Sparked by Words

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I read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway during the late 1960s when the Vietnam War raged. (The book was published in 1940.) To say I was very naïve would be close to truth. To say I was passionate would be just as close. Every morning the newspaper front page showed images still ingrained on my memory: A Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in protest of the war. A small naked girl running down the road, her body burned by napalm.  A handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner being shot in the head by the South Vietnamese chief of police. A wounded soldier, bandaged and bloody, cradled by his buddy, also wounded. Every night the newsreels showed Vietnamese villagers fleeing in search of safety, cowering in rice paddies, tramping through streams, watching as their huts were torched and blazed. They showed American servicemen hiding in the jungle or marching along dirt roads. Or worse, coming home in coffins. Flag draped, somber in their geometric silence, stark against the airport concrete, one young soldier after another, each having fought on ground thousands of miles from home. From high school through college and the early years of my marriage, the Vietnam War took center stage.

How could anyone not value human life against this bloody panorama? I marched in protests large and small to declare my outrage at the injustice of the war. I gave up a semester of college to campaign for the Twenty-sixth Amendment to lower the voting age to 18, so that young men considered old enough to die for their country as soldiers could also vote. I painted my first serious portrait, of a young Vietnamese girl (I think her name was Nguyen, photographed by Larry Burrows for Life magazine, but I might remember incorrectly) kneeling in front of her hut and looking to the sky moments before her village was bombed. I met Robert Pratt, a young vet home from the war about a year, fell deeply in love, and married him.

Despite that background, I could not understand For Whom the Bell Tolls. It wasn’t Hemingway’s fault that I couldn’t align the story’s moral compass with my own. I think he was intentionally vague about which side was right and which wrong, but that posed a problem for me. I needed to see positions clearly demarcated. Even though we read it in a college class, the professor’s explanations and student discussions didn’t assure me of moral certitude. I was just too young and sheltered to comprehend a multi-dimensional world.

The book tells the story of a small group of guerilla fighters during the Spanish Civil War. They plan to blow up a bridge to foil Franco’s fascist army from advancing on the Spanish peasants on their way to conquering the country. They’re joined by American Robert Jordan who intends to carry out blowing the bridge even though the leader of the group argues against what he thinks will be a foolhardy action. Jordan also falls in love with one of the women in the group, and their lusty affair creates a compelling reason to stay alive despite his fatalistic attitude.

Nearly everyone else in the class defended the book on every count: the amount of sex, drinking, and vulgar dialogue; the criticism of Franco and of the guerillas; the unadorned, almost simplistic language of the book. For me, it was a murky view of the world when I was already struggling with the violence of Vietnam. Years later when I read the book a second time, I grasped its equivocal viewpoint as an asset to goad people into making thoughtful assessments of complex situations. But in college, the ambivalence left me befuddled. How was I supposed to think about a war where everyone was as bad as they were good? I was not mature enough to examine the world through a clear lens. I didn’t know how to challenge on any level but emotional context.

One thing that stood out for me with clarity was the passage written by John Donne from which Hemingway took the book’s title:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The metaphor of bells ringing at the death of each person echoed throughout the story. The idea that death was as near and prevalent as the ringing of church bells weighed on me even during my first, ambivalent reading of the book. With the then current Vietnam War played against the book’s images of the Spanish Civil War, I sensed even if I couldn’t accept Jordan’s fatalistic attitude about life and death. For Whom the Bell Tolls is not my favorite F book, nor is it my favorite Hemingway Book. (That would be The Old Man and the Sea.) But it had such a deep and profound impact on my life then and now that it’s the book I had to choose.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for F:

Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Ablom

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite F fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Charles Scribner’s Sons

 

Supermoon

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The wonder of space implores us to be placid

 

Gazing at the supermoon one night past

I saw the distance between her and earth

Limpid and far, quiet and empty

As if the only breach were my vision

Fractured by weak eyesight, poor posture

Telescopes might pull her closer

Though we fill the gap doggedly with fear

Argument, hatred, accusation, injury, violence

We shatter our world and the moon’s

Posing as wholly independent, just one

When in fact we are all connected, all one

 

