Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

lark-and-termiteOur connections with others are sometimes obvious, but often we are influenced by people we are not aware of or with whom we see little connection. It is as if absence can be a stronger connector than presence, and in the hands of Jayne Anne Phillips, we find those connectors, not just in people but events.

“Lark and Termite” follows two storylines that connect in ways the participants will never see. The story takes place in the 1950s and focuses on Lark, a young woman on the verge of adulthood, and her younger stepbrother, Termite, who is unable to speak or walk. Their mother is the absent Lola, but they are raised by a loving aunt, Nonie, who works at a “greasy spoon” owned by the man she loves but will not commit to. The other story is of Termite’s father, Corporal Robert Leavitt, a soldier in Korea who does not live to see the birth of his child.

The absence of these parents is as palatable as the presence of those who love and support Lark and Termite. Lark’s birth father is unknown to her and we are not sure what Termite understands. Phillips tells the story through the voices of the different characters, and through Termite, we see a world of wonder and joy. However, his voice is the weakest in the novel not because of the character, but because Phillips lets his voice slip out of character too often. But that is a rare slip in this otherwise strong novel. In fact, Phillips excels in giving an authentic voice to these West Virginian people struggling to make it day to day. They are poor, but they do not focus on their poverty as much as each other. Nonie takes these children in with no complaint and Lark takes care of Termite since he is more comfortable with her than at school. The neighbors are a father and sons abandoned by their wife and mother; they are a hardscrabble lot but they make sure that Lark, Termite, and Nonie are also taken care of. There are no saintly figures in this novel, but there are real people who make mistakes, care for others, and focus on the next day. For Lark and Termite, the community is very present and generally supportive.

But that does not mean Lark never wonders about her absent mother and her unknown father. And for the scenes in Korea, as Leavitt fights for his life, it is with the absence of his wife and the presence of a young girl trying to care for him. We are changed by those with us as well as those far away. Phillips bounces between Leavitt’s story in Korea and Lark’s in West Virginia, and neither one knows the impact they have had on each other even though they never met. Their connection is Lola, and she is absent from both of them at crucial times.

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Jayne Anne Phillips

While Phillips spends a long time (a bit too much) setting up the climax, events at the end unreel at a dizzying pace and in unexpected ways. This is not simply a “slice of life” look at these different people, but a story that is driven to a point where the people must decide their future. Those decisions became both easier and harder because they become more informed of what has been missing. Awareness of an absence becomes a powerful presence.

“Levels of Life” by Julian Barnes

levels-of-lifeHaving lost my 6-year-old son to cancer, I’ve read plenty about grief. And, as a Christian, I’ve read plenty about faith and grief. Leave it to an atheist to write the best book I’ve read yet. Julian Barnes is a highly respected novelist and essayist who wrote “Levels of Life” after his wife, Pat Kavanagh, died after nearly 30 years of marriage.

This is not a typical book about grief. In fact, much of it does not look like it deals with grief at all, which is where the genius comes in. Barnes splits his short book into three sections. The first section, “The Sin of Height,” is about early adventurous folks and their foray into ballooning. “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Such is the world of people and balloons, or photography and balloons, or two people together.  So, what is the sin of height? Is it our desire and willingness to rise about ourselves? What else is love other than the rising above yourself by being with another. “Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves.” Put together two things and you have something new and, in love, better than what you had before. So what is the sin? The desire to be more than we are?

We come down to “On the Level,” the second section of the book. Back on the ground, we deal with life as we find it. We can fly above the world, but we most come down. “But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings.” So, why when we are on the ground do we constantly aspire to more? Because love is where truth and magic meet.  It may be photography (truth) and ballooning (magic), but it may also be two people. And even though we are aware of the dangers of combining truth and magic, or rising in a basket below gas and hot air, we seek to rise above ourselves. But that goal to rise above our ground level leads us to a new level, “The Loss of Depth.”

In this final section, Barnes finally directly addresses the loss of his wife and the resulting

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Julian Barnes and Pat Kavanagh

grief. The first two sections lay the groundwork to help people understand better the loss of depth or the depth of grief. Some of the writing in this section could not be more accurate to the experience of grief. He opens. “You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash?…Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

These stunning last two lines are written by Barnes in relation to his wife, but they apply to any relationship. My son has been taken away from me and my wife, but what is taken away is greater than what we had. Our relationship is greater for the loss, a mathematical impossibility. But love is not confined to our mathematical structures. Later he returns to this apparently illogical formula. “Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be accumulation of love over the years, then why not of grief?” Everyone expects loss to diminish over the years, but can it not increase? Note that he does not say grief is the opposite of love. It is the “negative,” like a negative of a photo. It is the other aspect we do not see except in special circumstances.

