did not finish: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (audio)

aviatorI was determined to give Melanie Benjamin another try (following Alice I Have Been), and had hopes for this novel of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I was hoping for something like Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, I suppose – both wonderful books about historical wives. But I was disappointed.

I gave this novel a more than fair chance: I did not give up until partway through track 144 of 209, which is unusual. Generally I will recognize a book that I’m not going to like much earlier than this, and give up on it; if I have made it well over halfway through, then, it’s generally worth finishing. This one was different.

Early on, I was intrigued by Anne’s story, told here in first person, and wanted to know what would happen to her. (I mean, other than the obvious historical points: marry the guy, have the baby, who is then kidnapped.) I did observe to myself that she was awfully boring, but assumed that part would get better. But it didn’t: the Anne Spencer Morrow, later Anne Morrow Lindbergh, that Benjamin presents is hopelessly boring. She has no personality of her own, being first consumed by admiration for her older sister Elisabeth and international hero Lucky Lindbergh himself, and later resigned to serving her famous husband selflessly, if unhappily. She whines about the harassment of the press; she whines about Charles’s heavy-handed, cool approach to marriage; she laments that she is bound to follow him everywhere like a puppy. But she never begins to have a personality of her own.

This unlikeable and uninteresting protagonist is unfortunately accompanied by no one more interesting or likeable than herself. Charles is stiff, and sympathetic toward Hitler and the eugenics movement. The beautiful Elisabeth is unable to accept herself. There was no character in this story that I was able to feel remotely warm towards. And then Charles’s sinister remarks about genetic purity in the Morrow family (Anne feels the need to hide from him her brother’s mental illness and her sister’s sexual identity) escalate to praise of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and I became downright disgusted. As the Lindberghs consider moving to Germany in the late 1930’s, Anne acknowledges that something (she can’t quite put her finger on it – !) is wrong, but feels that the protection from the media is worth whatever less-than-wholesome business Hitler might be up to, alongside his repression of the press that so disturbed her family in the States.

These people were so unlikeable, and their politics (Lindbergh’s politics, and Anne’s contented acceptance of those politics when she found herself well served) so repellent, that I suddenly found I couldn’t go any further, and hit the “stop” button midway through a Lindbergh rant about Hitler’s righteousness and the wrongs committed by the Jews. Now, I would like to point out that I am capable of reading about horrible ideas, thoughts, arguments, and actions, when there is something to be gained: a point to be made, or history to be learned. But I didn’t see any of these benefits looming. I felt no redemptive value imminent. If Benjamin accomplished something salutary in the final quarter (or so) of this novel, then it came too late for me.

This also means that I missed the final, juicy bits about Lindbergh’s other women and children born out of wedlock. Ho hum. If you’re interested in the gossip, I’d wager you could read about that stuff without suffering through the rest of this novel.

Sadly, another DNF for me from Melanie Benjamin; I can now feel safe in not trying any more of her work. Generally, I don’t rate books I’ve not finished, but having made it over halfway, I’ll go ahead and make a call on this one.

Rating: 3 nurses.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (audio)

five daysWell. This one is a lot to tell you about.

Sheri Fink is an award-winning journalist and holds both a PhD and an MD. In Five Days at Memorial, she examines fateful, famous and controversial events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans in the five days following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Forty-five bodies were recovered from the hospital, with about 9 of them (depending on your source) suspected of having been euthanized by hospital staff during evacuations. I had been looking forward to reading this book but was leery going in, because this subject was clearly going to be emotionally fraught, depressing, poignant. I was quickly mesmerized, though: these events, while troubling and difficult to take in, fascinated me deeply. I have been increasingly interested (outside my reading of this book, for some time now) in the subjects of end-of-life, advanced directives, and our culture’s approach to death. And I am always intrigued by ambiguity, situations in which it is clear to see black-and-white or right-and-wrong. If ever there were such a situation, this is it.

Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to relating the events of these five days, as revealed by Fink’s investigations. (Recall, as I mentioned in my book beginning, that she describes her copious research. I am fairly well convinced of its virtue.) We get to know a number of characters in the story: doctors, nurses, managers and administrators, patients and their family members. We know the ending, in a sense: the hurricane will be far worse than anyone imagined; the hospital will not be evacuated in one, two, three or four days; there will be crimes investigated. But the way the events unfold were unfamiliar to me in their details. Although this is a journalistic account, Fink also imbues it with suspense, which feels very natural: imagine the terror felt by those inside the hospital throughout. Not knowing the whereabouts or well-being of friends and family, isolated by rising floodwaters, without electricity, and plagued by rumor (on which more in a minute), a number of those inside Memorial feared for their lives. And some lost their lives.

The second half of the book describes the investigation of one doctor and (centrally) two nurses. Dr. Anna Pou was eventually called before a grand jury, which (some two years after Katrina) declined to indict her for multiple counts of second degree murder. In this section, we meet new characters, most notably two investigators who work as a comfortable team together. Fink also explores the history of euthanasia as a concept in different cultures and different legal understandings today, and the approach of bioethics, as well as post-Katrina attempts to establish emergency standards for triage, including the allocation of limited resources that will save some lives while ending others.

I was impressed by Fink’s style. I felt, in the end, that she let the facts (as she discovered them) stand alone. Many times throughout it felt like Fink’s voice spoke on one side of this painfully difficult controversy, but pages later she lent that voice to the other side, so that the effect was… shall I say, appropriately discomfiting. The fact is, I strongly feel, that none of us can perfectly know what happened in those five days, what anyone’s real motivation or intention was, and probably that none of us has the right entirely to judge actions taken in such profoundly weird circumstances.

Many questions remain, and I can easily understand and sympathize with divergent views: family members whose loved ones were (allegedly, possibly) euthanized are angry that they weren’t evacuated; hospital workers with no options left to them felt it was better to euthanize than to abandon patients to die slowly, painfully, and alone. I see it both ways. But the details, I think, are lost to me – someone who lived none of it, who’s just read the book. Dr. Pou, it appears, does not find this book’s treatment fair at all. While it’s true that Fink doesn’t exonerate her, I felt that she wasn’t condemned, either. It’s just… so complicated.

One of the more disturbing elements, to me, was the power of rumor and euphemism in the hospital and the accusations bandied about afterward. Doctors and nurses allegedly spoke of “making patients more comfortable,” or said “we won’t leave any living patients behind.” I don’t see how these vague phrases can be used to accuse someone of murder (or euthanasia, or what you like) – what if they literally just meant make someone comfortable? What if they meant that we will evacuate all living patients, thereby leaving none behind? I don’t think these statements necessarily point to killing people – certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt. And then the rumors: New Orleans after the storm saw violent crime and looting, but not (writes Fink) to the extent that it was rumored, within the hospital and more generally. Some of this fear and rumor was racially charged. Such a circumstance serves no one well.

In fact, the most damning evidence in Fink’s book for me was not the evidence that euthanasia had taken place – frankly, my value system allows for euthanasia as a fine option in certain circumstances – but the evidence that other hospitals faced similar challenges (loss of power, rising waters) and functioned better. I can’t recall the name at this moment (and the audiobook format is bad for looking up such things), but there was a hospital under analogous conditions that ran regular shifts – encouraging staff to sleep when not caring for patients – and sternly disallowed the spreading of rumors. (I think the phrase was something like “if you didn’t see it, don’t say it.”) Memorial saw a decidedly higher level of panic, and that was one of its critical failures. This can’t possibly be Dr. Pou’s fault: she’s just one person, incapable alone of preventing or inciting panic. In fact, as Fink presents it, if she did commit certain acts, she wasn’t alone; she was just singled out in investigations.

I can draw no conclusions after reading (listening to) this book, other than to say I think it was well told – visceral – and I am emphatic about the persistent ambiguity of this situation. In other words, I can’t judge, and I think it’s a little outrageous that anyone would try to. But I guess the justice system feels it has to try…

Narrator Kirsten Potter was well up to this task; full credit for the narration. I enjoyed this format for this book, but the major drawback for journalistic work is that I can’t flip back and check names, dates, etc.

