Phong Nguyen’s Bronze Drum

 Phong Nguyen’s newest book, Bronze Drum, is a grand and lovely work, high-minded and beautifully realized.  He fleshes out, in fiction, a myth of the Việt people that he first heard from his father, and, always intrigued by it, later researched. He introduces the story in the most inviting way. He explains the historical basis for the myth, and the evolving reverence for it, with the major characters raised to sainthood.  Then, in a Prologue, Kha, himself a character in the battle, seems to step backward in time and call the audience to the unfolding of the great event, a “sublime moment,” as though it’s going to occur right now.  It’s a stirring beginning and the story meets the the expectations raised.  I love the book.

Here’s the situation: In 35 CE, The Lạc Việt people live under the increasingly restrictive and unjust rule of the Han conquerors who impose Confucian philosophy and order on their subjects, and who tax them unfairly.  Under the Han, regional lord Trung and his wife have managed to raise their two young daughters in gracious comfort, and under their own traditions. They are from a matriarchal culture, the daughters are broadly educated, including martial arts. While required to be dutiful in meeting family expectations, the young women are free to express their own natures, and to take as lovers whom they will. When marriage is imposed and a burdensome tax levied, the sisters rebel. Though they differ greatly in personal nature, both desire freedom for themselves and for everyone.  They gather and lead an army of women to overthrow the Han oppressors, with a brilliant strategy.

This is masterful storytelling, engaging on most levels.  The characters aren’t endearing at first, though they become so as mythical characters do, through extreme traits that are strengths and also flaws, memorable excesses.  They’re the kind of character one remembers—the impetuous Trung Nhi, the contemplative Trung Trǎc. The sisters first rebel against family and in their own quest encounter challenges and punishments that are vivid, poetic, and touching.  Trung Nhi, for example, who has to be outdoors and active, is imprisoned and denied the sound of human voice; Trung Trǎc, who finds a “life of learning” a great gift, must scale a mountain and acquire survival prowess in search of the “heartbreak flower.” This is wonderful stuff. Many colorful characters people this work and exemplify a quality. Almost all, maybe all, embody a contradiction or conflict. Kha, for example, is guardsman. Whom should he guard? And Phùng Thi Chính the cook, mother to four sons, giving birth in battle, grabbing her shield and leaping into the fray. What a powerful symbol of motherhood and warrior, breaking taboo gloriously.

The plot is quick and straightforward.  It moves from the palace, courtyard, town, to the mountain land, and then to battlefield. One reward in that movement is the unfolding of the physical reality of the country, the architecture, parks, gardens, food, animals (Tau the turtle has a minor role).  This is Việtnam a thousand years ago, before our experience with it, our preconceptions and biases.  We learn its beauty.  The descriptions overall suggest order, airyness, harmony between the natural and civilized world—except for battle. The unfolding of the plot introduces the layers of the society, highlights differences in the lifestyles of those ruling and those being served. The difficulty of being fair and just, of freedom, expands.  The story is a deep look at a society oppressed.  And there’s nothing really new there.  We see it all over the world, and in our own country.  This is one effect of great literature. To set out what we should all say No to.

Every scene encourages scrutiny. An early passage involving the punishment of the beggar Duy, for something he didn’t do, offers different perspectives about what occurs. Ensuing scenes do the same probing. We’re urged to question. What kind of rule must one disobey? When is honor not a good reason to fight? How much can and will a person sacrifice to have order rather than chaos? That last is a question for all classes, the governed and the governing. It’s not that Bronze Drum provides definitive answers, but that it presents two sides at least, and suggests these problems are relative, eternal. They have to be decided over and over. As now, when borders are being breached, identities ridiculed, people impoverished. When oppression diminishes and smothers human lives, people must rebel.

A great point, made often, is that people, especially leaders, must learn the “other” way of thinking and being, at least to acknowledge it. The sisters earn this through suffering, and when they join powers are a formidable force.  This point is made at length through Trung Trǎc’s two meetings with the Degar, the people of the mountain. They see no reason to join the rebellion since they aren’t affected by the Han oppression. Their ways are their own—primitive, harsh, physical. If they are to join the battle, there must be a reason to do so.  They are Việt people but in their attitude are from a separate country.  Painfully familiar.

The most beautiful passages in Bronze Drum are about love.  Love. The right to love whom and as one wishes is central to the rebellion.  Both sisters fall in love with a person below their social status, but it’s the kind of love between Trung Trǎc and Thi Sách, her tutor,  that is developed deeply, at length.   The attraction of minds precedes physical attraction and the blend completes a different world for the couple. It’s an idealized love, gracefully developed, and believable—romantic in the best sense. One thinks, let this last.  Such intense love between individuals, which may happen rarely but should never be denied, is like a chalice to all humans.  

Beguiling language is a great pleasure in this book.  Nguyen risks overstatement, but that suits the legendary nature of Bronze Drum. One has to attend the language.  The tone and the slightly elevated and formal narrative create a distance from our vernacular. That distance remains through shifts of point of view, in different domains. There’s individuality, but nothing really common. Many, many lines tug the heart or mind, or both. “Guilt ruptured and rent him.” “ Their memories arrayed themselves like an audience to this moment.” “Closing her eyes from a transport of joy.” “’The mind assigns personality to everything . . . even the void.” “[He] may be a ghost and a memory, but I am now his tooth and claw in this world.” The language is simply rich, always saying more than the words, creating this other world, but real. It’s a comfortable and consistent storytelling that one can give into, that guides, simultaneously authoritative and pleasing.

