Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘inspiration’ Category

P is for The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver captivated me from the prologue where a mother traipses through an African jungle with her four young daughters.  Orleanna Price, the wife of a zealous Baptist minister from Georgia, knows she is an oddity, a white woman in a Belgian Congo village in 1960. She seems to be speaking from a distant time and place, perhaps from her own grave. Her gimlet eye sees the jungle with its voracious ants and fecund flora, but more, she sees her internal life riven with conflict, acquiescence, and inadequacies that have cost her most dearly.

If Orleanna is quiet and submissive to her husband, it is he, Nathan Price, who is loudest and most obstinate. Intending to convert the native Congo inhabitants, he attempts to convince them of Christianity’s truth by pointing to the Bible and describing it as bangala, a Kilanga word he believes to mean “precious.” But his pronunciation is incorrect, and thus he declares the Bible to be “poisonwood.” It’s just the beginning of everything he gets wrong about Congo, from the language to the people to the customs to how hungry the community is to the coming revolution that will jettison colonialism in the Congo – and will alter his family’s course, one by one. Yet Nathan listens to no one and his obdurate convictions have catastrophic consequences for everyone.

Along with Orleanna, the four daughters tell the stories of their lives in Africa in alternating chapters. Rachel, the oldest at fifteen, the most beautiful and the most materialistic, is also cynical, selfish, and mixes metaphors hilariously. She yearns to be a normal teenager, something not possible in a jungle. Yet as an adult she carves out a unique livelihood managing a deluxe hotel in the French Congo, albeit with a bit of dishonesty, forgoing the luxurious American life she once imagined.

Leah, fourteen, is hard working, a natural leader, and a fearless idealist who most shares her father’s religious passion. She relishes education and especially Anatole, the man who is her teacher and whom she will marry. She is the daughter who becomes part of the fabric of Africa in the most authentic way, by moving with her husband and their four sons to Angola. Invigorated by a vision of a just society, she and Anatole help Angolan citizens reclaim their heritage and their country.

Adah cites her twin Leah’s dominant personality for stealing more than her share in the womb, leaving Adah to be born mute and crippled. Because she does not waste time trying to vocally describe what is happening around her, she is a brilliant observer. Adah returns to the United States, is healed of both her infirmities, and becomes a dedicated physician who studies viruses, an apt occupation for someone influenced by early life in Africa. She is the one who comforts Orleanna in her mother’s old age.

Ruth May at five is the baby, adorable and wise beyond her years. She makes friends with the tribal children, teaching them to play Mother May I, a game that becomes a plaintive elegy toward the end of the book. Ruth May is beloved by everyone in Kilanga, but it is her fate that turns the family inside out, that shows Nathan how much he has failed, and that destroys his mission to Congo.

The story exposes how completely wrong the Western world has been about Africa. From misunderstanding its rich language to its beguiling and sometimes horrific customs to assuming the indigenous people are bereft of intelligence or self-determination. Nathan of course is symbolic of wrong judgments at every turn, yet Kingsolver’s masterful writing prevents him from being a one-dimensional cartoon. However inappropriate his agenda for Congo, he is sincere in his faith and in his quest. We weep with him when he realizes he has failed to baptize his youngest child, but we do not mourn when we learn of his death.

Of my many favorite quotes, I begin with this from Orleanna: Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?

From Rachel: I shut my eyes tight, but even so, the tears ran down. I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore.

From Leah: Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God – which fortunately weighs nothing at all.

From Adah: It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.

From Ruth May: If somebody was hungry, why would they have a big fat belly? I don’t know.

Each of these quotes, all of them early in the book, exposes a significant part of this multi-layered story and also reveals the personalities of the speakers. What moved me the most was how arrogant and assuming Nathan Price was, as well as a few other white people. Though some of the Congolese were confrontational or untrustworthy, as would be some people in any given population, this is their land. The richness of their culture sustains them even in hard times yet Price sees them only as ignorant folks who need agricultural education and Christianity to better their lives. He is unable to understand that what they need is nothing he has to offer, but freedom from a dominating and patronizing European government.

