“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

geraldine-brooks-location

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.

 

the_adventure_of_the_creeping_man

“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.

“[Bond, James] alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography” by Michelle Disler

disler-coverHe is an icon of popular culture with a name often said in three words, as in “Bond, James Bond.” The themes for the movies are part of our cultural soundtrack, we argue over who is the best Bond and then, of course, there are the Bond women. A brand in and of themselves. He comes from a world where the heroes can smoke, drink, kill, love, and save the world. Usually in under two hours.

In Michelle Disler’s hands, this icon is pulled apart not to tear him down, but to understand him better. And, by understanding what attracts us to Bond, we learn about ourselves. In her capable hands, Disler uses her poetic insight to help us reexamine Bond and ourselves in her collection, [Bond, James] alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography.

The book, broken into the three sections listed in the subtitle, delves into Bond as much through Ian Fleming’s writing as the movies. Much of the poetry falls into the “found poetry” category as Disler nearly assaults us with Fleming’s writing. In “Cigarettes [Bond, James],” Disler gives us 11 pages of verbatim text mixed with her own commentary on Bond’s smoking. It opens with “James Bond lit a cigarette” 25 times. Shortly after that, we get “James Bond lit another cigarette” 35 times. The repetition is like a research paper overloaded with support and driving you into submission. You’ll never look at Bond light up again in the same way.

As seen in the poem mentioned above, Disler is not wedded to any poetical form. The collection includes poetry as a true and false quiz, algebraic formulas, and matching exercises. She writes poems in the format of a book index, fill-in-the-blank,  and an “a-z” listing of bodily actions Bond does in the books (note: he shrugs his shoulders, a lot). The result is a collection that keeps making you readjust your approach to reading and to Bond. Like a Bond movie, if you start to settle in, get ready for a surprise.

MichelleDisler

Michelle Disler

Disler, while clearly knowing her Bond well, is also a fan. Not a fan without reservations or a without a clear understanding of the hero’s failings, but still a fan. She ends the book with a powerful “[auto]biography” in which she explores Bond and first, Sylvia Trench, and then, Honey Rider. “Honey’s not one to mess around She is fearless and afraid the perfect combination of toughness and vulnerability Who does she think she is but sex and death devourer and devoured I am watching James Bond and Honey Rider and at this moment I wonder who I would rather be”. Bond and his adventures become less of a spectator sport and more of a mirror as we reflect on how we could fit in the Bond world.

Perhaps we best see Disler’s relationship with Bond explored in “Objections [Bond, James].” Here we find Disler asking Bond question after question. “How many times do you think you’ve nearly bought it on account of a girl? What would your mother say, if she were alive, about the number of notches in your bedpost…” which is a fascinating question since most of us never think of Bond as having a mother. He just is. And she continues to challenge him. “Who asks the villain’s girl to spy on her illustrious boyfriend, knowing all too well certain death upon her discovery is her cruel reward?…How are you not dead like the girls who wind up loving you, their resolve weak, glittering like the dresses you peel from their bodies like skin from a ripe tropical fruit? How am I doing? Do you think I’m finished? Do you think you deserve a break after all that saving the world, one hard-won villain’s death, one tragically oversexed girl at a time?”

So, yes, Bond fans will have love this book. Disler has taught about Bond at the college-level, clearly, knows the books and films, and still is a fan. But you don’t have to be a Bond fan to enjoy this dissection of a cultural icon. And, if like me, you only know Bond from the films, you may find Disler pushing you to the books. As for me, I just started reading “Goldfinger.” I’m waiting for Bond to light a cigarette.

Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Describing the Past”

Layout 1There are books in life that we read slowly for the pure pleasure of feeling the words in our mouths. Meaning becomes secondary as we are lost in the pleasure, a feeling that brings many us back to reading again and again. Not many authors have this gift. There are great writers with incredible books who cannot write like this. And there are writers, the French novelist and Nobel prize winner J. M. G. Le Clezio comes to mind, who in the midst of a story create passages and chapters so enticing that their context does not matter.

Ghassan Zaqtan is such a writer. There are many adjectives for Zaqtan we could put in front of “writer,” such as Palestinian, lyrical, narrative, political, personal, activist, Middle Eastern, and more. But, first, he is a writer. He breaks down the boundaries between poetry and fiction, creating prose that reads like poetry and poetry which tells a story. But the words themselves are a joy. A writer seeks to bring us into their world through words. They create portals into which we step without knowing where we are going, hoping to return different, and better, than when we left. Zaqtan is a writer who can take us deeper into our own lives but taking us along with him. And while his writing is transcendent enough to escape context, it is firmly rooted in experience and place.