Heavenward eyes peer, souls beseech tranquility

 

One being, one earth, one universe, one cosmos

Roiling, expanding, bursting, churning, emerging

Space between moon and earth

Never still, the ether a shimmer, a quiver,

Launch of one rocket equal to one smile

I was born in 1948, most recent super moon

Before last Sunday’s, will not be here for the next

May the year 2034 be one of calm and peace

May my spirit then united with all breaths

Be a scarce flux, an absent touch

My children and grandchildren to feel justice

 

The scope of all atoms toward the serene

 

Great-grandchildren and strangers everywhere

Know what I left behind, unremembered,

Unremarked, also did no damage, merely an attempt

To repair the rifts, the harm, the anger, the blows

Tried to say thank you, I’m sorry, I forgive, I love

If not always heard because other

Sounds and movements hurt, stole, cut, raped

I turned my back even while proclaiming my

Innocence, activism, contribution, my part

I am also responsible for all that and

So are you – we may not acquit nor turn aside

 

The swell of sanctuary, of prodigal equity

 

The moon was close on Sunday, most super

But we are close to each other every day

No matter my speech or heritage, no matter yours

We are all born of the same dust and glow

The same needs, urges, desires, ash, and blood

May not blame the Holy One nor ask favor

It was granted the moment of our birth

Now is our chance and our charge to build

Repair, invent, improve, protect, share, yield

That when next the moon appears most super

Her gleam will expose a world whole and still

 

One voice of God most heard and most felt by all

 

 

Moon image courtesy Harvest Moon on the #UWS #NYC September 8, 2014 image/editing/sookietex and released into the public domain

Nebula

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Our pledge for our children

To order silence from our nascent viscera

To draw inspiration from our noblest instincts

To stretch empathy from our trembling hearts

To see promise in shadows, future in echoes

To hear power in thoughts rendered with love

To mold honor from acts wrought of despair

To restrain, to rise, to remember the cloud

That bound all in the nursery of universe

This our tribute, this our promise

That one impostor cannot divide

What community deems whole

That the guttural throb of the savage

Is muted by voices chanted in chorus

We hold the heart line of dignity

As profound as the creation of stars

 

Image courtesy public domain: NASA and NSSDC

This site is not endorsed by NASA.

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Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is not a realistic book though it has one big toe dipped in historical fiction and another dipped in magic realism. At least not the kind of realism that borders on incidents so close to history the reader can’t see the line of invention, and not the kind of fantasy one recognizes as a fairy tale. The plot is unlikely, the scenes improbable, and the characters resemble the broad strokes of sit-com personalities. Yet I loved this book because in all its silliness, absurdity, and exaggeration is a reflection of truth we usually find in satire. But this book isn’t a satire either.

Foer based his book on a journey he took to Ukraine shortly after graduation from college. Young and inquisitive, he went to Europe in search of the woman who allegedly saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. That he never found her didn’t stop him from writing about the doppelganger Jonathon Safran Foer who goes in search of family history. The alter Foer as writer creates the mythical story of the found shtetl in tandem to the story of the fictional journey to Europe in search of his roots.  Yes, a bit confusing, and I had to suspend my sense of reality and history to buy the whole premise. I did so willingly because Foer’s voice is so inventive and strong, he made me believe it was all possible even when I knew it wasn’t.

Guiding Foer on his quest is the young Russian translator, Alexander Perchov, whose mangled English provides sophomoric humor. Using an old dictionary, he chooses words that get close to what he means and yet are laughably far from making sense. For instance, Alexander explains his “many friend dub me Alex.” He calls his own blind grandfather retarded and while the old man displays odd prejudices and behavior, he is in fact retired, and also appears to be able to see quite well. Alex takes Foer, whom he calls “the hero,” along with his grandfather and a smelly dog, in search of the woman Augustine, who may know the location of the ruins of the shtetl Trachimbrod (an actual shtetl destroyed during World War II) and who may have saved Foer’s grandfather.

In between the meandering journey through Ukraine, both Alex and Foer are writing the history of the shtetl, with Foer correcting Alex’s version while he writes his own. Yet it is Alex’s mangled writing that gets closer to the heart of the story than Foer’s more accurate but blander version.