“This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean they do not exist.” Barnes tells about friends who refuse to talk about his wife, even when he repeatedly raises her name. Others encourage him to move on, but he has no interest in moving on from the memory of his wife. He keeps her alive by remembering her. Why would he stop? However, Barnes does not offer space for people to hide in their grief. “There are many traps and dangers in grief, and time does not diminish them. Self-pity, isolationism, world-scorn, an egotistical exceptionalism: all aspects of vanity.Look how much I suffer, how much others fail to understand: does this not prove how much I loved? Maybe, maybe not….The griefstruck demand sympathy, yet, irked by any challenge to their primacy, underestimate the pain others are suffering over the same loss.” Or, perhaps, any loss.

So, what does Barnes offer to overcome all of this? Nothing. Instead, it is a call to understand those in the midst of grief. A challenge for people to look at death, which we avoid, and the loss others can have for people. His only nod to Christianity is a sharp jab at a Christian who notes that Christ also suffered. He responds, is that all your God has to offer? But here Barnes slips because he assumes that Christianity offers an answer to suffering. Instead, it offers a model. And, it respects the grief we experience, just as Barnes is seeking from others. Perhaps he has considered this since the book — he is more recently called agnostic.

“The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks

24611425Historical fiction is not my usual area of reading, but this book was given to me by a friend whose reading tastes I trust! The struggle I have is that while I think fiction can be the best way to reach the truth, historical fiction places on history ideas and events that may or may not contribute to a greater truth. For example, the writer Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam vet who uses fiction to tell the truth. He uses story truth over happening truth (the usual facts we think of as truth) to get us to understand what it was like to be a soldier in that war. Facts and statistics will not tell you what the experience is like, so he tells stories to create those experiences for the reader. So, you could say he is writing historical fiction. However, it is a history he lived, so he knows the larger truth he is seeking to portray.

In traditional historical fiction, we take historical fact (or historical stories) and write them for today’s world. If they are showing a greater truth about a person or event, we’ll never know since neither the writer nor we have experienced it. So, it is best to focus on the “fiction” of the novel and not confuse it with telling us more about anything that actually happened.

Which brings me to “The Secret Chord.” Brooks is a Pulitzer prize-winning author, and

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Geraldine Brooks

while this book is not Pulitzer material, it does weave a great tale. She centers around the character of David from the Old Testament. If there was ever a character ripe for storytelling, it is David. We have family, religion, war, adventure, royalty, sex (lots of sex), fratricide, incest, rape, betrayal, murder, massacres, and even a giant (or, at least a big guy). And that is all in the Bible! Brooks takes off some of the innuendo and fills in the gaps, creating a rather difficult read if you take your Bible seriously (as I do). Of course, her details beyond the Bible are completely fictional, but she is trying to give us a glimpse of this complicated man. And, where she succeeds is that we see David as a flawed man who loves God. That, in a nutshell, is David. And, God loves him despite all his faults. We see all this through Natan, the prophet of David’s time and one of David’s closest friends. Natan is both attracted and repelled by David, as is the reader.

 

A plot summary is unnecessary as she follows the well-known story from the Bible (and, since she is a Jewish writer, for Brooks this is “the Book”). Does she succeed? If the goal is to take off the varnish and show us the context for David the man, then, yes. Whether she is accurate or not is another story, but then I refer back to the idea of “happening truth” and allow for fiction to point us to a greater truth.

 

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

the-gift-of-asher-levWhile I’ve read My Name is Asher Lev several times (since I teach it in a course), I’ve held off The Gift of Asher Lev as there are not many sequels I find reaching the level of a strong, original work. This continuation of Asher Lev’s story by Chaim Potok is not as strong as the original novel, but Potok has still created an ongoing story that offers new insights into the central character.