Nguyen is the author of two collections of short fiction, and two other novels.  He has proven his great talent in capturing dialect and multiple sensibilities, in innovation, and especially in dealing with ideals, our best.  His works are bold and ethical.  Bronze Drum is the most powerful to date.

Bronze Drum
Grand Central Publishing
August 2020
ISBN: 1538753707
404 pages

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John Mort’s Oklahoma Odyssey: Our Journey

When I read Down Along the Piney, John Mort’’s collection of fiction, published in 2019, I was taken by his fondness for the region and the people he wrote about. I felt I was visiting a familiar place with a good friend. In Oklahoma Odyssey Mort creates the same closeness, though the world is the 1890s Midwest. The book is historical fiction, deeply based on fact, and highlights life centering around the third land rush into Oklahoma territory, specifically the Cherokee Strip in 1893. It’s a delightful book, a pleasure to settle into. Mort creates vividly much of everyday life that fills our histories and memories:  oral and written literature, song, dance, food, customs, language.  It has a western feel and energy, too. But the real power is the cross-sectioned presentation of challenges faced by individual groups in that society. We can champion the heroes here, and cheer their success, while having a sharp look at our heritage.

                The basic situation: Euly Kreider’s father has been gunned down by Eddie Mole, already a wanted man, and Euly, a Mennonite, doesn’t want to seek revenge.  He does want to save his father’s property. His friend, Johnny Baxter, an Osage farm hand, believes Euly should avenge his father’s death. Also, the reward for Mole would help both men. Johnny, who needs to acquire horses as a bride price for Kate, Euly’s half sister, will trail Eddie, learn of the coming land rush, and spot a prime site for himself and Kate, though, as Indians, they’re not allowed to claim. Betrayal and loss follow, but so does success. The plots converge during the land rush, and destinies are met.

                Mort’s minor characters, always colorful, often take stage, even if briefly, and elicit sympathy—mostly women, though that might be my bias, and from different cultures.  There’s a prostitute whose pride is winning, an Osage mother so keenly aware of bias she is maddened. The three main characters are almost larger than life and their makeup matters:  Euly, white and young, but in a specific religious minority; Johnny older, full Osage, seasoned in prejudice, a worker; Kate, part white, part something else, and rare in form for those days, at least in the white culture—six feet, blond, dark skinned, and, bless her heart, with long feet.  They’re people in process and in a good direction.  They are such a mixture of heritage—genetically and environmentally—that what they represent most is the melting pot of America and the mixture of American people.  They also share traits we most value, regardless of the era: intelligence, boldness, loyalty, pride, honesty, fairness, and kindness.

Settings vary greatly and are interesting in themselves, in structure as much as in meaning. Towns dot the text. Kate moves to Kansas City, the “big city,” and allows us to see the topography of the place and the bustling civilization, theater, trolleys, unions, but also the closed doors. Her extended experience in “Mississippi Town,” the black town, is vivid and poignant.  She learns her passion as a painter and the role she chooses. In contrast are Johnny Baxter’s open-nature Cherokee Strip and the Osage reservation.  He sees the best and worst of the Strip, identifies the prime site and why, and adds the turmoil embedded in it by recalling its history. He shares the value of rituals and of claiming a family. From the home base in Jericho Springs, Kansas, Euly travels a different kind of landscape—a business world. He reveals the ins and outs of financing, merchants, shipments. With some rare skill, Mort makes stocks of items beautiful, and Euly’s choice of “hardware” as destiny believable.  

There are many other enjoyable features of this work, without having to think of their import. The characters address meaty matters, such as the nature of evil, when killing is justified, the nature of God, his powers and paradoxes. Warm instances, like friendship and kindness, outweigh the hard times, though pathos is ever near.  And animals.  Mort reveals fondness for all creatures, but horses and mules are prominent in this work. Horses are “sensitive creatures,” as even villain Eddie Mole says. They protest. They rage. They make stands. They show loyalty and love and pride—maybe heroism.  I was a little chagrined that the Kreider work horses were female, with common names, Maude and Gerty. But how fitting and how true.  Maude is a very endearing creature.  (I’ve never met John Mort, but I would like to talk with him about her.)

One complicated and marvelous presence in Oklahoma Odyssey is allusion. From the title to the end of the work, names, titles, parts of other works—written, spoken, painted, or sung— are so integrated into this novel that they seem structural, a device that creates a final unity. They’re like flood and rain simultaneously. Homer to Poe, Rosseau, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Eliza Wood.  Barbry Allen.  Johnny Baxter. There’s no hierarchy. Possibly, analysis could link origins to some particular source, such as oral, folk, formal education, but they just flow through the manuscript.  They are at least, and maybe at best, the stories of cultures blending, rising from everyone, belonging to everyone, equally. The naming of characters by themselves or their loved ones, like Ulysses, Noble Savage, Johnny Heart of Oak, Venus, and Little Hero might mean that this work and everyone’s work is part of an epic, legendary and grand.

Oklahoma Odyssey is entertaining, with humor, action, and much beauty. Insight and compassion are the binding agents that make it a great book. It’s a valuable portrait of us, part fact, part fiction, and deeply real.     