The parallel story of the shtetl Trachimbrod is presented as a fairy tale village with two shuls, people who live on opposite sides of a line that may or may not be imaginary, and that seems to be slipping precariously toward oblivion. A glass wall in one shul separates villagers who are connected to each other by strings, reminding us of how tenuous are all human connections.  An infant girl falls into a river and is saved from drowning, and this child may be the ancestor of Augustine whom Foer is seeking. As romantic as this version is, the real town did in fact suffer oblivion during the war. Thus the entire book drifts back and forth between two tales propelled by miscommunication and a sublime approximation of truth that can only be accomplished by events skewed as if seen in a fun house mirror.

A favorite quote is this one: We should remember. It is the act of remembering, the process of remembrance, the recognition of our past. Memories are small prayers to God, if we believed in that sort of thing.

Jonathan Safran Foer lured me into understanding our world with new insight. He kept me reading and re-reading the story, laughing, trembling, and knowing how important is our memory of who we are, so we know how far we’ve come, and how much further we must yet go. Everything is in fact illuminated but the glow may be only a reflection of something else.

Everything is Illuminated won the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lion’s Prize, among other recognition.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for E:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East is East by T. C. Boyle

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Eventide by Kent Haruf

Exodus by Leon Uris

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite E fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

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I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, but I chose it for my favorite D book for an unusual reason. It was suggested by my older son, referred to here as O-Son.

He’d already fallen for most of the other Adams books, especially The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, not an unusual choice for a twelve-year-old geeky sci-fi fan. He’d devoured The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, and The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Probably introduced by friends, Adams was the perfect writer for a brilliant and shy kid who was socially unconventional. Like so many almost-teenagers, Adams gave my son a way to see himself as a totally acceptable human being.

To begin somewhat near the beginning, my kids are readers, having been introduced to books before they were born. I read to my babies in utero, reading out loud whatever book I had in my hands. (With O-Son it was Watership Down.) The tradition continued as soon as each son was born, every afternoon filled with a half dozen or more books, another half dozen at bed time. Picture books were read two, four, five times in a row if requested. Cuddling with my sons, lost in a world of imagination, conundrums, solutions, humor, mystery, fantastical or historical locales, and the most astounding people we’d ever met, books nourished us.

I read to my kids until they were each about thirteen and life finally caught up, obligations to so many other diversions forcing story time to shut down. My sons had been reading capably since they were five or six, so shared reading time was purely a joyous event and not because they couldn’t do the job themselves.

So when O-Son gave me Dirk Gently to read with him shortly after he turned thirteen, I knew it was a singularly extraordinary moment for us. Our reading together time had been waning, and I sensed this would be the last book. He couldn’t have chosen a better story. We laughed as we tried to figure out where the strange plot was going (OK, it’s Douglas Adams, whose plots are well outside of standard plot-ville format,) O-Son and me bouncing along on the novel’s tailgate.  Sometimes he read, sometimes I did.

Reading is a social endeavor. It’s a reason to be in lock-step with why we read books. We name our pets, even our children, after favorite titles, characters, or authors. We talk about the books we read, recommend and trade them with friends, peer at a stranger’s tome or tablet to see what they’re reading. I belong to a reader’s group where we select a book a month, get together for an evening, and talk about them. Exposed to books we might otherwise pass up, we don’t always like every choice but we love the discussions, even the argumentative ones.

Reading is a reward. Teachers use reading time as incentive for students to be productive with required class work. Decades ago, I motivated children whose first language wasn’t English to work on their reading assignments so they could listen to me read Jamie Gilson’s 13 Ways to Sink a Sub for ten minutes at the end of the session. A fall-on-the-floor-laughing book, it proved a terrific strategy to encourage challenged students to read. Research shows that students who read often, especially if they include a wide variety of genres, have larger vocabularies and do much better on college entrance exams than those who don’t.

Reading is fulfilling. Transported to another culture or historical period, we can walk in unfamiliar shoes, see the world, experience adventures that are out of this world. Reading is a way to learn about something unexpected, maybe entice one to research a subject suggested in the story. We learn to feel empathy and compassion, to understand nuance and connections, to add to our fund of knowledge and imagine what is possible.