Written in chapters that echo the books of the Bible, each section shows the dissolution of impractical dreams and the creation of work that might truly sustain the inhabitants while respecting their history. The book ends with an epilogue that bookends the story. The mother and her four daughters walk through an African market, recalling the walk through the forest made decades earlier. Everything is changed, of course, everything about their lives and about Africa is different. As Ruth May notes, “Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. Everyone is complicit.”

It is a long story. My regret is that I came to the end of it and had finally to say good bye to the country, to the Price family, and to the Africans who peopled the land. Do not think I have already told you the whole story. I have told you nothing. Only Barbara Kingsolver can tell you the story of The Poisonwood Bible. Make yourself comfortable, open the book, immerse yourself in its pages. Read.

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

 

Other books that were serious contenders for P:

Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Painted House by John Grisham

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Peace like a River by Leif Enger

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Prague by Arthur Phillips

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial

Perfectly Unsure about Perfection

 

As a writer I want my work to be the very best, every character memorable, all words meaningful, each scene evocative. In a word, perfect. Yet I’ll never get there, and part of the stumbling block is the one the reader places before me. Perhaps.

If you read any sentence by any author, you’ll notice there are so many other ways of saying the same thing, with different words, in alternate order, but resulting in nearly identical concepts. Examples: I would like to know the process by which you made this dessert. (Inquiry, formal.) How did you make dessert? (Inquiry, casual.) Tell me how you made the dessert. (Order.) Are you willing to share your recipe for your dessert? (Plea.) I’d really love to know how you made that dessert. (Flattery.) How did you come up with that dessert, for crying out loud? (Insult.) Same bowl of ice cream, essentially the same question: how’d ya do it?

Words count and the arrangement of words counts exponentially. Context counts the most here – who is asking the question, what’s their goal, under what circumstances is the question posed? The sentences are dialogue, whether internal or asked aloud of another person and knowing the character will determine what the reader comprehends about the tone and expectation of those words. The student asks formally. The best friend asks casually. The boss gives an order. The loser pleads. The admirer flatters. The bully insults. If the reader can’t intuit the correct tone, it’s probably poor writing on the part of the author. But maybe not.

The way a sentence is read with the inflection on different words will change its impact on the reader. Examples: HOW did you make that dessert? (Do you have a recipe you’re willing to share?) How DID you make that dessert? (It’s so spectacular, you must be a master chef.) How did YOU make that dessert? (I didn’t know you could make anything but a glass of water.) How did you MAKE that dessert? (You probably used ingredients only found at specialty markets.) How did you make THAT dessert? (Only you would choose something so bizarre.) How did you make that DESSERT? (It was so delicious I must have another piece.)

Which version did the author intend? It could mean something entirely different depending on how it’s spoken – shouted – wept – whispered – shrieked – or just read silently. If the reader doesn’t interpret correctly but infers a different meaning, the entire premise of the sentence is invalidated. Perhaps. Or part of the process of writing delegates power to the reader. Yeah, probably.

Then there’s the problem of words with multiple meanings or applications. When I write the word bat to mean the creature that glides into the night munching on insects but you think I mean the stick that smacks a ball to soar across a field, I am not communicating with you effectively. You’ll figure it out by the following paragraph, and hopefully giggle a bit or roll your eyes. The fault is mine of course for misleading you, but how much explanation must I include before the whole passage collapses under its own weight? Before you’re laughing so uproariously that you can’t even follow the story, and you put the book aside? Details, details, not all of them to keep.

I’m wide awake when I write, completely tuned in to my story, my brain erupting with ideas so flammable I’ll burn up if I let go the pen . (My blog is called Ink Flare for a reason.) The reader is likely nodding off, grappling with a chapter or two before going to sleep, in fact likely reading as lullaby. How attentive can she be? If in her sleepiness she glosses over important events, I can’t be held responsible that she doesn’t understand what’s happening in the book. Can I? Or perhaps the book is too boring to be anything except white noise, an effective barrier against the stresses in the reader’s life. And that’s why she chose it. Or she wanted something to keep her awake so she wouldn’t suffer her usual nightmares. Yeah – one or the other.