Recommended, if you’re up for some tough topics and hearing about suffering.

Rating: 8 sleepless nights.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L’Engle (audio)

swiftly tiltingThis is book 3 in a series, following A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door.

In this episode of the Murrys’ lives, Meg is an adult, recently married to Calvin and pregnant. This makes for a change: no one is really a child any more (well, Charles Wallace is 15. But he’s an odd one, isn’t he). However, the voice of the characters is not noticeably more mature. (She uses rather big words! But simple sentences.) On the one hand, this means that L’Engle’s novels remain accessible to the youthful population she intended. On the other, it does feel like children’s or young adult lit. Just a note. I’m still enjoying.

Where A Wrinkle in Time dealt with hard science and Meg’s social awkwardness, and A Wind in the Door emphasized the importance of all the parts of the world, large and small, A Swiftly Tilting Planet expands on that concept of interconnectedness and applies it to international politics and the possibility of nuclear war. An added element of fun and fascination is provided by time travel: Charles Wallace has a unicorn friend named Gaudior this time as his guide, and they travel through time to visit Calvin O’Keefe’s forebears throughout history. The unicorn, and the different historical settings, were excellently done, in my opinion; I was almost sorry when we returned to the present. But not to worry: the Murrys’ present makes up a smallish minority of this book’s focus; we spend most of our time immersed in history, from ancient times through the early New England settlers and the US Civil War.

On Thanksgiving, Calvin’s mother and therefore Meg’s new mother-in-law, Mrs. O’Keefe, is present when the family receives word from the President (Mr. Murry is an important man) that nuclear war is imminent. The normally antisocial Mrs. O’Keefe pipes up to charge Charles Wallace with preventing it, and this is when he meets Gaudior and they travel through the centuries. L’Engle employs the classic time traveler’s hope, to change the present and future by going back and changing some detail of the past. (The butterfly effect is entirely ignored.) During these travels, Charles Wallace has to learn to deemphasize his intellect, not rely on his IQ, but go with the flow. This is an interesting lesson for our boy genius.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is a departure from the first two books, which concentrated on science (and science starring a young girl!); this one is more social science, you might say, or the nature and effects of relationships (familial and otherwise) and the bonds of society. Readers looking for the science might be disappointed. But I found the fantasy of time travel via flying unicorn, and the chance to meet individual characters in history (a fictional, but realistic, history), very engaging and entertaining.

I missed L’Engle’s narration of this audiobook, as I’d enjoyed the author’s own voice in the first two in this series; but I must say that Jennifer Ehle’s reading was quite similar. (She is a little less gruff.) If we have to change narrators mid-series, at least let them be like enough that I don’t feel jolted; so well done on that count. And Ehle’s narration was fine in itself. I will be listening to the final two books in turn – already have them loaded. I still recommend L’Engle’s work.

Rating: 7 letters.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (audio)

runawayFrom the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring (which I read pre-blog, and loved), another historical novel of women’s lives. I recently tried reading Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, but I found I couldn’t appreciate it. No such problem with The Last Runaway.

Honor Bright is a small-town British Quaker in 1850, a young woman recently abandoned by her fiance, her future uncertain. Her sister Grace will soon be departing for the New World to marry; Honor decides, somewhat impetuously, to accompany her and find a different life. She can always come back home, right? But the sea voyage – heralded as the shortest and easiest passage possible – nearly kills her, she is so seasick. When she finally sets foot in America, she knows that, no, she can never go home.

On the overland trip to Ohio (by coach – their plan to take riverboats being prevented by Honor’s seasickness), where Grace’s fiance awaits, Grace falls sick and dies. Honor will arrive alone, and ahead of the letter announcing her coming, so that the fiance, Adam, expects one sister but finds another. His brother has likewise died, leaving him now with a widowed sister-in-law as well as this almost-sister-in-law. Honor’s place is decidedly uncertain, and uncomfortable. The new Ohio Quaker community of Faithwell does not look approvingly upon Adam’s strange household. The pressure is on, therefore, for Honor to find herself a husband; but she is without even a friend in her new hometown.

