The Power of Two

You’re not supposed to re-read classics for pleasure, but I do.  To me, that’s the real definition of classic: when something’s so good it transcends the first or second wave of popularity so people return to it year after year, seeing new ties and ideas with each re-reading. so their depth of appreciation grows with age.  Anyone can read a book once and pronounce a judgment, good or bad.  On the other hand, it takes an age to appreciate the depth in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  At least it requires an understanding of the Power of Two.

In many ways, East of Eden is the story of two families, the Hamilton and the Trasks.  The Hamiltons are the author’s own family, the maternal relatives he knew and heard about in family gatherings.  The accounts of his grandfather’s gentleness, his grandmother’s fortitude and the bravery and sadness of their children were the first tales that stirred Steinbeck’s imagination and he wanted these stories immortalized.  The Hamilton family tales are mixed in an earlier family saga, already known to most of the world.  The Trasks are the first first family of all, and two sets of Trask brothers follow the biblical story of Cain and Able.  The youngest generation of Trasks live close to the Hamiltons and through their association or the author’s talent, seem more understandable than their biblical counterparts.

 The Genesis story is a bald recounting of sibling rivalry, how only one brother’s gift received praise and the other brother slew him in a fit of jealousy.  However, the Trask brothers, first Charles and Adam and then Cal and Aaron both have a longstanding relationships with their emotionally distant fathers and all of the Trasks experience the confusion and regret that comes when a beloved sibling is also a hated rival.  Even better, the second generation of Trasks experiences comedy and joy along with the drama, making the characters more believable and identifiable than their Biblical counterparts.  Here the boys form a warm relationship with Lee, the family housekeeper, and memorize the series of steps for driving an early automobile before emotion and circumstance pull them apart. 

Lee reveals the central question and dichotomy in East of Eden with the Hebrew word, Timshel, which means “thou mayest”.   According to this passage, the Hebrew verse of Genesis relates that God recognizes the jealousy in Cain’s heart, calls it a sin and assures the boy he still has choice about his future.  Cain can submit to these feelings and do something evil or he can choose to do the work necessary to transcend them.   Lee states that our ability to choose, even in the most extreme circumstances, is what ennobles the human race.  And it the end, this choice is the greatest blessing a wounded father can give his sorrowing son.

To laugh or to cry, to forgive or hold a grudge, to surrender or fight on is the choice humanity faces every minute in every day and our stories grow from the decisions we make.  And it is the attraction of the choice that pulls us into each new chapter.  No matter how many times the hero or villain has declared an allegiance, there is always a chance he or she will change and we read to find those undeclared decisions.  It’s what pulls me back into the classics: the endless power of two.

Living alongside eternity

We move through life so quickly. Children cram play-dates and lessons between study for entrance exams. Letters gave way to phone calls, then email and disappeared with video-chats and tweets. We create five-year, ten-year and twenty-year goals, power-walking our way through life and all we see is what’s before us. But is that all there is? Aislinn Hunter suggests in The World Before Us that what we sense in this accelerated life is the narrowest universe of all.

 Jane Standen is the fulcrum of this story, a quiet woman with a disquieting past.  Years ago, she took a little girl into the forest and the child disappeared in the woods.  Nothing has brought Jane to terms with this loss and now she’s in a career that uncovers lost detail.  As an archivist, Jane works in a Victorian museum, cataloging the data and detail of an earlier age.   The museum’s closure and an encounter with the child’s father occupy her conscious mind.  It does not fill the conscious of the spirits that follow Jane, ghosts vitalized by her search of the past.

These spirits narrate The World Before Us as they watch the present and Jane.  Disembodied but kind, they study parts of the modern world, aware that their mortal lives’ knowledge is useless.  The artifacts Jane cares for act as beacons for the ghosts, tying them to this current age and linking them to the past, because things have memory as well.