I didn’t write a perfect book, but I wrote a perfectly good one. Three, in fact, and a fourth opus in progress if the reader likes historical fiction. Perfection is elusive because every reader, including myself the writer the second and third time I read the work I’ve written, brings a personal interpretation to the story. Doesn’t mean my work can’t be improved, only that perfection is a false god. I aim for personal best – blastedly hard to achieve but still a reasonable goal. The reader gets to tell me how I’m doing. Please ignore the tears.

(Now what did she mean? Tears, as in rips in the paper – or tears, as in water dripping from her eyes? She’s so far from perfect – ugh!)

Or not.

 

Ballerina image courtesy: Google images and Pixabay

 

O is for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was first published in Russian in 1962, in English in 1963. I originally had another book in mind for O, (On the Road) but given the current political situation, I feel this is a book to remind us of the dangers of a totalitarian government. It’s as hard a book to read as any, not for its length (it’s little more than a novella at 150 pages) but for the presentation of the brutality of life in the Soviet prison system. It portrays a government that represses people not for crimes they’ve committed but for political advantage and retribution, raising a virtual cudgel over a populace with little recourse for defense, terrifying people who understand that the next person accused might be them.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner, a man falsely convicted of spying at the end of World War II. This one day in his life is a day like every other, a day closer to his freedom if he can survive the quixotic events that threaten his safety at every moment. He’s woken up ill, one more misery to add to his usual bleak condition. Too late for a place at the infirmary, he trudges with the rest of his unit out of the camp to a construction site. There he engages in the mindless work of building a brick wall. In the Soviet gulag, building a wall in such freezing temperatures is a Sisyphean feat. Nothing works correctly unless the laborers work at a feverish pitch, tasks nearly impossible to achieve because of the primitive quality of their tools and materials.

Shukhov is always hungry, tired, cold, and undernourished. His bed is uncomfortable, his clothing inadequate, his shoes thin, his life monotonous, and he has little to look forward to except surviving this one day. To anticipate anything else is futile; the gulag is not a place for daydreams but for enforced effort. Yet he fosters friendships among other prisoners and guards, trades favors for food, and carefully navigates a complex hierarchy that safeguards him from extra punishment. He manages to augment his small stash of contraband. He engages in conversations about the meaning of life, whether there is a heaven, and how small luxuries comprise happiness in the gulag.

Throughout the day, we see the prisoners reduced to insignificant parts of the system by which they’re incarcerated. Shukhov and the others are treated as though they are disposable, with only superficial concern for their well-being. They awake to a relentless regimen of being identified as a number, getting searched, marching across a frozen landscape, enduring manual labor in subfreezing conditions, and marching back to the dormitories at night. Eating is a crucial part of the day and Shukhov manages a few extra rations, a blissful moment. Lying in his bunk at night, he counts the number of days left to bear before he will be free. It’s been one day, like all the rest, and a day unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in fact a prisoner of the gulag and wrote about it in other books, notably The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book he was able to publish in the Soviet Union. All his other books were published in the West because of the political controversy surrounding his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work, but like fellow Russian, Boris Pasternak, did not accept it for fear of reprisal at home. Though the book appears to be critical of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn’s political position about his country was complicated, a situation I’m not qualified to address.

I remember being so transfixed by this grim, spare account of Soviet incarceration that I sat at a rock concert with my hands around the book, reading. Certainly I was shocked by such hardship imposed on men but also by the callous attitude of a system intent on meting out punishment without or regard for human rights. Every word beat against my heart. To live in a country like the United States where human rights are analogous to our concept of democracy, and compare it to a totalitarian government where people are less important than bricks, horrified me. The book anchored my sense of the inalienable right of justice not only because our Constitution says we are so entitled, but because my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. That our current president abridges such rights without regard for the Constitutional independence of the three branches of government and without consequence makes me fear for our democracy. It all beats against my heart.

