Sparked by Words

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel immersed me into a life I would never had imagined and yet convinced me I was standing at the edge of Tita De La Garza’s world, watching as her story unfolded. Tita is a the youngest daughter in a Mexican family whose tradition demands that she will serve her mother her entire life, never marrying and forgoing any life for herself. You may scoff at such an antiquated idea but if you’ve been forced to submission by a dominating parent, as I was, you know it is possible. Yet Tita doesn’t lose herself completely. She is a talented, creative, passionate woman who falls so deeply in love with a man that it informs her entire life even as it consumes her.

Born in the ranch kitchen amidst a flood of her mother’s tears, Tita is bound to her family’s traditions. Each chapter begins with an elaborate recipe, one that Tita as a master cook prepares for her family and guests. Each recipe represents the richness of Mexican life as well as Tita’s inner spirit, flavoring the food she prepares with native spices and her emotional mien at the time. The story is cast against the background of the Mexican revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. One of Tita’s sisters, after eating one of her meals, runs off to join a zealous young revolutionary, eventually becoming the independent woman Tita could not.

Imagine these clichés made sensuous with Esquivel’s masterful use of magic realism – Crying a river of tears. Tita cries so much over the impending wedding of her sister to her own beloved, Pedro, arranged because her mother will not let Tita marry, that the wedding cake she’s baked is poisoned by her bitterness, making the guests ill.

A life unraveled. Tita tries to transfer her love for Pedro into the practical creation of a crocheted bedspread. Being driven away from her mother’s home at last by a well-intentioned doctor, Tita’s trousseau bedspread unrolls behind the cart in a mile long spill of lost dreams and denied aspirations.

Nursing one’s wounds. Tita despairs of ever marrying her true love and bearing children, but she claims limited victory by nursing a newborn infant, the one born to Pedro and her sister, who has no milk. (“How can that possibly happen?” science demands, and magical realism responds, “It’s a story, relax and enjoy.”)

Haunted by the ghosts of one’s past. Tita, sorrowful after her mother’s death, is haunted throughout the rest of the book by her mother’s angry ghost who continues to torment her. No matter how Tita tries to excise herself from Mama Elena, the ghost haunts Tita and the rest of the family, reminding everyone of their obligations and failures. Eventually, Tita discovers one of her mother’s ghosts, a past history that proves she was not always chaste and noble.

Love is like a fire in one’s belly. Tita’s love and desire for self-realization collide with the reality of a ruthless, unjust world, just as the revolution brings violence to the country in its quest for freedom from political and social repression. So much so that Tita, given a recipe for making matches, finally has the means to declare her personal independence. When she and Pedro meet one last time, the one free of her brutal mother, the other free of the wife he never loved, she eats matches and lights her home on fire with her passion, burning it to the ground. The only survivor is the recipe book.

The title, Like Water for Chocolate, offers many interpretations of meaning. The one I most prefer is that true love cannot be replaced by a thin imitation. Though John proposes marriage to Tita, Pedro is the man she truly loves, and just as water is a bland substitute for chocolate, John cannot take his place. The story is suffused with sexual energy, exotic descriptions of food, the conflict between society’s expectations and the liberty promised by revolution.

My favorite line from the book is spoken by Dr. John Brown, the man who brings Tita to his home so she can recover from the catatonic state brought about by her mother’s relentless cruelty. “My grandmother had a very interesting theory; she said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by themselves.” It’s the incentive that ultimately allows Tita to experience sexual fulfillment with Pedro but also her freedom from the constraints of strangling traditions.