The book picks up 20 years after Asher Lev, at the end of My Name is Asher Lev, is sent away from the Ladover community in New York by the Rebbe. He is not banished from the community but is told he needs to pursue his controversial art in Paris. [Note: For a fuller explanation of the first novel, please refer to my original blog entry.]

We find Asher to be an incredibly successful artist just coming off a poorly-reviewed exhibit in Paris. He takes the criticism, that he is not doing anything new, to heart. As a result, he is not able to paint. We are introduced to his wife, Devorah, who survived in Paris as a child for two years during WWII by hiding in an apartment with her aunt, uncle, and cousin. Her parents were killed in the Holocaust, and the challenge of the survivors and the full horror of the Holocaust are a part of this book. Asher returns with his wife, son, and daughter to New York for the funeral of his beloved Uncle Yitzchok. We learn that Yitzchok became an art collector, a very successful art collector, and he leaves the collection in the care of Asher, much to the dismay of his cousins. This is a subplot in the novel.

The focus is on Asher’s return to the community where he is treated with distrust and at times outright hatred. But, as usual, the Rebbe supports him and manages to make him stay beyond the two weeks originally planned. Asher’s stoic father is now the main aide to the Rebbe and a greatly revered man in the community. But the Rebbe is old and may not have long to live, which raises the question of who will take his place.

I will not give away the answer, but Asher plays a surprising role in the Rebbe’s plan for a successor (and no, it is not him — that would be too much). His wife, Devorah, is a fascinating character. She connects with Asher’s mother and father, settles into the community, dotes on her children, writes children’s book and has an insight into her husband that no one else can grasp. But, she is haunted by the two years of hiding, the loss of her parents in the concentration camps, and her concern for Asher and his struggles.

The book itself is much more introspective than the first one, which is not surprising since the main character is now in his 40s and at a crossroads in life. We see the ongoing struggle for Asher to reconcile his faith with his art, although he lacks the confidence we see in the first book. Asher always knew he was headed in the right direction, even though he could not understand it. Here, he seems paralyzed by his past work and not sure how to move forward. He focuses on drawing to bring back his gift.

Potok loses focus at times and runs parallel plots without connecting them. The conflict over the art collection and Asher’s own struggles touch one another but never intersect. Plus, when Asher realizes the Rebbe’s succession plans, he spends too long thinking through what we already know he will do. It is in these wanderings and the lack of direction by Asher that the sequel fails to match the first novel. Still, if you like the first book, the sequel does add to the storyline and is worth reading. Potok can tell a good story.

 

 

 

 

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

casebook-of-sherlock-holmesMy love of Sherlock Holmes started when I was in junior high school and my oldest brother would take me to a little bookstore, “Call Me Ishmael,” in Saugatuck, Michigan. My brother could spend hours in that place, so one time I picked up “The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” settled down in a chair, and was quickly lost in Victorian England. I ended up reading all 56 short stories and 4 novels about Sherlock Holmes quickly, and I returned to them many times over the next 35 years.
One I have not read for many years is the final collection of short stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Now I know why — this is a forgettable collection of Holmesian lore. It is not without some good stories. “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” written in 1922, shows Holmes showing that brilliance we are used to seeing.  He solves a mystery of how one woman dies and in the process, saves the life of another woman about to die for a crime she did not commit. Apparently, the story is based on a real-life investigation which is very similar to the story. I don’t want to spoil any endings for new readers, but the recreation of the crime by Holmes is excellent.

 

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“The Adventure of the Creeping Man”

That this is followed by “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” written a year later, only adds to the question of what was Doyle thinking? I’ve never bought into this story where an older man takes some monkey serum so he can be virile and ready for the young woman he wants to marry. This 19th century Viagra makes him act like a monkey and suddenly gives him the strength and ability to scale walls (pretty virile for a 61-year-old). Turns out that there was a Russian doctor working on such an item around when Doyle wrote this, so he may have read about it. Some commentators see this as more science fiction, but I see it as a Holmes story gone wrong.

 

But at least it is a story! “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is nothing more than one woman telling Holmes of a crime committed several years early. No mystery to be solved — just her chatting away. “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” is a little better, but the mystery solved is no great mystery. “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” shows Holmes solving the mystery of a — wait for it — murderous jellyfish? Talk about a letdown.

But there is hope when we read stories such as “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” While not the best narrative, Doyle does create a modern-day criminal who is more sociopath than gentlemen criminal. Baron Gruner is downright scary. And, “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” shows Holmes doing some great sleuthing, although how he gets caught by a rival sleuth seems very un-Holmesian.