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

 

Other books that were serious contenders for O:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Signet Classic

 

N is for Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones is historical fiction based on 1930’s Shanghai, the period in Chinese history where it is shackled by the corruption of controlling gangs to the period where it is invaded by the Japanese during World War II, finally reclaimed by Chinese leadership, only to be shackled again, now by the unforgiving ideology of communism. Against this backdrop two people of differing backgrounds fall in love. It is, like all great affairs, an unlikely attraction of doomed passion, but it is also the stuff of love, lust, longing, and legend.

Song Yuhua is the beautiful, intelligent, and well educated translator for Du, the Chinese crime boss who runs the city’s successful nightlife, at a time when everyone comes to nightclubs to play, sing, and dance, especially to the sensation known as jazz. The subservient role of women in China is well documented, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Song was given in bondage to Du in order to cover her father’s gambling debts. She navigates a violent Shanghai underworld where loyalty to the kingpin rewards her with comfort and admiration but retribution for betrayal may cost her life.

Thomas Greene is a young African-American man. He has been trained to play classical piano, a skill ignored in the United States where his talent carries no value because of his race. Music informs his life completely yet segregation in Baltimore offers him nothing. Impoverished and despondent, he’s offered a job to play with a band in China. Thomas accepts, escaping the squalor and inequality that is the standard of Black life in 1930’s America. China offers him freedom and a luxurious life with a home, servants, and clothes inaccessible to him in America. He doesn’t let on to his new boss that he has no idea how to play jazz, but the other band members quickly discover his ineptitude.

These two young people of extraordinary talent suffer with their own histories of subjugation, one owned by a man as is custom in her country, the other finding more freedom in his adopted country than he will ever enjoy in the land where he was born. Enraged by the duplicity of her bondage, Song hides the fact that she is spying on her kingpin boss for the emerging Communist rebels living in northern caves. Thomas struggles to understand the intuitive improvisation required of jazz, finally achieving a level of skill admired by the rest of his band and loved by the club attendees.

Seeing each other across the floor of the dance hall, it is no surprise that they are drawn together. Still, their relationship remains unconsummated while their romance grows, until one night when it is obvious that the Japanese are at the threshold of Shanghai, the invasion only moments away. At such fever pitch, Song and Thomas finally find solace in each other’s arms. As any couple would ponder, they are in doubt if their love affair will survive the destruction of the country. Will it ever be safe for either of them? The tension adds gravitas to their dilemma about where they owe their most allegiance – to their cultures or to themselves.

A secondary plotline addresses one of Thomas’ friends, a Jewish violinist with whom he can share his affection for classical music. In  addition, the book presents the efforts of a Chinese diplomat to offer sanctuary to 100,000 Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany to a district in northern China. That this event really happened points up the cosmopolitan and influential persona of the city. On the verge of war from one front and revolution from another, the plan never comes to fruition; it becomes one more failure to save Jewish lives, nevertheless initiated with sincerity.

History books, often brilliantly written and researched, give the timelines, maps, treaties, names of actual players, and outcomes of an era. But historical fiction provides the heartbeat. Mones weaves complex history with dexterity, the result of masterful writing and a vision of individuals snagged in conflicts, both personal and political. Brought to an intimate scale, readers feel the upheaval of China through the eyes of her characters. Throughout the book reigns a sense of Shanghai taking a last, desperate breath before dying as a colonial larva and emerging as a communist moth. We all know of the millions of people whose lives were cast aside like empty pupa along the path to a new Chinese nationhood. Night in Shanghai left me longing for justice – and love.

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

 

Other books that were serious contenders for N:

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  

 

 

 

Dress Rehearsal

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My husband is used to seeing me walk around muttering to myself. Or so he says, as he casts me a quizzical look while I cast myself into my story. A sheaf of pages in one fist, my other hand waving in the air or pressing the top of my head, I speak my book. A dress rehearsal of sorts. Over and over, I read passages aloud, running words across my tongue, phrases through my teeth. Do they sound right, do they inspire and explain, or are they awkward and confusing? I twist like a drill at tense moments, collapse into a chair when a scene changes, drop my voice to a mouse squeak if secrets are being shared, shout like a football coach when a character is angry.

