes me as a modern master of his craft. He’s created a story of truth, not only in the way his characters seem to be people I’ve known at one time or another, but also by mingling the way that they live with the broad truths of the world that God gave us to live in. He turned my thoughts to my grandparents, to the lives they’ve lived and the people they’ve known, and how their stories will only ever be fully known by them.

I cannot do justice to the words Berry wrote, so here is some of my favorite wisdom from Hannah.

On grief and loss:

“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the tread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once, we too went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering it all again, I think I am still there with him too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude.

I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.”

On marriage:

“The gentleness I knew in him seemed to be calling out, and it was a gentleness in me that answered. That gentleness, calling and answering, giving and taking, brought us together. It brought us into the room of love. It made our place clear around us.

Nathan said, ‘You’ve seen those dragonflies flying together joined. How do they know to fly in the same direction?’

‘They know,’ I said. ‘They know the same way we know.'”

“It would be … like the coming of the rhymes in a song, a different song, this one, a long song, the rhymes sometimes wide apart, but the rhymes would come…. But you may have a long journey to travel to meet somebody in the innermost inwardness and sweetness of that room. You can’t get there just by wanting to, or just because the night falls. The meeting is prepared in the long day, in the work of years, in the keeping of faith, in kindness.”

On memory:

“What you won’t see, but what I see always, is the pattern of our life here that made and kept it as you see it now, all the licks and steps and rounds of work, all the comings and goings, all the days and years. A lifetime’s knowledge shimmers on the face of the land in the mind of a person who knows. The history of a place is the mind of an old man or an old woman who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mostly lost, generation after generation, going back and back to the first Indians. And now the history of Nathan’s and my life here is fading away. When I am gone, it too will be mostly gone.

Sometimes I imagine another young couple, strong and full of desire, coming quietly into this old house that will be empty again of all that is of any use, and will be stale and silent and dingy with dust, and they will see it shining before them as Nathan and I saw it fifty-two years ago. And I say ‘Welcome! Love each other. Love this place and use it well. Bless your hearts.’”

“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can only return by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.… When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”

“Even old, your husband is the young man you remember now. Even dead, he is the man you remember, not as he was but as he is, alive still in your love. Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this grief and timeless life.”

“Like a lot of old people I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is.”As it was it is almost always present to me, with the dead moving about in it as they were.”

On expectations:

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”

On thankfulness:

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice everymore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars

Book Review: News of the World

news of the world

Paulette Jiles, News of the World. William Morrow: 2016.

“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.”

Jefferson Kyle Kidd’s self-appointed purpose in life is to carry the news. In 1870, Captain Kidd has survived three wars and in each has found his place as a runner, courier, and printer. “He loved print, felt something right about sending out information into the world. Independent of its content.” Now, at seventy-one years, he travels the wild and violent roads of central Texas, stopping in each town and standing each evening at a lectern with newspapers from around the world spread before him, reading the best and most magical information aloud. At one point in his middle age Kidd believed, “If people had true knowledge of the world perhaps they would not take up arms.” Learning the hard way that this is an illusion, he settles for creating escapism. “What people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information … Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

Captain Kidd’s lonely and monotonous rounds are interrupted when, to help a friend, he takes on the job of returning ten-year-old Indian captive Johanna Leonberger to distant relatives outside of San Antonio. After four years as a Kiowa captive, Johanna appears not to remember her parents, who were killed in her sight, or any German or English language. Kidd is understandably somewhat resentful of this intrusion into his life and the great risk involved to him in crossing the state of Texas with her. He mournfully repeats to himself that he has already raised two daughters. Yet he accepts the fifty dollar gold piece in payment and buys a beat-up wagon with “Curative Waters” printed on the side to carry the girl home.

Their journey south to San Antonio is a journey toward purpose and rescue as much as it is a passage through Texas. The strange Indian/English/German girl pierces Kidd’s crusty old-man exterior. His heart is tender and empathetic; he starts to see life through little Chohenna’s eyes—not all American ways make sense, just as not all Kiowa ways do. In turn, Johanna’s shell-shocked heart opens just a little and she looks on the Kep-dun as Kontah—grandfather.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles ranks with the best fiction I have read in the last few years. In its tidy 209 pages, it shows—beautifully—so much more than it tells. Its words are poetic and vivid. Many scenes—a darkened barn during a downpour, a stream-side camp under the pecan trees, a wild and raging river at night—played in bright, sparkling images across my mind. Jiles has mixed the best parts of the Western with poetry and literary fiction to create a beautiful picture lesson of rescue, a life redeemed, and human compassion.