She does have a friend a day trip away, however, in Wellington: Belle Mills, of Mills Millinery, who nursed Honor through an illness and sheltered her, and gave her work. Honor is a gifted seamstress and quilter, and her skills were appreciated in Belle’s shop. Quakers can’t wear colorful or decorative hats, but Honor enjoyed making them for others; and Honor got along with Belle, although the non-Quaker’s coarse speech and whiskey drinking were new to Honor. (Honor’s sewing and quilting are a strong framing element throughout the story: quilts in the English and the new American styles are described, and provide examples of Honor’s homesickness, and her new community’s intolerance of her English traditions. I thought of my mother, the quilter, who I think would appreciate these details.) Also simultaneously fascinating and disturbing is Belle’s brother, Donovan, a slave-hunter; and this is where the conflict of the novel begins.

As a Quaker and as a moral being, Honor is naturally repelled by slavery; but it is easier to abhor the peculiar institution from England, where it is distant and (forgive the phrase) black-and-white. In Ohio, Honor sees black people for almost the first time, and encounters runaway slaves who she is naturally inclined to help; she also sees Donovan working to re-enslave them. When she does marry local dairy farmer Jack Haymaker, Honor finds not a soulmate or even companion; but she does find a nasty mother-in-law and sister-in-law. When they discover that Honor has been offering minor assistance to runaways – food, water, directions to the next stop on the Underground Railroad, in Oberlin – they forbid her to help further.

The issue, then, is between obedience to her new (if unlikeable) family, versus her feelings about slavery. Honor will grow as she has to form new relationships, and not always easy ones: alliances with a black woman in Oberlin named Mrs. Reed, and with the colorful Belle Mills; and she has to find a way to relate to her new husband and in-laws that will work for each of them.

I noticed I was approaching the end of this audiobook and things felt so up in the air I couldn’t believe they’d be wrapped up in time. And indeed, the reader would appreciate a sequel to find out what finally becomes of Honor’s new family; but they are sent on their way in good time, with no loose ends, at least. Honor’s character sees a satisfactory arc: she grows, expands, speaks up for herself, considers different positions and stakes her own. And her new life is indeed established in the end.

I thought the Underground Railroad was ably portrayed, if only simplistically; the runaway slaves have some personality, and Belle Mills is a great hit. The quilting element, as I said, was an added appeal as well. But it’s Honor herself who stars, rightfully. I think Tracy Chevalier still has it here, and would recommend this novel. It’s somewhat lightweight in the issues it addresses, perhaps, but it makes its points, and is more accessible than novels on this subject sometimes are, so it will appeal to the popular reader.

The audio performance by Kate Reading (great name, that!) is fine as well. I liked the different accents she used; they provided real color and personality. I would happily recommend this format.

Rating: 7 tin cups.

guest review: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, from Mom (audio)

Thanks Mom for sending these reading notes.

I’m reading a Playaway version of Worst Hard Times. I picked it up because it’s a World Book Night item, on display at the library when I went to pick up my box of Catch 22 to give away. I was most interested in this audio player-book just sitting on the shelf. (Add earbuds, battery, and stir.)
It’s a pretty grim picture. Worst Hard Times is the dust bowl story, and follows people’s stories in several of the farms & towns of the worst areas. Egan writes for the NY Times, and recently wrote a scathing attack on the idea that the landslide in Oso was one of those “acts of God” that are so unfortunate but . . . . (Actually there was lots of warning by geologists, an earlier landslide in the last decade, with the logging of the hilltop as the coup de gras).