Sympathetic to Tita’s predicament, I was mesmerized by Esquivel’s ability to portray so many characters with fully dimensional personalities, showing them as flawed and therefore believable as they were noble. The plot is never predictable, the outcome fulfilling though unconventional. Each of us has the potential to endure a personal revolution by confronting our demons and overcoming our deficiencies. Tita reminds me of all I have yet to achieve.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for L:

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Lord of the Rings (entire trilogy) by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

 

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

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Knopf, Doubleday Publishing Group

 

Flight

imagesI joggled from foot to foot at Los Angeles International Airport, anxiously awaiting the arrival of our youngest son. He was coming home after the first semester of graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, a long way from California. It was shortly before the 9-11 attacks against the World Trade Center, and we eager greeters were allowed to stand by the exit ramps as passengers tromped toward us. Hundreds of people came off that plane, crowded in ways that bring to mind encroachment of personal space. Adults pleased to be home, kids thrilled to be a few miles closer to Disneyland, tourists happy to finally visit the Golden State, businessmen hot to close deals, friends delighted to meet the old crew.

The buzz of conversations boiled into a conglomerate muddle that mingled several languages though most spoke English. Except for a few toddlers wailing in the familiar trope of I’m tired, I’m hungry, they jabbered untroubled content. My son was sure to be the last person off the plane, no matter how excited his mama was to plant kisses all over his cheeks and squeeze him to death with hugs. It was pretty obvious who missed who the most. So I waited and smiled at everyone debarking the plane from New York’s JFK Airport. Not my son yet.

A lapse in the line and then the people exiting changed. The cheerful folk gave way to those whose faces spoke of hardship, weariness, exhaustion. And quiet. They were all so quiet, even the little children holding onto adult hands. These folks weren’t dressed in fashionable jackets and jeans with chic knit scarves hanging over their tee shirts. The men wore the loose trousers like my grandfathers wore in the 1950’s. The children were bundled in layers of frayed, hand knit sweaters. None of them pulled snazzy Samsonite luggage or college backpacks. They lugged piles of enormous suitcases that looked like they were made of origami paper. Definitely not leather or heavy duty plastic, this stuff (maybe thin polyvinyl) looked unlikely to stand up under a trip down an exit ramp, forget a long journey from another country.

I asked the person next to me who they were and got back one word: refugees. Not coming home but seeking refuge from war in Eastern Europe.

The women gave it away. They wore calf length dresses in flowered patterns. Had I not known better, I would have thought they’d all alighted from Conestoga wagons after a weary trek across the prairie. In a way, I’d guessed right. The women wore scarves, mostly black, cinched around their heads, tied under their chins, down to their shoulders so not even bangs or a single bedraggled tress dangled out of the edges. Muslim women. Muslim men. Muslim children. Muslim people, dozens of them, plodding down the ramp. All of them silent, sad, tired, dejected.

As I heard that word, refugee, I realized I could be looking into the faces of my own grandparents and great-grandparents who also fled persecution from the czar and hate mongers, from fear, repression, prejudice, and war in Europe. They came to the United States at the turn of the last century. The Muslim men resembled the men of my family, thin and haggard. The Muslim women looked like my bubbie, blank expressions except for those who wore worry like a permanent tattoo. And the Muslim children – the children looked like no children I’d ever seen. Wary of strangers, somber beyond their years. People who had escaped but feared for those who had not, friends and family left behind because sometimes that’s what must be done. My family lumbered down the gangplanks of ships in New York Harbor. These people lumbered from airplanes.

They were not just refugees – the Muslims, the Jews – they were escapees, they were survivors, their futures uncertain but more promising than the bleakness of the countries they fled. No one moves to another country, leaving behind parents, friends, and neighbors to live in an apartment in a strange city. No one risks the lives of their children and accepts the peril of traveling through hostile lands, strange communities, to live in a place where the language and culture are foreign – unless significant threat forces them.

My son did walk down that airport ramp finally. I always knew I’d see him again. I knew he’d come home.

Saturday, at airports in New York and Los Angeles, thousands of people worried that they would never again see their loved ones. Alien status. Unwanted despite passports, documents, VISAs. Denied because of an executive order, illegal, undemocratic, unconstitutional, prejudicial, and despicable.

