Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of Barcelona trapped beneath the ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper.
            “Daniel, you musn’t tell anyone what you are about to see today,” my father warned. “Not even your friend Tomas. No one.”
            “Not even Mommy?”
            My father sighed, hiding behind the sad smile that followed him like a shadow through life.
            “Of course you can tell her,” he answered, heavyhearted. “We keep no secrets from her. You can tell her everything.”
            Shortly after the Civil War, an outbreak of cholera had taken my mother away. We buried her in Montjuic on my fourth birthday. I can only recall that it rained all day and night, and that when I asked my father whether heaven was crying, he couldn’t bring himself to reply. Six years later my mother’s absence remained in the air around us, a deafening silence that I had not yet learned to stifle with words.

From, The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

            One of the greatest names of any place in any novel is Zafon’s “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” What images that name summons. It is of course the name of a used book store where ancient and lost and out of print books are rescued and given another chance to find welcome in some book lover’s personal library.
            The Shadow of the Wind is about a young boy, Daniel Sempere, whose father, himself a bookshop owner, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books on his tenth birthday to pick out whatever book he chooses. Daniel’s selection takes him then on a journey of remarkable experiences centered on the book and its author.
He encounters sleazy and shadowy figures, thieves and criminals, downtrodden and abused victims, and beautiful but out of his reach women who break his heart and teach him that life is often not fair.
He learns that brutal, tyrannical people have no appreciation for books. Their learning is all underhanded and driven by selfish motives.
Zafon’s novel was an international bestseller and remains popular since it was first published in 2001.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What Time Travel Is Really Telling Us

Saturday, October 26, 1991 (Henry is 28, Claire is 20)

Clare: The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble. I sign the Visitors' Log: Clare Abshire, 11:15, 10-26-91 Special Collections. I have never been in the Newberry Library before, and now that I've gotten past the dark, foreboding entrance I am excited. I have a sort of Christmas-morning sense of the library as a big box full of beautiful books. The elevator is dimly lit, almost silent. I stop on the third floor and fill out an application for a Reader's Card, then I go upstairs to Special Collections. My boot heels rap the wooden floor. The room is quiet and crowded, full of heavy tables piled with books and surrounded by readers. Chicago autumn morning light shines through the tall windows. I approach the desk and collect a stack of call slips. I'm writing a paper for an art history class. My research topic is Kelmscott Press Chaucer. I look up the book itself and fill out a call slip for it. But I also want to read about papermaking at Kelmscott. The catalog is confusing. I go back to the desk to ask for help. As I explain to the woman what I am trying to find, she glances over my shoulder at someone passing behind me. “Perhaps Mr. DeTamble can help you,” she says. I turn, prepared to start explaining again, and find myself face to face with Henry.

I am speechless. Here is Henry, calm, clothed, younger than I have ever seen him. Henry is working at the Newberry Library, standing in front of me, in the present. Here and now. I am jubilant. Henry is looking at me patiently, uncertain but polite.

Is there something I can help you with?” he asks.

Henry!” I can barely refrain from throwing my arms around him. It is obvious he has never seen me before in his life.

From, The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

There are important lessons in this time travel stuff. Henry's shuffling from the future to the past and then to the present and back again. It's nifty and fun and all of that. But it is cautionary, too. This is why the growing and enduring intimacy between Henry and Clare carries the story.

There are strange comical surprises for both of them. There are struggles with their uncommon circumstances. There are vexing obstacles thrown in their way. And yet, through the tangled mess of time travel what we have here is the story of two people completely in love, finding their way through the mystery of that, as well as facing the ever complicated encumbrances of time.

This was Niffenegger's first novel and it became a New York Times bestseller and was made into a popular motion picture.

There is something to be said for couples who find themselves in a relationship where waiting and distance becomes an uncontrollable part of their alliance. In spite of the charm and lightheartedness of this novel, time is a heavy and serious theme throughout. And underneath all the mayhem created by Henry's time traveling capers is the impermanence of life and the certainty of our own mortality.

