Interview and Review: Mary Clark’s Community

Fellow writer, reviewer and blogger Kelley Kay Bowles kindly did this interview with me in June 2021. She writes cozy mysteries and advice for parents. You may visit her website at: https://kelleykaybowles.com/

Community: Journal of Power Politics and Democracy in Hell’s Kitchen by Mary Clark

INTERVIEW

1. What made you choose to get involved in this issue, these politics?

That’s what I talk about in my book, “Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen.” It’s a prequel to “Community.” Before I became involved in neighborhood issues and eventually, New Yok City politics, I was working in arts program at a midtown church. We put on weekly poetry readings and special events, including benefits for causes and theatrical productions. The more time I spent at the church, the more I came to know the neighborhood outside its doors. Friendships began which lasted many years. The church sent me as its liaison to the block association. The problems facing the community intrigued me. How could I help? People I met encouraged me to join other civic organizations. The amazing part was the timing. Just then, major proposals to revitalize Times Square, Columbus Circle, the Convention Center, and the Hudson River waterfront came from private developers, the city, and the state. The groups I had joined were front and center in negotiating with the developers, government agencies, and elected officials about these proposals. I felt I was using my time, my skills in reading and writing, and organizing events, for a beneficial purpose. In that neighborhood, I had found my first home as an adult. The people made me feel welcome and valued. I wanted to give back. That’s why I decided to become involved in working with a variety of people and groups. 

2. Tell us some other issues you’ve gotten involved in over the years.

When I left NYC in 2004, I moved to Central Florida to join my parents. There I became a member of the Kissimmee Valley Audubon Society. My parents had been active in that group, but my father especially was no longer able to participate much. KVAS was looking for a goal to pursue in 2005. My mother and I talked about what the group could do. We devised a plan to protect the large lake in the area (Lake Toho). When Osceola County began work on its ten-year Comprehensive Plan (which every locality in the country must do), Florida Audubon asked KVAS to make a statement at the County Commission meeting. Since I had been appointed Conservation Chair, I agreed to do that. I spoke about the lake and preserving water resources for human benefit as well as for eagles and other birds. 

Read more on her blog.

Mixed Bag of Reviews

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of books and would like to share some thoughts about them with you. This is the first batch, a mixed bag of good and not-so-good books.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, refugees from Spain who had fought Franco were brought by boat to Chile. A young man, Victor, is one of them. He is grateful to be taken in by Chile. The mover behind the scenes is the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who has convinced his country to take in these exiles. The novel tells the story of Victor’s life from his service in field hospitals to waiting in refugee camps, arriving in Chile, marrying, and making friends, to the time of Salvador Allende’s term as president, and at Allende’s fall, the loss of his job and home. (Allende is her father’s relative, and not portrayed as someone she knows well.) Victor is non-political, a dedicated physician, husband, and father. The militancy and fearmongering of the right and the too-swiftly-moving reforms and arrogance of the left bring chaos to a once stable country. She describes the methods used to sow discord, a stark parallel to the current political situation in the United States. Victor and his family and others in the novel live in exile or are imprisoned during the years of Pinochet’s regime, until finally, Pinochet is gone and there is a return of civil democratic society. Different points of view are embodied in the characters. Victor and his wife even return to Spain, but find it so changed, so dismal, they realize their home is in Chile. The writing is often distanced, with a delicacy bordering on vagueness, but in several sections, it is distinct and earthy. Isabel Allende has been criticized for channeling Gabriel Garcia-Marquez but watering the style down to mediocrity. Certain passages echo many South American writers, but this book is a far cry from the dreamscapes of G-M novels. It stands as a fair-minded testament of a time in the history of Chile.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander

A book that has promise changes midway through to focus on a fantastical relationship between a female Israeli soldier and a Palestinian operative. Instead of letting the story unfurl, showing the hidden, subversive lengths opposing sides will go to it becomes an undeveloped narrative of two unappealing people. The satire is lost in some sort of romantic fantasy. It gets sillier the closer it comes to the ending, which they both deserve. The more interesting characters are killed, imprisoned, or simply disappear, not “disappeared” but forgotten apparently. The only relatable human characters are doomed to die in despair or take the lesser-of-two-evils action. Post-modern literature, anyone?

