Monday, March 29, 2010

An Infinite Expectation of the Dawn

I heard someone say recently that poetry was best enjoyed by the young because they had not become jaded yet. I find myself enjoying poetry more as I age because I am able to understand on a deeper level what the poem really means. What I think about cynicism is that it is a choice. You have to choose to meet the world fresh and new every day. I do not say this out of a naive life experience lacking pain. I’ve learned this because of the hard parts of my past. Allowing yourself to be jaded is actually the easy way out. It’s the easy path to not being hurt again, but it’s also the path that misses the most beautiful parts of life. It’s the path that ignores Thoreau’s exhortation when he wrote:

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.... I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life....”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Something There is That Does Love A Book

Of the last three books I’ve read, I’ve had such varying reactions that I’ve been thinking about what makes me love a book. The best explanation I can give is that I love a book that completely consumes me and makes me forget where and who I am for a time and takes me to a place I’d rather be with people I wish I knew. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski was such a book for me. I didn’t like the ending, but since I’ve made a vow to myself never to recap plot, I won’t explain much except to say that I never like endings about death. The two other books I’ve read lately I liked less. The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer I found diverting at best. I didn’t dislike it and will read another book by her when I am in the mood to be entertained mindlessly. Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick I found to be underdeveloped. It felt thrown together or unfinished to me. I liked the premise of the book and the plot points, but it felt like an outline of a plot that could have been a great book with some character development and more extension of the story.

It’s been several days since I finished Edgar Sawtelle, and I find myself missing the characters and places of the novel. That’s what makes a book one of my favorites. When it’s over, I miss being in the midst of it. A quote from the book explains best this feeling of connectedness that I miss when it’s gone: “On those nights, he felt connected to something ancient and important he couldn’t name” (p 11). We can consider ourselves lucky every day we are allowed to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. Literature isn’t the only path to this oneness even for me, but it is one of the ways I remember, at a deep-seated, not completely rational level, that I am participating in the history of humanity just by virtue of being alive.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

"The untouched ones spend their luck without a thought, believing they deserve it" (p 462).

I am so far behind in posting about Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Simpler books that I like less are much easier to review. The characterization, plot, and themes of The Lacuna were complex enough to force me to procrastinate about my blog post. I suppose the simplest way to describe the book is to say that it follows one man’s life from childhood to death as he lives through crucial turning points in history in both Mexico and America. The main character, Harrison Shepherd, is involved directly in so many important occurrences as to lend a Forrest Gump feel to the plot. I’ve always liked Kingsolver’s fiction and nonfiction, but with The Lacuna, her work seems to have matured and expanded beyond even what I had come to expect.

The first important theme is Harrison’s challenging relationship with his own mother. He grows up feeling like a neglected satellite orbiting a beautiful, but dangerous, star. This theme carries over into the next segment of his life where he happens upon a job in the Diego Rivera / Frida Kahlo household. Harrison develops another close but tumultuous relationship with Frida, who overtly introduces the lacuna theme, which was only hinted at in the prior sections of the book. She repeatedly tells Harrison that the most important thing about a person is the thing you do not know about him. I continue to struggle with this idea. Intuitively, I sense an important revelation in these words that I have not been able yet to grasp rationally. The lacuna theme is carried throughout the book in both physical occurrences: an underwater cave, a lost notebook; and in figurative ones: the idea of important gaps in our knowledge of one another. Toward the end of the book, Violet Brown, who has been Harrison’s secretary for years, says, "Those news men could not make a thing true just by saying so. It’s only living makes life" (p 445). I like the extension of the idea of how when we have gaps in our knowledge of others, we often project on them what we would like to pretend fills those gaps. I suspect that most of the time, we err in our suppositions.

Being a Kingsolver novel, issues of social justice occur throughout. There is a scene early in the book about the Bonus Army March, as well as a section about the Advancing American Art auction, which was a perfect example of typical government forethought and efficiency, neither of which I knew anything about. Then later, during the period that Harrison works for Frida, Leon Trotsky lives with them, leading to much discussion about the Russian Revolution and about revolutions in general. The last part of both the book and of Harrison’s life is spent amid the Communist fear-mongering mania of mid-twentieth century America. Many of the themes and occurrences during this embarrassing period of our history resonate in the fears and abuses that occurred in America in the post 9/11 years, reminding me yet again of the oft-repeated and hard to cite adage that forgetting history dooms us to repeat it.

I suppose I would say that the most important theme that I find in this or in any other Kingsolver work is the idea that happiness should belong to us all, that being different shouldn't exclude you from the joy and beauty of this life, and that in the end, love and acceptance are the only things that really matter.

How to Save a Life, One Day at a Time

photo by Amy Brandon   "Little things heal our hurts. Sounds, scents, the spoken word, and music that may mean nothing to someon...