Summer Reads

Here are a few books I’ve enjoyed so far this summer.

A Good Home, A Memoir, by Cynthia Reyes

A Good Home

Cynthia Reyes’ journey from a pink bungalow in Jamaica to a Victorian Farmhouse in Toronto is captivating. Each home is the center of a vibrant and interesting life, inhabited by family and friends, and in one case, a female mentor. She shows us how a home is not just a place to live, but a place we fill with our spirit, and where our spirit can renew itself, grow and thrive. I’d like to know more and look forward to reading her sequel, An Honest House.

Somewhere More Simple, by Marion Molteno

Somewhere More Simple

This story of life on the small islands cast into the sea off the coast of Britain is one of the most hauntingly beautiful stories I’ve ever read. The descriptions of the islands are precise, poetic, and will make you will feel as if you’re living there. Some passages reminded me of D. H. Lawrence, others of Virginia Woolf, but the narrative is modern, attuned to environment and relationships. A great read.

The Very Worst Riding School in the World, by Lucinda Clarke

The Very Worst Riding School in the World

This is a very good opening to the longer story which is available upon subscribing to Lucinda Clarke’s monthly newsletter. Her understated British sense of humor is perfect for the challenges of living and operating a “riding school” in Africa. The story itself is both funny and sad at times, but her love of Africa’s people and land, and of course, the individual horses, shines through. This little book is a gift to its readers.

 

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Uncertain Light: Book Review

Uncertain Light by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

I was drawn in slowly, sometimes considering not going on, but beyond the valley mists and the world’s tallest mountains, lurks a promise. That kept me reading, and I’m glad I made the journey. This is an amazing look at people whose work we hear of, and yet do not know, at places remote and veiled in violence, where refugees gather and ancient towns bury their treasures.

One of the great treasures, discovered only after trust is achieved, is the work of a local poet, imprisoned, disappeared, his poems suppressed by one government after another. But he is not forgotten, his poems have been disseminated throughout the region, in various translations. The skill to translate them into English creates a new and surprising network of local and foreign people. 

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action.

In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. These are no hive-mind of like-minded people. Instead, each person has a distinct history, and carries an aloneness which is palpably felt in every moment. Even as they search for connections, each one keeps to her or his solitary walks. This yearning and this isolation accompany those who work in unsettled areas, who move through uncertain light.

Molteno’s experience with Save The Children comes through with portraits of the trauma children live through in turbulent times: their loss of family members, shelter, food, and education. “‘Them’ and ‘Us’ wasn’t primarily about cultural difference, the unbridgeable divide of life-chances was between the children of whatever race or religion who went to school like hers … and those for whom school was an unreachable dream…who sold things at roadsides, who carried heavy loads…”

In Hasilgah (the place of achievement which was originally named Be-hasil-gah, a place where nothing can be achieved), a town near the border of Tajikistan, a small group of people, many women, and the men who relate to them as equals, keep family and community together in adverse times. They protect not only children – future creativity, but also the creativity of the past. “Each step … forward will also be a reaffirmation of what mattered in the past.” Life is both history, social and personal, and future, challenging and beckoning, but the struggle for healing and wholeness always takes place in the present.

The Sophisticated Cat, Book Review

the sophisticated cat

The Sophisticated Cat, A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings About Cats, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Available in paperback and hardcover.

The cat is the supreme creation of a benign and wonderful god, someone like Santa Claus in a GQ suit. Obviously, sophistication becomes the cat, and any person who reads about cats becomes sophisticated. This large collection of stories, fables and poems spanning ancient to modern times describes the innate ability of cats to transcend the sad attempt at cleverness practiced by humans.

The Sophisticated Cat is a sometimes farcical, sometimes wise, often poignant and passionate collection of writings by an impressive array of great authors from many countries and cultures. Humorous stories include “The Cat That Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling, “The Story of Webster” by P. G. Wodehouse, and “Lillian” by Damon Runyon (the latter takes place in the vicinity of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street). Colette’s “Saha” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” deal with human cruelty toward cats and the frailty and folly behind this cruelty.

Alice Adams’ exceptional story, “The Islands,” begins with the question, “What does it mean to love an animal, a pet, in my case, a cat, in the fierce, entire and unambivalent way that some of us do?” The story of her life with the silver grey tailless cat “Pink” rings true in every phrase.

Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat” is told from the cat’s point of view. It is beautiful, precise, and haunting. There are stories by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Emile Zola, Balzac, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Saki, Italo Calvino, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Chekhov’s “Who’s To Blame?” is one of the finest, Orwellian-style allegories ever written.

The poetry is presented in five sections, from the romantic to the whimsical. In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Cat,” he describes the complete catness of cats; a cat intends or impersonates nothing else: “His is that peerless / integrity, / neither moonlight nor petal / repeats his contexture: / he is all things in all, / like the sun or a topaz.”

Paul Valery describes them as “indifferent to everything but Light itself.” W. B. Yeats’ well known poem about Minnaloushe the cat is included: “And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes,” and fine poems by Hart Crane, Robert Graves, and Marianne Moore. “My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher Smart is the most fun to read and William Wordsworth’s “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” is the loveliest.

I did wonder why May Sarton’s work was not included. She has written a beautiful book, “The Fur Person.” To a purrfectionist, sophisticated cat reader, this was a glaring omission. The Sophisticated Cat receives ten purrs, five meows, and only one tail flick.


This review was first published in February 1993 in the Clinton Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper for the Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, which I published from January 1993 to April 1998.

Happiness: A Review

Happiness

In a series of stories linked by characters and themes, Happiness by Aminatta Forna describes two lives on the front lines of human cruelty and resilience. Attila, an expert on PTSD, works in war zones and disaster areas. The other main character, Jean, a wildlife biologist, has seen the cruelty of humans toward wild animals firsthand. They meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. Attila loves music and dance, and Jean plants gardens in the most improbable places. One is self-care with the hope of sharing, the other combines self-care with caring for the environment and wildlife. They refuse to be alienated, they continue to relate to people they’ve known a long time and to strangers who need help or offer to help them in their ventures.

The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, ‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. However, in my view, Nietzsche’s statement is a generalization. Human beings are more complex. Some people will be damaged by trauma, some will be resilient, and some will be both.

Both Jean and Attila see the real illness, the worst loss, and it’s not the damage done by traumatic events. It’s our capacity for denial, of death, and of life in all its messiness. We try then to eliminate things we cannot control. The coyote and fox, both species Jean has studied in the field, are beyond our control. Some people welcome their presence as reminders of the wild and free in themselves, while others are threatened because these animals cannot be managed and thrive independently of humans.  

The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Surmounting our difficulties to take this kind of action is pure rebellion against the damage done. There’s joy in this, and helping another person or animal affirms our humanity. It can be the simple act of giving a bit of food to a hungry fox on your lunch break at the back of the hotel you work in. It can be the more complex interaction with an old friend who now has dementia. A brief time of meditation or contemplation, a silent reverie by a river, or in a field making eye contact with a coyote, renews our connection with life. Through these acts, and the thoughts and emotions which give them a basket of flesh and blood, people find the strength to overcome trauma. 

The passages meant to convey this joy often fall flat, at times detailed to death, other times described more as an ordeal or willful event that is fraught with the character’s anxiety. While there’s truth in these last two situations, the subduing of happiness seems to serve the author’s goal of setting aside happiness for hope. My other flushed grouse, to use a wildlife allusion, is the gratuitous first chapter. To equate the thrill of the hunt by a professional hunter or sports hunter with the hunt of a conservationist disregards the difference in intent, beliefs, and consequences, and emphasize the heightened senses of the hunt, and the similarity of human and animal behavior. Forna does better when she shows the difference between blood lust and its opposite: the strength that caring requires, the effort of advocating, saving and letting live.

My Top Five Book Picks for 2018

These books range from non-fiction to memoir to fiction. Each one had revelations for me, which were communicated in language far beyond my own abilities.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions 2013

Kimmerer is a research biologist and an active member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation. She lives near, but not on, the Onondaga reservation in upstate New York, near Syracuse. She gives us “woven essays,” often in the form of stories about people she’s met, lived with, engaged with, and places she’s lived and visited. When I read this book, I came to understand the Native American view of the world (although I had previously thought I did); and more than understand, experience it. In the first chapter she says of sweetgrass: “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” From the meaning of sweetgrass, to the consideration of actions taken to the seventh generation, the practices of gratitude and thanksgiving, the operation of a gift economy, to the hope presented by the coming of the People of the Seventh Fire, this book held me in thrall. She tells the story of the Peacemaker who came to the Haudosaunee (Iroquois), and of the dispersal to reservations of her ancestors. Her grandfather was taken from his family to the infamous Carlisle school for re-education. He was forbidden to speak his own language. She writes of the loss of indigenous language, and her efforts to relearn Potawatomi. Throughout all she shows the resilience of Native Americans. Now they are beginning to reclaim their heritage. Her contribution is this book, which opens a new way of looking at the world to non-Native Americans. And she considers how long the immigrants from Europe have to live in a place before they become native, and what being native to a place entails. The writing in this book is among the best I’ve read in years. One of the most beautiful stories is of the salmon “coming home” in the Pacific Northwest. In all the role of the land, the trees and plants, is interwoven. I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Color of Water