The World Before Us is an ambitious book, containing the stories of different time-spans and varying planes of existence. It is a tale that cannot be hurried but observed like a walk through the forest.  There are mysteries here: the child disappears as does a woman from the previous century.  Nevertheless, the ghosts’ presence hints that no one is ever completely lost.  Like energy, souls transform from one state to another and some stay around the living who remember the lives that have gone.

That may be a disturbing thought to a generation invested in speed but it may be comforting as well.  In our self-conscious view of reality, it is history that gives us perspective.  As members of the race we are part of a whole, not a thread left to blow in the wind.   And with that idea, every flower, every bug, and all the matter of our world becomes part of the grand design.

The World Before Us is due to be released on March 31, 2015.  Many thanks to “Blogging for Books” for allowing me to review this novel!

The Essence of a Southern Spring

The flowering dogwood is blooming.  Spring is taking time showing the rest of her sweet face but the dogwood branches are in blossom and their branches look like suspended wedding lace at twilight.  This condition will last about a week until the apple-green leaves take their place and the petals will drift to the gutters.   The temp is still nowhere near 80 but it’s warm enough in the sun.   It’s time to read Fitzgerald again.

If a writer can be tied to the weather, F. Scott Fitzgerald is Summer and Spring.  There’s an exuberance and energy in his early stories match the hope and joy of Spring and the redolence of summer is the setting for Gatsby. Clothes are loose in Fitzgerald stories, smiles are warmer and many characters are on holiday.  Even sad stories, like Babylon Revisited contain memories of warm weather but since we’re talking about a Southern Spring, the the Fitzgerald du jour is “The Ice-Palace.”

 Fitzgerald first saw the South in 1918, while he was serving in the Army.  First Kentucky, then Georgia and finally Alabama in summer where he met his wife, Zelda Sayre.  By the time Ice Palace is published, Scott Fitzgerald has noted a lot about this place and how different it is from the North.  Here, the sunlight drips “like gold paint” and the girls are brought up on memories instead of money.  People move more slowly and so does time so it’s almost possible to die from laziness.  Still, you couldn’t describe this as a “laid-back” place because that suggests a choice can be made to relax.  Southerners before the days of central air lived life by the temperature gauge and that meant a slower pace that many of them never changed.

Still, there always have been a subset of Southerners interested in a different life.   These are often ex-patriots who either run from the restrictions they enounter here or they’re attracted to a different perspective and Sally Carroll Happer seems to be one of those.  Much as she loves the South, she has too much energy to relax there permanently.  Instead, she takes to Harry Bellamy, a Northerner with ambition, and energy in his corner, and decides she’ll make the obligatory visit to her fiance’s parents in land of ice and snow.

The conflict of the story is culture clash between the “poor but genteel” environment Sally comes from and the industrious, nouveau-riche world that claims Harry.  Each culture remarks on the good and bad they see in each other (mainly bad) but Sally marks the difference by categorizing most Northerners as “canine” (open and engaging) while recognizing her childhood friends as “feline” (languid, subtle).  Perhaps this difference disturbs her or the North-South antagonism that grows but in the end it comes down to the cold.  Harry’s culture celebrates the winter with palaces of ice and sports in an environment that would kill an unprotected human.  Sally finds the frozen heart at the center of Harry’s world and decides if she can survive in the North.

In the end, there’s no superior choice to be made, in this story or in life.  A lot of the South’s history is written in blood and on some days, I don’t think much of the North.    And Fitzgerald, for all of his talent and youth, created great pain in his life.  At his best, what he was able to do was capture a mood or a moment that others recognize when they read his stories.  This is the magic of “The Ice Palace” for me.  It invokes the essence of a Southern Spring.

Listen to the Band…

When I hear someone say, “I Love the sound of an Irish Band” I make a few assumptions.   If the person is significantly older than me and/or playing an acoustic instrument I figure they mean one of the Irish Folk groups like The Chieftains, the Clancy Brothers or the Irish Rovers.  If the person is around my age and/or playing an electric guitar, I guess they’re probably talking about U2 and Thin Lizzy.  If the person talking shows no sense of humor, they’re probably talking about  Sinead O’Connor.   Me, I’ve got an ear for it all (almost all!) but my favorite Irish  Band today exists only in fiction.  If you want a fast read  that keeps you grinning for days (or a film with a killer sound), let me introduce you to The Commitments.