Books:

Mort, John. Down Along the Piney: Ozarks Stories (Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction) University of Notre Dame Press, 2018. 210 pages print.

—–. Oklahoma Odyssey. Bison Books April 1, 2022.  394 pages print.

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More Than a Good Horror: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic

            Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning Mexican-Canadian author with at least seven books published. Until recently, I hadn’t read any of her works. A friend recommended Mexican Gothic to me, saying it was the kind of fiction I enjoyed, filled with esoteric details, so there’s something new and fascinating at almost every turn of the page. She was right. It’s an astonishing, colorful, lively book, filled with details about the Mexican culture, about art, history, and science that are interesting in themselves and worth following up, and that fit in the work some major thematic way. Though it’s a rather light horror, it also opens worlds of serious thought and conjecture. Everything weaving it together—the underpinning—is realistic, and, if the reader wants to pursue those prods, more than touches on contemporary issues such as gender roles, racism, and eugenics. It’s a strong egalitarian and cautionary (in a modern sense) work.

            The plot is very traditional horror. Through a disturbing cryptic letter from a cousin, twenty-two years old Noemi Taboada is summoned for help. Catalina is being held prisoner at the home of her husband’s family, High Place, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. She mentions ghosts in the walls, voices. Noemi must answer the call. In the misty heights, she finds a hill-top mansion governed by a repulsive Howard Doyle, his daughter, son, grandson, and three servants. Silence reins, as does control. Noemi’s attempts to get medical help for Catalina are blocked. She is herself beset by nightmares—or sleepwalking dreams or visions—in which events clue her as the nature of the place, its origin, of herself, and what she risks. She discovers a symbiotic relationship that has been nurtured and advanced in the High Place locale, that has destroyed the family and more. She must draw on her better self and her instincts to avoid falling victim and to save others.

            The beginning is inviting: 1950s Mexico City, parties, music, costumes, and customs. The horror begins slowly but increases, as the genre demands, and toward the end the book almost throbs and seeps. The horror is not so much frightening as repulsive.  Moreno-Garcia is an expert about fungi, and her authority keeps the horror on the edge of reality. Howard Doyle has forced a symbiotic relationship with fungi. All the repulsive details—boils, blackened rot, blistered, peeling flesh, erupting flesh, foul, poisonous air, and so on, are natural—and not hideous—in the fungal world. That same decay in a human, especially close-up and over a short span of time is revolting. The adherence to what’s plausible in our natural world gains acceptance for the conjecture—this could happen to you/us. Francis Doyle, for example, describes the “cicada fungus Massospora cicadina” which takes over the cicada. Such zombie makers are pretty common in the natural world. (National Geographic author Mary Bates named five.) It’s fitting that misuse turns the user hideous. So the decay of Howard Doyle, given the network he’s joined, is realistic as is the milieu: mildew, mold, yellow and golden air—a gloom—fog, undergrowth, fevers and poison. The true horror comes from baser human nature: the lasciviousness of Howard Doyle, his greed, his violence. Murder, sacrifice, and live burial are human acts, quite distinct.

            The monstrous Doyle family represents a very realistic and familiar threat—the belief that one race is superior. The Doyles’ isolation and desire to maintain their genetic traits above others led to incest, and to the use and destruction of the outsiders. The indigenous people of El Triunfo were seen as undesirable and gradually stripped of their land, its resources, their livelihood, their health, and their lives. Doyle is pure (incestuous) English; Noemi, mestizo, Spanish and Mezatec—European and indigenous. Their nature and ancestry present the eugenics argument and the broader battle is woven in by allusion to theories, major names, and studies in eugenics, e.g. the work of Galton, Davenport and Steggeda, Juan Vasconcelos, and others. Doyle notes that Noemi is swarthy, and he asks pointedly if she believes that it’s the destiny of Mexican people “to forge a new race that encompasses all races,” which he, of course, opposes with all his nature and power. His is an attitude that has sickened our nation and world.

           While Noemi is a charming young heroine—beautiful, rebellious, savvy, and consistently witty (not the fainting sweetness of her cousin Catalina)—everything we learn about her reveals a human evolving, away from the standard and traditional, into the bold and individual. That means, here, away from romance and illusions, fairytales, into science and fact, away from the female role. She’s a new-money socialite, has attended Feminine University and now wants to attend National University. She knows about chemicals through her family’s businesses. Her goal of being an actress has given way to the goal of being an anthropologist like Margaret Mead. She is extremely well read and alludes to Kubla Khan, classical literature, British kings, Shakespeare, art, music, religion, herbal medicine, folklore, and parapsychology. Her references are not empty namedropping. She interprets her surroundings and herself with that extra knowledge. Noemi applies the story of Kubla Khan’s stone—which serves as a seal of protection for his messengers—to her own position serving as a messenger for Catalina, and having the stone in her pocket. This doesn’t seem like hubris at all, just drawing from the world for one’s identification, goals, and place—self-worth. She’s a woman absorbing knowledge and blending it in herself. Everything about her suggests progress. A woman underway. Though she doesn’t actually defy gender limitations, she blurs them. She’s drawn toward the grandson Francis, who has the traits that are traditionally female. He’s shy, an artist, poet, “fragile,” but also a naturalist—a combination of art and science—and she’s moved by his “fervor” more than his masculinity. This isn’t a reversal of roles but a blend of roles, without qualifying either as superior or inferior.