Florida, by Lauren Groff

Groff writes about a state I know well. The better parts are about walking after dark in a neighborhood and a story of an old home by a swamp and near a university that wants to buy the land. Those were relatable. Groff’s characters not so much. They complain about living in a condo by the beach, they complain about vacationing in Paris, and on the coast of Brittany. They play around with each other’s spouses. One goofball takes off from her condo to a shack in the woods with hubby and children because she’s bored. Hubby climbs to the shack’s roof and gets a call that he must return to work, so of course he leaves them there alone. She manages to injure herself changing a light bulb. In her delirium, she thinks she hears a panther moving in the woods outside. In the daytime. That made me laugh. (She is by far her worst enemy.) Anyway, hubby returns to find her near death. Then there’s the long story of trying to write in France. Part of the sadness that permeates the book may come from the devastation of Florida’s unique landscape, of ecosystems that sustain life. In the end, she realizes that although she doesn’t love Florida, it is her home. Groff writes well enough, so a good book may yet come.

Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald

Macdonald has a cold and scientific view of animals and the natural world. I make the distinction between cold and scientific for a reason. Her nature is not warm and fuzzy. Her scientific observations are keen and detailed, and in other naturalists’ writing have hinted at unity with the world, but she is not comfortable. She admits the losses she has suffered and those she has observed in the non-human space have made her remote. Visits to childhood places emphasize the destruction of semi-wild and rare habitats. The lives of birds and animals have nothing to do with us, she writes, and yet they stitch us into place, our sense of place, and teach us about ourselves. We carelessly change those places to make them less habitable for wildlife and for ourselves. And so, evening song is the right theme for this book. At the same time, it is not sad, but realistically attuned to beauty and resilience, and dogged (to use that term) in communicating the importance of our relationship to the planet we inhabit.

Two Books about Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a tragedy plays out before our eyes. A few months ago, I read a book by Indie author Mary Smith that provides a heart-breaking background to that tragedy. Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women tells of Smith’s work with a small health education NGO. She works with women in Mazar-i-Sharif and a remote mountain village, as well as later in Kabul. The women need permission from their fathers or husbands to attend classes, but most give it, showing different reactions. The men, and the women, of Afghanistan, are human, they are not all cut from the same cloth. One said of his headstrong wife he might as well because she was going to do it anyway. However, these women face criticism, suspicion, and potential violence as they pursue their education.

Smith teaches women, usually mothers, how to use simple measures to care for their children, to combat infant mortality and chronic sickness. The women are vibrant, often humorous about their situation. Some are skeptical at first, but later become among the best at going out among their neighbors and teaching them these same skills.

Life is uncertain, though. As Taliban advance, many flee to Pakistan and Iran. Smith leaves for Great Britain, her home country. She doesn’t know if the women she worked with and became friends with are able to escape. Later she hears that when Taliban fighters took Mazar-i-Sharif, they killed people on the streets. After 2001, with the United States and allies ending Taliban rule, she returns and hears the stories. Many of those she knows had been able to escape.

The young women have such hope. Their excitement is palpable. Suddenly, their lives have greater meaning as they help not only their families but their communities.

Before I read this book, I had never heard of Mazar-i-Sharif. I knew little about Afghan lives, and how diverse they are: the educated in Kabul, the traders and working people of Mazar city, the farmers in the rugged mountains of Hazara Jat. Her descriptions of traveling through the mountains to Pakistan will stay with you: Taliban checkpoints, no resting places, high passes.

As we watch events in Afghanistan, the accounting begins. Was U. S. involvement worth it? What will happen to the women who experienced freedom in the last twenty years? How many will escape or cope successfully until the next chapter begins? I think that’s all we can hope for in this tragic time, that this is not the end. Instead, the seeds of knowledge and hope will sprout again.

Years ago, I read a book called The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. Ostensibly a love story set mostly in India, this book ends with a telling account of the British in Afghanistan. Coming through the Northern Frontier, which is now Pakistan, from India, the British have the bright idea they can corral Afghanistan’s resources with impunity. That experiment ends with the British, who have brought their families to live with them in Kabul, fleeing through the Khyber Pass. Afghan fighters ambush and massacre them. In Kabul, the remaining troops are massacred by a mob, including Afghan troops they trained. As they charge toward the barracks, some shout, “Jihad.” The same is heard today from Taliban fighters.

You’d think this would be a cautionary story to other countries. But no. Russia comes in and the Afghans form the Mujahideen, spawning Al Qaeda. Russia is chased back across the border. Then the United States comes in. Rather than only eradicating the training camps, we chase the Taliban across the countryside. Again, the Afghan fighters form an insurgency.

I believe removing Taliban from control was for the best, but we had no long-term plan. We inherited a divided Afghan, with those who became the new government split into factions. Partly because the opposition was and remains so fractured, Taliban could take control in 1996, and again in 2021. I’m no expert in foreign affairs, but I find reading gives me information and insight I wouldn’t otherwise have. I wish the experts at the Pentagon would read these books, and if they have read about Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, they need to realize that doing the same thing and expecting different results isn’t going to happen.