Henry and Clare remind us we really should love while we can however difficult in time that may be. ~ TM

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Defender of Loners and Misfits

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air. White and purple summer thunderheads mounded around her. Below, the Yellow Brick Road looped back on itself, like a relaxed noose. Though winter storms and the crowbars of agitators had torn up the road, still it led, relentlessly, to the Emerald City. The Witch could see the companions trudging alone, maneuvering around the buckled sections, skirting trenches, skipping when the way was clear. They seemed oblivious of their fate. But it was not up to the Witch to enlighten them.
            She used the broom as a sort of balustrade, stepping down from the sky like one of her flying monkeys. She finished up on the topmost bough of a black willow tree. Beneath, hidden by the fronds, her prey had paused to take their rest. The Witch tucked her broom under her arm. Crablike and quiet, she scuttled down a little at a time, until she was a mere twenty feet above them. Wind moved the dangling tendrils of the tree. The Witch stared and listened.”

From, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire

Maguire’s brilliant imagining of the life of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, before the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Dorothy is told, has become itself a classic novel and phenomenal musical.

This is a book for adults. Its themes and language are for those who welcome imagination and are open to reading something completely different about a subject as familiar and prized as Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

There are many familiar characters in Maguire’s novel but the one who hoists the story into literary history is Elphaba. Green skinned, socially awkward, misunderstood, and mistreated, Elphaba develops a tough exterior and learns to fight for herself. She is a heroine of extraordinary gifts. She longs for tolerance. She champions the rights of animals. She defends loners and misfits, which she knows all too well about. 

This novel has been welcomed by enthusiastic fans of all ages and backgrounds since it was first published in 1995. But what we clearly have here is a book for older girls and young women in the throes of heartbreaking issues: body image, self loathing, defeating inner voices, fears of enormous power, and the urge to simply belong and be accepted without cruel and demoralizing demands from others.

Elphaba rises above these defeating emotions and lives a life, though troubled and attacked, with intrepid courage and a relentless pushing of herself to overcome.

“I don’t cause commotions,” says Elphaba, “I am one.”

This book is right at the top with all of my favorites.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Human Needs and Human Relationships

“By Sunday the wedding would be over, and for that Winn Van Meter was grateful. It was Thursday. He woke early, alone in his Connecticut house, a few late stars still burning above the treetops. His wife and two daughters were already on Waskeke, in the island house, and as he came swimming up out of sleep, he thought of them in their beds there: Biddy keeping to her side, his daughters’ hair fanned over their pillows. But first he thought of a different girl (or barely thought of her—she was a bubble bursting on the surface of a dream) who was also asleep on Waskeke. She would be in one of the brass guest beds up on the third floor, under the eaves; she was one of his daughters’ bridesmaids.”

From Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead

I admit I had a difficult time liking this novel. I list it only because I think I need to be reminded now and then of the pretenses I and perhaps all of us often wear and how the fear of being human can drive us to respond to life in such wishy-washy ways.

The main character, Winn Van Meter, is a vain, petulant, emotionally immature man with plenty of money and even more angst. At times I fume at him and at other times I feel sorry for him. His oldest daughter, pregnant and silly and self-absorbed herself, is getting married and the book revolves around the wedding preparations and festivities at their New England summer home.

Here we see how the most privileged can slosh about in emotional unhealthiness. Jealousy, pride, rejection, resentment, arrogance, loneliness and fear shadow the lives of these often shallow people and keep them off balance. But there are redeeming and revealing moments and some of the cast in this truly fractured family remind us of our worst and better selves.

Observing this weekend of both joy and confusion shows us that family, marriage, fidelity, aging, siblings, and life itself is often a messy undertaking. Think of Downton Abbey… without the servants. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Who is Writing Your as Yet Uncompleted Biography?

“Something wakes you at three in the morning—a forgotten face reappears in a dream, a familiar apprehension stirs slumber, some ache agitates the soul. Or, driving on the expressway, hurrying home, a moment long ago leaks through psyche’s floorboard into consciousness, and you wonder why it came to the surface just now, in this quiet different place. You see your child, or grandchild, and recall a moment like that, and wonder where it all got lost, and how it all led to this place you are now obliged to call your life. You wonder how you became the person you think you are. How is it that you married the person you married? How is that familiar doubts, self-sabotaging behaviors, predictable outcomes still govern your choices? Who is writing your as yet uncompleted biography—you, someone else, or unnamed sinister agencies? Just how is it that you got to this place, so different from the beginning of the journey, and how do you get back to where you lost your track amid the blizzard of necessary choices?”