As for favorite lines from Dirk Gently, the most famous is probably this: Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all. It speaks to everyone, but to teenagers facing an unknown and intimidating future, that line is the Declaration of Independence. For myself as a mom whose baby was growing up, this one suits best: The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true?

If you share your life with youngsters, read to them. Thanks, Douglas Adams, for all the hours of fun, wit, satire, and whimsy you gave O-Son and me, and thanks for all the fish. Because teaching a young man to fish teaches him for his lifetime.  It doesn’t get better than that.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for D:

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite D fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy Google images and Pocket Books

 

 

The Day of a Small Hurdle

Didn’t know if I would write this but realized I must.

Last Friday, September 16, I slipped off a curb. Sun in my eyes, loose sandal, in too much of a hurry.

Fell hard onto the pavement on my right side. Did not black out at all, no bump to my noggin, no shiny stars. Just a swollen right arm. A misshapen swollen right arm.

Folks at the place where I’d just left – the residence where my mom lives – extremely helpful and kind. Careful not to let my mom find out – might have upset her  – or might have whooshed beyond her comprehension.

Ambulance to hospital. No siren but what a bumpy ride. Travel on a freeway with an injured body part and you feel every jostle along the way. Yes you do.

Kaiser – great hospital care. Thanks, Kai. Wonderful medical staff at every juncture.  Lots of x-rays. The technician was so kind and worked quickly because he realized my pain. He even put on a protective vest to help hold me as I was close to fainting. A few bruises all along my right side, but most importantly, a dislocated right elbow, two parenthetically shaped fractures around the elbow, one on ulna, the other on humerus. Nothing humorous about this however.

Elbow relocated in socket (under lots of codeine – no pain from the reset – yay!) CT scans to make sure the reset was correct – it was. CT machine a very strange halo apparatus. Arm fitted with  temporary brace. Kaiser staff professional, compassionate, and knowledgeable to a man and woman.

Permanent cast appointment for Tuesday. Then on to full healing. At my age, could take a while. Maybe physical therapy.

Much love and assistance from older son who stayed with me through entire hospital camp out (not nearly as much fun as Scout camp outs were when he was younger) and visited every day once I was home; from hubby who came as soon as he could (had been working other side of another county) then brought red roses to cheer me, and continues to do everything possible to help; from daughter-in-law who brought food, sympathy, offered all help, and will take me for cast appointment; and from grandchildren who remind me how incredibly special they and their parents are. Everyone very loving – I am so lucky.

I’m right-handed so this is a pain in the as… no, a pain in the arm. Typing with left hand – I’m sloppy and hitting buttons that make a mess out of my writing.  Making corrections is so annoying – tend to make more errors – ugh!

Working on a large desk top so it’s uncomfortable for right arm which I can’t support correctly. Don’t own a small laptop I can prop on my knees while in a comfy chair. And drugs making me a bit sleepy and dopey.

All of this to say – please forgive me. This will be the last post on this site for a month or two. And I may not read or reply to your posts as often either.

I will return. This is only a small hurdle. I have many big ones I intend to conquer. I intend one day to publish, I have much more to write, and hope you will return to see what I’ve discovered along the way.

Thank you for your support, friends.  See you in the break room.

 

 

 

You Don’t Talk So Good

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“You don’t talk so good.” My toddler grandson inadvertently complimented me although I’d accidentally insulted him. My face blushed, I checked my grin. I’d caught his speech pattern accurately and pitched it back to him so well that he heard the clumsy language structure I’d heard in him. He didn’t recognize himself in my speech but he heard it. An authentic voice, caught on the fly, lodged in real time. A bit like glancing in a mirror and wondering who the hell is that stranger then realizing it’s the real me, without makeup.