The Dust Bowl is called the worst man-made disaster of the U.S., and easily understood in hindsight as a tragic result of lack of understanding of natural forces, as well as grasping for even more wealth when the land was giving its riches reliably during the wet years of the Twenties. He gives more details than can be born, almost: the dust swirling, no plates set out until time to use them, wet bedsheets hung up over windows every night, people dying of “dust pneumonia.” The old cattlemen said it was a crime to uproot the prairie grass, and that the land would be ruined – more importantly, to them, even than the loss of the land for cows.

This area, which was called the Great American Desert, was given to the Apaches. When the government decided to give the land to settlers, Texas, especially, made every effort to eradicate the buffalo in order to drive off the Indians.

So, a good story. The reader, not so much. (He’s “an accomplished actor, director and combat choreographer” according to the audio blurb. Huh?) He put a little too much hick into the voices when he quotes them, and, like some readers I’ve noticed, makes women’s voices especially irritating, with a too-high intonation. The most irritating, though – a subjective reaction, I know – is his pronunciation of Boise City as /boyZAY/. Really?

Oh, Mom, I do so get it! The pronunciations from my recent read of Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods are fresh in my mind – unfortunately the only one I can cite specifically is urinal as “your-RYE-null” (very strange!) but there were others, equally odd & distracting. I think I’m more upset by the overly hick accents and the obnoxious women’s voices, though.

Does Egan overtly make the comparison between our hubris & lack of foresight with the Dust Bowl, and same with the recent mudslide (etc. etc.)? Or leave us to figure it out? If the latter, readers like yourself make the connection without difficulty; but I always appreciate the former. If you have a statement, go ahead and make it, please! Stand up for what you think.

I would say yes. I’m not through yet, but he lets a lot of characters say this. He also writes of the preachers who said that people are being punished for some sin, or that prayer & positive thinking will make it all better.

The sodbusters are all from the devil, according to the cattlemen. The saddest part of that is not that they are right, but that the dust dunes and drought ends up killing even the grass that remains.

There’s a scientist who explains it perfectly, and after Roosevelt’s election, he gets put in some government function to help solve the problems. There’s a town where the people agree to follow this guy’s recommendations for saving the land. Don’t remember the details, but hope to see this followed up in a later chapter.

There’s a newspaper owner (Dalhart or Boise City) who stops reporting all the bad stuff. Then he decides the people just need to embrace the situation. Look at the black clouds, the wind, the dead earth, and see the majesty of nature. Nuts! He doesn’t mention embracing all the death.

So I think Egan will have a strong conclusion to this effect.

The roaring boom of prosperity and the miracle of turning land into wheat (=$$) is a big theme. Plain people learning that they could have become rich if they planted every acre. They couldn’t tear up the prairie fast enough. We even have what he calls suitcase farmers, entrepreneurs who come to town and pay someone to rent their land and plant wheat. They just wait around for the harvest and the profits. After the bust and the drop in wheat prices, off they go, with no more interest in the land they have mined. How much hubris can you stand?

This does sound like a good story – though decidedly grim, as you say. I’d like to put it on the (long) list… Thanks for sharing!

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (audio)

illuminationsHildegard von Bingen was a real-life woman; a brief glance at the Wikipedia page under her name indicates that this novel is faithful to the general shape of the historical figure’s life. (Consulting Wikipedia is not a high standard, but it’s all I felt necessary to my review of this book. And really, we can’t ask for much accuracy when dealing with a mystic from the 1000’s, can we we?)

First question: what led me to a book about a religious figurehead? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t have a great deal of patience for Christian subjects of books in general; but this woman was a writer and something of a rebel, and I decided to give it a try. I could always put it down. My whim was rewarded: I enjoyed Hildegard’s story.

The book is narrated by Hildegard herself (and to reduce confusion, I’ll also say that this audio edition was narrated by Tavia Gilbert, on whom more in a moment), beginning in her old age and then quickly flashing back to her childhood. We spend the vast majority in this lengthy flashback, and thus see her life chronologically.