From What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, by James Hollis, PhD

Spirituality & Practice reviewers, Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat, have called this “a thorough book,” and say it is filled with “insights on learning to tolerate ambiguity, feeding the soul, respecting the power of Eros, stepping into largeness, risking growth over security,” and much more.

Hollis is a Jungian Analyst, professor, and much published author. I love his writing style. His brilliance sometimes gets in the way of his very useful counsel. But he is still one of my favorite writers on how to confront our sometimes phony lives and learn to be ourselves with fierce courage, honesty, delight and meaning.

If you are struggling with any secret personal issues this book will knock you off your feet and then help lift you back up into possible healthy solutions.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Detective's Relentless Search for Truth, at Work and Within

“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate (claim): But I only did it because I love you so much.
          I have a pretty knack for imagery, especially the cheap, facile kind. Don’t let me fool you into seeing us as a bunch of parfit gentil knights galloping off in doublets after Lady Truth on her white palfrey. What we do is crude, crass and nasty. A girl gives her boyfriend an alibi for the evening when we suspect him of robbing a north-side Centra and stabbing the clerk. I flirt with her at first, telling her why I see why he would want to stay home when he’s got her; she is peroxided and greasy, with the flat, stunted features of generations of malnutrition, and privately I am thinking that if I were her boyfriend I would be relieved to trade her even for a hairy cellmate named Razor. Then I tell her we’ve found marked bills from the till in his classy white tracksuit bottoms, and he’s claiming that she went out that evening and gave them to him when she got back.
          I do it so convincingly, with such delicate crosshatching of discomfort and compassion at her man’s betrayal, that finally her faith in four shared years disintegrates like a sand castle and through tears and snot, while her man sits with my partner in the next interview room saying nothing except ‘Fuck off, I was home with Jackie,’ she tells me everything from the time he left the house to the details of his sexual shortcomings. Then I pat her gently on the shoulder and give her a tissue and a cup of tea, and a statement sheet.
          This is my job, and you don’t go into it—or, if you do, you don’t last—without some natural affinity for its priorities and demands. What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie.”

From In the Woods, by Tana French

I love this author. Her books are filled with terrific metaphors and just great writing and storytelling skill. Her characters have such interesting personalities—human, flawed, struggling in all the ways most of us do in our attempt to fit the pieces of life’s puzzle together.

Her Irish heritage, setting, language, and culture often pop up within these pages and it gives an interesting look into another country’s particularities while at the same time reminding us we’re all, wherever we live, pretty much alike.

This was her first novel and it is terrific. Dealing with the vulnerability and innocence of children, the worst news a parent can get, the strange obsessions and violence of the deranged, and an unflinching ragged detective caught in forlornness and misgivings, French weaves a story of alarm and mystery that holds the reader’s attention from page to page.

This novel led me to the ones that follow and you will want to read them as well.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Absolute Mystery of Good and Evil

“In the late autumn of 1909, two men who would each transform the world were living in Vienna, Austria. They were in almost every way what the poet William Blake called ‘spiritual enemies.’ One was Sigmund Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis, who would become the most renowned and controversial thinker of the twentieth century. In 1909, Freud was in vigorous middle age, fifty-three years old and at the height of his powers. The other man, whose impact on humanity would be yet greater, was young.
          The young man had come to Vienna in hopes of making his fortune as an architect and an artist….People who met the man sometimes had doubts about his sanity: none of them imagined that Adolf Hitler, for that, of course, is who the young man was, would ever be of consequence in the world.”

From, The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days, by Mark Edmundson

This excellent biography reads like a novel. And a thrilling one at that. Edmundson captures the peculiar personalities of Freud and Hitler with amazing clarity and offers some ghastly yet warm surprises about both their lives. Adolph Hitler loved animals. Sigmund Freud smoked 20 cigars a day. Do we ever really get to know all there is about anyone? Both men poured their lives into their work until there wasn't anything left of either of them. The consequences, of course, were dramatically different.

Even if you are not at all interested in psychology or Freud or Hitler, that’s okay; this book is about humanity and how people often do the most extraordinary and sometimes shocking things in the pursuit of ambition and need. And it’s also about how every person is fundamentally shaped by all of their experiences, especially the experiences of childhood. Those experiences could not have been more contrasting for these two powerful and perplexing men.

This is a book I will read again.