 

conan-doyle-stampIt is not appropriate to pass by all the stories without noting just how much a man of his times Holmes appears to be in “The Adventure of the Three Gables.” Unfortunately, that time was overtly racist and Watson’s stereotypic descriptions of an African man a Holmes’ stereotypic categorization of African’s is all too clear and too ugly in this story. It is not the only story in which this appears and women are not treated with too much respect unless they outsmart him (e.g. Irene Adler).

I’m not alone in my disappointment with these final stories. Holmesian scholars think some are so bad (and two are actually written by Holmes himself) that Watson is not the true author. [Note: many Holmes scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people and see Doyle as someone helping out — they are not serious about it, but they usually talk in that vein and have a good time with it].

So, in the end, this is not the Holmes volume I’m sending you to read first. I still love my Sherlock Holmes stories and I think “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” reads like a “best of” collection because the stories are so strong. So start there and end with the Casebook — you’ll be more forgiving by that time.

Note on the title: “Case-book” is the British spelling, “Case Book” is the American version, and “Casebook” is just another spelling by publishers. My first version was “Casebook,” so I stuck with that.

“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

9781555971311Jane Kenyon is the rare poet who shared her Christian faith and was still recognized as a critically important poet. Perhaps it is because her faith avoids any syrupy raptures, instead, providing a different glimpse into everyday life. Still, even an excellent site like the Poetry Foundation can ignore her faith when writing about her life.The literary world is not comfortable with faith, even with “one of their own.”

Anyone reading the collection “Let Evening Come,” will see Kenyon’s faith clearly. It is present in her everyday mentions of her work at church or in one of her daily walks with her dog. In “At the Winter Solstice,” we get a glimpse of a Christmas Eve pageant in a small church:

“At the village church last night
the boys–shepherds and wisemen–
pressed close to the manger in obedience,
wishing only for time to pass;
but the girl dressed as Mary trembled
as she leaned over the pungent hay,
and like the mother of Christ

wondered why she had been chosen.”

But it is a faith of honesty. While she often finds comfort, she also struggles — as do most jane-kenyonpeople. Kenyon suffered from depression, wrestling with it for most of her short life (she died from leukemia at age 47 in 1995). Struggling to reconcile it with her beliefs, she is left short of answers. In “Now Where?” she opens with verses that can reflect depression or grief:

“It wakes when I wake, walks
when I walk, turns back when I

turn back, beating me to the door.

It spoils my food and steals
my sleep, and mocks me, saying,

‘Where is your God now?'”

Most of her poetry celebrates the rural and rustic found around her New Hampshire farm, although she was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not leaving until she married the poet Donald Hall after finishing her Masters degree at the University of Michigan. Kenyon sees much in the simple actions of the day. In her poem, “Father and Son,” she writes how the neighbor keeps cutting wood with his chainsaw as his son helps. He does it on Sunday afternoons and she comes to “mind the noise.”  But the neighbor is:

“intent on getting wood for winter, the last,

as it happened, of their life together.”

So, she takes from this everyday scene which can even be annoying and gives us pause to think about these moments when either the father or son (she hints it is the father) dies before the next season. The importance of the present moment is never lost on Kenyon. She often sees in others the stories they carry with them, revealed in tiny glimpses. She does the same with seasons as they come and go. She tends to embrace each season. In, “Dark Morning: Snow”:

“It falls on the vole, nosing somewhere
through weeds, and on the open
eye of the pond. It makes the mail

come late.

The nuthatch spirals head first

down the tree.

I’m sleepy and benign in the dark.

There nothing I want…”

Kenyon appeals to me and others because she reveals how many of us feel. As a Christian, I can relate to her moments of comfort and her moments of despair. She does not need to go far to find her inspiration — it is the farm she lives on, the people surrounding her, her faith, her dog, and her friends. We benefit from how her eyes often see more than we do. The present does not slip by her. Instead, she lives in the moment with an eye on eternity.

The collection ends with the title poem, and it is one that is often reprinted. In fact, it has been set to music by several composers  with my favorite being by  M. L. P. Badarak.

It is a beautiful poem, so I’ll let it end this post
.

Let Evening Come

 

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear

and moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.