Books as Refuge and The Rain in Portugal

IMG_4318In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (highly recommended), a theater troupe makes its way through a post-apocalyptic world, performing Shakespeare for tiny communities that have escaped the plague. The company’s motto, taken from Star Trek Voyager, is “Survival is insufficient.”

Which is, essentially, the raison d’etre for this site in the post-election landscape.

I believe in making calls, making donations, making the decision every day to stand up for our fellow human beings.

And I believe that when we are weary and heartsore from the work of the world, books are a refuge. They give our minds rest; they let us escape; they encourage us to love harder; they call us back to action.

We must have light in the darkness. We must have all kinds of books.

I’m going to do my best for the world beyond the page, but I’m going to keep reading omnivorously too (even if I’m not writing as much as usual).

I hope you’ll find some comfort, and some light, here.


And on that note, today I’ll recommend Billy Collins’s new collection, The Rain in Portugal.*

Like Mary Oliver, Mr. Collins is one of the most popular poets in the United States; read “The Lanyard” if you want to know why. As I wrote in my review of Aimless Love a few years ago,

His poems are cozy but not uncomfortably intimate, clever but not arrogant. Their subjects are work and rest, reading and writing, eating, looking out of windows; in short, the everyday business of being alive in America. As I’ve written elsewhere, his poetry is perfect for picking up on a whim, while you wait for a friend who’s late to dinner, say. You’ll be entertained, you’ll think, and you might even laugh, but you won’t be trying to unknot a metaphor half an hour later while you chew your escarole.

The Rain in Portugal is a collection that deploys Mr. Collins’s signature humor, which is often self-deprecating (“Some days, I look worse than yesterday’s oatmeal”). The book’s title comes from a poem called “On Rhyme,” which pokes fun at his lack of facility for rhyming. And in “Early Morning,” the speaker begins:

I don’t know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them on
the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I’m at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

After delivering this admonishment, he ruefully notes that he once told an interviewer that “early morning was my favorite time to write / I was not thinking of this particular morning.”

img_2357More fanciful are poems like “Cosmology,” in which the world is imagined to rest of Keith Richards’s head (literally) or  “The Bard in Flight” (you can read a slightly different version here), in which the speaker imagines sitting next to Shakespeare in an airline cabin; particularly clever is the way he imagines the Bard trying to catch the nuances in the flight attendants’ speech (for later use, of course).

Still, despite the humor and the flights of fancy (couldn’t resist), I found this collection more somber than I expected; maybe wistful is the right word. The poems about travel seem a lonely, for one thing. There’s a brief elegy for Seamus Heaney that sneaks up on the reader, like a silent rabbit in a yard. And I loved “December 1,” a tribute to the poet’s mother on what would have been her 114th birthday.

If you’re looking for respite, a quiet hour or two to spend in someone else’s everyday life, with thought experiments and gently put questions, you won’t go wrong with The Rain in Portugal.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.


Blogger friends, if you’ve read this far, thank you, and thank you for all your kind comments over the last few weeks. I’m sorry to have fallen behind with your posts, and I hope to get back up to speed in December, though I probably won’t be around as much as I used to be.

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How the Light Gets In

I am sick at heart.  The American electorate has besmirched the dignity of so many people by casting its lot with those who spew hateful invective, with a candidate who cannot and will not acknowledge the full humanity of those he seeks to lead.

Only a few days ago I wrote about reading and empathy. I still believe that reading widely lays the groundwork for empathy and respect. But I do not know how to reach those who will not read the stories of others.

“There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in,” wrote Leonard Cohen. In dark times light is all the more necessary. And so, while we take the measure of what we can do to move forward—how we can best use our time and talents as citizens in service to our fellow human beings—people will still make art and music and poems and novels. We need our artists, and I think we need every space we can get to share hope, build understanding, and renew bonds of love for each other.

It seemed that everywhere I looked on Wednesday I read the first stanza of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is so very bleak, that poem. I believe Yeats wrote it with all the intensity of his passion and belief, and yet, nearly 100 years later, despite a century that laid waste to entire peoples, humanity endures, able to renew its conviction, its commitment to protecting the innocent.

Instead of succumbing to the tide of dread that has washed over so many of us, I suggest (as I have before), that we read the words of Emma Lazaraus:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Light and not darkness upon our paths, friends. 

On Omnivorous Reading: A Tribute

About two years ago, I sent my 80-year-old grandmother a copy of The Martian, by Andy Weir, having forgotten that the first line of the novel is “I’m pretty much fucked.” That’s how I felt when I remembered it a day later, when the book was already on a truck headed for her house in the suburbs of Buffalo.