While writers do not like always being linked to a place, Zaqtan’s background and current life are a central part of his writing. Although well known and highly respected in the world of Arabic literature, he is not as well known in the English-speaking world since only two of his works have been translated.  The first was a collection of poetry, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, and just recently, the novella, Describing the Past. In Arabic we can find 10 volumes of poetry, more fiction, and plays and essays as well.
Zaqtan was born near Bethlehem and now lives in Ramallah. He has lived in Jordan, Syria,

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Ghassan Zaqtan

Lebanon, and Tunisia, and is active in the struggle for  Palestinian freedom. He has edited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s literary magazine and is a leader in promoting literature in the West Bank. His political involvement has made international travel difficult and a trip to Canada occurred only after prominent writers spoke out for him after his visa to visit was initially denied.

He has lived much of his life as an exile and memory of this life is essential to understanding his work. His novel, “Describing the Past,” (written in 1994 and just published in English in 2016) emerges from his time as a child in the Karameh refugee camp near the River Jordon. The beautiful translation is by Samuel Wilder,  and there is an excellent introduction by Fady Joudah.

The story is told in the voices of three narrators: the author, his best friend, and a girl they love. But the story is not told in a traditional narrative sense, but instead, draws us in and slowly comes over us. Memories do not work like people often think they do. Our lives are not remembered as history but as moments and experiences. Zaqtan writes in this way so that we are brought into the experience of being young and awakening to the power and attraction of another. We are brought back into the sense of wonder and awe that we experience but do not remember.

“It was not easy at all. I had to return. There were so many things left to be done that could no longer delayed, places where one had to sit, surfaces and peaks of mountains to stare into with strength, narrow and wide roads to walk over, hands to be clasped, many words to be said. There were greetings to be exchanged and a hand with five kind fingers to be laid on your knee so you believe the speech in the air….

These opening lines set the stage for someone hoping to remember an experience, even though a phrase such as “five kind fingers to be laid on your knee” reminds us of what we do not forget. In his introduction, Joudah describes it better. “Zaqtan transports memory as dream narrative or, more precisely, as a state of being with altered consciousness. As if in a seance, voices appear and speak from a truncated time, resected and persevered in a jar.”

The book  emerges into different modes as it continues. It is a coming-of-age story, an elegy for a dead friend, a celebration of childhood, and a glimpse into the humanity of those called refugees. In a particularly moving passage, the writer sees the young woman they love walking toward him. She has a young boy with her:

“On her other side, he was walking in death. Behind him, on the road of dust, a strand of river water poured from his hair and body. He was silent. Behind us the Hadj walked. I slowed down so that she and he followed my lead, slowed down so that the Hadj could catch up to us. He was silent too. Three men surrounded her. All four of us kept climbing.

I was going off to die. That’s what I was told. She didn’t know this, but the two men did. We three dead men surrounded her as we climbed the narrow, straight road of dust.”

The past, present, and future become one and are impossible to separate. We are made up of all of these times and our past experiences do not leave us but shape us. Still, in a world always forward looking, Zaqtan understands the importance of remembering where we come from. The refugee camp he was in was destroyed and the physical memories are lost. But for an individual and a community to understand themselves, they must describe the past.

“I am compelled to speak now. You know the necessity of it here. Things evaporate and die if they don’t find someone to remember them.”

This is what Zaqtan accomplishes. He remembers, he reminds, and he lifts up the past which can shape our future.

Zaqtan is a gift and worth spending time with. Although best known for his poetry, Describing the Past shows his writing skills go beyond any one genre. If like me, you depend on the translations, we can only hope more of his writing is translated.

Like a Straw BirdIn the meantime, in addition to this book, You should read Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and other Poems. The book won the prestigious 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize International Prize.

You can find some of his poetry at Poem Hunter.

The Poetry Foundation provides a biography and an audio podcast of Zaqtan and Joudah discussing Palestinian poetry with Ilya Kaminsky.

There is also a great review of Like a Straw Bird It Follows me, and Other Poems is on poet’s Ron Slate’s blog.