Book Reviews Summer 2021

Body Language, by Marylee MacDonald

Body Language is an exceptional collection of short stories. Each story, I thought, was better than the one before. Then the next one was better. I wanted to know more about each of the characters, that is, to read full-length novels built around them. They are filled with uncertainty, relief, hope, and people taking risks. In one story, the risk is in re-engaging after a separation. In another, Sister Salina stands out as a complex character because of her hidden life. I connected with the feeling of not fitting in and being disapproved of for a behavior you cannot explain but others are quick to define in a negative way. The ironic but loving tone of the narrative works. The story of two children, adopted years apart, in the same family, shows the real-world impacts of isolation and the need for connection. Pursuing human contact hit a nerve in this time of a pandemic. Body Language lives up to its name in this powerful and poignant book by a master of the short story.

Reluctantly Dead, by Glenn Parkhurst, is an enjoyable book that mixes humor with horror to make it a romp through a serious subject. What happens when we die? What about those who’ve said they had a near-death experience?

Phillip, the main character, describes the experience of his hovering above his body while dying. Then, he is curious as he watches himself on the “largest I-Max ever, my own personal one.” He finds himself in a fog, and slowly light comes. His journey begins: he is drawn toward the light, feeling an urge to move toward it “like a sneeze lying in wait, it was irresistible.”

Phillip moves along the path toward the light above the horizon. Looking back, he sees a black tunnel that hides everything behind it. From time to time “black lightning” strikes a victim, taking them into the tunnel of despair, and sending Phillip into a deep state of depression. As Phillip treks through one version of heaven after another, each one reflecting human’s earthly desires for stability or for pleasure, he maintains a healthy skepticism. “They’d left out a few things, such as joy, peace, and love.” He admits he is not leaving much behind in his life, he had little ambition since a childhood bully made him retreat and play it safe, so he has no real attachments. His observations bring out the contrast between what his life could have been and what it was. Along the way, he meets Nathan, a boy of about twelve, who needs his help. In a series of adventures, they come to form a strong bond. Phillip’s personal growth creates the foundation for the final decision in his journey.

Reluctantly Dead has a memorable cast of characters and its ethical mind-play, as well as the word-pictures of temptation, anger, fear, depression, and steadfastness, bravery, empathy, and love, make this an interesting read.

The Little Dog in Big Plague, by C. C. Alma

How can we have humor in the midst of the COVID pandemic? C. C. Alma finds a way. The story is told through a dog’s eyes, giving it a perspective that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of human beings. The Little Dog is an orphan, and he goes about choosing a new family. In the empty landscape as people succumb to the invisible disease, his sense of smell tells him who is sick and who is well. This book is done with sensitivity and the humor makes it a top-notch read.

Tales from The Garden, by Sally Cronin

A wonder-filled garden is the setting for a series of adventures by a cast of fairies, dwarves, swans, geese, a one-eyed pig, and stone lions who come to life at night. “Eagles, rabbits and monkeys have found their way here over hundreds of years as well as animals who have sought sanctuary within its surrounding hedges.” Each of these, including a fawn, appear to be garden ornaments. But the hidden life is revealed in this book. They all have stories. The stone eagles “were made by a slave of the Roman merchant who built his villa on this mountain.” Waves of human history passed over, and for a time, no one lived there, but then the sound of “modern machinery woke us from our sleep.” One of those seeking refuge is a young boy. He is helped by the guardians of the garden. The stories of the humans are interwoven with those of the fairies and loyal family dogs. This is an imaginative and inspiring book by a gifted storyteller.