I cannot let this review pass without also pointing out the history work that Jiles has done with News of the World. She has brought to life two very obscure pieces of the past: the circuit news-readers and the captive children who lost all sense of their Euro-American identity. These children, floating fragmented in a no-mans-land of cultures, escaped all attention—“And the newspapers, they say nothing about this at all or about the poor at all. … There are great holes in your newspapers. Nobody sees them. God sees them.” And now we see them. I could only ever hope to teach so much history in such a powerful way.

“Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5

*I think you will love this book, but note that it is a Western and as such has one scene of graphic violence.

Book Review: A Death in the Family

A death in the family

Agee, James. A Death in the Family. 1957.

I think it’s safe to say that Americans are fascinated by crime and its aftermath. We certainly like our crime TV. I am sure that at any given time of day Criminal Minds, CSI, Cold Case Files or Forensic Files is running on a cable network. We crave the mystery, the puzzle—all of those little (or even microscopic) pieces that investigators fit together in recreating the crime.

These TV episodes would not be complete without an autopsy or post-mortem scene, starring a scrubs-and-mask clad doctor poking around in all of the gory details. This autopsy is the final word on how the subject died and sheds light on the circumstances that came immediately before and after their death. The autopsy doesn’t lie. The autopsy is probably as brutal and honest and up-close as live humans can get to the reality of death.

A Death in the Family by James Agee strikes me as a novel-as-autopsy. Winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, A Death in the Family delves into what family members feel, think, and do when a loved one dies unexpectedly. It is detailed, psychologically analytical, and unflinchingly honest.

In the middle of a summer’s night in 1915, Jay Follet is called away from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to visit his aging father, whom he believes to be dying. The call is a false alarm, and Jay begins his return trip out of the hills back to the city. Along the way the car malfunctions, crashes, and throws Jay to his death.

The novel has an experimental feel, with Jay’s death as the main plot point, the glue that holds the otherwise artistic and poetic text together. The story of Jay’s life and death is told primarily from the perspective of his wife, Mary, and their six-year-old son, Rufus, in a series of vignettes. These episodes cluster into three parts: the last hours Rufus and Mary spent with Jay, the waiting period for Mary as her brother identifies the body, and the funeral.

A Death in the Family is an experience for the senses. Rufus’s memories from his earliest childhood are poetic and dream-like—the play of moonlight on his wall through a lace curtain, his terror at the darkness pressing in on him in his crib, the warmth of his father’s hand as he comes to sit with him, and the low songs from his father’s lips that lull him back to sleep. Agee captures the sound of locusts on summer nights, the cool smoothness of bedsheets and the sharp smell of bacon on a dark morning, and the leathery, papery skin of a one-hundred-year-old woman’s face.

In one exemplary scene, Agee proves his ability to pick apart the complex and conflicting emotions involved in the death of a loved one, giving to each emotion weightiness and validity. In the dark of night, Mary hovers in her kitchen, waiting for her brother to identify Jay’s body in a far-off village. In one moment, the hope of a mistake somewhere bubbles up in her heart and, in the next moment, pops with a nightmarish certainty. Her mind wanders through doubts about herself, her husband, and the reality of how they lived each day as husband and wife. Her Aunt Hannah, who has experienced her own great loss, waits with her. She waits for and wills Mary to give up hope, knowing that prolonging her hope will do her no good. She watches as over several hours realization comes to Mary and Mary chooses to cling to her Catholic faith. Hannah, although herself a Catholic, becomes disgusted and resentful at how quickly and submissively Mary spiritualizes the situation, instead wishing Mary would feel the despair and anger at God that she felt in her own past. The scene is full of real, honest-to-goodness emotions that are at times unpleasant to read.

I was impressed by Agee’s command of the words and his ability to take the reader through every thought and emotion. The novel feels true; whether or not we have lived through this specific tragedy, we have all experienced a sampling of these emotions ourselves.

