Sula, Toni Morrison

SulaA farmer promises freedom and a piece of land referred to as Bottom, to his slave if he performs some difficult chores. The town of Medallion grows up around the farmland, looking down on the valley where the more fertile land and the white folks live.

The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, ‘Oh no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.

‘But it’s high up in the hills,’ said the slave.

‘High up from us,’ said the master, but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven, the best land there is.’

It’s the town where Sula and Nel grow up in the 1920’s. Both are only children, Nel raised in her mother’s quiet, orderly neat home that oppresses her and keeps her protected and Sula in the home of her infamous grandmother Eva Pearce, a woman who hasn’t come downstairs in years and may or may not have done despicable things before she became one-legged and runs a kind of boarding house for vagrants.

“a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with thins, people, voices and the slamming of doors”

In childhood, the two girls differences are insignificant, they revel in each other’s company, they test the boundaries of their community and environment, they experience joy and witness horror. They bury the past until it returns to haunt them in adulthood, when they can no longer avoid who they were always destined to be, thanks to the judgments and perceptions of others and the behaviours of those who went before them. And themselves.

“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”

The book is separated into two parts, the early 1920’s during the girls childhood and the late 30’s, early 40’s when Sula returns and creates a disturbing ripple throughout the small community, no longer used to her carefree ways, having forgotten the inclinations of the female characters she was spawned from. She becomes estranged from them all. Except one.

It is about the innocence and bonds of childhood, secrets between friends, the inclination to follow the well-trodden path of those who have gone before, despite the desire for freedom and individuality and the reluctance of others to see them any differently.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Her books are almost always the perfect size of a novella and every one of Toni Morrison’s stories I have read brings so much more than the sum of its pages to the reader in terms of things to consider, long after the last page is turned.

Her language is poetic, her characters resplendent with their flaws, they speak for the one and the many and show us ourselves, the parts we hide from view, that which is judged from outside and the inclination to judge without knowing.

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Mandela Day

Today, 18 July is Nelson Mandela Day, it was the date of his birthday and the day he married his wife Graça Machel. I discovered this yesterday as I was nearing the end of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela as she helped with the plan to advocate to the UN to try to make 18 July International Nelson Mandela Day, after receiving a letter of congratulations from Bono for Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebrations held in Hyde Park, London. He wrote:

“Happy Birthday Madiba. I am working to make July 18th a public holiday in every country that acknowledges that the struggle of Nelson Mandela is not over until every individual who yearns for freedom has the chance to grasp it. I believe your birthday should be an occasion around the globe to honour those who still struggle.” Bono, U2

Good MorningWhen I saw this memoir was due for release I didn’t know anything about Zelda la Grange, but after reading this interview by John Carlin in The Guardian from 2008, I decided to find out more and finished reading it today.

Zelda la Grange was born in 1970 in East Johannesburg, South Africa to a white Afrikaans family. Her father worked in construction and her mother was a teacher. The family wasn’t rich, but being white, they enjoyed the privileges of their race, benefiting from the apartheid regime through access to health, education and a strong sense of entitlement. It wasn’t something she ever thought about, it was the way they lived, they accepted it and had little knowledge of how these policies affected black and coloured people. They were racist.

“As a child it is easy to follow when you grow up in an environment that is safe. Perhaps if I had been oppressed, didn’t have access to a decent school, a proper house, electricity and water, I would have asked different questions, and my brain would have developed into being more inquisitive about injustice at an early age.”

Not knowing what she wanted to do with her life, she enrolled in a course to become an Executive Secretary. When Mandela was voted President she was working in a government Human Resources Department and heard there was a job opening in the administrative department of the President’s office.

It was to be the beginning of a twenty-year career working for Nelson Mandela, first in his capacity as President and then when he left the government, she would be the one person he chose to take with him, to maintain in his employ for life.

Zelda la Grange served Nelson Mandela for around 20 years and you could say she gave her life to him as she had little personal existence outside her working life, so loyal was she to the man who handpicked her to be that loyal employee. Ever the strategist, he chose a woman whose skills complimented his own, she compensated for his weakness and allowed him to continue to focus on his strengths by taking care of all the things that needed to go on behind the scenes to ensure safe passage and no surprises. She was a perfectionist, though she doesn’t admit that in the book, working often through the night than have anything go wrong and was completely obsessed with every little detail.