The time is the late 1980’s and Jimmy Rabbitte has a reputation around Dublin as a man who knows his music.  He buys every record that comes out, reads every trade paper and never misses a pop music show, even the ones he despises.  So when his buddies, Outspan Foster and Derek Scully think their three day old band needs a new direction, it’s Jimmy’s advice they go after.  “Dump the synthesizer, the name and the extra guy in your group” says Jimmy and concentrate on why you want a band in the first place.  Are you looking for money or girls?”  Well, no, though either of those would be nice.   “Are you looking to do more with your life?”  Yes definately.   “Well, be more” says Jimmy. “Be The Commitments: the Irish Band that plays Dublin Soul.”

Off they go, learning the breaks in James Brown and Wilson Pickett records and wondering occasionally what Jimmy means by “Dublin Soul.”  Almost all of the story is told in dialogue with Jimmy looking for the right kind of side men (and women) and lecturing his novice musicians on the kind of pop music trivia (why art school was a decent background for the Beatles but the kiss of death to Depeche Mode) that brings out the music expert in many guys.  Think of him as an Irish cousin of the three guys in High Fidelity.  Jimmy’s mission is helped along by an old horn player named “Joey the Lips” and jerk named Declan who (unfortunately) sings like the late Joe Cocker.  The band becomes a powder keg of talent, egos, swearing, silliness and lust and it’s a hard race to guess which will fuse will light first.

The book is a delight, partly because each of the proto-musicians takes themselves so seriously (for example the synth player announces he’s planning to “go out on his own” after he’s been dumped.  Like he had a choice.) and partly because no one else does.  The Irish accents are audible in the novel’s prose and the novel overflows with swear words so people with tender eyesight should look elsewhere but the humor is constant as well as the affection.  The book became a hit.

The movie adaptation did too and spawned a killer soundtrack and stage show, although it’s hard to find the film online.  (I read somewhere that some conflict with the rights has kept the film off of streaming services.)  I finally had to buy the DVD for myself.  As it is, “The Commitments” is one of the few properties I’ve enjoyed on the screen as much as I did on the page.  It’s the tale of every working-class kid who thought music might be the answer when he wasn’t too sure of the  questions.  It’s not your average Irish story.  But it has some brilliant music.

