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.

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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.

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.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: Review

memoirs of a dutiful daughter

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

Philosophy’s gravitational wave is coming, and will move across her life . . . 

Beauvoir’s mother was a fundamentalist Catholic and required subservience to that worldview. She did her best to inculcate her daughter with its tenets and practices, emphasizing the safety it provided, to women in particular. That safety and stability, supporting the structure of family life, also required an abstinence from thinking, curiosity, and freedom (though all were subverted in various, subconscious, ways).

Religion pervaded Simone’s existence as she faithfully went through an education at a Catholic school, believed in the efficacy of confession, and the power of prayer. But, slowly, the pervasiveness began to recede, as she observed and questioned ideas and ideals, and learned of other worldviews through her own efforts. Autocracy, with its companion hypocrisy, became apparent at the school. She read books that were banned by her mother, finding them in a relative’s home. A young boy named Jacques gave her books to read, which she gladly accepted. The loosening hold of religion was caused as well by her recognition of its superficiality in those who professed the greatest belief. One who had been her confessor betrayed her confidence. And then, in her personal life, she discovered prayer failed her.

Ultimately, religion was not imbued within her, but was mostly an external accretion. She took some time to grow and break the accretion with a conscious choice. The accretion had been porous, partly due to her inquiring mind, and possibly, partly to her father who was not a believer. He was a person who wrapped himself in fantasy. Their financial, social, and inter-family circumstances, revealed the inadequacy of such a life. Her mother’s tolerance of her father’s non-belief raised questions. Was her mother only with her father because she had no choice, as a woman, in that time and place, to survive and bring up children with a modicum of stability? And so he was simply an accommodation, an appurtenance, with no further value than the earthly usefulness he provided? On the other hand, and I think Beauvoir sensed this, he was her mother’s outlet, her portal to moments of freedom. In him she could release her rebellion. 

Once she had broken with religion, creating a separation from her mother, Beauvoir felt free and ready to start a new life. Her struggles were not over, though; they had just begun in earnest. Simone was still living at home while pursuing higher education, trapped in an atmosphere of denial and obedience. Restlessly, she walked the city streets, which she had been told were off-limits, looking for new ways to be, for places and people to try out her new-found freedom. She never thought, she said, to go into the cafés. Instead, she went further, into clubs where she and her friends Zaza and Stepha indulged in sexual licentiousness and vulgarity, and met people who lived on the margins.

Her relationship with her childhood friend Jacques had changed over the years. She began to consider him as a potential husband. He was elusive, though, and her misgivings about him grew. He would not be her intellectual equal, even though he had helped her on her way at crucial times in the past. She knew she was supposed to seek the stability of marriage, but after much confusion, she realized her hopes were a mistake. Marriage was not for her, she concluded.

Beauvoir had some character flaws that come to light here. She idealized Zaza and Jacques, and obsessed about them, only to learn later they had not thought about her much at all. During these experiences, however, she was working through social questions. These people aided her as well in her philosophical education. But her idealization was over the top, which she acknowledged in the case of the teachers who had once inspired her. She also thought of herself as superior to the unwashed masses. Her revels in the clubs as a teenager and young adult are not unusual. Her crush on her childhood friend wasn’t either. She was different in the talent she had for abstract thinking.

She was honest about her idealizations and her snobbery. At one point, she noted she “loved to be loved,” and was surprised to find herself not being lauded outside her family, but instead, banished from society. She wrote with irony about her “insane optimism” in response to ideas and causes, and how this only added to her solitude. Her philosophical conversations and social analysis with other girls and women made me think: thank you! We read, think, and are concerned with the great mysteries, including questions of rebellion and living a worthwhile life, with authenticity and freedom.

Her greatest mission was to pursue an education, first compromising to study for a teaching job, but finally, to study philosophy. At the same time, she was engaged in community efforts to bring education to working class and poor people. The inspiration for this came from a leftist teacher and speaker. With refreshing humor, she related how, eventually, she lied to her mother about going to this volunteer job, only to really go to a film, ballet, or one of the clubs.

All the while she experienced extreme loneliness, the sense she didn’t fit in, as she roamed the streets, studied alone in the library, and attended class at the Sorbonne. When and how did she meet Sartre? If you don’t want to know until you’ve read the book, then don’t read the rest of this review!

She longed for intellectual dialogue, for someone who could challenge her, for someone who was her superior. One after another, intellectual companions came along, and fell away. Slowly, the dim-witted men of great intelligence realized they had met their match. One was a member of Sartre’s “group.” He referred her to the group, telling her Sartre had found her interesting. She threw all her arguments at him, and he refuted them. Well, this was what she had been looking for. But as we know, and so did he to his credit, she had something to contribute, which he could not, and this kept an interest and tension between them that fueled continuous thinking and dialogue.