Hildegard was very young when she began seeing the visions she would be famous for; she saw a lady of light that she came to believe was god, or the church, and her mother disapproved. Partly for this reason, and partly because there were so many children to provide for, her mother gave her to the church – or specifically, to a wealthy young woman from a good family who devoted her own life to god and needed an attendant. Hildegard was only eight when she and Jutta were bricked into the monastery at Disibodenberg to serve as anchorites; and this is the first, but not the last, time I exclaimed at the cruelty of the church.

Hildegard spends a number of years bricked in with Jutta, who is strict, joyless and loveless. She does make a friend in a monk named Volmar, however, who speaks with the women through a little window, and brings gifts of potted plants and books. Eventually the walls will be torn down so that two more young girls can be bricked in, as well, enlarging their tiny convent somewhat; the newcomers are Adelheid and Guda, the latter of whom is even younger than Hildegard was when she was imprisoned. Hildegard had been planning an escape when the two children were brought; but she can’t leave them to her fate, and she stays.

When Jutta dies (after starving herself), years later, Hildegard and her two younger proteges make a plea to be allowed to live in the monastery in relative freedom – they will retain their rooms as before but not be bricked back in. Due to Hildegard’s political maneuverings and performance before important visitors, this request is granted, but grudgingly. She has continued to cause trouble. She still has her visions, although she has learned to keep them to herself; but she is less obedient and more questioning than the monks appreciate. She has also, however, come to serve as a mother or leader to the younger women, who are now joined by a newcomer named Richardis, daughter of Hildegard’s powerful sometimes-ally. Richardis will become Hildegard’s special friend. Such a relationship is actually forbidden by the Benedictine order, but the two women can’t help loving each other. (To be clear, there is no sexual relationship here, and only the slimmest of hints about sexual attraction.)

The novel follows Hildegard’s growth, and her continuing efforts to live beyond the monastery. Her flock of “daughters” grows, and she will finally petition the Archbishop of Mainz, and successfully establish her own monastery at Rupertsberg, accompanied by her nuns and her old friend, Volmar. One of her greatest controversies is her writing: it takes ten years, but she will write a book of her visions, illustrated (or “illuminated”) by Richardis and transcribed by Volmar; the Pope himself confirms that her visions are holy rather than evil, although the abbot at Disibodenberg will never be entirely satisfied on that point. She also composes music, grows herbs and mixes remedies (and writes medical texts), and studies plants in the natural world; she is in fact a Renaissance woman, in an age when women were supposed to be silent nuns or wives. Again, the particulars of her life represented in this fictionalization may not be perfectly accurate. But the broader strokes are true: Hildegard was an author, an abbess, a composer, an outspoken leader.

In other words, Hildegard von Bingen was bigger than her world normally allowed women to be; and this after being buried alive in childhood as an anchorite. This novel of her life tells that story beautifully. It goes pretty light on the parts about god and religion, which was a major plus for this reader; those more interested in the religious side of her life might be disappointed, but I enjoyed being able to read about her accomplishments, her struggles, and her personality without being subjected to too much preaching. The Hildegard in this book loved people, and wanted the best for her daughters; god was almost incidental to her, and that worked well for me. Although it is her visions of that that made her famous in the first place, the god she sees in them is both notably female, and a god of love and freedom rather than rules.

Her story is compelling, and I appreciated her frustrations and enjoyed her personality. The narration by Tavia Gilbert felt right; I liked the old woman’s voice she uses at the very end, but her characterization was mostly invisible, just felt like Hildegard herself were speaking, and that is as it should be.

For a historical story of women’s rights in the church and in society in the 1000’s and 1100’s, I do recommend Illuminations.

Rating: 7 beautiful women.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): finished

haroldDon’t forget to also see my earlier reviews of the first third and second third of this book.

Naturally, Harold Fry continued to be excellent. I love this book. The sad bit where we left him off in my last review, where he was dogged by misguided followers (yes, I believe I mean that literally, too), was sad; but it came to an end. Harold of course ends up on his own again, which is mostly his natural state in this story. But he won’t finish that way. I don’t want to report any more plot points. This book ends on a hopeful note, and everyone – not only the few characters you might think early on, but everyone – ends up growing and learning.