A Death in the Family is the kind of novel where you get sucked into the spiral of someone’s thoughts. Usually I like that sort of thing—it gives a book a realistic feel—yet at times this book spiraled repetitively, in a way that made me feel trapped. It was not a book I enjoyed; I “appreciated” it, but, for me, it was dark and bitter.

Finishing A Death in the Family felt like an accomplishment—one more Pulitzer checked off the list.

Note: I read A Death in the Family in its original, Pulitzer-winning format. Ironically, the novel was published after the author’s death and publishers had to guess at the ordering of certain sections of the book. It was republished in 2008 with a different format that I am not familiar with.


“I hear my father; I need never fear.

I hear my mother; I shall never be lonely, or want for love.

When I am hungry it is they who provide for me; when I am in dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort.

When I am astonished or bewildered, it is they who make the weak ground firm beneath my soul: it is in them that I put my trust.

When I am sick it is they who send for the doctor; when I am well and happy, it is in their eyes that I know best that I am loved; and it is towards the shining of their smiles that I lift up my heart and in their laughter that I know my best delight.

I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are no others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world.

I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.” (76)

 

“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it’s good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what’s it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what’s it all for?

Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it’s almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.” (87)

Book Review: Gilead

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Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2004.

“I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.”

Gilead. I read that word and I hear that old, slow, mournful tune in my head. ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole…’

A couple of years ago, I set myself the task of reading all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction. I’ve since discovered high and low points in American literature; I’ve discovered my favorite American novel and I’ve read some that made me wonder what kind of insanity the selection committee suffered from. But Gilead—the 2004 prize-winner by Marilynne Robinson—is wholly unlike any book I have ever read. There is little I could say about this lovely little novel that could do it justice and I fear any attempt to write about it will cheapen what it has to say. But I will give it a try.

Let me start by saying that Gilead will not be for everyone. It is a slow, sweet meditation on fathers and sons and on the meaning of grace, bestowed both by earthly fathers and a Heavenly One. If you never have deep spiritual ruminations of your own or have no sympathy with someone that clings tightly to their faith, Gilead will not be for you. If you need a book to move and have lots of things happen, Gilead will not be for you. But if you have patience and a yearning to find balm and beauty in what you read, Gilead will richly reward you.

The premise of Gilead is a simple one: minister John Ames, 76, of Gilead, Iowa, believes he is soon to die of heart failure and so begins writing to his young (seven-year-old) son. The words are his memoirs, but more than that, they contain the knowledge of life that Ames had hoped to pass to his son as he grew and the conversations he wishes he could share with his son in his adulthood. Ames, through writing to his son, revisits the many graces of God on his life and discovers the grace that he can pass on through his own daily living.

‘I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.’

‘For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.’

There are few ripples in the smoothness of John Ames’ reflections. The ripples that are there come in the form of tension between the fathers and sons in Ames’ family who, as Ames relates, each hold to their Christianity in different ways. His grandfather, the first minister named John Ames, moved west from Maine to Kansas to join in the abolition fight under John Brown. His son, the second John Ames and the narrator’s father, despised the ruthlessness of his father’s faith and turned toward pacifism. John Ames, our narrator, finds he has disagreements with both his father’s and grandfather’s faith.

The nature of Ames’ own faith is tested by his relationship with his godson and namesake, John Ames Boughton. “Jack” is mentioned casually early on, and the main element of suspense in the novel builds as Ames tells us about Jack in trickles and spurts. At the heart of his struggle with Jack is the hard fact that Jack once had what Ames longed for, and then threw it away. Jack carries himself in a way that gets under his godfather’s skin, and the whole experience leads Ames to dig deep into his understanding of grace—is it all-sufficient?

‘Sinners are not all dishonorable people, not by any means. But those who are dishonorable never really repent and never really reform. Now, I may be wrong here. No such distinction occurs in Scripture. And repentance and reformation are matters of the soul which only the Lord can judge. But, in my experience, dishonor is recalcitrant. When I see it, my heart sinks, because I feel I have no help to offer a dishonorable person. I know the deficiency may be my own altogether.’