Zelda owns up in the opening pages that this book is her story and so doesn’t contain great political insights into South Africa or its policies, nor does she ever break the trust she had with Nelson Mandela and say anything he wouldn’t have approved of. One gets the impression that she could have said so much more and perhaps even did, but any excesses have been cut from the first draft and what we read here is a clean, if somewhat lacking version of the events of those twenty years they worked together.

The book reads like a diary of events, which can become tedious, especially as the language is quite prosaic, just as the job must have been, however she is clearly passionate and dedicated to serving the man she referred to as Khulu or Grandfather and he referred to her as Zeldini. Their relationship was extremely close, but always with a respectful and appropriate distance, as was inherent in both their natures.

It is an incredible record of those years and the many voyages they made, people met and funds raised for various humanitarian projects they launched, even if we miss the perspective of the man himself.  In telling her story, she pays tribute to her boss and has created a record of her great respect and need to ensure that all those associated with him, from friends to celebrities to politicians were adequately taken care of. She never stoops to gossip, takes care not to say anything negative about the family, although you can sense the unspoken tension underneath, after all they did bar her from the funeral activities and if it wasn’t for the generosity of Mandela’s wife, Mrs Machel, she would not have attended at all.

An interesting account and makes me even more curious to read Mandela’s own words and gain an insight into what was going on inside his mind during these years.

Today's Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Rooms Are Filled

Jessica  Vealitzek  Photo By Shannon Brandau

Jessica Vealitzek
Photo By Shannon Brandau

I have been following Jessica’s blog True Stories for some time and knew she had written a book, one that intrigued me before I even knew what it was about, because I was already familiar with the voice and thoughts of its author and knew it would be a powerful story told with a quiet voice.

She had some very interesting and thought-provoking things to say about Quiet Literature after a comment made by an agent at a writer’s conference. The agent after reading two pages of her manuscript said: “This has the risk of being too quiet. You don’t want to be too quiet.” In the weeks that followed that interaction, Jessica came to realise that quiet could well be an apt description and that quiet was exactly how she wanted her story and writing to be.

“But I am in love with quiet. Quiet literature assumes the reader is intelligent and thoughtful, able to read between the lines, between the gestures, and peek into the spaces between the words—to understand the words that aren’t there, and why. The quiet reader doesn’t need to be told everything.” Jessica Null Vealitzek

Rooms FilledNow published by SheWrites Press, The Rooms Are Filled, is a coming-of-age story of two outsiders brought together by a recent change in their lives: a Minnesota farm boy moves to suburban Chicago after his father dies, and his teacher, a closeted young woman attempts to start over after failing to live openly. As these two characters navigate new unfamiliar lives, they will make changes and adapt as they reveal who they really are.

Michael is nine years old as he stands and watches paramedics try to bring his father back to life after he collapses while fixing a rotting fence post outside the barn door. It was the day after his father had finally taken him out on one of his excursions into the snow-clad woods, scouring the landscape for traps that farmers had set to stop wolves menacing their flocks, introducing him to members of the pack, like family he would glimpse but never know .

For a time the days pass as they have done, however his father’s sudden death means all that he has known must change. He and his mother will leave the farm, the wilderness and its wolves that had been such a large part of his father’s life and move to the town where his Uncle lives, where his mother can find a job, and start again.

Both will face challenges as will another new arrival, Julia Parnell, Michael’s new school teacher, who has run from facing up to her own reality, taking refuge in this town, only to discover there is nowhere to hide from one’s true self.

The story quietly takes on issues common in our societies today and makes the reader feel what it is to be an outsider, to live outside a small town’s expectations.

Despite the sad beginning, the story unfolds with a grounded reality, life in the countryside, its rituals and chores evoke a feeling like driving along a familiar country road watching the landscape pass by, until we make a sudden turn into new territory and encounter a different kind of settlement where life is no longer as we knew it and one has to develop a whole new aspect to one’s character to survive an unknown urban species.

It is a gripping read, after a slow beginning getting to know these two characters and it’s a book that and once started I couldn’t put down.

The ending was a little mysterious and uncertain, I’m still thinking about that and no doubt it will provoke as much discussion as the story itself.

Further Reading

A Story of Survival - Jessica’s post on her passion for wolves

Quiet Literature – Jessica’s post on why Quiet is ok and for her, essential

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Of Mice and Men

A book that has been read by so many and is such a tour de force that I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add to the millions of words already said and written and of much more critical depth than I plan to cover, so I waited until I was sitting in the airport yesterday and just decided to write whatever came to mind.