           Moreno-Garcia suggests that it’s vital to consider the different as part of the whole, to work together for inclusive knowledge, and to explore and learn all aspects of a subject. She offers dualities and contrasts, such as the dye that can color wallpaper but also poison the air, the mushrooms that can bring visions and those that cause death, and the three medical practitioners on El Triunfo: the local physician who took over the practice of his predecessor; the English doctor who treats only the ruling family; and the herb woman, Marta Duval. The local guy doesn’t disdain or misread the herbalist. Sometimes there’s humor in a contrast, such as with Zote, which is great laundry soap and good catfish bait.

            It was a pleasure and education to read and to reread Mexican Gothic, following the clues and prods in the story. I enjoyed Noemi’s fiery, lusty self, and strong will. Even more, I appreciated being guided to underlying issues. In light of current research into genetic engineering, creating clones for organ harvesting, and hybrid humans, Mexican Gothic is a warning, as fiction and science fiction in particular often are. I read just the other day, in Live Science, that “synthetic mouse embryos complete with beating hearts and brains” have been “created with no sperm, eggs, or womb.” MIT Technology Review reported a “startup that wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting.” Moreno-Garcia’s new book, The Daughter of Dr. Moreau was released last month, July 2022, and is already a best seller. I noted it’s historical fiction and feminist. No doubt.  No doubt it will also be an entertaining, smart read.

Sources:
Books
Mexican Gothic
Del Rey, 2020
ebook
(321 pages print length)

Bates, Mary. “Meet 5 ‘zombie’ parasites that mind-control their hosts.” National Geographic, October 24 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/2018/10/meet-5-zombie-parasites-that-mind-control-their-hosts. August 1, 2022.

Lanese, Nicoletta. Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/synthetic-mouse-embryos, August 4, 2022.

Regalado, Antonio. “This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting.”

MIT Technology Review, August 4, 2022. https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/08/04/1056633/startup-wants-copy-you-embryo-organ-harvesting/

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To Borrow a Phrase: Is it stealing a word?

In an interview about writing  Bel Canto, Ann Patchett mentions “stealing”a sentence.  The interviewer says, “that’s what writing is all about,” and Patchett responds, “yes” and laughs.  She had used a statement overheard after an opera, Rusalka, that was subtly witty in context. Since the statement was in casual conversation, not recorded, Patchett had no duty to acknowledge any source.   So It was especially honest and gracious of Patchett to credit the “owner” of the phrase.  She didn’t know him personally but without providing his name, she still gave him his due.  She could simply have been noting a particularly interesting source.  The choice of “stealing,” though, opens a delicate matter.  It implies an ownership.  Since the interviewer defined the word and the response was laughter, there’s no certainty in how either the interviewer or Patchett actually interpreted the word.  It was softened in the acceptable acquiring of subjects and skills and tools from one’s environment.  This wasn’t really stealing. I agree. So what was it? A form of using another’s creation that’s acceptable.  How do we know when it’s acceptable? How careful should we be to leave another’s words alone? When, if ever, should we ask permission? Doubtless, writers aren’t going it agree about this, but thinking about word ownership can’t do any harm and might lead to some easier decisions by some of us, based on personal ethics at least.   

A nice, borderline distinction about word ownership occurs in the movie  Nim’s Island.   Jodie Foster’s character Alexander (Alex) is a successful (but agoraphobic) writer.  She appreciates a remark a pilot states, and says “That’s a very good line. You know, I might steal that. I’m a writer.” He refuses, saying he’s a writer, too, and he’s going to use the line.  Her response credits the fellow’s right:   “Well. Okay. That’s fine.  It’s all yours.”  She acknowledges a common understanding about ownership of language with that “It’s all yours.”  Here, though the phrase is oral, the speaker plans to use it.  He claims it.  But it’s still not recorded. Will he write it? Isn’t it a little precious to hang onto one line?  Yes, maybe.  How different would the scene be if he answers “Sure.  I’m a writer, too, but there’s more where that came from.”  The whole situation changes. The dynamics between them change.  If he’s a writer, too, the words are part of his work, his image, his tool kit.  If he hoards them, he’s rather comic; if he grants them, he’s generous, confident.  The deciding factor here is Alex asked.  If she had remained silent, the pilot couldn’t have refused, and Alex might have written it first.  Granted, the movie is not a heavy one, the scene has a comic element, but the point is clear nonetheless.  Lightness often accompanies touchy subjects.

While writers are constantly drawing from all their senses for material and techniques, including what they hear—dialect, inflection, jargon, tone, etc.–even oral language can sometimes be the creation of someone and that person may want recognition.   How important can a few words be in a person’s career? That depends on the person.  To Alex or any seasoned writer, probably very little, but to a new writer, still unsure of talent and potential, possibly very much.

The advice to “steal what you can” is pretty common among writers—I’ve heard it a number of times in workshops and casual settings, and even in a presentation by a visiting writer.  Though they’re suggesting that writers should read good prose—learn up, which is definitely true—commonsense dictates the advisors don’t intend that anyone should lift written words and phrases without credit.  They mean we can become better writers by immersing ourselves in good writing, by absorbing language and techniques as far as our own abilities will allow.  Even deliberate copying to internalize structure and sound is a good and ancient practice.  Claiming the copy as your own, though, is a practice of a different sort—stealing.  Most of us know the common word for that kind of stealing: plagiarism.  That’s not the subject here.                