I don’t cry when I read books, but I did while reading this one. At the risk of sounding like Anne Shirley, Gilead is just achingly beautiful. Reading it was a wonderful surprise, a balm for the literary soul who wonders if there is any good left in “good” literature. John Ames—a fiercely Christian man who also manages to be gentle and unobtrusive—will be with me for a long time. He and his little book remind me that “sometimes [it is] as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.’ And with him, in his own quiet way, I say, “that is a remarkable thing to consider.”


Favorite quotes:

‘You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.’

‘A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.’

‘You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.’

‘When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? . . . If you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate.’

‘I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.’

‘In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.’

‘Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.’

Book Review: The Railwayman’s Wife

Ashley Hay, The Railwayman's Wife. Atria Books: 2016.

Ashley Hay, The Railwayman’s Wife. Atria Books: 2016.

Sometimes the written word is at its most beautiful when it recounts the hardest things in life. These things—cruelty, betrayal, the loss of something precious—call forth the deepest emotions and expose the most stubborn truths. So a tale of romance, for instance, can be a beautiful and enjoyable thing in itself, but when tension or hardship are added to the mix the story reaches an altogether different level of beauty and poignancy. When the written word reflects hard emotions and truths in honesty, we recognize ourselves in it and find in it a great beauty. A writer who does this can achieve no greater goal.

There are passages of such beauty in Ashley Hay’sThe Railwayman’s Wife, a tale of the aftermath of loss. In the shadow of World War II in 1948, three individuals in the small town of Thirroul in eastern Australia learn again how to live after experiencing tragedy. Housewife Ani Lachlan’s husband is killed in a railway accident. Roy McKinnon loses his vision for poetry and Dr. Frank Draper his compassion among the horrors of war-torn Europe. The Railwayman’s Wife is an exploration of life lived with grief—with the impressions that grief and memory leave behind and the impressions that we leave upon each other.

The novel centers on Ani, her memories of her husband, Mac, the way she experiences learning of his death, her relationship with her young daughter, Isabel, and how time moves her forward with a new job and new friendships. Ani’s chapters weave in and out with chapters about Roy and his quest to rediscover his poetry and with a few chapters of Mac’s own memories. Ani, Roy, and Frank meet occasionally, and over the space of the year following Mac’s death, change each other in small but powerful ways. Aside from a handful of consequential events, little happens in the “plot,” yet the words and chapters deeply explore the fluid life of the mind and the changes that happen there. By the end of the book, we have a layered impression of each person’s life, especially Ani’s.

The strength of The Railwayman’s Wife lies in the way Ashley Hay puts words together. The early chapters of the book sparkle with lively characterizations and with a strong sense of place in this town clinging to the Australian coast. The senses are all awake while reading—in the way that the ocean is always present, with its roar and salt-smelling spray, and the way that the railway regularly rumbles and screeches and pours out smoke—pinning the novel down to its time and place and reminding us that Ani’s life here on the coast, for good or ill, is tied up in the railroad. The most remarkable portion of the novel is where Ani learns of Mac’s death; the writing is so vivid I had to think,Yes, it would be exactly like that. From beginning to end, it is a pleasure to be immersed in the world of well-chosen words.

One of my favorite themes in the novel was the continued presence of books and libraries. The story opens with Ani reading a book, “any day, any year: call it 1935, 1938, 1945, or somewhere decades away in her future.” This theme resonates with me, and if you’re reading a blog about books, it probably will with you, too. When Mac dies, the railway offers Ani a job with the railway’s lending library. Sitting alone in the library, Ani remembers stepping into the big library in Sydney years before, her impressions of the quiet and of the measureless possibilities. The librarian there says to her, “There’s something about a room for thoughts and words . . . I’ve always wondered if paradise might not be a little like a library.” Libraries and the books within them play a part in healing Ani’s grief, and I only wish the theme had been developed even more.

“Such fascinating things, libraries. She closes her eyes. She could walk inside and step into a murder, a love story, a complete account of somebody else’s life, or mutiny on the high seas. Such potential; such adventure—there’s a shimmer of malfeasance in trying other ways of being.”

While I love the way Ashley Hay uses words in The Railwayman’s Wife, I don’t think the book is perfect. The beginning of the novel is tightly woven, several themes are introduced, relationships are formed; but, for me, the driving force fizzled out by the end and I was left with a mixed message. But I still wholeheartedly recommend the book for anyone who loves words and enjoys reading character-driven novels, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the book’s ending.

