The Book in the Corner of my Soul: John Chancellor Makes Me Cry

I am not Southern by birth.  I was born in north Texas and raised in the west, in spaces known for harsh winds, wide horizons, and voices loud enough to get through the first and reach the second.  Because of this I was a stranger in a strange land when I moved to the South and  I worried I would always be an outsider.  Over several  years, I read a barrel load of books on how nuanced, complex and wonderful life here can be here, but no book taught me more or made me feel more at home  than Anne Rivers Siddons’s collection of essays, John Chancellor Makes Me Cry.

Mrs. Siddons was raised in a small Georgia town and graduated from Auburn before beginning a career in Atlanta, first in advertising and then as a novelist. Between those two jobs came the essay collection in this book.  It is a heartfelt account of adjusting to adult life after the raw newness (and gleam) of one’s twenties has disappeared but before the confidence that comes with seniority has set in.  In Passages, Gail Sheehy wrote of this as the age when 30-somethings double down on the mortgage/kids/picket fence paradigm and Ms. Siddons had her home off Peachtree Street and a collection of cats but she she also had the perspective of an outsider in a well-settled neighborhood.  As the educated observer, she became a guide I needed to understand modern Southern protocol.  From her, I learned to recognize the blue-haired doyennes and their good old boy husbands that still wield power in my city.  (The South is the only place I know where cut-throat businessmen and landed millionaires are known as Junior and Bubba).  I learned someone’s accent could not always predict their education, net worth or opinions.  I also learned that feeling unsure, frightened and unprepared is par for the course but it’s not enough reason to quit.

Anne’s essays detail facing troubles most of us confront sooner or later: fearsome weather, bad fights with the spouse, a lost job, the death of a family member. She also writes of the stresses that come of being a step-mother and second wife, a role I was learning to fill back then.  Each of these are explored with respect, sensitivity and gentle humor. There are also the odes to the good and everyday things in life such as the seasons, vacations, traffic,  the joys of work (her essay on advertising is hilarious) and the comfort of long friendships.  Her voice is intelligent, comfortable, and well-inflected with humor.  It’s impossible not to imagine her as a friend.

In the years since the publication of JCMMC, Mrs. Siddons has written many novels and they have sold well, as they should, although calling her the “the thinking-woman’s novelist” is still kind of left-handed compliment. Better is another reviewer’s observation, “One doesn’t read Anne Rivers Siddons’s books, one dwells in them.”  I’ve been dwelling in her fiction for a few decades now but JCMMC is different.  That’s the book that dwells in me.

The Wizard of Weirdness: Hunter S. Thompson and the The Great Shark Hunt

I’m proud to say that a writer once cost me a job.  At one time, the U. S. Air Force  thought of making me a journalist so I could write for base newspapers.  I had passed all the tests easily and was interviewing with an editor of one of the largest papers in the command, a young Sargent in love with uniform creases and rules.  We were talking about veterans of various branches who became successful writers and I mentioned liking the work of an Air Force veteran named Hunter S. Thompson.  Steam poured out of the editor’s ears.  “Thompson?” he squeaked, “Thompson!   My college invited him to our Controversial Speakers forum and he showed up stoned!!”   Internally I had two thoughts: 1) Well, yeah, everyone knows Hunter hates doing those speaker gigs, he’s going to show up wrecked and 2) I believe I just blew this  interview.   The next day, the Air Force decided I would be a better Supply Clerk than Reporter and ended my adventures in Journalism.  I didn’t care.  To be rejected because of liking Hunter Thompson’s writing is a badge of honor for me, and I’ve missed his wild, unpredictable forays since his death in 2005.

Hunter is best remembered today as the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but if you want a collection of his work that stands on its own, read The Great Shark Hunt. It includes excerpts from some of HST’s longer works (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, The Hell’s Angels, etc.) and reprints of some of his incredible essays. Each piece shows Thompson’s patented Gonzo journalism (where the author gets involved with the story and reports on the story, his involvement and the crazy things that happen) and his view of the world: a combination of moral outrage, amazement, eloquence,sardonic humor and integrity made each essay a treasure.