Remember a simple fact. We are all immigrants. Whoever you are, you came from someplace else, your ancestors came from someplace else. We left behind many who loved us and many who missed us and most we never saw again. These provoke human movement: fear, discrimination, hunger, persecution, hatred, war. Your family got a chance. So did mine. I did not forget.

Look in the mirror. Who do you see? When I look, I see an immigrant’s child.

 

Immigrants image courtesy of Google public domain images, Wikimedia

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most read and most beloved books ever, though it garners criticism as well. Certainly it’s on the very top of my book list of personal favorites. I read it in about 1965 or ’66, then reread it immediately, again a few years later when I was in college, and during my two sons’ high school years so we could discuss the book. I’ve read it twice since, each time discovering something wondrous, gaining more insight, and always moved by the story.

It’s told from the point of view of Scout, the very young daughter of a small town 1950’s Southern lawyer. You don’t have to know much about American bus routes to grasp that it concerns racial prejudice, social inequality, and a legal-political tradition that safe-harbors injustice. It’s also about family dynamics and the social clumsiness of children who discover that the adult world is dirtier than theirs. It presents a criminal case where a black man is found guilty for a white man’s crimes. You have to be living inside your vacuum cleaner not to know that the characters were sketched from people Lee knew in the Alabama hamlet where she grew up, especially that Dill, Scout and Jem’s childhood friend, stands in for Truman Capote.

One of the most unusual characters is the shy recluse, Boo Radley. His reasons for hiding from the public appear strange if not bizarre, and augur Harper Lee’s adult voluntary social seclusion. Something from Boo’s past keeps him captive. The something in Lee’s life was the dizzying adulation of the world thrust upon her at publication of the book. The excessive stir  caused Lee to refuse to write or publish another book in her lifetime or to talk about Mockingbird. She’d done the celebrity thing and found it too painful to forget or repeat.

Which brings me to the tale of Go Set a Watchman, the book miraculously found by Lee’s trustee – after Lee’s protective sister, Alice, died, and when Lee herself was aged, frail, ill, blind, deaf, and may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Miracle of all miracles, the trustee found the secreted manuscript just as the very private Harper Lee was eager to seek new publicity and earn millions. Wonder of wonders, wasn’t it?

If you’ve managed to keep away from all things front page breaking news for the past ten years, you may not know about the background of the Watchman. It wasn’t a newly written manuscript that Lee wanted to publish – it was the original first draft of Mockingbird as presented to her original editor, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff knew the story as first written was not ready for publication but saw in its ragged genesis a gemstone ready for polish. With Hohoff’s assistance, Lee rewrote the first draft, (took a long time) and after several new title tries, settled on the memorable To Kill a Mockingbird.

Two things must be considered. The first is an admonition for the writer-in-waiting: your book, my book, is not ready, it’s not done, and when attentive people offer advice: put your ego in the shoebox, listen well, take notes, make appropriate changes, and get the job done. Just as Lee did. She might not have anticipated the painful glare of the limelight, but she was a willing rewriter. So am I. So should you be.

Second thing for me is this. I will not read Go Set a Watchman. Clearly Lee did not want the early draft, rejected by Hohoff as amateur and unsuitable in places, to be read by anyone else. It was a work in progress; the finished work as published was the one intended for the public eyes. Lippencott, the initial publisher, made plenty on Mockingbird. It’s interesting for writers to read another writer’s early attempts and to compare a finished product with a draft. But only if the writer is willing.

If the finished book promoted ideas of honor and compassion, I find it shameful and craven to read the early iteration, and I don’t believe for a moment that Lee authorized its publication. New trustee and cohort misappropriated Lee’s manuscript when she was too feeble to advocate for herself. Trustee, cohort, and publisher chose to capitalize on Lee’s name and stature in order to roll their bottom line into the big black column. I won’t help boost their bucks.