The Color of Water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother, by James McBride, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 1996, 2006

McBride starts with: “As a boy I never knew where my mother was from – where she was born, who her parents were.” The most interesting part of this story is his discovery that his mother is Jewish by birth and upbringing, and that her family were immigrants who lived in a small southern town. The radical contrast of cultures is surreal, but the family dynamics are all too common. His mother left the family and converted to Christianity, which resulted in her being estranged from them. Alone after her husband’s death with multiple children to raise, she managed with fierce dedication, and occasional violence, as she’s only human and flawed, to see them all through to healthy and successful lives. As with his book of stories, Five-Carat Soul, which I’d read before this book, McBride’s language is edgy and poetic, and so is his social commentary. His writing has a pace and rhythm that comes from his other profession as a jazz musician. Most of all, this is a penetrating look at race and religion, and family and community, in America. A very memorable read.

Loving Day

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2015

A biracial man returns from a decade in England to his old neighborhood in Germantown, Philadelphia. His father was white and his mother black, but he looks like a Celtic warrior. He is exposed to and has to deal with racial attitudes and behaviors every day of his life. The story begins with: “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house.” The ghetto inhabitants see him as white, but he knows he’s black. “I will not be rejected. I want to run, but not to be run off.” Soon afterward, a wizened elderly Jewish man and a striking teenaged girl visit him. The elderly man tells him he is the girl’s grandfather. He learns that the girl is his daughter, the result of a short fling with a young woman years ago. For reasons I’ll leave out now, his new-found daughter comes to live with him in the ramshackle mansion. The scenes are often funny, and some are funny and sad at the same time. A biracial “Adam and Eve” couple’s ghosts, or reality, haunt the place. How he and his daughter, among the other biracial, transgender, and marginalized people, cope with the persistent prejudices, and how they convert their experiences into strong human bonds, is well worth reading. There are flaws in this book, involving some confusing paranormal scenes which seem out of place, but the disclosure of being human in the midst of the absurdity of racism, is unforgettable. I’m glad I read this book.

A God In Ruins

A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, Little, Brown & Co., 2015

This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves us with a vision of what was, what might have been, and what might be.

Without The Veil Between

Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, by Diane M. Denton, All Things That Matter Press, 2018

Now we’re in England, there’s Diane Denton’s luminous account of Anne Brontë’s short but productive life. The sisters’ books are populated with people who live large lives, with secret loves, deception, greed, passion, and loyalty. In this setting, quiet Anne makes her own way, exploring human relationships with a keen sense of morality and ethics. In a prescient way, she was ahead of her time in her thinking about the role of women, about freedom and equality. 

From Vanity Fair to The Storyteller Speaks

Six Degrees of Separation

I learned of this meme on Janet Emson’s blog “From First Page to Last.

She spotted it “on the outstanding blogs of Susan at A Life in Books and Marina at Finding Time to Write.” She recommends visiting their blogs “for insightful reviews, bookish observations and original poetry. The meme was created by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Kate writes: “Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman began the 6 Degrees of Separation meme in 2014 (and I took over in 2016). The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways . . .  And now it’s a meme for readers.

So, to the meme. On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.”

This month starts with:

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Two women are polar opposites in this classic British tale. Becky Sharp is ruthless, cunning, and manipulative, while her friend Amelia “Emmy” Sedley is friendly, compassionate, and not very sharp. The men in their lives range from bumbling to crude to narcissistic. The scene is set for Victorian drama.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

About the same time in Britain, a young woman is also writing about the same moral and ethical issues, involving marriage and economic inequality, as well as betrayal, debauchery, and compassion, forgiveness, and love. Her book, written mostly from a woman’s point of view, paints a brilliant picture of the societal suppression of women’s talents and independence. The narrative of the main character, Helen Graham, is remarkably modern in both style and worldview.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