CIMG5356Steinbeck narrates a simple story that reads like a play, which it did indeed become. It was a time when Steinbeck believed the novel to be dead and his work seemed to sit on the cusp of genre, able to swing both ways.

“The work I am doing now, is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel.”

Lennie likes to keep a mouse in his pocket, he gains pleasure from the soft caress of fingers on a smooth pelt, the feel of silky hair, new-born puppies. He is a simple man and a hard worker, however his strength is fallible and his appreciation of the sense of touch incompatible with it.

The story is a short but life-changing episode in the lives of two friends George and Lennie, itinerant labourers on the Californian seasonal workers trail, trying to avoid trouble and dreaming like others of one day having their own plot of land, a few animals, vegetables, a working life yes, but one that would not be lived at the beck and call of those who claim superiority.

They meet others like them, they meet sceptics, they meet a man who would never have dared dream of what they pine for and they encounter those who have it already. Without needing to tell or describe, Steinbeck presents through sparse narrative and dialogue: friendship, cruelty (with and without intention), jealousy, indifference and fear. He uses the colloquial language of men of the time giving it a raw, frank boldness that requires no embellishment (the book was written in 1937, though perhaps inspired by his own experiences in the early 1920’s).

Crooks interrupted brutally.

“You guys is just kiddin’ yourself. You’ll talk about it a hell of a lot, but you won’t get no land. You’ll be a swamper here till they take you out in a box. Hell, I seen too many guys. Lennie here’ll quit an’ be on the road in two, three weeks. Seems like ever’ guy got land in his head.”

Candy rubbed his cheek angrily.

“You God damn right we’re gonna do it. George says we are. We got the money right now.”

Steinbeck himself spent time working as an itinerant agricultural worker in the Salinas Valley for nearly two years in the 1920’s after dropping out of university, so had first-hand observations of the kinds of men whose lives were entrenched in these routines and their familiar aspirations.

“Lennie was a real person” he told a New York Times reporter in 1937.

MenHis own experiences, observations, his compassion, perhaps born of a certain humbleness having left the hi-brow corridors of Stanford University where he would have brushed shoulders with another kind of person, lend the narrative authenticity and empathy.

An exceptional novella, told mostly through dialogue where every word is made to count without losing its beauty or power. We sense the inevitability of the outcome which unnerves the reader while we encounter a brilliant, sensitive portrayal of two friends with a similar dream, who if the world was a kinder place, should have been able to achieve it with the genuine camaraderie and work ethic they possessed .

Previous Steinbeck Reviews – A Pearl

The Crane Wife

The Extraordinary Happens Every Day

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls

You may remember that last year Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls was one of my few 5 star reads for the year, a young adult novel, it told the story of a teenage boy coping with his mother’s illness and his nightly visits from a tree-like monster creating an allegory that captures the angst and silent rage of a fearful boy like nothing I have ever read.

Not only is the storytelling incredible as well as moving, the author was telling a story that another author Siobhan Dowd wanted to tell, but her own illness kept her from doing so. If you haven’t read it, keep an eye out for it, it is a timeless classic.

I had seen a few reviews for The Crane Wife, an adult novel by Patrick Ness that sounded intriguing and when our local English bookstore put the hardcover version of it out in their sale, I snapped it up and immediately stopped everything I was reading to begin reading. Such is the power of words written by Patrick Ness for this reader. He is a writer who deftly uses a touch of magic realism which I like, not to dwell in it all the time, but when used sparingly with purpose to elevate or create a turning point in a story, I find it no trouble to accept.

The Crane Wife is inspired by the Japanese myth of the same name Ness was read in kindergarten by the Japanese-American teacher he adored, in which a sail maker finds an injured crane and helps it and the next day a mysterious woman walks into his life, whom he falls in love with and marries. She tells him, “I can weave you beautiful sails, as long as you don’t watch me weave”. She does so, they grow rich, until he becomes too consumed by greed and curiosity and breaks his promise, only to experience irretrievable loss.

The_Crane_Wife__pentaptych_by_Crooty

The story stayed with the author over the years and then many years later he heard The Decemberists song The Crane Wife 1 which captured the emotion of the story just as he felt it. It was the catalyst to start writing, he was ready to tell the story that had been in incubation for so long. And what a beautiful song, I can’t stop listening to it myself.

In this novel, George wakes one morning to hear a mournful keening come from his backyard and in the freezing temperatures, investigates to find a large crane with an arrow shot through its wing. He assists the crane and then watches it fly off. The next day in his print shop as he is working on his latest obsession, making paper cut-outs from second-hand abandoned books, in walks a woman we come to know as Kumiko, an event that marks the beginning of an artistic and love bound encounter, touching the lives of George, his daughter Amanda and those close to them.