We will never really know if To Kill a Mockingbird set back Harper Lee’s literary career by stifling her ability to write another story, or if she really so dreaded all the public slathering that she couldn’t bear to tempt it again. I’ve long been disappointed not to be able to read another of her books, and if I can’t really understand her decision, (try to make me stop writing, just try) I surely respect it. I believe in social justice, equality, and opportunity for all people, and this book shows how a few citizens of a little town in Alabama stood up for what was right, even in the midst of threats and violence. I am still standing for same.

My favorite line from the book is the entire book. If you’ve never read it, go read it. If you haven’t read it in a while, go read it again.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since its publication in 1960. It was selected by American Librarians as the best novel of the twentieth century, is required reading in Great Britain and Canada as in most American high schools, and has been translated into more than forty languages. Don’t read it for all that adulation. Read it because it mirrors the tragic renewal of the same narrow, bigoted mind set of the last century blossoming in all it ugly bullying in this one as well. Read it because few other books will touch you as deeply and permanently.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for K:

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

 

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

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins

 

J is for Jude the Obscure

 

judeobscureJude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy is a dour story of oppressive nineteenth century English societal and religious restrictions and the ominous consequences of rebelling against them. Why would I choose such a grim book as a favorite in this series?

I’ll begin with why I read the book in the first place because had I a different choice, I wouldn’t have. It was my senior year of college and proving rough for me to graduate. It wasn’t that I was such a lousy student though I could have been much better had I applied myself with more focus. My financial circumstances were stretched to a vanishing point. I couldn’t afford another semester of college though I really needed to go on to graduate school. (I never did but that’s another story.) I was engaged, our wedding planned for spring about six months away.

It was my final semester and though I was supposed to have priority registration, I didn’t. My senior seminar had to be one of about eight literary masters classes offered that semester, among them Shakespeare, Hemingway, and a half dozen other lions whose books I loved and longed to study. Whatever I selected, it would be a course taught by a full professor and attended by two dozen or so serious, advanced literature students whose discussions would illumine my knowledge of letters for life. But who the heck was Thomas Hardy?

Didn’t matter that I didn’t know a thing about this Englishman. The class was the only one not yet filled. The choice was made for me by an absence of options and a lack of finesse about the inside track on how to get into a desired class. Hardy it was – and I couldn’t have been more fortunate. Once immersed, I realized I did know a bit about him: his novel Far from the Madding Crowd, made famous by the movie in which Julie Christie played the beautiful, headstrong, sexy Bathsheba Everdene. And that was it, all I knew until the course syllabus required that I read many of his poems and several of his novels, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor Of Casterbridge, and The Return of the Native, as well as Madding.

I remember the book for the ill fated characters. Jude Fawley yearns to be a scholar but abandons his noble quest as he cannot bridge the chasm between his low social status and poverty, and the upper echelons of academia. It resonated with me as I struggled to complete my undergraduate classes. Arabella Donn is a crass and lusty woman who tricks him into marriage and defeats his aspirations of bettering himself for the practical needs of supporting a wife. Sue Bridehead is the woman he loves, an independent spirit and initially a religious skeptic who later becomes obsessed by Christianity and believes she must be punished for earlier moral transgressions. Little Father Time is Jude’s son with Arabella. He’s an old soul in a child’s body who later comes to live with his father and Sue, now in a relationship that produces two children without benefit of marriage. Written when Hardy had become disillusioned by the limited opportunities of the poor and the church’s dominance of English society, the negative reviews of the book threw him into such despondency that he never wrote another novel.

Even more than the well rendered characters are two grisly scenes that haunt me fifty years after my first reading. Reunited with Arabella, Jude must butcher a pig according to her demands for a cruel, lengthy bloodletting that will guarantee a higher price. Jude cannot stomach the animal’s screams – neither could I. More disturbing is the act committed by Little Father Time. Jude, Sue, and the three children are ostracized by church and society for living in sin. Little Father Time tries to alleviate his parents’ dire circumstances by hanging his younger siblings and then killing himself. I’ve seen thousands of TV and movie murders and deaths, a few in real life, but nothing matches the horror of the boy’s misguided act. Hardy exposes the influence of rigid cultural mores on people deeply in love, struggling with humble everyday activities, simply trying to provide for their children. Few books resonate with as much sorrow and tragedy.