A hundred years later, in Naples, Italy, two women’s lives intertwine as children. Lila is imaginative, impulsive, and ambitious, while Elena is intuitive, observant, and much more cautious. The men in their lives are unpredictable, aggressive, or overly-sensitive. The scene is set for 1950s “modern” drama. As in Vanity Fair, economic success and marriage are the great prizes. But in My Brilliant Friend, education makes a difference, bringing the light of new possibilities to one of the women.

memoirs of a dutiful daughter

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

Education begins early in Beauvoir’s life, in the form of self-education as she seeks books from every source. Her voracious curiosity about the fundamental questions of humanity knows no bounds, and she crosses boundaries that typically hinder or stop other women. Ambition drives her, as it does Becky Sharp and Lila Cerullo. However, Beauvoir is free in ways they were not, and she is a philosopher, challenging herself to think and act in moral and ethical ways. She is seeking a higher prize: wisdom.

Isabel Dalhousie Series

The Isabel Dalhousie Series by Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel Dalhousie edits a philosophy journal, and asks herself questions as to her motives and actions as she goes through her daily life. Marriage was not foremost on her mind. She is comfortably well-off, which leaves her somewhat alienated from most people around her. Through her own efforts she must reach out across the gap and engage in “real” life. Over the years she has gained a reputation for helping people with odd problems in their relationships. By listening and observing, and considering potential scenarios, she attempts to unveil the truth. The results are often askew, but still find their way to the target.

storyteller speaks

The Storyteller Speaks by Annika Perry

In the 21st century, women’s voices carry new tunes, visions and insights that enrich us as a species. In this collection of short stories, what is brought into view is our ability to choose integrity and kindness rather than uncaring mindsets and actions. Each story is a core sample of a moral issue. The characters are challenged by a tragic or potentially damaging event outside their control; in a moment, their lives are changed drastically, forever. But whether tragedy has come to them or they have made their own mistakes, they eventually recognize the situation through a severe exercise in honesty. Their honesty springs from valuing the best sense of who they can become (shades of Anne Brontë, Isabel Dalhousie, and Simone de Beauvoir). They often draw on enriching relationships with other people and humanizing traditions. Then they go beyond: to make amends. By taking this action, they rise to a new level of moral and ethical consciousness. These stories show how difficult it is to do this, and how liberating.

Living Consciously Alive

TALLYFRONTCan a person live an un-repressed life, a life of all possibilities, or is the price always madness, because the terror of reality, the fear of life and of death, as Ernest Becker said, are too much to bear without defense?

Some, like R. D. Laing, say therefore prefer madness; at least, respect the mad for their courage.

I wonder if that release into all possibilities has to be a leap into insanity?

If I develop my attributes – intellect, emotions, sexuality, “soul” – and have no center other than a fire of gases like the sun, can I live fully, freely, courageously? I feel in myself the strong desire, stronger than the fear of breaking down, death and pain, to go into the world in all of its alarming chaos and be transfixed by it, to experience it all with courage as well as fear.

Ernest Becker (Denial of Death) would say I have fabricated my own “symbolic transcendence” over “the darkness and the dread of the human condition.”

But isn’t there equally glory in the human condition, in nature, in oneself? And just as hard to take, for most people, because of the guilt of being happy, successful (at whose cost) and the fear of being betrayed by happiness into forgetting horror – then it suddenly happens. Still, the beauty is equal to the ugliness. I don’t believe people create, always or necessarily, to “mediate natural terror” and triumph over it.

What I mean is not transcendence, but instead as fully experiencing life as I can. These experiences may shatter me, they may improve me; surely they will transform me.

Is it possible to experience the world purely without being completely destroyed?

Reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I kept thinking: but I don’t take these drugs and I have these experiences. When I walked in New York, I was sometimes mesmerized by the blue sky above the city streets,. I walked for blocks looking up until I came to see the faded lemon-blue near the western horizon. In Riverside Park, I watched flotillas of ducks, saw how they converged with the river’s currents, bobbing into one another’s area, the rhythm or actually the lack of rhythm, a kind of staccato randomness, changing formations and no clear purpose, but the purpose was clear. Dove blue lights went on the George Washington Bridge and upriver the crusty castle of Riverside Church towered in failing light.

How easy it is for me to visualize, hear and remember the feel of things, how sensory oriented I have always been, the importance of color and how I find it hard to look away from the angles and line in architecture, street after street. I always look and listen, drinking in, as I pass Lincoln Center, walking or in a bus, those colorful “pastiches” of Klee’s, the fountain, the whole.