Two Books about Native Americans

Recently, I read two books about the native people who originally inhabited what became the United States of America. The first was The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa). She was born in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Her latest book tells the story of her grandfather’s recognition of a proposed law in the U. S. Senate which would eventually “terminate” all treaties with Indian nations, and immediately terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. He gathered others from the tribe and alerted them to the real meaning of the text. The tribe had already been dispossessed of the better land in their area, and had poor education, health, and employment opportunities. Some left for Minneapolis and other cities in desperation, and others moved to another reservation near the Great Lakes. This termination would remove them from their land and disperse them as refugees. Erdrich combines her grandfather’s work with a fictional story of an Indian family, and especially about one of the daughters. For me, the two stories had different tones and intentions, and made the story fragmented to the point of losing direction completely sometimes. She tied them together with a vision of the old man’s, linking them spiritually. The Night Watchman gives the reader an authentic look at Indian life in more modern times than normally found in literature. It is a searing indictment of American disregard for the value of Native peoples’ lives, and for the ability of her grandfather and his tribe to understand what was happening in that proposed legislation. He could see in the night, and he was a fine watchman. The Night Watchman was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The second book, Red and White, by Kenneth Weene, weaves together the nuanced story of Lonely Cricket, a young member of the Ho-Chunk nation, with a sweeping epic of American history after the Civil War. He gives us the details of the boy’s life, his Native parents’ lives, and those of the White settlers who live nearby. He tells the story through the events and behaviors of particular people, while connecting them to the bigger picture. The locations are well-described, and the characters seem to be authentic and historically accurate. The crux of the novel is the identification of people with one group or another, which is exemplified in Lonely Cricket. He lives in a time of change as European Americans move west. Native people are killed, families separated, and tribes are broken up and removed from their traditional lands. Lonely Cricket is swept up in this turmoil. He holds to his identity, drawing strength from the stories of his father, Lame Bear, and the love he has for his sister, Happy Turtle.

The novel is interspersed with teaching stories, ostensibly those of the Ho-Chunk. Whether these are accurate I am not able to say. They appear to be respectfully given. The stories are building blocks of a moral and ethical life or tell the particular story of a people.

Weene I think avoids the pitfalls of a White author writing about Native Americans. Instead, he explores the intersection of different cultures and histories. The clashes and convergences create a range of perspectives which he handles well. At the same time, the main character’s experience remains the center of the novel. The boy discovers his true birth parents, and that changes everything. Or does it?

To tell the complex story of American history we need more of these kinds of books. They provide great insight into the bad faith and ideals, tragic failures and resilience, of our country.

Memoirs 2020

These are the memoirs I read this year and recommend for the beauty of their writing, their timeliness or their timelessness, and overall quality.

Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee

A well-known classic, and justifiably so, this first book by the famed British author, is a paradise of words. The vivid, sometimes surreal scenes of a child growing up in a rural area, touched along its sides by war, in a poor family with an eccentric mother and absent father, follow one after another. Rosie appears only momentarily, not a major character, just a turning point. The writing style is closer to Lewis Carroll than Hemingway, but this book shows why we need both. The nuances of childhood, the emotional shocks and revelations, and widening of the perspective from the self to others, are flawlessly communicated by this intricate torrent of words. The author went on to write other books , but Cider With Rosie remains his best-known work.

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

This book speaks to my heart. I experienced the drug wars of the 1980s and 90s in my midtown NYC community, seeing it take children from neighbors’ families, and parents too, and friends who had given into despair due to AIDS. We are just beginning to understand what happened, analyze, and tell this story, these stories. That black communities were hardest hit is undeniable. In this beautifully written book, Ward tells us the personal cost as she brings us the story of the small town Louisiana communities of DeLisle and Pass Christian in more recent times. Young black men are dying of drug overdoses, suicide or violence one after another. She asks herself why. What is happening to her friends and former schoolmates, people the same age as she is? The towns are poor, people are leaving, jobs scarce and often away on oil rigs or in other towns and cities, and they have been hard hit by hurricanes. The young black men struggle with identity and poverty. Their lives, they are made to feel and believe, are worth nothing. In telling their stories, Ward’s rage and heartbreak fill the pages. A must read for our times.

Journeys Without A Map, by Marion Molteno

This daring book reveals why Marion Molteno is as successful as she is in her endeavors. She overcomes a natural modesty and treks out into the world carrying her hope in a kit bag. I recommend reading her excellent books Uncertain Light and If You Can Walk, You Can Dance, before this memoir. In Journeys, she describes visiting places and people to prepare for writing her books, and what she does to promote them after they are published. Many of these promotional efforts are humorous, though also productive.

She analyzes the motivations for her writing specific books, choosing characters, what she was trying to communicate, how effective it was, and the information that comes from feedback.

Molteno is a master of tone. She neither over or under-describes, while managing to keep resonances all about her words and entire passages. The reader’s imagination fills the rest of the space. Hopefully, she will continue to produce thoughtful, thought-provoking books.

Twigs In My Hair, by Cynthia Reyes

This is the third in a series, beginning with A Good Home and An Honest House. In this small volume, Cynthia Reyes wades into the thicket of memory to expose the hardy growth hidden in a fast-paced life. A life halted by a serious car accident, bringing years of debilitating pain and the psychological effects of trauma. Besides the loss of her career, she found she could not do many ordinary things. Gardening and entertaining her family and friends were no longer possible. Home and garden, important threads in her life, were gone. And she was used to being active.

“By my early thirties, I was that rare thing in network television: a young, Black, immigrant woman who was also an executive producer and rising star.”