George is in his 40’s and in something of a comfortable rut, amicably divorced, running his small shop with the help of Mehmet, his assistant and alter-ego. His daughter Amanda lives alone with her son Jean-Pierre, her uncontrollable anger having driven out her French husband, despite their still burning love.

Crane Wife

There is much unsaid between characters and that which is communicated, isn’t always done so as it was intended, until Kumiko and George begin to collaborate through their art, work that affects all who see it, accessing those uncommunicative wordless depths and giving them expression. The work affects them all, artists and observers.

It is a story about humanity, how even those who act out of kindness make mistakes, are tempted by greed and suffer tragic consequences. It is also about how a story changes depends on who is telling it, the power of the imagination in creating different perspectives, viewed in the shadow or in the light. Kumiko says,

‘A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’

‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.

‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story-‘

‘And explain it-‘

‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never, all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely, would.’

In the beginning I was reminded a little of Nick Hornby, the London novel set in a shop, the banter between employer and employee, the vulnerable, angry young woman, the great dialogue and strong characters that come to life from the very first pages and the immediate interest in what will befall them, wondering what consequences their flaws will make manifest. But then Kumiko walks in, a traveller from afar and I remember this is Patrick Ness, something extraordinary is going to happen, even if it is not immediately apparent.

He writes with compassion and as a reader I trust him, whether it’s tragedy, darkness or exhilaration, he handles it all with responsibility, without resorting to cliché and makes me want to slow read every word.

Coincidentally, yesterday on The Guardian, Patrick Ness participated in the books podcast performing an exclusive short story, an addition to his short story collection for adults Topics About Which I Know Nothing which is to be republished and talked to Claire Armistead about writing short stories and the differences in writing for adults and teenagers.

Armistead thought he was being coy about the differences between young adult (YA) and adult fiction, suggesting YA books had a ‘more cheerful trajectory’ to which he replied:

‘I always say the concerns of a teenage novel tend to be about testing your boundaries and finding out who you are and finding out the limits of yourself and crossing those limits and discovering it hurts or discovering that it’s a new thing that you can be and are, and an adult novel tends to be …about someone whose boundaries are already solidified and the story tends to be about what happens when you are taken outside those boundaries or how those boundaries are limited to you …both make for fantastic stories, intellectual ones, complex ones, the concerns might be different, but it’s not a simplistic thing, that you must be direct in one and indirect in another’ Patrick Ness

Brodeck’s Report

BrodeckThis book has been on my radar since I read Le Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel last year. That was the first book I had read by Philippe Claudel and our book club decided we should read it in French. I remember at the time, one of my twitter followers mentioned Brodeck’s Report as being her favourite, and on a recent visit to West End Lane Bookshop in London, I found this copy.

Brodeck’s Report is the story of the young man Brodeck, who as a child arrived in a French village with an old woman who had taken pity on him, finding him sitting alone in the ruins of a house fire.

He becomes a protégé of the village, who save enough to send him to university with the intention of him making an important contribution to village life, as it was clear he had the capability. Their plans are thwarted by unrest in the city and Brodeck flees to the village with a young woman who will become his wife. The village soon becomes occupied, resistance is taught a harsh lesson and the community are encouraged to ‘cleanse the village’. Brodeck and one other who came from elsewhere are sent away.

InnWhen the story begins, Brodeck is home, having survived the camp and after stepping out to find butter, stumbles into the midst of a village gathering at the Schloss Inn, where those grouped have decided he will write a report about the unknown, nameless stranger who came to visit, who had now met his end.

The novel is quiet, devastating and yet brilliant. Claudel takes one village which happens to be near the border – and what is a border but an imagined, even a painted line on paper – of an occupying country, and uses the village and its resident to portray humanity and its many inclinations, including its inability to learn from mistakes – which manifest when a stranger rides into town, installs himself at the local inn and goes about his business, without letting anyone know what that is. Many of the events portrayed in the novel are the result of illusory thought, of man’s inclination to create a story when there is none and to punish the outsider, the one who has inspired their dark imagination.

BrodeckBrodeck is tasked with writing an account of the events that do take place and as he does so, he simultaneously writes another account, his own narrative of what is occurring and what has happened in the recent past. He writes to try to make sense of it, as is his nature and to know what he must do.