When someone else’s words impress me enough that I remember them, I shy away from writing anything remotely similar.  During my graduate work at the University of Arizona, I was very moved by a description in a classmate’s story. It went something like this: “The shape of her head was engrained in the palms of my hands.”  The sentence captured the gentle nature and tender love of the protagonist.  It has come to mind many times through the years. Recently I phoned the person I believed wrote the story, Marvin Diogenes.  He recalled that I had praised that particular line, and corrected my memory—the wording had changed slightly.  Another phrase that often tempts me is “sculpted from lard” to describe a very pale person.  Where did it come from?   I feel it must have been in Carson McCuller’s work, or Faulkner’s. Suffice it to know that it isn’t mine.  The description was perfect wherever it was.   I carry a figurative sack in which to keep others’ words that I love, can’t forget, but also can’t use. So many!

Humans love words and like to acknowledge talent, wit, sarcasm, succinct observations.  Communities tend to have their own metaphors, similies, a whole jargon, and to give credit within their own circles. (Edd Smith, a Tucson fiddler, was a walking non-urban dictionary.  Recently, Adam Lambert was credited in the Urban Dictionary with coining “flubbing.”) When a phrase passes into the larger community, sometimes the source is forgotten (maybe claimed much later).  People are careful not to use famous words without crediting, unless the source is considered common knowledge to the particular audience, such as “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “Ask not what your country can do for you,”  “my guitar gently weeps,” “Frankly I don’t give a damn.”* “Houston, we have had a problem.”* “It’s a far, far better thing that I do. . . .”  I’ve read a few “screw my courage” without the completing words “to the sticking place.” They never seem to fit well in the new spot.

 Among writers, painful memories are often shared about seeing their spoken or written words under someone else’s name—a colleague, a teacher, a friend. Not an entire piece, not plagiarism, just the use of words and short phrases.  It’s a common, unfortunate side of writing, but not a hard blow. Easily overcome by persevering.  Many writers have been asked and will be asked again “May I borrow” or told “That’s great, I’m going to use that.” It’s an opportunity to be generous, to be confident.  You have a store of words, a wealth.  No one can use them as you will. Your thoughts and heart dictate the context and tone. Bless the user and the language. Be fair-minded when you’re the finder. How free is the word or phrase really? Should you ask?

*”Frankly” was added by scriptwriters.

*As actually spoken

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Merry Christmas!

Here’s a short Christmas story for you. The setting is The Retreasure Shoppe, a secondhand store, late afternoon on Christmas Eve. A woman named Dora seeks to find quickly some decent gifts for little money. She finds a special one.

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We’re All in the Race: Ann Patchett’s Run

Any book that leads me to recognize my biases and expectations is valuable to me, and Ann Patchett’ s Run  is one of those. A rare book, too, given the topics she deals with. She constructs a small mixed family whose members’ status and interactions raise questions on complex issues, particularly race, heritage, legacy, duty, honor, and love.  She does so while engaging the reader in a family’s plight over an injured person and her child.  It’s a book of many small mysteries and connections that create a very contemporary, important story, and could lead to a personal revelation as well. It’s a bold, beautifully crafted book.

Patchett prepares the reader for the work’s complexity by underlaying the present circumstances with a family legend.  A statue of Bernadette, an early ancestor, has for four generations been passed to the female descendant who bears the closest resemblance—fair, redheaded, rather ethereal, in pose and expression like the virgin Mary.  The legend contains the truth—a lie about who the statue represented and its origin. The dominant legacy, though, is that the similarity of surface features entitles one descendant to the statue and all it represents.  The family now in possession of the statue includes no mother—she died years ago—no daughter, but three sons, one white and two black, both adopted.  Who most closely represents the statue and thus will inherit it? The story that follows eradicates wonderfully the surface identity of characters and brings the reader into each character’s nature, never predictable by skin color. Actually, not predictable at all.  And there lies the beauty and the power of this book.  Some readers may be surprised at the difference between what they expect and what they find.  

Though the beginning of present time is a bit slow, an unexpected event occurs that snaps the story into action and focuses sharply on family and divisions within it.  While walking to a party to meet with Jesse Jackson, one of the brothers is saved from a wayward vehicle by a black woman who thrusts him out of danger and is herself injured.  She is accompanied by a young girl.  Why would she save him? Are they related? The ensuing hours will reveal who she is, why she and her daughter were nearby. And, increasingly important, how injured she is. Will she live? Priorities change as they must and should. The more long-term conflicts and estrangements become clear, too. 

There’s so much inviting speculation that artifice seems heavier than story, but that’s only for a very brief while and possibly just my own take.  Prominent politicians are mentioned, squarly placing the family on the Democratic side. The sons seem to represent religion, politics, and science.  Names are clues.  The young girl is Kenya and her mother is Tennessee.  These and many more engaging hooks are not adequate to what the characters truly represent and how individual they become. They work wonderfully as little mysteries that, being followed, provide more important details. Who is the mother? Which child belongs to whom? Who was the father? Does it matter which child was adopted first?  What was the original name? Are the characters who love Shubert related? Patchett can turn a view around, which encourages looking at the other side, and then questioning that, too. Sullivan quotes to Teddy part of a Martin Luther King’s speech but then remarks that “the white brother part doesn’t work exactly.  It should be our black brothers. ‘We have sometimes given our black brothers the feeling that we like the way we were being treated.’”  But Teddy, who is the artist at remembering speeches, thinks that if the next paragraph had been remembered his own “entire enterprise would have been sunk.” The passage has personal and positive meaning between the two men, and our immediate understanding is not the final one.  Some of the signs are misleading, and our speculation about them is telling. This small community is our larger one, the view made palatable, not strongly emotional or even dramatic. Rather low and gentle. 