Years of success led to starting a consultant company with her husband. They bought a new home, an old farmhouse with garden areas, which she looked forward to rejuvenating. Then, the accident, and everything changed.  

“If gardening helped keep me sane, it stands to reason that not being able to garden helped drive me crazy.”

As she struggles with her disabilities, her kindness of spirit comes through. Empathetic and perceptive, she finds other ways to make connections and be useful. One of them is writing. She tells stories of people who shared her love of gardens and from whom she learned life lessons. From these lessons, she learned “a slow wisdom.” I recommend reading the first two books before this one. However, it stands on its own as well. Read my full review on Amazon.

My Favorite Short Story Collections 2020

I don’t usually read short story collections but this year, especially after the Stay-At-Home orders in my state, I found the short story form fit into the patchwork of my days. Here are two I enjoyed.

Black Crow Speaks, The Short Stories of Frederick Anderson

The best of these stories, in which a black crow literally speaks, are filled with humorous insights on the human condition amid an ever-increasing debris field. Dark humor abounds, as in “Some Reading for the Departure Lounge,” where an erstwhile pilot holds a conversation with an air traffic controller; the ending can be guessed but is still a surprise.

Some stories poke fun at or explore morbid events, with goblins, killers, and phantom trains. Others like “Brighton Rock” tell the sad but truthful experience of young love, first love. In “The Making,” hope and hopelessness mix as a people near extinction and all depends on one Last Experiment.

One of my favorites is “The Small Town Trocadero,” less a story than a reflection, filled with nostalgia for a time that is past and gone, which suits the time we’re living through. Beautifully written in declarative sentences it evokes the universal experience of being young and spending time with friends.

The stories always return to the black crow, who never disappoints.

The Night Bus, Mick Canning

Several of these long short stories are of travelling through unfamiliar territory, where earth and its elements shift in form, not sure what the landmarks and other signs mean, even when taking them as guidance. There are holy places, shamans, sacrifice, doors in the desert to step through, and a dance with Krishna.

The story I liked most was “The Photograph,” set in India in the style of memoir; the poem at the end of the book, “The Night Bus,” continues the trip through India.

“The Betrayal” begins with a night bus ride to a border town in the mountains. Past and present interweave in a narrative of escape from an oppressive society, at a cost that ultimately comes due. Years later, he questions the actions he had taken, the panic he felt, and the decision he made. I was confused by the confusion of identities in this one, which detracts from its impact. However, the sense of place and displacement, of refugees fleeing and those left behind, is palpable.

Overall, this collection gives the reader the feeling of “being there” in far-flung places. At the end, a series of poems talk of the old ways and the modern world, leaving today behind as we heed the call of adventure. He recognizes that “we are walking in the footsteps of giants.” Canning is “The Collector” of images and memories, because as he writes, “the world is full of wonders, all waiting for wanderers.”

Favorite Books of 2019

Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally

Eggshells

Viv is a special needs person who is functioning in her unique way. As she says, “my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.” But what a symphony she composes from these notes. Viv (or VIV or Vivian) is a great character who totally inhabits her skin and we see everything through her eyes. The humor occurs at piquant moments, elevating the narrative into a mythical realm. And she is at home in Dublin. “I like living in a city where I am mostly unknown, and going into small places where I am known.” She writes in a notebook of her daily journeys and makes lists of things she notices or likes. Her tour of Dublin is more than a spoof of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While radically different, it is just as revelatory about humanity and myth-making.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone

This New York Times Notable Book 2018 and bestseller in Germany takes on one of the most controversial issues of our time. Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a widowed man and retired linguistics professor in Berlin who at first does not notice the refugees in a nearby square, but when he does, he is drawn in to learn about them. Shy and uncertain, he comes to know them and understand how they are caught in the barbed wire of laws and policies designed to reject refugees. Slowly, as Richard is enlightened, he is also emancipated from the falsehoods of politicians and populist rhetoric. You’ll have to read the book to know what he does.

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

Happiness

Attila, an expert on PTSD, and Jean, a wildlife biologist, 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. 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. 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. Through these acts, and their accompanying thoughts and emotions, people find the strength to overcome trauma. A book worth reading.

Uncertain Light, by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

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. 

An Honest House: A Memoir Continued, by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House

This sequel to A Good Home continues the intimate journey of its author and her husband as they deal with her illness and major changes in their lives. The home stands strong and almost has an eternal quality as the human beings in it struggle and strive toward health, hope, faith and joy. I admire and enjoy Reyes’ writing and highly recommend her books.

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.

 

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 needed 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.