Book Review: Serena

Serena

Ron Rash, Serena. Ecco, 2008.

Southern literature has a distinct yet undefinable flavor all its own. It’s quirky and dark, contradictory and homey, but I’m happy to have acquired the taste for it, along with the shrimp and grits and pimiento cheese. I’ve worn out the standards—Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird—and I’ve made the occasional foray into Southern gothic. My first taste of Southern gothic literature was Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and I’ve honestly never quite recovered. Southern gothic tends to be a world unto itself and sucks the reader into dark and terrible places of the mind.

But it was about time to read another and when I heard an interview with Southern author Ron Rash on the radio I figured I needed to add him to my to-read list. Critics look upon Rash as one of the most exceptional contemporary writers in the Southern genre, and his specialty is Appalachia, both past and present. I’m always up for taking in a little local art and decided to start with the Southern gothic novel Serena.

Serena took me out of my comfort zone yet was compelling and satisfying in a bleak sort of way. Serena is the tale of George and Serena Pemberton, lumber barons in 1930s western North Carolina. The opening paragraph explains the story’s set-up more succinctly than I can and can’t be beat for its clarity and the punch it packs into its few words:

“When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.”

The girl’s father is dead before the Pembertons leave the station. Over the next months and years, the Pembertons leave a trail of dead bodies as they—in particular, Serena—stop at nothing to achieve their goals of stripping the mountains bare and stopping the spread of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into their territory. The true depth of Serena’s depravity surfaces as she tries to squash the threat she feels from George’s illegitimate son and his mother.

Serena and the novel sharing her name are cold, fierce, and brutal. Serena is probably the most villainous female I’ve encountered. She carries herself in such a way that we’re never sure if she has a soul. She takes advantage of the rampant superstitions of Appalachia, taming an eagle to be her companion and acquiring a crippled henchman, to the point where the working men look on her as a god instead of a woman. She yearns for power and masculinity, wearing pants (in an age when most women don’t), riding horses astride, and placing bets alongside the working men. She channels Lady Macbeth in the way she subtly and continuously turns her husband toward evil, yet she never shares Lady Macbeth’s heart for guilt.

Serena has the feel of “literature” in the fine-tuned way its story is told, the flow of its prose, and the depth and richness of its symbolism. The symbolism here appeals to the part of my nature that thrills to find order and layers of meaning. Rash also employs a “chorus” to portray Serena from the viewpoint of the working men, making use of the superstitious nature of the mountain men and playing up the hard, cruel life on the land. He holds nothing back and creates a spell in the cool, collected way he tells of brutality and atrocity. He has that talent of great writers in that he conveys a wealth of meaning in few words.

I have a couple of problems with Serena. First of all, the body count is so unnaturally high that it nearly breaks the spell that Rash works so hard to create. He comes within inches of turning Serena into a caricature. I feel that Serena could have had the same atmosphere and ending without so many dead bodies. Another big hole in this book is character development. I still have no idea who George and Serena really are. It may be one thing to leave Serena without description as a literary tool to make her more mysterious, but it didn’t work for George Pemberton. He falls flat. I want to know more about him, what his background is, what makes him the cold man that he is in the novel.

The best parts of the book are those about Rachel Harmon, the mother of George’s illegitimate son. She’s the only main character that feels in the least bit human and with her, Rash inserts hope and grace into his novel. She is the foil of Serena—she is warm, emotional, and determined to preserve her son’s life at great cost to herself. As Serena’s power grows, so does Rachel’s, over her own future.

I was not disappointed in Serena. Although it’s not my typical reading fare, I appreciate “the moral of the story.” Rash explores the full depth of human depravity, yet shows its natural consequences. He does it in a creative, literary way that appeals to me. I’ll be looking for other books by Rash in the future.

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

The dust has settled now around Harper Lee’s over-hyped and over-disparaged second (or is it first?) novel, Go Set a Watchman. I say over-hyped—was it ever really probable to expect the second-coming of a book the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird? (Maybe I’m an eternal pessimist.) And over-disparaged, because those who expected more Mockingbird didn’t get it, and judged it unfairly.