Central is that the people love each other. They try to work together for one common goal. Sullivan and his father, Doyle, try to find one thing they can agree upon, because they are divided in many ways.  They agree on Kenya, the young girl, on helping her.  Of course. They agree on a person, not a cause.  The cause is the unity and the unity is helping.  How wonderful.  The whole work suggests this. A similar suggestion is to be courteous and kind by pretending to feel if you can’t feel.  That brings to mind the old adage (I forget the source, which may be Shakespeare, Aristotle, or some other wise person) to pretend a virtue if you have it not.  In pretending, you may develop the virtue. Maybe you just need the opportunity.  The pretense can always be dropped.  One son does this, adopts a career as a duty, and relinquishes it when he feels the duty has been met.  There’s no rule about such responsibility in Patchett’s work.  It’s one of the possibilities for an individual. One of life’s vicissitudes.   

Patchett expands the concept of mothering and disallows harsh judgment against women who give up their children. A woman can relinquish a child because of great love for the child or for another person.  Most of the biological mothers here are missing, which of course matters to the child, as we learn through Tip’s later thoughts. But the absence in Patchett’s view is never abandonment, neither emotional nor physical. Love is the cause. And mothering is a genderless activity, a choice, an experience.  It is nurturing and caring.  As is fathering.  Many characters here are mothering, including the twelve-year old Kenya, who wishes only briefly not to have the role.  Perhaps the greatest is Sullivan.  He is named after a priest and family member. He furthers the cause of protecting, evident as a dominant admirable trait of any person, male or female. Sullivan has the physical traits of his mother and, though his father thinks Sullivan doesn’t have any of his mother Bernadette’s traits, he definitely does.  Sullivan loves children and knows how to love them, to comfort them.  That’s his calling.

No character is left knowable only through surface details.  In Patchett’s graceful, precise prose their thoughts and feeling reveal each more fully, different from outsider’s perception.  This occurs with every character, but more strikingly, and possibly the most difficult for Patchett to achieve, with the two characters named Tennessee.  The injured woman, Tennessee, hallucinates with (or truly talks with) her deceased friend. Thoughts and feelings are clearly separate, except when, briefly, they’re not.  It’s an extreme example of the fluidity among characters and issues that makes the book profound and beautiful. While the shifting point of view in this passage answers questions that might otherwise go unanswered, it doesn’t seem an artifice as much as it does the realistic mental and emotional journey of the injured mother in remembering her friend.  Only she could share this. The depth of individual emotion warms the passage and raises it above artifice.

Without giving away any details, let me say the ending is a positive and comforting view.

What rich and intricate messages this story contains. A mixture we are.  Yes. And all of us heirs to a human nature and human rights, despite surface details. The original question, about who gets the statue, is answered.  It’s a mild reward compared to all the answers Patchett has presented about the true nature of family, which includes all of us as individuals, flawed, but deeply concerned about life and desires and deeply loving someone, and paying some cost to serve others. All valuable.

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Our Cat Who Loved a Tree

We lost one of our cats last year, Twitch, a slow, easy-loving, fellow.  We miss him, especially now, as Christmas approaches.  Twitch loved our old Christmas tree.  We tried a smaller one, but he didn’t accept it, just stared at it. I’m posting these pictures to show how he loved the one tree, even bit by bit as it came down. I know people over-sentimentalize pets (and maybe all animals).  Guilty.  But the creatures bring that about if you pay attention to them.  Not all, of course. Some of them prefer no attention.

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About Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road

Here’s a book to warm the heart.  Every character is flawed but within likeable parameters and Tyler’s acceptance and fondness embraces large variations of personalities.  The best is Micah Mortimer, the lead character. Following him is like accompanying a dear fellow and bolstering him, rooting for him to open his eyes. It is so refreshing to have problems presented that aren’t dark, dead end, don’t require superhuman fortitude, but just honesty, perseverance, self-examination, gradually at least, an open mind and heart. And yet, the conflicts are serious, as timely now as in the past—the need for a family, the desire to know who your parents were, to find your own path, to be different and accepted, to love and be loved.

Central is that Micah Mortimer loses lovers and doesn’t know why. He wonders what’s his flaw, and is in search of the answer. One wonders why, too.  He seems to be the kindest, sweetest guy, deserving of better working positions than computer troubleshooter and apartment manager. Then, as it occurs in real life, we come to know him and realize, Ah, yes.  Micah is a perfectionist, obsessive compulsive, whose sweet nature is combined with micro-management.  He has a definite, wonderful urge to be kind, to help others, but that loving trait is accompanied by a too sharp eye for small faults, and a too rigid schedule for comfort. 

Tyler’s explanation for Micah’s nature is really a careful, believable blend of nature and nurture. We see him interact with customers, with neighbors, with former lovers, and with his family.  Contrasting Micah’s nature is his boisterous, chaotic, creative family who reveal his uniqueness.  He loves them dearly just as they are but wants and needs order and quiet.  They accept him, too, and his need for control. This need may have been innate, but made more solid perhaps by the environment—his family.  So, Micah comes across as a normal person, somewhere on the spectrum of human, who needs to pare down his control a bit. 