Reading Primo Levi adds to an understanding of Claudel’s work and having read this novel so soon after Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, it illuminates something more of that work as well, it is as if they write about the same people, only Claudel dares to take the reader deeper into the heart of his villagers forcing us to open our eyes.

“It is a strange time of day. The streets are deserted, the encroaching darkness turns them into cold, grey blurs, and the houses become shifty silhouettes, full of menace and innuendo. Night has the curious power of changing the most everyday things, the simplest faces. And sometimes it does not so much change them as reveal them, as if bringing out the true natures of landscapes and people by shrouding them in black.”

Stunning.

The Hidden Lamp

Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp is a rich source of feminine wisdom, a compilation of one hundred stories, some a mere paragraph long, each one chosen by one woman and commented on, sharing a contemporary perception of how that text speaks to her.

We as readers have the opportunity to receive the wisdom of the original text, reflect on it ourselves, observe the comments of the woman who has chosen to share it with us, often with a personal anecdote in this unique collection of twenty-five centuries of awakened women – those who in Buddhist terms have gained enlightenment.

Most well-known Zen stories or koans (according to American Zen Master, poet and author Zoketsu Norman Fischer) come from three collections Blue Cliff Record (12th C), The Book of Serenity (12th C), and The Gateless Barrier (13th C) and are an almost exclusively male domain.

In this collection, we find the long missing stories of women, shared in a unique collaborative style between its editors and commentators. Many of those interpreting the texts are Zen teachers and many others come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and lineages, lending the collection an open-minded virtue, accessible to all, whether male or female, and regardless of knowledge of Buddhism philosophy and practice.

“Koans are powerful and succinct stories, most often about encounters between Zen teachers and students. They can be playful and humorous, mysterious, opaque or even combative.”

It is an invitation to consider what has been said, to ponder it and respond ourselves.

Reading the stories make fables seem like children’s stories. These excerpts often require an extraordinary stretch of the imagination to understand and there will be some we are simply not ready to interpret.  For those who have studied them, their revelations have often taken months or even years to realise.  Thanks to the commentaries, we can at least read of another’s insight although this does not in all cases necessarily bring clarity. We must accept that we are not yet ready for their learning.

Joko Beck

Charlotte Joko Beck

One of the first stories came from Peg Syverson’s reflection after listening to Joko Beck* give a talk. A young man raised his hand and bluntly asked “Are you enlightened?” to which she replied “I hope I should never have such a thought!”

Peg Syverson shared that she had thought of this exchange many times since she first heard it, that many of the things this teacher of hers said, surprised her. She likened it to another story of a Japanese master Nan-in, serving tea to a professor, pouring the tea until the cup filled and then overflowed, and still he continued to pour until the professor said, “It is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup”, said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The responses are often unexpected and penetrating. Their meaning isn’t obvious on first reading, they require us to look at the question, and at what those who ask are bringing along with the question. Syverson recounts her own audience with Joko, the question she was required to ponder and respond to, then despite several weeks of contemplating an answer, when she gave it, would receive another insightful, thought-provoking response, which upon reflection, changed the nature of her relationship with her son, the subject of her initial question. The clarity of the teacher’s mind in responding so succinctly is astonishing.

The answers seem nearly always to require that you go away and reconsider the exchange, eventually revealing the answer that perhaps was always within you. It is a kind of active learning, rather than the passive receipt of an interpretation and response, which can easily be set aside or forgotten.

The Hidden Lamp is not a book to read in one sitting, it is a reference to draw on now and then and a rich source of ancient feminine wisdom and modern thought, whose content is valid for one and all. Some of the names of the women in the book will be well-known and others less so, however their contributions might as well be nameless, as it is the story that brings the richness to the reader, the reputation of all the contributions having already been established.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Personally I always have at least one text of Buddhist thought/philosophy on the bedside table, I find them a quiet source of intellectual wisdom that easily resonates with my own world view.

Whether it’s a collection like this or one of the many excellent works of the Dalai Lama, or the pocket books of Pema Chodron, they all share a wisdom that comes from the practice of kindness, empathy and altruism while providing a prism of compassion through which to observe our everyday thoughts and encounters. A kind of preventative medicine for the mind, these awakened beings have spent years pondering the nature of suffering and both their practices and their words are a thoughtful guide and nurturing remedy to all negative emotion or thought.

* Joko Beck (American, 1917 – 2011) was a pianist and mother of four, who began Zen practice in her 40’s, founded two schools and wrote two books Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.