The Right of Privacy and Harper Lee

I visited Monroeville, once.  In the summer of 1990, I, my husband and a friend were driving home from the beach when one of us spied the interstate exit that leads to the home of Harper Lee.  My friend had (finally) read To Kill a Mockingbird, she was still overwhelmed by the power of the story and she wanted to see Miss Lee’s home town.  My husband knows how much I care about the book and he thought it would be a treat, so he steered us onto the highway.  Once we hit the center of town, the two of them started plying me with questions so they could pick out landmarks from the novel.   How far was the Finch house from the school?  Was the Radley house on the same or opposite side of the street?  My husband suggested (I think he was joking) that, with a bit of research, we’d be able to locate Miss Lee’s new address and he would take us to her door.  I began to feel very uncomfortable.  Not only do I get tongue tied around famous authors, (I displayed something like Tourette’s syndrome in front of Dr. Seuss) I couldn’t get past the feeling we were trespassers here, arriving only to gawk.  A late summer thunderstorm started and I wanted to leave but the two of them kept driving on, looking for clues and making suggestions.  Hail came down and a corner of my mind suggested this was God’s (or Truman Capote’s) way of telling us to “Get the Hell Out.”  When tree limbs started to fall, we turned the car around and finally went back to the interstate.  The rain stopped outside of the town.
I’ve been wishing that weather would come down again on those currently trying to mind Miss Lee’s business.  Years ago, she was just another woman who wanted to write and the world pretty much ignored her.   Aided by friends, an agent, and editors, she developed a novel of transcendent beauty.  When the book was done, Miss Lee lived up to her contractual promises surrounding the book’s publication and its adaptation into a motion picture.  Since then all she has asked for is the same private life most of us enjoy.  In this final area she’s had less success, due mainly to the bad manners of others.
Initially, there were demands that she write still more books, from people who didn’t understand what the first book had cost her.  Then, there was the small but steady army of trespassers who believed their enthusiasm for her work outweighed her need for privacy.  Mixed between these were the sycophants who professed admiration to her face and then exploited her acquaintanceship for fame and fortune.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a town selling itself with her characters or a reporter whose alleged health issues mend once she moves into the house next door.  (If this is true, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins hospital need to relocate to Monroeville, Alabama.  The town is obviously a modern-day Lourdes.) In my opinion, it comes down to this: any person who makes money from Harper Lee’s life or her work without her documented permission is a parasite and probably a thief.  
All of this was bad enough but things went to hell this year.  The announcement that her first story Go Set A Watchman would be published should have had literary enthusiasts hugging themselves with delight.  Instead, people started worrying that “Watchman” wouldn’t match the quality as  “Mockingbird.”   Then pundits started suggested that publishing Watchman might not be Miss Lee’s idea at all.  The account of the lawyer who located the work (the same attorney who has successfully protected Miss Lee’s rights since her sister’s retirement) is reviewed with extreme skepticism.  (Anyone who believes papers can’t stack up in the back of a law office has never worked in one.)  Now the state of Alabama has gotten involved because a physician, who did not examine Miss Lee, reported a rumor she was seen curled up in bed and uncommunicative after the death of her sister.  This really sets my teeth on edge.  Miss Lee loses her sister, the last member of her closest family and they’re surprised she’s in bed and depressed??  What did they expect, a party?  A river of avarice, curiosity and innuendo has robbed this woman (described as “a national treasure”) of her privacy and everyday enjoyment of life.   If this is how we treat the people we cherish, God help those that we hate.
I think something needs to be clarified: Miss Lee is not her work.  She is no one’s “treasure” to be owned or bandied about.  She is a human being with rights and privileges, including the right to be left alone.  If she doesn’t want to be interviewed, promoted, hash-tagged or dragged out for the public consumption, that is her prerogative.  If her work has inspired or moved you to the point of communication, send her a letter but don’t expect a reply.  The whole point of a thank-you letter is to express your feelings, not promote a correspondence.  If you really appreciate her work, apply the principles of TKAM to your life and be nice to other people.  Fight for the disadvantaged and be sensitive to their needs.  But have some consideration for the author’s wishes and (unless you have clear and convincing, first-hand evidence of maltreatment) leave the poor woman alone.
Miss Lee’s work has a public life and people can treasure or criticize that at will.  If people are worried about the quality of her upcoming book, they don’t have to buy or read it. Since “Watchman” is an early draft, it is unlikely to show the same level of skill as TKAM but it will aid literature students who will see how one story can be molded from another.  No new book can tarnish or impair the quality of To Kill a Mockingbird.  TKAM stands as it has stood for the last fifty years, a clear story about the good and evil in humanity and life in a small, Southern town.  
Although this rant is about separating the art from the artist, it is tempting to give Miss Lee the last word. In TKAM’s climactic chapter, Heck Tate refuses to publicize the service of a recluse because, “All the ladies in Maycomb, including my wife’d be knockin’ on his door bringing angel food cakes.  To my way of thinking…draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight – to me, that’s a sin.”
People have been banging on Miss Lee’s door for years now, bringing nosiness, cupidity and gossip.  I hope the finding of the state’s investigation will allow her to close it again to all save those that she wants to see.  If not, Monroeville needs to bring back the rain and get set for one hell of a storm.