My favorite line from the book reveals Jude’s thoughts on his fervent pursuit of Sue Bridehead. “Onward he still went, under the influence of a childlike yearning for the one being in the world to whom it seemed possible to fly.”

Jude the Obscure, written in 1895, remains a compelling story, one that resonates with contemporary conflicts and complex social implications. That Hardy anticipated modern concerns 120 years ago suggests a writer of timeless insight. In an age when so many struggle to write a cogent text message, and reduce urgent situations to what can be written in a tweet, most of us could learn a great deal from Jude and Hardy.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for J:

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet; all four books are worthy of reading)

 

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

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Penguin Classics

 

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a well researched work of historical fiction, one, to an extent, that rights a grievous wrong. It’s the territory of fiction to be able to do that: make things right. Yet the book also tells the read story of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two courageous Southern women who challenged two social aberrations that identified the first century of this great nation. They exposed the horrors of and fought against slavery. They worked to bring the right to vote to women.

I don’t know how old I was when I realized that our country had once allowed the ownership of human beings and had done so with a blind eye toward its violent abuse and stringent governmental regulations that made fighting slavery a hugely risky endeavor. I was very young. I was horrified. The more I learned about slavery and how it came about – the slave ships, the uprisings, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War – the more I questioned how decent people could do the heinous things once done to black slaves. Knowledge of slavery (and the internment of Japanese Americans’ during World War II, and the betrayal of American Indian treaties, among other awful but legal situations) fractured my sense of the absolute apex of righteousness that I’d felt belonged to the United States. To learn that I’d been so very wrong about us, even in history more than a hundred years old, made me begin to question our entire sense of humanity. Did we truly have any?

I learned, eventually, that our country overcame many instances of social and economic injustice, that continuing to right injustices is what makes us a better nation than many. We don’t give up even when we discover the depth and breadth of hateful, prejudicial attitudes and the reprehensible behaviors of some citizens of our nation. We don’t give up; we keep trying to right the wrongs. I’ve always hoped this country would continue the struggle to endow the rights of all men.

The Invention of Wings tells the story of two sisters about whom I’d known nothing, but who were famous in their own time, the 1830’s, for their rebellion against standards of society that allowed enslavement. Thirty years before the beginning of the Civil War, these two women campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Thousands of people heard and respected them. Thousands of others jeered and threatened them.

Kidd’s well researched book begins with Sarah Grimke’s eleventh birthday. The child of a wealthy plantation owner in Charleston, South Carolina, she lives a privileged life though she despises her mother’s vile disposition. Her birthday gift is a slave, a child adorned with satin ribbons on her undernourished body. She is named Hetty but called “Handful.” Handful was a real person but one who did not live much beyond that notorious birthday when Sarah, disgusted by ownership of a human being, refused to accept the slave as her property. The real Handful was whipped because Sarah taught her to read and apparently died very young.

In Kidd’s book, Handful survives and subtly defies her white owners and the Southern culture that not only condones slavery but insists on it. Her mother, Charlotte, tells the child a story about when Africans had wings and could fly, and that someday all those of African descent will regain their wings. Charlotte secretly makes a quilt, a long worked on project that showcases her life’s most important moments. The quilt is her freedom, but its existence is a dangerous act of rebellion. When Charlotte disappears, only the quilt remains to remind Handful of all that is possible within one’s imagination. Because of Handful’s rich inner life, she is in some ways more free than Sarah, who must conform to her community’s standards lest not only she, but her family as well, suffer.

Sarah wants to become a lawyer like her beloved father but her goal is considered inappropriate for her station; Southern women can achieve no such status as it’s intended only for men. Instead, she and her younger sister, Angelina, travel north where they write pamphlets and give speeches about the horrors and injustices of slavery. They also promote women’s suffrage. Sarah draws huge audiences who are captivated by her passion. One of her written treatises was in fact the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sarah’s life was dedicated to righting  these egregious wrongs, and she forfeited love and marriage because of her commitment to her causes.