In art and in life, in our perpetual consciousness, there are layers of perception. Cezanne’s paintings show this gestalt visual memory. There is a synthesis of objects, events and people seen from different points of view, in different lights, from different angles, at different times.

Huxley was looking for a bio-chemical-neurological similarity between “schizos” and artists. Too much stimulation can frighten and overwhelm, or it can fascinate and enrich. The ability to have faith in one’s experience is important, as Laing said, to not care what others judge it to be, to ascertain its value yourself.

“Crazy” people and artists are not the same from my experience. The crazy people I knew were often people of limited or a false empathy. Some are emotionally crippled: the ideologue; the man who screams all night on the church steps.

Anyone who was still alive and battling was not crazy. They had courage and imagination, but were in trouble. They were people who needed to be re-stabilized. I knew that, because I was one of them.

I am leading a peculiar life outside the mainstream, not a crazy life but one arrived at through choosing to live, fully, to be what I am.

Huxley wrote of artists that they are “congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness.”

This ability is inherent, however, in every person. Some choose to develop it, others to evade the reality of their own experience.

In my book Tally: An Intuitive Life, PJ said, “People find, if they ever do, that it ever so easy—and so difficult—to tap into one’s stream of consciousness. That’s what I mean by living consciously alive.”

In Search of Immortality, Book Review

In-Search-of-Immortality-by-Jaidev-DasguptaJaidev Dasgupta’s book on Indic thinking is an incredible work of scholarship and more, it shows a mind deeply engaged with the search for understanding. He has sorted out, arranged, and presented the ideas, original beliefs and speculations of the Rig Veda, the early and later Upanishads, and other works (including Buddhist and materialist) in a clear, insightful way. These ideas and world-views evolve from early absolutist pictures of creation and the meaning of existence, to more subtle and complex conceptions. The history of the people of the region, the past and current contexts of ideas and beliefs, and various interpretations of meanings, are juxtaposed in a way that gives them all due respect and range.

In each of the phases that took place in Indic views there are contradictory ideas, and in each of the changes in those views, transmutation, or refutation and rejection of previous ideas and ideals. Human thinking is continually forming new belief systems, world-views, and narratives. A “major shift,” he writes, “took place in later stages in how the creation was viewed. While the Vedas speak of the origin of the world, the late Upanishads also talk about the dissolution of the world.” Another change was the emergence of the law of Karma, which was probably driven by human desire to escape the absolutes of heaven and hell.

“Was there a new idea that led to the change in story between the Rig Veda and the late Upanishads? Before reaching the possible answer, let us see the difference between the two creation models. According to the Rig Veda, the universe once created could continue forever without dissolving, but in the Upanishads the world went through cycles of birth and death. In the first case with no dissolution of the world, time moved forward linearly, but in the second scenario, time moved in cycles, assuming that in both cases time started with the beginning of the creation.”

Among the many fascinating parts were those that dealt with creation stories, the codification of behavior in order to support the world, the change from ritualistic to other ways to achieve “right living” and union with the ultimate reality, being and non-being, immanence and transcendence, and the combination of two polarities in one state or being.

Another interesting passage is this: “There are good reasons for assuming an imperishable, unmanifested Being as the background for the world phenomena. First, it avoids the problems of explaining how the world came into existence from nothing. Indic thinkers believe that there has to be a prior causal base for the world to appear as an effect. It cannot just leap out of nowhere. Second, because of the inherent dynamism of the ground, the world can arise without any divine intervention. Otherwise, the existence of a god prior to creation has to be assumed. Third, Indic thinkers are skeptical about the reality of the world. Right from the Upanishads we find seers and sages troubled with its evanescence and vagaries. They need respite from its transitory nature. And Brahman is the perfect refuge for such troubled souls. Immortality is in demand.”

Dasgupta establishes connections between Indic and non-Indic world views and science, especially in the areas of time, causality, polarities and unity, moral behavior, and similarities in the way the human mind works. These connections are enhanced by the knowledge and experience the reader can also bring to it, which can form the kind of relationships among philosophies that make it invaluable as communication expands across the globe. I know I will be re-reading parts of this book as I go along through life.

In Search of Immortality, paperback, Amazon

A God In Ruins Review

A God In Ruins

This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves a skeleton of what was, what might have been, and what might be.