Her relationships with a parade of men and women who were questioning the old ways were fascinating. Each one brought a different point of view and beliefs. The story often comes back to her relationship with Zaza, who also had a restrictive mother. She tried to be a good friend, although Zaza’s mother disapproved of her. At the end of the book, Zaza died of a sudden illness, after some years of failing health. She said of Zaza’s death, “We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.” This sounds eerily similar to the Jesus-Hercules stories of sacrifice for the betterment of the people. Or was it survivor’s guilt? In any case, Beauvoir had managed to free herself and create her own life. 

And so the wave of human questioning and knowledge goes on.

Without The Veil Between: Anne Brontë – Book Review

Without The Veil Between

Without The Veil Between Paperback

Without The Veil Between Kindle

Early in Diane Denton’s book the young curate, William Weightman, says to Anne Brontë: “You must find such satisfaction in being able to capture those moments the rest of us let slip away and sometimes aren’t aware of to begin with.” This is an essential part of Denton’s own gift. With this ability she is able to enter the world of a shy artist who lived in the shadows of her father, brother, and sisters, and in the light of a determined and insightful intellect. Anne Brontë set herself a more difficult task than her famous sisters, Charlotte and Emily. She was on a course of an artist whose subject was her life. Making this even more difficult, she sought to achieve emotional and mental stability.

Denton shows us the tensions in the austere home of the Reverend Brontë, the hopes for and disappointment in his drunken son, Branwell, and the longings of the three sisters for a more fulfilling 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. As a governess she has to be with people all day, at their beck and call, and can barely aspire to more. But as a true Brontë, she does aspire. Brief moments with the young curate open her heart to the possibility of love. And she dreams of opening a school with her sisters, and being in charge of her own life. William’s sudden death from cholera plunges her into depression, but she concentrates on duty and endurance, and calls on her faith.

On return to her father’s home, Anne witnesses Branwell’s descent into drugs, sexual escapades, and fantasy. Denton writes, “To reside within the dissolution of principles and proper behavior without being party to it meant that constant vigilance was required, which left little time or inclination for make-believe.” Anne realizes she will never be comfortable at home, able to escape into her writing as Emily has. She believes she will never be useful in society or at home unless she pursues a “well-cultivated mind and well-disposed heart,” and “have the strength to help others be strong.” Denton indicates these are the real-world issues she explores in her writing.

Denton builds the story of Anne’s young life gradually, taking us through her thoughts and experiences as she matures. The tempo steps up with the three sisters together again at Haworth, after having been separated for a few years. Charlotte has an idea for a book of poetry featuring all of them. Emily balks, and Anne mediates between the two, securing Emily’s participation. I found this one of the most fascinating parts of the book. The dynamics among these three gifted women sizzles on the page. Descriptions of Charlotte and Emily are haunting in their excellence. Each woman changed literature and the way in which women were viewed in society. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been called one of the first feminist novels.

The book roars through the tragedies of Branwell’s and Emily’s deaths from consumption. Through all of this Anne faces reality with determination. She has come to believe she was meant to be “an observer, and given … a quiet skill to extract lessons from what she saw. There was truth to be told, warnings to be issued, patience and prudence to instill in young women.” She depicted people and society with realism, not romanticism. This book made me wonder what Anne Brontë’s influence would have been had she lived to reach full maturity. Sadly, she died soon after her sister, Emily.

In Without The Veil Between, Denton’s writing has reached its maturity as well. I kept copying excerpts and pasting them in a file for me to read, enjoy, and think about later. Whole passages are beautifully written: meticulous, poetic, luminous, and powerful. The ending, echoing the title, is especially brilliant. I can’t think of anyone better suited to bring us into the world and the life of the sensitive, creative, and quietly courageous Anne Brontë.

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A Moment of War – Book Review

A Moment of WarLaurie Lee’ s evocative, authentic voice rings across time to bring us into a pivotal moment of the 20th Century. Spain is at war with itself, but that war is also the spark that signifies the beginning of a greater tragedy. How insidious are the cold-blooded calculations and miscalculations that led to World War II! 

In A Moment of War, the young British idealist, Laurie Lee, sets out to revisit and defend the country he came to know a few years before while on a long rambling excursion into the heights and depths of Spain, described in his previous book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. 

As he writes of his solitary and stubborn trek over the Pyrenees: “I was at that flush of youth which never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible. I felt the seal of fate on me, and a certain grim intoxication, alone in this buried silence.”

What he finds is confusion, people appearing to be what they’re not, hunger, cold, and random brutality. The international volunteers are not trained and not armed. They are held in desolate places, starving and suffering from the cold and boredom. Every so often a speaker rallies them and they raise their fists, ready to fight and die in the fight against Fascism. Lee underscored the absurdity of the situation, and its likely uselessness, as he said: “Did we know, as we stood there, our clenched fists raised high, our torn coats flapping in the wind, and scarcely a gun between the three of us, that we had ranged against us the rising military power of Europe, the soft evasions of our friends, and the deadly cynicism of Russia?”

He saw this and yet: “But in our case, I believe, we shared something else, unique to us at that time – the chance to make one grand, uncomplicated gesture of personal sacrifice and faith which might never occur again. Certainly, it was the last time this century that a generation had such an opportunity before the fog of nationalism and mass slaughter closed in.”