Kidd’s book shows how four women, two white and two black, fought against the powers of their time. It tells of the horrors of slavery in unvarnished, often horrific images. It creates an intellectual and spiritual scaffold for implementing social justice. It gives me hope that terrible circumstances can be endured and that goodness will overcome evil.

My favorite line from the book is this: Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. Yet from this paucity of decency, Charlotte managed to give her beloved daughter, Handful, a sense of freedom and hope, that there had been a better life once and might be again.

The Invention of Wings was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction

 

Other books that were serious contenders for I:

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

I Know this Much is True by Wally Lamb

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

 

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

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Penguin Books

 

End, Begin, Again

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The end of one year and beginning of the new, a blazing explosion, a fiery goblet, and a burning regret that leads to a wall-eyed morning and the numerical designation of 2017. For the Chinese it is the Year of the Rooster, whose formal beginning is January 28, close enough for me. One born this year is slated to be hardworking, funny, trustworthy, and talented. With nothing more irrefutable than astrological signs or a tarot deck, I attempt to predict my future year. The shifting constellations, a foggy crystal ball, one shuffle of cards, and I sit at Buddha’s feet, wondering along with all the other postulants. At what strange place have I been lodged and what new port will welcome me? What might I commit to complete before the Year of the Dog begins to bark?

In many ways, it will be the same, same address, same routine, and same faces that regard me with winks, hugs, or heaving sighs. In other ways it will all be new, as if I’ve been cast off a space ship and jettisoned to a new galaxy where I can’t breathe. It’s this insecurity that keeps me from making resolutions, the near certain knowledge that no matter what I plan, it will be unlikely to proceed toward success. On less than one hand – really, on fewer than the knuckles on one finger – can I count my writing successes for this past year. I’ve written, yes, that I have. I made a final edit on my three completed books, made a substantive start on a fourth, and have five new ideas to pursue. I was turned down for a position I felt I was very qualified to undertake and I sulked like a three-year-old. As 2015 was the year I didn’t write on this blog, 2016 was the year I reclaimed it with reasonable effort, including a new alphabet series highlighting favorite books by letter. (H is for The History of Love published on January 6; I is for The Invention of Wings will publish on January 12.)

Then came the readers, from my critique group writing partners to the readers of this blog, with kind comments, suggestions for improvement, pats on the back, and true friendships among fellow writers. I extend my most sincere thanks to all of you. I feel like a writer, a real bona fide writer. (Redundant, I know.) My writing has been recognized as decent, my insecurity concerning my skills given a good slap on the hands. Here are the knuckles, raw with counting coup.

But the open door to an agent, the contract with an editor, the published book in hand: those glories did not happen. Admittedly, mostly my own fault. One must write, query, contact like tackle football if one is to tender a relationship with the publishing world. I didn’t, and that’s why I hesitate to write a set of resolutions for 2017. No point in promising what will be a certified failure. What writing I wanted most to work on, my newest book, got shunted to the side track of my circus, and the rooster bodes more obligations than will leave me time to write.

This post is not a pity party and I’m not looking for sympathy or an easy pass to achievement. All that must be earned. I am in a way a victim of my adult responsibilities. My (unpaid) position as my mother’s durable power of attorney (she suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease) sits on my calendar like a cock on the doorstep. She can’t live without it, I won’t budge it. My commitment to the other members of the writing critique group requires thoughtful consideration, the book beckons, the blog needs attention on regular basis, and I’m having difficulty with everything on a regular basis. I did mention I have a family, didn’t I?