Rachel Joyce’s strengths definitely include her wry writing voice, which is really very funny. Harold is often self-conscious, but Joyce never is. Her characters are very real and well put together; even the most minor of walk-ons is defined precisely in just a few words. There are larger truths as well. For example, I was struck by the statement of relativity here:

How could he say all this? It amounted to a lifetime. He could try to find the words, but they would never hold the same meaning for her that they did for him. My house, he would say, and the image that would spring to her head would be of her own! There was no saying it.

None of us shall ever know exactly what the others have been through! Oh the humanity!

Incidentally, I was right in my big guess about the big secret. Work that one out for yourselves.

I fell in love with Harold, and with Maureen, and with Rex (Rachel Joyce, is there another book with Rex in it? please please??), and with all the smaller players. I felt so close to these people, these real people living quiet lives – or even lives of quiet desperation, you might say. I am very impressed with this story of ordinary people doing small, private things, that also managed to be a very large story about The Human Situation (that’s an Honors College course I took as a freshman, FYI). The wisdom that is communicated in humble packages is extraordinary. Harold is a star, and Rachel Joyce is my new hero. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Highly recommended; and the audio read by Jim Broadbent is absolutely grand as well. One of the best of the year to date, without a doubt.

Rating: 10 yards of blue duct tape.

Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros (audio)

marieWhat a lovely, lovely book. Fans of Sandra Cisneros, don’t be put off by the sometimes-classification of this short fable as a children’s book. Cisneros says in an afterword that she certainly never thought of it that way; she intended it for adults, and I can confirm that it works that way, very well.

This is a short, dreamy, poetic tale of a woman, the narrator, who has just lost her mother; a visiting friend (“I was the only person Rosalind knew in all of Texas”) has lost her cat, Marie. Together, the two women go walking the streets of San Antonio, distributing fliers and asking folks the title question: Have you seen Marie?

The voice and rhythms and lyrical style that I remember from The House on Mango Street are vibrantly present here. The women ask dogs, cats and squirrels as well as people about the missing Marie, and their reactions are noted, and charmingly represented as being every bit as important as the people’s. On the surface, this is the story of searching for Marie; but it is also the story of Cisneros losing her beloved mother, feeling like an orphan in her own middle age, and gradually coming to understand that “love does not die.”

As I mentioned, Cisneros is careful to point out that this was not meant to be a story for children, but rather one for adults, with the idea of helping others like herself deal with experiences like hers: losing a parent, or a loved one. I am very (very) glad & relieved that I don’t seem to facing this experience now, or soon; but I imagine that this book would indeed help. I appreciate its soothing musical tone and gently loving, inspired advice and creative understanding of death, what it means, the grieving process. It is a tender tale. Cisneros is inventive and calming and this is a beautiful, moving story about family and friendship. I highly recommend it, for anyone.

This audio version is read by the author, and so beautifully; I love her lilt; it’s perfect. I want to very much recommend this version (in both English and Spanish in one edition – one cd of each). But then, the print copy is illustrated by Ester Hernandez, and Cisneros is clearly very pleased with that aspect. Hearing her speak about their collaborative efforts on the illustrations (Hernandez came to visit & tour Cisneros’s San Antonio; she calls it documentary-style) made me regret missing the print. So there you are. Both, perhaps?? I think I will go out and get myself a copy of the book, too.

Rating: 10 trees along the San Antonio River.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): second bit

haroldYou’ll recall that I did already review the first third or so of this audiobook, because I just couldn’t hold in my enthusiasm. Well, my good impression continues through the next third of the book, along with my need to share as I go.

I will give away less from here on out. Harold’s journey continues, and while his physical, geographical journey is the obvious plot line, there is a parallel arc of personal growth. At the beginning, he is almost unable to be in the same room with strangers; by the end he easily greets them everywhere he goes, and has learned to share his story and take on what is often the burden of other people’s stories. This is essentially a very human tale, incorporating all the strange, wonderful, and wonderfully, strangely normal lives of the people Harold meets along the way.