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried; as you might suspect, given that I assumed she’d want to read The Martian in the first place, Grammie told me later that she liked the novel “very much,” her highest form of praise for books and movies, even saying, with a laugh, that she appreciated the profanity because “who wouldn’t curse in that kind of situation?” She said The Martian would be one of those books she re-read once a year or so as a treat. I’m not sure she ever did get a chance to re-read it; I forgot to ask about it in our conversations over the last few months.

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother's copy of Jane Eyre.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother’s copy of Jane Eyre.

Grammie died last week, and I miss her already. I loved her very much, and was always pleased that we shared a favorite color and a favorite novel, Jane Eyre. She had the same patience with me that Helen Burns had for Jane; like Helen, she quietly accepted life’s troubles, her stoicism always a source of curiosity to me (I have the temperament, I should perhaps regret to say, of ten-year-old Jane).

Like Helen, whom Jane meets when she’s reading Johnson’s Rasselas, Grammie was a reader. I’ve written before about my parents’ love of reading and the effort they put into our reading lives, but I’ve never talked much about Grammie, and just how important she was to me, not only in the familiar grandmotherly ways—stroganoff, hamburgers in gravy, perfect chocolate cakes chilled in the fridge, quality time with her skinny hairbrush and Johnson’s no-more-tangles, birthday cards with the most even and lovely penmanship I’ve ever seen, love and support through the very best and worst of times—but also in shaping the way I read. By her example, my grandmother taught me that reading offers not only the pursuit of knowledge or the cultivation of empathy, but also pleasure and enjoyment.

When I was a child I watched my Grammie read from a distance. As Jane Eyre recalls of Helen, “I think her occupation touched a chord of sympathy somewhere; for I too liked reading, though of a frivolous and childish kind; I could not digest or comprehend the serious or substantial.” Grammie  read everything, it seemed—novels about submarines, true tales of disaster and survival (believe me, there was nary a chick flick to be found on her movie shelf), classics like Kristin Lavransdatter.

Grammie's living room bookshelf.

Grammie’s living room bookshelf.

On her living room shelves in Buffalo were handsome 1960s volumes of major authors (Melville, Hugo, Petrarch, Dante, Dickens, Montaigne), while upstairs paperbacks left behind by my uncles (I read all  Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels one summer) jostled with nonfiction history from college courses and late-60s/early-70s bestsellers (thanks to which I can report with confidence that Love Story is truly terrible and The Godfather is way raunchier than the movie). Whenever I happened into Grammie’s room there’d be a book on the nightstand (which now sits in my room) or on the nubbly white bedspread, usually with a sticker around its spine and a dust jacket; Grammie was a devoted patron of her public library. Hers was a house of books; there was always something to read, no matter what mood you were in.

Just as important as her example of omnivorous reading was her refusal to dictate what anyone else read. Grammie (like my other grandmother) was a teacher and then a homemaker, raising a family of readers (and teachers) with tastes as diverse as her own. She lived alone for more than twenty-five years, her solitude interrupted by periods when she helped to care for two separate sets of grandchildren while their mothers studied for graduate degrees. When she lived with us from when I was 7 until I was 10, every Saturday morning brought chores first, then a trip to Blockbuster (Goonies and Meatballs were perennial favorites) and the library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The library in this little Cleveland suburb was like something out of a fairytale—a big Tudor mansion spangled with light (alas, it has been sold and is no longer a library). It featured slate floors, marble fireplaces, indoor plants, a burbling fountain, oddly-shaped rooms, twisty corridors, and nooks for a little reader to hide in. When we arrived at the library those Saturday mornings, Grammie took my younger sister to pick out books (hers and my sister’s), and left my brother and me to find our own. Every week for a long time I took out seven Nancy Drew books, the old editions with golden-yellow spines grayed by many grubby hands and black-edged pages that I now collect. Never once did she tell me I’d taken out too many books, never told me a little girl couldn’t read that many in a week. So I assumed I could, and every Saturday I came back for seven more until I’d read them all, and then I moved on to other authors, from Lois Lowry to Anne Frank to Judy Blume to Madeleine L’Engle. Grammie never once told me that I shouldn’t read a book because it was too mature for me; she let me and my siblings read as we chose, allowing us to develop our own tastes (a trait my parents also shared).