What is wrong with me that I can’t muster a resolution for the New Year? It’s not just laziness or past experience, though their wrinkled lines are hard to smooth. It’s not simply presumption of failure which makes me quake. Most people don’t like that bitter taste and I can hardly be blamed for conformity. It’s that I truly loathe not being able to keep a commitment. I can’t tolerate saying I will do this set of resolutions in 2017, then fail to keep my word. I want some measure of probable success, a reasonable percentage point I can bet on. I want to know if I state that this writer will finalize all four books I’ve started, will send out x number of queries, will write y posts for Ink Flare, and n amount for Today’s Author, (the other blog for which I write) that you can count every single page and post and get to 99%. Many raw knuckles.

Still, it is the first week of the year. It’s said the rooster harks the morning sun because it can. I can make an effort. Nothing pricked in blood on parchment, but a scratch clawed in the dirt. Here it is, my 2017 resolution:

I will try to write on a regular basis, to complete what I’ve started, to query my work for genuine consideration, to make my dream come true. Best I can do.

The sun peaks her fiery head over the horizon. I’m harking.

 

Chinese New Year image courtesy: Google images public domain

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The History of Love begins with an obituary and ends with the same – not a propitious beginning for a novel unless it is written by Nicole Krauss. Fortunately for readers, this book is. It contains a book within the book, one that is published under a thief’s name, and a view about love so enduring that no other person can take the place of the beloved. It is also about a search for a child, a child’s search for identity, and the true authorship of books.

This book won my heart as a reader but also as a writer. The first time I read it was pure pleasure as I became immersed in the story, eager to find out the ending but reveling in every phrase written, every image suggested, every new twist to a maze of a story. At the second reading, I paid attention to Krauss’ brilliant plot construction, character development, and psychological insight. She is a master writer, and for someone like me still learning to write, she is an entire writing class in a single volume.

The book is dense with imagery and poetic language, a gift for those who savor words and yearn to be kidnapped by story. It’s also complex and confusing, demanding sleuthing skills usually reserved for murder mysteries, and I found myself re-reading passages to reorient within the novel. The two main characters are each haunted people who brought me to tears and occasional laughter as I unraveled their stories. Leo Gursky, an old Polish Jew, now lives in New York. He is a Holocaust survivor without heirs or friends, afraid of dying alone and unrecognized. Once spying on the son he didn’t know about until, he is devastated to learn that he has died, a famous author who never knew his father. Leo has loved one woman in the world, and for her he wrote a book about love.

Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer, bereft from the loss of her father to cancer, is convinced she is named after an Alma from an old story about undying love, her parents’ favorite. She wants to find a man who can love her grieving, widowed mother and give her a reason to live. Her younger brother, Bird, is strangely obsessed, believing he is one of the thirty-six lamed vovnik, the righteous people chosen by God for whom the world is made. Like many impassioned teenagers, Alma feels the world’s weight pressing upon her shoulders and struggles to balance the responsibilities of saving herself, her brother, and her mother.

Tangled in the journeys of these two is the history of the book Leo wrote decades earlier and another book that Alma’s mother is translating. Both of course are Leo’s The History of Love. Then there is Zvi Litvinoff, who has claimed and secretly published Leo’s book as his own work; Bruno, Leo’s one friend until he dies; and Isaac, the son Leo never met. A less polished writer might have written a muddle of a book out of such disparate parts, but Krauss penned a taut and multi-dimensional story.

The end is somewhat ambivalent, readers debating exactly what has happened, a bit of magical realism claiming its part of the story. What is understood is that love is all consuming and eternal, that sometimes the obvious facts don’t add up until you find all the other facts, and that no matter who writes a book, love endures and makes all things possible. Krauss has conveyed intuition about writing, love, relationships, and identity in a story with an apt title.

My favorite line from the book is this: Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. Who of us does not want to be so consumed by love that it spins our world and lets us breathe?

It’s a book I’ve kept and one I’ll read again, not to discover more of the writer’s technique but for the pure pleasure of enjoying a story well told. And that is what a good book should be.

The History of Love won the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for fiction.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for H:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

Hawaii by James Michener

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

He, She and It by Marge Piercy

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

 

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

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and W.W. Norton & Company