The way we feel about Go Set a Watchman hinges on how we feel about, or how much we feel about To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe you grabbed the book as soon as it appeared at the store. Or maybe you’ve been afraid to read it, because you didn’t want new revelation to discolor your view of Maycomb, Atticus, and Scout. I admit I put it off for a couple of months and gave myself time to firmly ground my feelings for To Kill a Mockingbird by re-reading it. I think that’s the best thing I could have done, and what I’d suggest if you still haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. It turns out that they’re inseparable or, at the least, that Watchman cannot be understood or appreciated without an understanding and emotional attachment to Mockingbird.

Here is my take-away: If the moral of To Kill a Mockingbird is do right, even if you’re licked, then the moral of Go Set a Watchman is the right is not going to look the same to everybody.

(If you haven’t read Watchman yet, read with caution. But if you have read it, I’d love to find out whether or not you read it the same way I did.)

Scout, or the more grown-up Jean Louise, returns home to Maycomb after a stint in the heart of Yankee-dom, New York City. She has changed and Maycomb has changed. The Maycomb of Mockingbird was insulated, but the Civil Rights Movement is beginning to roll through the South and now Maycomb faces the outside world. In Maycomb, Jean Louise finds her beau, Hank, and her rock, Atticus, party to a reactive racism so repulsive that she becomes physically ill. She learns the hard way that you can’t ever go home again.

Jean Louise’s interactions with—and reactions to—her loved ones in Maycomb are nuanced, instructive, and heart-breaking. She endures one of the hardest parts of coming of age—the realization that you no longer believe the same things your parents believe. She learns that life is filled with grey areas. The black and white, right and wrong perceptions of childhood don’t always withstand the questions of adulthood. She learns who her “kind” is—Atticus is, Hank isn’t—by what motivates their choices. And she has to choose to live with compassion towards them, to choose not to hate them because they chose differently.

This lesson is one of the greatest lessons in maturity. How should we approach our inscrutable fellow men? With compassion. Atticus tells us to wear their shoes in Mockingbird. And how do we approach unexplainable history—that place filled with the fellow men that we do not always understand? With compassion. Go Set a Watchman illuminates one of those historical eras that modern man has a hard time understanding. But it is unfair to place ourselves in a position of superiority and judge the workings of history (after all, our lives will be subjected to the same in a few short years). Atticus and Maycomb are steeped in their Southern past—they cannot escape it’s effect on their thinking. If we look with compassion at Atticus, who many readers believe turned into a bitter old racist, we can see that in his situation he has turned into a realist. He sees problems in the black community (and yes, maybe these problems were caused by white people) that will only be exacerbated by the Civil Rights Movement. And he sees a Southern culture that needs time to make changes on its own and not have them handed down from above.

In the end, Jean Louise learns that maybe, just maybe, there can be more than one right point of view. We each have to follow our conscience, our Watchman, and work together. She says, “I guess it’s like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy—it’s a matter of balance.” For me, this parallels the many spiritual struggles that divide us. It is just possible that we are all led conscience-wise or Spirit-wise at a different rate. If we think our motives and philosophies have moved on to a higher, purer plain than the people we used to think ourselves a part of, this is where compassion and the Watchman come in.

I could go on and on and let my thoughts go deeper. The bottom line is, it’s a good read if you love Mockingbird. Yes, it has its problems. It’s choppy and lacks polish and the cohesive feel of Mockingbird. There are flashes of brilliance during Jean-Louise’s childhood flashbacks—Dill’s revival, learning the facts of life, and the school dance. But Watchman was best published second, in such a happy way. There is no way that my emotions would have been brought to such an awful pitch had I not had that emotional tie to Atticus, seen through Jem and Scout’s eyes, and had I not shared that childhood nostalgia for Maycomb.

Read it, enjoy it, and learn from it.