IMG_6163Like Jane Eyre observing Helen Burns in Lowood’s schoolyard and then peppering her with questions about her book, I loved to call up Grammie and chat with her about what she was reading. Usually it was something I hadn’t heard of, since she read quite a bit of nonfiction. One of the last times we talked about books, though, before she got sick enough that we spoke mostly about the weather or what shenanigans her great-grandson was up to, she told me she was re-reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, an oft-neglected nineteenth-century classic by Sarah Orne Jewett that I didn’t encounter until a graduate school seminar nearly ten years ago. I went to my shelf to pull out my copy, flipping through a few dog-eared pages, and read her the passage that had stayed with me, and which I’ve been coming back to over and over again this week:

There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

 

“Yes,” she said. “I like that very much.”

Oliver-022

Off the Reading Path: The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

The title sounds promising: The Library at Mount Char*. I’m bookish; naturally I love libraries. This book should be right about my alley. Right?photo (50)

Well, no—but somehow Scott Hawkins’s debut was pretty fun reading.

The protagonist’s name is Carolyn, which is my name. It’s not a particularly unusual name—I’ve met a half dozen other Carolyns in the last thirty years—but it’s not Jessica or Emma or Katie, names I run across in books pretty frequently, nor is it a strange enough name that authors often choose it to set their characters apart. What I’m trying to say is that it is really weird to keep reading your own name when not accustomed to doing so, especially when the book’s first sentence is: “Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78.”

See? Oh, and don’t worry: it gets worse for Carolyn. Much worse.

The Library at Mount Char is a book that’s way, way out of my reading comfort zone (it might be in Rory’s, for those of you, like me, who love being vicariously scared through Fourth Street Review): it’s very violent, and the genre is a cross between horror and contemporary urban fantasy, with quite a bit of Jacobean revenge tragedy thrown in. It’s a bit like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (which I loved), I suppose. Maybe that’s why I simply could not stop reading it.

It’s disturbing and horrifying, sure, but it takes place in a world that is not ours, which makes the violence almost theatrical. Think Titus Andronicus. It is also a deeply bizarre book; it went in directions I certainly didn’t anticipate, and while I had one major plot point figured out in the beginning of the novel, it’s a testament to Mr. Hawkins’s power of invention that the book managed to surprise me in almost every chapter.

By now you’re probably wondering what this deeply bizarre, inventive, and violent book is about. It’s tricky to give you a plot without giving too much away, but here goes: Carolyn is a very special kind of librarian, one of twelve people taken in as children by Father after all their parents died. Each of them is an expert in his or her own (strange) catalogue, but Father is master of them all, and his power is unmatchable: he can bend the rules of time and space, and to disobey him is to suffer.

When the book opens, Father is missing, and the library that contains his secrets and his power is up for grabs. Carolyn wants in—very badly.

The Library at Mount Char is not for the faint of heart, but if you want a wild ride, some serious thinking about family, nature versus nurture, cruelty, and love, you might want to give this book a try. I didn’t love all of it—quite a bit is downright unpleasant, and I have some issues with the ending, which I would love to talk about with somebody—but I kept turning pages in surprise.

What’s the last book that took you out of your reading comfort zone?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review

Notes and Asides

Musings on Moby-Dick, Part 3: Meeting Ahab

(Chapter 28, if you’re counting.)

Moby-Dick

I’d wager that a person who hasn’t read Moby-Dick, but who’s heard of it, can tell you one thing about Ahab: he has a peg leg, made of whalebone. However, for Ishmael, Ahab’s “grim aspect” is so engrossing that “for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood.” In other words, Ahab’s missing leg is not his defining physical feature, at least to the men he works with.

The ship’s mates are uncomfortable too, for “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe” (135). Indeed, Ishmael’s first impression is similar to the impression of torment given in this passage; at first glance, Ahab “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness” (134).

I find this juxtaposition of images — the Christ-figure crucified and the heretic at the stake — intriguing, especially since my first reading of the stake comparison relied on my image of Joan of Arc — until I realized that she wasn’t canonized until 1920.  With these two images, Melville and Ishmael provide us with a foreshadowing of Ahab’s later character development; we’ll find him to be brave, stoic, even, but also possessed with the pursuit of unrighteous revenge.

I’ll leave off my musing with another contrasting set of images: Ahab as a tree.

In the first, his scarring (which happened before his encounter with the white whale) is compared to the mark of a lightning strike on a great tree, in such a way that I thought of Ahab as nature’s inertia embodied, markable but not really changeable in essence (was his monomania brought on by Moby Dick’s attack, or was the capacity for madness always lurking within him?).

In the second, the possibility for softness in Ahab’s character emerges without diminishing his otherness from his fellow men.

(1)

[Ahab’s scar] resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. (134)

(2)

For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods, even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile. (136)

What do you remember most about Ahab?