Sometimes I choke up. Is the scene set as solidly as a block of granite, can one taste the spices in the mountains, did I scratch my hand on the bark of a fallen tree where my character sat to consider her future? I wander as I read; hubby looks askance. Don’t interrupt, I’m editing my book.  The dramatic presentation isn’t meant for him and I’m embarrassed that he sees me, but still I don’t stop. It’s part of a lengthy strategic approach for editing my book: to read my book out loud.

If you ask my advice on the best way to ascertain the power of your writing, the authenticity of your characters, and the suspense of your plot, I will tell you to read your book out loud. It’s often the most sincere and best advice I give because much of the rest might be thought of as criticism ill considered. Read your own book – you will sense its worth for yourself. No, I didn’t invent the idea but I do practice it.

Before I begin to read my story, I’ve already edited for a thousand small errors and structural faults. Spelling and punctuation are corrected, paragraphs are organized, and the story’s loose ends are tied in knots. Reading aloud is not for a work in progress, it’s for the one that’s near the end of the work order. I’m vigilant about finding fault, I’m tough on myself, and I’ll do this out loud reading after letting the story sit untouched for a few months. Then I can think of my writing as that of a stranger, the neighbor whose barking dog wakes me just as I’ve fallen asleep. I want it to irritate me because only then can I ferret out the weak parts for repair. I read with a plan and stick to the plan. I read it out loud twice (at least,) red pen in hand (OK, highlight key on the computer,) cutting and pasting as I go. Slash and burn if needed. Warrior mode channeled.

The first reading is to proofread for continuity of facts. I look for dates to line up on an actual calendar and the book’s invented calendar, make sure proper names are spelled the same throughout, ascertain that scenes show up in logical order, and insure an incisive action doesn’t get repeated a few chapters later. I watch out for lapses, diluted suspense (happens when a resolution is revealed too soon or with blah words,) and for carters in the plot that will leave readers confused or frustrated. Unusual words can only be used once and maybe should be swapped for words that won’t send folks to a dictionary. (However, I don’t shy from fifty-cent words; sometimes they are the ones that best fit a passage.) The first out loud reading will capture most of these mistakes.

The second reading is to gauge the physical sensation of the story. Does the story arc make me react, do I feel something intense when actions are described, am I sympathetic to the characters and their dilemmas, do I care enough about the complexities of the plot that I will spend time determining if it makes sense? My words must make my gut curdle and my hair spike high enough to hold up a halo, to make my teeth ache with the pain of being clamped in my jaw. If I didn’t write a story vigorous enough to wrest emotion from me, then who else will care what I wrote? It’s this last reading that will convince me it’s a decent book or a work I must improve before it sees daylight. Thespian that I am, I walk and read, sit and read, dream and read, emoting, whispering, quoting the words of my story, fixing, changing, polishing.

When I’ve read aloud until my voice is hoarse and my eyesight bleary, I’m ready for readers. Still they are at first only critiquers, the folks who get the free book in order to inform me what does and doesn’t work after all. They catch the oversights I should have caught. They are not the paying readers I hope will line the Amazon block to acquire my book. But I’m grateful to this hearty crew who read, think, comment, trying to help me get it right, make it better. I want the “critters” to know that if I’ve asked them to read my story – editor, agent, writer friend – I’ve put a great deal of effort into it. I’ve already read aloud it myself, many times. No one gets a sloppy “first draft” from me. I respect all readers too much.

My hubby who watched my peculiar dress rehearsal? He’s an unwitting audience and a true saint. He still thinks I belong in the nut dish.

 

 

Image of theater mask courtesy: Google images, Commons Wikimedia

 

 

M is for The Marriage of Opposites

the-marriage-of-oppositesThe Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman is one of many novels I’ve loved by this author, this one being a more recent title in her long career. Hoffman is a consummate writer whose skill has matured, nearly always enriched by the magical realism that identifies her style from her earliest work. Marriage is historical fiction based on the life of Rachel Pomie, the mother of the French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissaro, her youngest and most favorite child. The Pomie family lives on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s when it’s still a colony governed by Denmark, a situation made more restrictive for the Jewish residents who are bound to island rules and also the expectations of their religious community.