A personality quirk that weakens the romantic element is Micah’s apparent capability of loving any decent woman, moving from one to the next with a similar level of hope and emotion.  Perhaps that makes the work even more realistic.  We can, after all, love many people and not all grand passions are healthy ones. Tyler’s ways of showing love in the perception of another is very touching.  I’m tempted to say it’s also the feminine approach.  Micah notes the tiny details of a person that please him, just the sight or sound.  It’s the way we all react surely to something we love, the grace of it, the feeling it brings to us.  Tyler captures that beautifully.

One slightly strange plot line is that a young man appears who believes Micah is his father from a limited liaison with his mother.   Micah knows it isn’t true—and the reader knows—but Micah doesn’t  totally disillusion the needy young man. Instead, he assumes a helping role, rather fatherly.  That’s an act many kind people do, sometimes for a community of children.

In the world of this novel, we don’t lose people. Lives intersect and intersect later in a new way.  Things change but not drastically and horribly. Tyler’s work suggests we may have a chance to understand, to explain, to regain relationships and broaden our sense of self.

Each time I read a Tyler book, I recall how much I enjoy her novels, her characters, her respect for them and people in general.  I’m always fortified by her view on life. (Mary Oliver’s poetry does that for me, too.  Sees the beauty in the small and the whole.) I want to write books like this.  A wonderful group of normal people, all important and lovable, and nothing false or overwrought, nothing dire and dark, subtle, gentle, and moderate in today’s world.  We write what we know and write toward what we wish to know and believe.

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From a Good Heart and a Great Pen: Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant

Even though Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has been out for four years and reviewed many times (I’ve read none of them), it’s new to me, and I want to sing its praises.  The few flaws are minor in contrast with the virtues, especially considering that this is the author’s first book.  There’s a dark element—something horrendous has happened—that will thread throughout and be clearly exposed and explained.  While that thriller aspect may draw some readers, it’s not the most engaging part of the novel. Quirky characters, good people, fresh language, and timely warm messages make this novel entertaining, enjoyable, and a very positive read.   Eleanor is a survivor.  She’s oddly innocent.  She gives us takes on our modern culture, especially beauty, that are humorous and telling. We know people like her and, at times, we are like her. Through the very welcome character of Eleanor, Honeyman fosters our understanding of how different we are in our interpretation of what’s normal, standard, and even what’s happening at a given moment.  She also reminds us that being open and interacting with others is the road to discovering who we are and what changes we might want to effect.     

Eleanor Oliphant (not her real name) is Scottish, works as an accountant in the back office of a company.  She has four immediate coworkers, but others interact occasionally.  Eleanor is disfigured with a scarred face, and the cause of the disfigurement haunts her in brief memories.  Her upbringing has prepared her for a certain kind of “normal” and a certain place in the world.  From her point of view what she does is the proper way, but to those around her, she is perhaps “right nutty.”  She has lived in the same apartment for about 10 years, with no visitors, no social life. She has frequent conversations with her verbally vicious mother, and weekend visits with a bottle of vodka. Though isolated, she knows of popular culture and trends, though only generally, beauty shops, bikini waxes. Recently, she has set her heart on musician Johnnie Lomond, whom she hasn’t met, as the man who will be her life partner—her savior.  While she’s trying to reinvent herself to capture his interest, she’s being courted by a kind of oversized nice guy coworker, Raymond, from IT. 

Eleanor is a very quirky character, and very winning. Articulate, intelligent, judgmental, occasionally biting, she can switch dialects and verbal domains (talk high society or low, British or Scots), and seems familiar with philosophy, literature, French—enough for light social discourse.  One wonders how she came by this training.  And one learns.  Her innocent anticipation about such matters as bikini waxes, hair styling, and especially about food are humorous and possibly match many of our own awkward introductions into a culture, sub or main.

At times realism is stretched.  At the beginning, Eleanor’s physical disfigurement appears to be a major disfigurement, not so later on, manageable with makeup.  Some of Eleanor’s insight and consequent changes occur too swiftly.  They outstep development, especially for a person as rigorously locked in a pattern as she seems to be. The quickness, though, keeps the story lively, and unpredictable.  And there’s the possibility that she changes quickly because her core nature, under training and experience, is ready to burst out with the first opportunity and sense of safe landing.

The mystery of what happened to Eleanor—and her role in it–unwinds a little at a time and is never the real draw, just one part. That’s refreshing, letting the reader know or at least suspect that this isn’t going to be a graphic horror.  Horror, yes, in the sense of what happens to people in life, but not scene to scene depicted.  In fact, it’s a kind of gentle mystery, not a cozy, but like a British mystery where the crime is vile, but the people are the reward of the book, quirky, but basically good. The mystery is honestly answered.  There’s no surprise, and a reader accustomed to mysteries will likely identify the clues—not be able to project totally, but to feel on a good track, and at the end say Aha!