What begins as banding together to fight an outside threat, which we deem noble, descends into horror and immorality. Teddy, the RAF pilot, experiences so much terror and senseless loss of life that his humanity is reduced to ruins. He has only the most primal desire to survive. All the while, he is participating in a bombing campaign targeting civilians, unknowingly, though perhaps he begins to realize it at some point.  

The United Kingdom’s Bomber Command decided to hit civilian targets in Germany in order to demoralize the population and turn them against the Nazi government. After the war, RAF pilots and crew learned of their true missions. My father was a tail gunner and radio operator on a U. S. Air Force B24 crew stationed in Norwich, England. He would have loved to read about Teddy landing at Shipdham air base and the hearty welcome he and his crew received. For his part, my father’s missions included some cities, and he did know there were people in the factories. As with Teddy, he saw bombers and fighters go down, and the fires in the cities below.

Some at the time and in the following generations criticized the bombing of civilians, as Teddy’s daughter does. Whether Atkinson means to say that UK society (and European and American society) began to disintegrate as a result of the brute realization that people are capable of cold, callous mass atrocities, she does depict a society in chaos, with pockets of nostalgia for days gone by, following the war. This nostalgia is for a time of peace and innocence. But the nostalgic picture is fabricated, as shown in the childhood fantasy stories written by a woman who shuts away the terrible brutality she experienced in World War 1. The post WW2 generation has few of these nostalgic reference points, and those it does have are undermined by the well-documented record of man’s inhumanity.

Teddy’s perfectly unlovable daughter is over the top when it comes to being judgmental, not to mention, selfish and irrational. Atkinson excels at dark humor, giving irony a chance to alchemize cynicism. While Teddy tries to live a decent life, having learned the value of humility and kindness, he is depicted as the skeleton of what was and what should have been. Atkinson paints a damning picture of his daughter and connects it to pre-war progressive social experiments which continue in the form of drugs and communes. These are treated as ridiculous, wrong-headed acts against the time-honored traditions and societal norms that worked – except they did not work, as the world went from one inferno to another.

Both looking back and looking forward engender a hope for the marvel we are at our best, what we yearn for, what we should be able to cherish and continue.

Besides the political and social views, the family and individuals appear in either fuzzy sentimental or critical, severe lights. Teddy is a romantic traumatized by war. He appears to be weak to his daughter, to whom his kindness comes across as an attempt to manipulate her into a shadow life of his childhood. This shadow life is very real to him and gives him strength. Since the war, he has a sense of invincibility, and a fatalism, which makes him aloof. Without much guidance, his daughter and her children slowly mature. Their attempts at banding together with others fall short, until near the end of the book. Atkinson then throws in a twist, one that’s been done before; however, the point she makes with this twist is one that cannot be made too often.

Atkinson deserves credit for her imagination in telling a difficult tale of the personal, social, and spiritual damages of war.

A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, publisher Little Brown and Company

A God In Ruins is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and others.

To read this review on Amazon, click here.

The Storyteller Speaks Review

storyteller speaks

Writers may exaggerate the negative and write dystopian fiction. They may exaggerate the positive and write utopian fiction. In this fascinating collection of short stories, the positive being brought into greater relief is our ability to choose integrity and kindness rather than degenerative and uncaring mindsets and actions. Each story is a core sample of a human moral issue, a history of resiliency and loss, exposed to the light.

In most of the stories the characters are challenged by a tragic or potentially damaging event outside their control; in a moment, their lives are changed drastically, forever. Some of the characters have caused their own dilemma. They go on in a fog or struggle with painful memories and swings of emotion before they reach the tipping point: how will they respond? And it is to their credit they reach this tipping point, because it is done through conscious moral effort. But whether tragedy has come to them or they have made their own mistakes, they eventually recognize the situation through a severe exercise in honesty. This honesty springs from valuing the best sense of who they can be and become. They often draw on enriching relationships with other people and humanizing traditions. Then they go beyond: they make amends. By taking this action, they rise to a new level of moral and ethical consciousness. This is portrayed in clear-eyed fashion, showing how difficult it is to do, and yet liberating.

It is more than interesting for stories like these to be told; it may be necessary for our adaptability and survival, for our thriving as a species. The same could be said for the negative. In fact, these stories blend both in a new and perceptive way.

The flaws in her writing and story composition are small quibbles. For instance, just when I thought the stories would all be similar samples, there was a radical change. It is my hope Annika Perry will continue to hone her craft as a writer. She may yet give us an iconic work.