Hoffman immerses us into the native folk remedies and superstitions, stories and food, language and history of St. Thomas. The island is a vivid character in the story, and we feel and see her in the seductive scent of frangipani blossoms that pervade its air, the blazing flamboyant (Poinciana) trees that blanket it with red fever, and the tropical storms that ravage it, threatening the shoreline huts where the poor live. Always there are intense colors, notably “haint blue,” promising protection from demons and sorrow, but also hinting of the passion for painting that one day will inspire the young Camille before he is sent to Paris to study art.

Written in first person from Rachel’s point of view, she states, “I was a girl who knew what I wanted…a country where the moon rose like a silver disc into a cold, clear sky.” Young Rachel’s life is privileged as only the child of wealthy Europeans transplanted to a tiny humid island in the Caribbean can be. Her isolation is abated by reading the stories in her father’s library, filling her with her own stories. She is friends with Jestine, the beautiful, half caste daughter of Adelle, the wise native woman who is her family’s maid. Indulged, headstrong, and rebellious, Rachel is at constant loggerheads with her mother who expects her to submit to the demands of her social class. She dreams of Paris – the fashion, the elegant civilization, and especially the cold climate. When his business is threatened, her father arranges a marriage that solidifies the family’s fortune. Rachel marries a widower with young children from a first marriage, and though she never loves him, she does love his three children and bears him four more.

At the crux of the book are the many love affairs that disregard social conventions, yet flourish despite snubbing by the most important residents. Rachel herself suggests she will never marry but does, and finally finds true love with Frederic, the nephew of her dead husband. Jestine, Adelle’s daughter and Rachel’s friend, falls in love with Rachel’s cousin, Aaron. Both women are forbidden to marry the men they love because of laws prohibiting familial or interracial marriages. Rachel and Frederic defy Jewish law and have four children born out of wedlock, scandalizing the community which ostracizes the family. Jestine’s and Aaron’s beautiful, nearly white little daughter is kidnapped and taken to Paris under the premise that her life will be so much better than what her half black mother could provide.

Flouting all rules, both women remain devoted to their men. Ironically, decades later Rachel cannot abide by her son Camille’s love for a French woman who is not Jewish. Thus comes true her mother’s curse, “I hope you have a child that causes you the misery you have caused me.” The passions, suffering, betrayals, and hypocrisies of one generation do not translate as sympathy for the next, and it is many years of loneliness before Rachel understands that much of her misery is a by-product of her own prejudices.  She notes, “You couldn’t see love, or touch it, or taste it, yet it could destroy you and leave you in the dark, chasing after your own destiny.” Indeed, love lures her, drains her, and consumes her.

From the emotional stew of this complex story emerges the passionate painter who will become the Father of Impressionism, a man whose art opposed convention in search of ground breaking artistic acuity. It is this rebellious young man who responds to Jestine’s heartache for her lost daughter and helps reunite them. Rachel Pomie’s life was shackled by her time and her culture yet she bequeathed a fiercely independent spirit to her son who founded one of the world’s most beloved art movements.

Alice Hoffman wove much of the historical Rachel Pomie into the fabrication of her story. The Marriage of Opposites reveals a determination for identity and self realization where opposing forces sometimes tear each other to shreds but occasionally, sublimely benefit each other. As a woman, a writer, an artist, a wife, a mother, and a Jew, I am indebted to Rachel Pomie and grateful to have met her through Hoffman’s book.