The language is particularly appealing.  Some passages are so perfect to that character and her world, and yet, one may want to adopt them.   Eleanor explains that when she wants to know something, she relies on the animal world, and might ask herself “What would a salamander do?” If we consider that a bit deeply, she’s saying she has to rely on what she knows.  Which is what she does. Perhaps we all do. Here are a few examples from many that are immediately touching. Describing herself: “I am matte dull and scuffed.”  Upon seeing a crying baby finally being comforted: “My heart soared for him.” And at a certain moment: “Silence sat between us, shivering with misery.” Such lines at the right time are so valuable to readers, at least this one.  I like to feel the story as well as to read and know it.

This was Gail Honeyman’s first book.  I look forward to any writing from her good heart and great pen.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: a Novel

Penquin 2017, 2018

Available on Amazon and everywhere else

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Raccoon and I: Two Poor Decisions

What I assumed was a wool feather duster had a strange appearance.  Instead of lying horizontally on the laundry room shelf, half of it hung down, very soiled.   The dirty areas were layered, ringed, actually, and that clued me to look closer.  Behind the soapnuts bag, the softening sheets, and mopping pads was a scrunched down raccoon.  I thought he had to be a baby, because he could hide in such limited space.  I spoke to him a few times and he raised up to study me.  I said a few more words, softly, since he wasn’t erratic or threatening or even cowering.  Then I worried that his calmness might not be natural.  He might be rabid.  So, what now?

It was too early for an Animal Control officer to be on duty, and I wasn’t certain we even had such an officer in our town.  During the pandemic, the animal shelter was taken over by volunteers and funded privately. Now a tax supports it. A call to the police department might result in the animal being put down.  I wasn’t ready to be responsible for that.  The raccoon had seemed friendly, perhaps a little accustomed to humans. I found two live-catch cages in our backyard shed, but couldn’t reach the biggest one, so settled for the smallest—large enough for a cat and thus suitable for a little raccoon.  I set the trap with a bit of peanut butter in the rear, and put it in the floor of the laundry room.  That’s a narrow space, with washer and dryer—and shelf above—on one side, and a long closet on the other.  The raccoon would have the option of going out the cat window by which he entered, or onto the floor and into the cage. Or  he could stay on the shelf for a long period since three bowls of food were on the dryer below him.  A bathroom on one end offered water, especially for a crafty raccoon.  Leaving the door to the laundry room open wasn’t an option, since we have two dogs and two cats.  Mayhem at least, and death at worst, might result.

I taped the cat-door flap up, so a window to the outside was clearly visible and the scents of outside could waft in.  I called to the raccoon from the outside window and waved with my hand.  Here’s the way, fellow.  Baby.  He didn’t budge.  He looked like he might sleep there.

After 8:00 a.m. I called the Police Department’s non-emergency number.  They were unable to send an officer since they offered on-hands assistance only for domesticated animal problems.  But they connected me with Samuel Whisler at the Missouri Department of Conservation.  A gentle-voiced man, he was on the side of the raccoon (as was I).  He advised me that raccoons are very seldom rabid and that I just needed make a clear path to outside and to make the raccoon’s inside position uncomfortable.  I needed something long to prod him with from a distance, something like a shovel.  No way could I lift and maneuver a shovel without hurting something, mostly myself.  Mr. Whisler stayed on the phone for my first try—a timid push with a long-handled brush stuck into a Swiffer box.  I wielded it with one hand, phone in the other. The raccoon looked perplexed, not afraid or nervous. Questioning. I hung up the phone.  I felt guilty.

Talking constantly, I used a kitchen broom to push the box toward the raccoon. Now he was being dislodged, and he went into a slow-motion action.  He was really a laid-back raccoon.  He somberly nudged or pushed everything off the shelf, including the iron.  He turned his back to me and tried to climb the cupboards or to pull them from the wall as if opening a door that way. He repeatedly looked back at me. He wet suddenly, so much that liquid ran the length of the shelf, dripping over the sides and over the end.  I didn’t blame him. But.  I withdrew, closed the kitchen door, and hoped his panic would guide him out the window or into the trap.

From the kitchen, I heard a thump on metal.  He was down from the shelf, onto the washer or dryer.  I ran out the kitchen door to the deck in time to see him going over the side, behind the tree and on up to his escape.

Even then, I knew I was enjoying the encounter, because he was never a threat. Some raccoons might be, particularly if ill, as might be any cornered animal.  This one was doing the best he could. He may have hissed at me once, but if he did, I forgive him.  I reported the result to Samuel Whisler, with my thanks.  He advised me that the real danger here was to the raccoon–leaving cat food out could lead to the raccoon’s death.  Cats carry distemper, though they don’t get the disease, don’t suffer from it.  They do transmit it. And raccoons die from distemper.  It’s a real problem, he said.

Cleaning the laundry was a hassle. The handprints are still on the wall. I can’t get a good photo of them, but I remember how his hands looked as he patted and gripped.  I didn’t know jumping from the shelf to the dryer was so difficult.  He wanted to climb or hang down, not jump. He eventually made a bold move. 

Now, I take up the cats’ food at night.  They’ll learn to wait for breakfast and to hurry for a late night snack before it disappears.  I would very much like to leave something outside for the raccoon, but I know that would be more meeting a need of mine that of meeting his.  I wish I had been less concerned with allowing him to escape and more with allowing him to live a good life.  If I had held out longer, he would have gone into the cage.  I could have taken him to Cave Hollow Park or Knob Noster Park where food would be abundant, and he wouldn’t have to eat cat food, or go inside houses, or find trash cans.  My impatience was stronger than my foresight.

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