The savagery of modern technological war caught the Spanish government by surprise. Franco, who led the rebels, and was allied with Hitler and Mussolini, had no qualms about letting them use Spain as a testing ground: “Then there the firebombs, calculated, dropped on the old town and the poor. The Luftwaffe was clinical. Franco had said that he was willing to wipe Madrid from the earth rather than let it remain ‘in the hands of the Marxists’ so he gave it up to Luftwaffe.”

In the end, after months of hardship, Lee is taken on a wild ride to the front, when the war has turned in Franco’s favor, and many are getting out or getting what they can. He finds himself dumped, with a few others, with no idea where he is or where the enemy is. While he and a Russian and a girl try to find shelter, several men come toward them. A short struggle ensues. Lee takes the rebel soldier’s weapon, shoots and kills him. He then runs away with the few stragglers. On his way out of Spain, he wonders: “Was this then what I’d come for, and all my journey had meant – to smudge out the life of an unknown young man in a blur of panic which in no way could affect victory or defeat?”

Before he left Spain, he was arrested as a suspected spy, for the third time, and jailed again. Each time he was thrown into terrible conditions, the first time in a pit, and the last time in a filthy prison with crowded cells. Each time he is saved at the last moment by someone who recognizes him and has the authority to free him. Twice he is close to being executed before this happens. This is a story of war’s senselessness, subversion and exhaustion of human feeling.

The last time he is saved by Bill Rust, the editor of the Daily Worker, who gave him the task of sorting cards with the names and addresses of five or six hundred British and Irish volunteers. “Many – more than half – were marked ‘killed in action’ or ‘missing,’ at such fronts as Brunete, Jarama and Guadalajara. Public schoolboys, undergraduates, men from coal mines and mills, they were the ill-armed advance scouts in the, as yet, unsanctified Second World War. Here were the names of dead heroes, piled into little cardboard boxes, never to be inscribed later in official Halls of Remembrance. Without recognition, often ridiculed, they saw what was coming, jumped the gun, and went into battle too soon.”

This is the review of A Moment of War on Amazon.

A Gentleman In Moscow: A Review

A Gentleman In Moscow

This is a modern form of the tales of Scheherazade, and not a work of historical fiction. In both Arabian Nights and A Gentleman In Moscow, there’s a telling of a series of stories while imprisoned, with the principal question lingering: will the storyteller ever be free? Many stories reoccur throughout the narratives in repeating motifs. They include historical facts, poems and songs. The author of this book mentions, in sly passing, Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” That stayed with me, like the tinkling of that dinner bell, heard only once, but resonating with meaning. And finally, we human beings tell ourselves stories while all the time our lives move inexorably toward the end.

This book has an architectural character, with layer upon layer – story upon story – perfectly suited to a story of a life spent in a hotel. These stories, told by the raconteur Count Alexander Rostov, wind through the hallways, up and down stairs, onto the roof, into the cellar, and through all the rooms, bringing him into contact with the diverse population to be found in a hotel.

What interested me most was the emphasis on poetry. Poetry, he says, is always a call to action. He seeks out the poetic in life, and he gains stability and meaning from it. He notes the tie to action in his friend the poet’s case, and this friendship connects him actively to the plight of those less fortunate. Without this connection, this involvement, with the truly oppressed, Rostov is a cardboard cut-out of a person, less human by far than a Former Person.

The book is written in proper prose, reflecting its subject, who lives with a heightened sense of propriety within the limited scope of his class, of honor, and a defined code of conduct. Within that framework he makes adjustments. His occupations, though he doesn’t call or recognize them as such, are to read, reflect, dine, and discuss. He avoids bitterness through action, using his skills and his wits, and through self-reflection (so necessary for survival with dignity). He “sparked” conversations, and had “an instinctive awareness of all the temperaments in the room.” His ability to engage with other people is his saving grace (as with Scheherazade).

Glimpses of the changes taking place in Russia appear in the form of a friend and a girl, both of whom become exiles in their own country. Neither will compromise, while Rostov does make what appear, to the other person or people involved, to be compromises. He has a different kind of courage, grounded in sureness of his identity. The destruction of personal identity is going on around him throughout the book. Historical and cultural identity is being revised. Would survival be easier for members of the aristocracy when all is taken away from them, or for peasant farmers who are suddenly enfranchised (or promised enfranchisement) but never owned anything, except a few hard-earned possessions, never had time for contemplation, and for whom the life and health of family was a continual struggle?

While many of the life lessons in the book are not unique or original, they are very pertinent to the story. Of them, I thought this one of the more relevant to modern life. “From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family.” But our possessions are “invested” with memories and give us solace – but “a thing is just a thing.” Rostov learns to “expunge them from his heartache forever.”

We can’t hold onto our homes, our possessions, even our families, because they can all be gone in a minute, or a decade; all we can do is keep our noble sense of purpose intact within ourselves and act accordingly, but with the good sense to increase our chances of survival.

Ultimately, this book is a modern fairy tale, which is most clearly illustrated by its ending.

This is the review of A Gentleman In Moscow on Amazon.