Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘family’

R is for The River Midnight

Time grows short at the end of century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which…Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future. But shh, we can’t talk, now. The story is about to start.*

Thus opens the curtain on Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight, a grand tale about the fictional Jewish shtetl (little town) of Blaszka at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a year of ritual and miracle, of friendship and betrayal, of yearning and fulfillment. Also the lifetime of a Jewish community surviving the struggles of existence on the spiked tail of Russian-occupied Poland.

At the heart of this story are four vilda hayas, the young wild girls with dreams of freedom, love, and the future. Hanna-Leah, Faygela, Zisa-Sara, and Misha run to the woods outside the village to dance, sing, collect wild mushrooms, and share secrets, untamable as teenagers everywhere. As they grow up they accept their places in the community, each with an outlook reflecting her position.

Hanna-Leah, a talented cook who always does what is right, marries the butcher but is unable to bear children. She is envious of her best friend, Faygela, the would-be intellectual who has six children as the wife of the baker. Always kind-hearted Zisa-Sara follows her husband to New York where they both die in a terrible factory fire. Their orphaned children, daughter Emma and a son, return to Blaszka to be raised by the sensible Alta-Fruma. Misha, the most outspoken and independent of the four vilda hayas who flaunts disdain at all useless rules, divorces after a brief marriage. She lives alone near the river, becoming the village midwife and the person to whom everyone turns when they desire a potion for special needs of inciting romance, building strength, or overcoming illness.

Blaszka is also populated by rabbis, water carriers, busybodies, prophets, gypsies, drunkards, mysterious strangers, the vulgar, and the refined. Some folk are noble, some are vulnerable, and some pious. Each contributes an essential, memorable element, no matter how small. You will recognize all of them.

It’s soon discovered that Misha is pregnant by a man she refuses to identify. Gossip moves along the lifeline of the village as certainly as the meandering current of the adjacent river. Villagers speculate who might be the father but are met by her silence. Misha’s painful labor provides a tender scene at the end of the story. I haven’t spoiled it by telling you that much because what ensues is a bit of a miracle in itself, given that the birth falls on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

At times the book reads like a fairy tale, rich with Jewish nuance and superstition. At other places it resonates with the history of Jewish Europe.  In some passages it blares like a bawdy song one might hear in a saloon where the drunkards mingle with those who might be prostitutes, angels, or conmen. Its scenes of magical realism will remind readers of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, or Sholem Aleichem who also wrote of the European Jewish communities lost to World War II. Always, Nattel’s sensitivity to universal relevance is captured within the intimacy of a place so small that only a few hundred souls live there.

Nattel based her book on the stories her family told when they emigrated from Poland to Canada. She researched for years, reading dozens of relevant books, and included a glossary at the end to help the reader understand the Yiddish dispersed throughout. The glossary is essential for those unfamiliar with the mixing of two languages. I was also raised with Yiddish words and phrases sprinkled by my family as well as stories about shtetl life, and I still found it illuminating.

This is one of the very few books I’ve read six times (the other is To Kill a Mockingbird) and I’ll one day read it again. The quality of Nattel’s writing and the strength of her characters draw me back to the pages to follow the vilda hayas’ hilarious shenanigans and harrowing predicaments. At each reading, I’ve tried to determine who are the Director, the Traveler, and the Boss, and every time I’ve reached a different conclusion. The first time I read the book I had just completed writing the “final” draft of a novel that also tells the story of a fictional Polish shtetl and the strong women who live in it. (My story is in no way even wanly derivative of Nattel’s book, by plot or characters. My “final” draft was in no way final, either.)

The very last words of the book are once upon a time. How enchanting is that?

The River Midnight won the Martin and Beatrice Fisher Jewish Book Award in Fiction in 1999.

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

 

*Just so you know, this passage is the very beginning and the very end of the prologue of the book.

 

 

Other books that were serious contenders for R:

 

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Pony John Steinbeck

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Room by Emma Donoghue

Roots by Alex Haley

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Run by Ann Patchett,

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Scribner

 

H is for The History of Love

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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

Bread

 

images

Candles and celebration

Laughter of intimacy

Testament of rites

Crucible of wedding

 

Bread and festival

Yeast of endearment

Kitchen and hearth

Banquet of home

 

Spices and mystery

Day routine then eve

Crusts on the floor

Shards of family

 

Disdain and accusation

Secrecy of deceit

Lies, pleas, revelation

Cleft of the home

 

Confession and shame

Betrayal of pledge

Dough falls, bitter mold

Ruin of marriage

 

Regret and apology

Renewal of vows

Rises then a new loaf

Gathering of the clan

 

 

 

Poem in honor of National Poetry Month

Bread image courtesy of Commons.wikimedia.org

 

Ordinary Grace in a Wild World

Between the strike of the match and the flare of the candle, I’ve written a masterful book in my head and forgotten half of it before my pen could move. Waiting for the computer to rev up, I revised my protagonist’s dilemma but couldn’t recall my brilliant narrative when the blank page begged for words. Driving to work I resolved the plot glitch that had given me fits for the past four months. Finally home, I couldn’t order the words into sensible phrases. Dinner, if made at all, congeals in the microwave, the bills are lost in the “urgent” pile on my desk, I must ready a lesson for tomorrow’s class, and my book waits like the ugly stepsister for her dance with the prince. One more night late to bed, tired in morning to rise, my muse yawns away inspiration with every open mouth. The life of this writer: to think at lightning speed and write at a snail’s pace. To be so busy with everyday chores that the business of writing doesn’t get done on a regular basis.