He met a tax inspector who was a druid and had not worn a pair of shoes in ten years.

There is also a sense of growing tension regarding one of the secrets I referred to in my earlier post; the un-referred-to past looms larger as we go on, and I have a guess I’m fairly confident about, but I will wait and see.

Harold gains followers as he continues walking, until there is a large group of “pilgrims” accompanying him on his journey. I was reminded a little bit of Forrest Gump, when he’s running, and finds a crowd running behind him. Unlike Forrest, Harold has a purpose, and his followers know it; and also unlike Forrest, these followers become a real burden. By this time, he has learned to take care of himself quite well; now he has newcomers to take care of too, and this takes up a lot of time and effort. Also, they’re not as fast as he is at the actual walking; but he tries to be patient, remembering how long it took him to build up stamina and get into a rhythm. I was, of course, infuriated at their selfishness in holding Harold back from something so important to him; but I can see how Harold could have done nothing less than help them along.

As I enter the final third (give or take) of this book, I am only sorry that it has to end.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audio): first bit

haroldI can’t help but share with you my early reflections on this delightful tale – before I know everything. It will be interesting to see how my perspective or feelings change later on. Here, I’m about 1/3 of the way through.

What an oddly charming, quirky story. Harold Fry has retired from his 45-year career working quietly for a brewery (although he is a teetotaler) and now stays home with his wife Maureen. She cleans – constantly – and criticizes him, and he mows the lawn. He does not speak with their only son, David. One morning he gets a letter from an old friend, a former coworker named Queenie. She is writing from a hospice to say goodbye: she has cancer. Harold jots a quick note to say “sorry about that, old girl” or similar, and although he feels its insufficiency, sets off right then to post it from the box at the end of the road.

But when Harold gets to the end of the road, he can’t quite mail his letter, because it is of course a sadly inappropriate thing to do for Queenie; so he keeps walking. He tells himself he’ll mail it from the next postbox; and he does this at a great number of boxes, before he stops in at a garage for a snack. The girl there shows him how to heat up a hamburger in a microwave, which amazes him (“it even had gherkins!” he will later report to Maureen) and tells him the inspirational story of her aunt who had cancer: the girl willed her to get better, because if you believe (she tells Harold) you can do anything.

It is not too long after this conversation that Harold decides he will walk to visit Queenie at the hospice facility, and commands her to live until he gets there. It’s not clear how far this walk will be – someone he encounters guesses it might be 500 miles, but at any rate it’s very far, and he’s wearing his yacht shoes and as Maureen is quick to point out, he’s never walked further than to the car. He is, in fact, endeavoring to walk the length of England.

I hope you see what an endearingly strange story this is. Harold himself is poignantly, almost painfully shy and insecure; he’s not accustomed to being around people, and as he and Maureen each note separately in the opening pages, “it was not like Harold to make a snap decision.” There’s a lot we still don’t know. I suspect that there was an event in Harold and Maureen’s marriage where things soured suddenly, decisively; if I’m right, that information is clearly being withheld. Their son David won’t visit, and he and Harold don’t speak; if there is a reason other than general teenage impatience with his parents (and he is no longer a teen, so…) then likewise we haven’t learned it yet. And I can see plainly that Harold’s history with Queenie has a story to it – and presumably their parting of ways, and their failure to keep in touch? Oh – and I wonder if Harold has always been a non-drinker, or if there is some traumatic history that has led to his sobriety. There is a line in which Maureen worries about him being in a pub… I just wonder. These are the informational nuggets I am being teased with at present. Harold’s childhood is just beginning to unfold, so I think I can see Joyce’s strategy of allowing these things to be dragged out of her story sooo…. slooowly… and I like it.

Narrator Jim Broadbent has an excellent ear for Harold’s voice (sort of ponderous) and the pacing required for this humor to play properly; I approve heartily.

Stay tuned!


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