That’s what we want when we write dialogue, a voice so accurate we recognize the speaker, whether it’s ourselves or the transplanted Southerner who works down the hall, spoken with  a drawl, “The new gal’s showing too much of her religion.” (Her skirt is way too short.) The VISA employee in India who answers the customer service line, in sing-song style with clipped consonants, “I would be veddy pleased to assist you, may I have your credit card number, please, as well your name and address?” (I’m going to pretend to help you but your question is above my pay grade, please do not ask for my supervisor.”) The teenager who only speaks rap, sort of sung while sort of dancing with hand movements that mimic catching toads, “I’m comin’ on extreme strong cuz my shadow is crazy long, you ain’t got no common sense to be gone, I know you is damn bogus wrong.” (Your guess is as good as mine.) The old lady who gestures when my dog poops on her grass, wheezed with the anger of self-righteousness, “I’m calling the dogcatcher on that filthy cur.” (Needs no translation.) What we don’t want to lasso is the perfect elocution of the English professor. Formal diction played out in actual conversation is phony – unless an English professor is talking in our book. My goal: making myself blush with recognition at the language I write.

Who knew that cleaning up could mean messing things up, scrambling perfectly good sentences into something I’d never say? I’m pretty good at dialogue but sometimes it’s too perfect. My English lit background gets in the way of my stories by being too essay-correct. You’d never catch me saying, “Her and I went shopping,” so I never write in this colloquial context. Yet I hear that kind of error all the time and have consciously returned to a scene to write it in street speech, the way that real People speak, even if that People isn’t me.

I often speak in perfect past tense: “I would have gone shopping had it not been for a car accident.” Is that accident in a parking lot or in my brain? Real world, more publishable: “I would’ve went shopping but Ralph busted up the car.” Two grammar screw ups in one sentence, a verbal feast common to real speech, though the sentence wouldn’t earn high marks on a school essay. Still, it’s the one to come out of a character’s mouth. Here’s another I’ve been heard to speak: “Behave yourself appropriately.” (Not only the English major here, but also the mommy/teacher – sheesh! My kids never had a chance!) Likely a better choice in a book: “Don’t do nothing bad.” Not only does this have more street cred, but it has the muscle of a real mother with its double negative threat, finger pointing in the kid’s face.

Slang is a whole other exotic pet, one that’s as difficult to potty train as a Siamese fighting fish. You have to get yourself not only down on the street to listen to people speak what is often a local dialect but also one that’s transient and fickle – It ain’t gonna be ‘round long, bro, and by the time you get the hang of it, it’ll be long outta use. Klutzy? Probably. I haven’t been hanging out at the local hot spots where young people congregate. Use slang craftily, minimally, to house your story in a specific place, at a particular moment in time. Avoid it otherwise or it will sound like ragtime at the opera.

Diction is our choice of words to express how our characters speak, both the style of language and the words themselves. Great dialogue shows off how close we are to our characters’ true personae and how tight we are with the culture that produced them. Of course we writers create the cast of our story. They are our virtual babies, but we have to write ourselves out of the scenes. Like sending our babies off to kindergarten, we don’t get to climb aboard the bus. Whether it’s the use of slang, dialect, garbled speech, accent, or idiom, our characters have to be true to the ducklings we’ve hatched. Even the ugly ones.

Perhaps the most difficult part of conveying honest speech in our writing is to say less, implant a red herring, or imply more. This is where the most highly skilled and insightful writers win top awards and earn loyal audiences. Clever dialogue reveals the worries, understanding, or ambitions of one character, and the evasion of the other who is listening but perhaps feigning sympathy or leading the first speaker astray. For examples, read Shakespeare, especially Hamlet. (Really, for examples, read Shakespeare. He was a playwright and a poet, but his use of dialogue to convey the whole world – I don’t care who the guy really was, he was brilliant, and a more dynamic and talented example you’d be hard pressed to find.)

For my own writing, I make progress when I slash the formal speech typed into my manuscript and replace it with something a reader can believe. I keep hoping even if readers think I talk funny, they still believe in the characters who say those words. To be successful, I have to know the character in my book. I built him from the keys on my keyboard and the drifting nimbus in my head, and I have to know his history, quandary, and motivation, to know more about him than I write in order to make him authentic. Maybe just getting a single line of his dialogue absolutely right is worth a whole day’s effort fiddling with my manuscript.

I’ll run this idea by my grandson.

 

Painting courtesy Google public domain images: en.wikipedia.org