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For all the ordinary problems I confront every day, there are many I needn’t worry about: That a radical vigilante will set our home aflame, forcing my family to become refugees from our own country. That the drug cartels that have made kidnapping a national pastime in some states in Mexico will target my family. That the aids or Ebola viruses rampant in Africa will leave my young grandchildren hungry orphans at the side of road. The unpredictable violence in other countries is a galaxy away from the insulated world of my American household. (more…)

O What a Life, Part I, Extraordinary Events

Suzie 81 Speaks http://suzie81speaks.com/2014/06/21/life-experiences/ compiled a list of her “favorites,” the kinds of Life Experiences that enrich our lives, and asked us to share ours. I started to write what I thought would be a short list but at close to 450 words, realized it was time to stop hogging her space and fill my own.

Too big for one blog post, it will be split in two. Today’s post is about Extraordinary Events. Come back on Thursday, June 26 for the second round, Extraordinary Places.

I’d love you to share your Life Experiences, either in the comments section below or on your own blog site. I told Suzie, You may just have started something big – not like you haven’t done so before! ❤

Shari’s Life Experiences – just a smidge of a full closet:

Extraordinary Events:

ABNA: Reached the quarter-finalist position (within the top 250 out of 5000 submissions) for my novel The Inlaid Table in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough American Novel competition. Each step was a thrill. Even not going all the way to New York for the grand prize, I was still elated by my success. This was my first book but not my last. I will see it to publication one day.

Awarded a Freshly Pressed badge from WordPress. I’d only been blogging a few months and didn’t yet know about the controversy surrounding the badge. I didn’t even know what the award was and had to call a friend to explain. I’m deeply honored by this award. The article, That’s All Folks, posted on July 25, 2013 on Today’s Author, http://todaysauthor.wordpress.com/ where I am one of a team of writers. I re-posted the article on this blog as well, on August 5, 2013.

Started this blog, Sharon Bonin-Pratt’s Ink Flare, on August 1, 2013. Nearly a year. Thank you, readers. You are the reason I’m here. Come on back, now, and invite your friends and family. (more…)

I, Wanderer

The commencement address at your university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least get a decent job and pay the bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the motivating keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into uncertainty and failure. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months (or had already begun,) or had a terrific entry level position in a job that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

 

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I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the incentive of solid accomplishments that would look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and thin sandwiches, housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a Writer had only been sustained by marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (Yeah, if you’re 40 or under, you don’t know what that is – no worries.)

Over the next decade I fell into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in a few dead end trades paid bills until marriage; then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with my young children, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should also consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with religion, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, Scouts, theater, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I raised my sons and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first doing occasional art work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program and as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. [I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings; “lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon; or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separation.]

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint designs for active wear (bikinis, board shorts, Hawaiian-style shirts) under pressure and with peculiar requirements, like board shorts with no orange hues as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange – damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics in a commercial studio is the norm, that stealing creative proprietary product is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (Art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, with great relief.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned, to paint fast and accurately, and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, why paint colors contrast better with some colors more than others, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, collage or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many kids went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art. I did that!

Art is a primal urge, evident by the 20 – 30,000-year-old treasures deep in European caves on rock walls that could only be reached via precarious scaffolds. Just imagine: wrapped in bearskin, walking on grass sandals, you hide behind boulders or as high in trees as the slender boughs will afford you. When you drop to earth, you tread softly so as not to awaken bad spirits, enemy tribesmen, or stalking predators twice your weight, and trek until you find the tiny hole in the embankment. You push aside the branches that keep its secret, enter the darkness, and plunge through space, uncertain where you will land or if safely. Or at all. Once there, you light a fish oil lamp in a shell, pick up a ragged-edged twig, a dollop of red-brown ochre, and a stub of charcoal. You may be famished and thirsty but nothing, not even desire to calm urges for food, can keep you from the calling of the muse, born before you were conceived. You pay homage to the spirits whom you revere and fear by creating massive images of horses and bison on rock ceilings reached only by standing on a rickety ladder built of broken limbs. You ask for blessings and success. You do what you’d come for: you paint.

I taught children to create art and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. They are meant to. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. A kid cheated on a project and her parents demanded that I take the blame for her poor judgment by insisting I not be rehired. They were rich enough to hang a noose woven of dollar bills. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. I lost the art teacher position in the school where I’d built their upper school art program. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Still teaching art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation: it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that is left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were; stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold family as if your life and theirs depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day. And harbor no regrets.