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

 

Other books that were serious contenders for M:

The Magus by John Fowles

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

The Merlin Trilogy (3 books plus one more) by Mary Stewart

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

Mila 18 by Leon Uris

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Mudbound by Hilary Martel

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon & Schuster Paperbacks

 

 

In the Mood, Eros

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My fingers blister holding a particular photograph. It shows Pearl and Max the first time they met. I don’t know if it was love at first sight but I learned to juggle holding that photo – hot pic – burning fingers – juggle – hot pic – burning fingers – yikes! Chemistry, fate, the lobster effect – it’s so obvious even in 4 X 5 format, you’d have to be stationed on the moon not to see it. They were a couple, but each of them already coupled with someone else. Five years later Pearl and Max wed each other. Five years hence they are still married, a perfect match, though exhausted what with several kids to wear them out. It’s the happily ever after we all yearn to live, though I could do with a bit more guaranteed sleep.

Max and Pearl have entered the blah-blah zone – for story purposes they are as interesting as beans in a can. They are now happily ever blah-blah.

The writable, the readable story exists in the tension between them as they explored their initial ill-timed relationship, got separated from the first claimants on their hearts, worked out all the kinks and obstacles, and finally declared that first attraction was real and long lasting. I only know Pearl and Max from the sizzling photographic evidence but I could make up a story about the first five years. The subsequent lovey dovey decades – who cares? It’s the long term love affair we all want for ourselves, but snuggled up in bed at night, we want to read drama, conflict, unfaithfulness, and secret assignations. Maybe a bit of sex.

February seems a perfect month to talk about love. That is, in between the kisses and chocolate. Not like anyone needs incentive to talk about love – we’re surrounded by the evidence of our obsession with it. You and I would be blips in the nebula nursery without it, not even a star’s glitter to mark our tenuous entry here on earth if our parents hadn’t – you know. So many writers capture the passion and intensity of playing footsie and sharing hearts. Why is that?

We love to read about love, and legions write about it. Love stories sell: scandalous, sexy, unrequited, toxic, lost opportunities. All the juicy passion, poignant missed chances, betrayals, and mixed messages make for exciting reading. Everything in moderation, maybe in real life. In stories, lots of excess, extreme to the nth degree, keeps us reading late into the night.

We could start with Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. I read it in college. Who didn’t? And then I read everything else Lawrence wrote because he seemed to understand everything about love and I still didn’t understand a thing. I mean, I was in college but first year. Who understood anything back then? I read Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, also in college though a bit older, and found myself shocked but intrigued. I couldn’t figure out whom to like, whom to despise. Well, gee whiz, of course. Read all the classic love stories, from Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Dr. Zhivago, The Scarlet Letter, a hundred more, and realized that books about love were also books about life. I learned how to make choices, how to live with integrity, what to grieve, what to celebrate, when to move on, when to look back. In theory I learned. In practice I’d learned nothing but it didn’t stop me from reading.

When I started to write stories, I started to write about love and this is where my writing stopped cold. Not good when you’re trying to write. With no intention of writing gymnastic details, I needed to discover the kind of extraordinary insight that marks great literature. Where did Bronte and Hardy get their ideas? If it came from personal experience, I had little to draw from. Did I want to write about the loves in my life, when I’d lived nothing like the adventures and passions of Heathcliff and Catherine or – or –like anyone I’d read about? My life was more parallel to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with so many lovers and buffoons, players and kings, and one poor soul who falls asleep and wakes to find herself in love with a donkey. Well that would be me, young and in love with donkeys and scoundrels but lacking the poetry. So how to write about love? Maybe I could not.

Then it happened. From a place where my young self yearned and my older self finally learned, I wrote about love. I wrote of people in love, even in lust, people betrayed, confused, longing, unrequited, even satisfied. I thought about how it felt to be in love and realized it corresponded to being alive. No matter one’s age or culture or orientation, what I wrote about is how to get from one day to the next, trying like crazy to keep my characters’ sanity from launching into orbit and their dreams one step closer to achievement. Kinda like me. For me that’s what it means to love, to be in love. It’s to be in life. And that I can write about.

I can’t say it any better than this from the Song of Songs, written by King Solomon: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Looking again at the photograph of Pearl and Max, I see what they knew from the very first moment they saw each other: they belonged together.

Enjoy the day, friends and lovers, all.

 

 

 

Cupid image courtesy Google public domain mages