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“When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York’s not the world. I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I’m coming back to the world, and when I leave Maycomb it’s like leaving the world. It’s silly. I can’t explain it, and what makes it sillier is that I’d go stark raving living in Maycomb.” (75-76)

“Some men who cheat their wives out of grocery money wouldn’t think of cheating the grocer. Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes, Jean Louise. They can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways.” (237)

“Well, it seemed that to meet the real needs of a small portion of the population, the Court set up something horrible that could—that could affect the vast majority of folks. Adversely, that is. Atticus, I don’t know anything about it—all we have is the Constitution between us and anything some smart fellow wants to start, and there went the Court just breezily canceling one whole amendment, it seemed to me. We have a system of checks and balances and things, but when it comes down to it we don’t have much check on the Court, so who’ll bell the cat?” (239-240)

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” (270-271)

Dear goodness, the things I learned. I did not want my world disturbed, but I wanted to crush the man who’s trying to preserve it for me. I wanted to stamp out all the people like him. I guess it’s like an airplane: they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy—it’s a matter of balance. I can’t beat him, and I can’t join him— (277)

Middlemarch

There are times when the dishes are piled and dirty, the clutter-droppings of children cover every surface of the house, and the list of tomorrow’s to-do-things grows by the minute, that dreams and visions lie buried under the every-day, and life loses its scope. It becomes an hour-by-hour (ok, minute-by-minute with kids), day-by-day battle to stay on top of responsibilities and expectations. Ideas of doing something “meaningful” and “lasting” are gone with (younger) youth; I have to remind myself repeatedly that—hopefully—I’ve got a lot of time left for the passionate pursuit of other things.

Enter here George Eliot and Middlemarch. Mary Ann Evans, English journalist and author extraordinaire, hid behind the name George Eliot and produced such classics as Silas Marner and Adam Bede. I’ve read nearly all of them, but I picked up the hefty Middlemarch (my edition has 853 pages) for a re-read. With the above-mentioned chores and responsibilities, it took me a good month to finish. Yet my perseverance was richly rewarded.

Eliot knew all about dreams and what life does to them. In Middlemarch’s village-full of characters, most are facing some form of change and disappointment. All of the players are drawn with realism and honesty, but the central two that struck my heart were Dorothea Brooke, a young, hard-to-live-with sister and wife, longing for knowledge and the key to doing ultimate good; and Doctor Lydgate, a flawed intellectual visionary, plagued by his naivety about money and women. We make their acquaintance when the world and its possibilities lie before them and watch as change in the form of marriage—life, really—turns their ideals on their heads.

Eliot likens Dorothea’s dreams to Saint Theresa’s: an “ardour alternat[ing] between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.” Dorothea wants to know things, to do some great and lasting work. Yes—I, too, feel the constant pull of wanting “more” out of life, and yet the desire and need to fulfill a woman’s role, all while others watch and weigh the use of my abilities. And so I think of Dorothea with that line of C.S. Lewis’ running in my head: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Lydgate’s dreams are for his hoped-for career as a medical researcher. His pursuit of medicine is drawn like a romance, a true intellectual passion. He fears mediocrity.

And then comes change. Dorothea enters marriage as into salvation; not as an escape from evil, per se, but as a means of elevating herself intellectually and spiritually. Lydgate views his marriage as an adornment—the beauties of hearth and home as just another mark of his success—to his hoped-for career as a medical researcher. Dorothea longs to be changed by marriage; Lydgate counts on remaining unchanged by his. Both are soon fully disillusioned.

“In courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.” (195-196)

Here Eliot’s talents of portraying life with such realism and honesty are apparent. Which of us is not filled with expectations? “Another degree will make me more intelligent”—“marriage will bring me security”—“this friendship will take away the loneliness”—“this new job will finally bring contentment.” Expectations are bound to be unfulfilled, especially in marriage, where two fallen natures lean on and rub off on each other in such close proximity. In Dorothea’s words, “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something awful in the nearness it brings” (797).

The world of Middlemarch is tangled and complex. Lives weave in and out of one another, and dreams rise and fall. And what do we get for all our dreams? Sometimes nothing. But Eliot leaves us with hope in the simple day-to-day doing, and the wisdom of not placing all of our expectations in one basket. Despite all of those ideas that linger and wait to be pursued, today’s work matters, too.

“The effect of [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is halfway owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (838)
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“In the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average … is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home ….” (144-145)

“You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else.” (562)

“He felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees.” (615)

“Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. … Some set out, like Crusaders of old, with a glorious equipment of hope and enthusiasm, and get broken by the way, wanting patience with each other and the world.” (832)