It seems strange to associate the word integrity with Hunter S. Thompson, considering his well-earned reputation for chaos, but Thompson always wrote about life exactly as he saw it, from seeking and revealing the worst of humanity in “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” and “Strange Rumblings in Azatlan” to a hilarious account of following Jimmy Carter and his Secret Service agents through a Law Day function in Athens, Georgia.  The title essay captures the paranoia, fear, hilarity and exhaustion of drug-addled writer trying to cover a fishing tournament. and the genuinely mournful “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” recounts the chaotic life and strange disappearance of his friend, Oscar Acosta.  Hunter never shies away from his friend’s faults because Hunter made it a policy never to shy away from anything when he wrote. He went for the extremes, grabbed for high, bright edges of reality in every experience and ignored all the margins. It was his way of articulating the truth, as he saw it. No word was off-limits, no person beyond reproach, if that was part of the story. Consequently, his writing offended almost all of the right people; the rest were offended by his existence.

If the world holds less potential since Thompson’s passing, it is only because his writing enriched it so much during his life. The Great Shark Hunt is a mother-lode of words from one of the most outraged and original voices of the last century.  That Air Force editor can choke on his uniform creases. You enjoy the book.

A whole new way of seeing: My Name is Asher Lev

Picking up a new book is like setting off on an unknown road: you never know where it will take you.  In the late 1970’s, I was reading every non-fiction book I could find about Judaism.  The religion fascinated me, a lot of my college friends were Jewish and I was deciding if I should convert.  Of course, I would not leave the delights of fiction, no matter what faith I followed, so I added several novels by Jewish authors thinking this would add dimension to my non-fiction studies.  One novel proved I have literary ADD; after I read My Name is Asher Lev, I put books on Judaism aside and became obsessed with art.

Even now I envy the reader who has not yet picked up Asher Lev because they haven’t heard his mesmerizing voice spilling through that opening sentence:

My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.

That beginning  has all of the power and immediacy of the opening paragraphs in  All the Kings Men or Rebecca.   You hear the man’s insistent voice pouring out what will be a long confession of confusion, frustration, realization and art.  Because Asher is, first and foremost, an artist.

What follows is a Catch-22 of duty, responsibility and need.   First, Asher is a member of a Hasidic Jewish community, that branch of Orthodox Judaism where the men keep the locks of hair in front of their ears very long and wear very conservative, dark clothing.  These are very modest, pious people and because so much of art leans toward graven images, nudity and non-Jewish images , Asher’s community avoids the field altogether.  This is a problem because Asher is compelled to create art.  I mean driven.  If this kid were locked in a room without any other way to make pictures, he’d open a vein and paint blood on the walls.  Asher can’t deny his artistic impulses any more than he can deny his parents or the Rabbi.  Now Asher’s creative drive causes great dissension and pain, first within his family and later, his community.  He knows the only way he can justify this pain is to create greater art.   Unfortunately, the greater the art is, the greater the pain.    Out of this conflict comes a great story.

This book has so many revolutionary ideas.  In one paragraph a fellow artist comments, “In all the history of art, there are only two ways of painting the world.  One is the way of Greece and Africa that sees the world as a geometric design.  The other is the way of Persia and India and China, which sees the world as a flower.”   Do me a favor will you?  Next time you look at a painting, really look at it and you’ll see the speaker is right.   The brush strokes and design will remind you either of geometrical shapes or flowers.

Ideas like that can blow the mind of a young reader, even one whose art appreciation began and ended with the board game, Masterpiece.  I ate up this book, picking up information about Hopper’s sunlight and Picasso’s Guernica instead of Hebraic culture and beliefs and started looking at the world in terms of line, light, color and tension.  When I told a Jewish friend I had fallen in love with My Name is Asher Lev, she cleared her throat and said that probably wasn’t the ideal novel to study for Judaism.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her my focus had shifted from Kabbalah to Kandinsky.

I still go back to Asher Lev every few years and I read the sequel but nothing beats that first breathless realization of getting lost in a compelling story.  Nevertheless, I owe Asher Lev and his author (Chaim Potok) a debt of thanks.  Other books gave me new ideas to believe; Asher Lev taught me to see.

Inferno and I finally admit I like some SF/Fantasy

Science Fiction and Fantasy  weren’t respected literary genres when I was little.  That’s hard to believe in the age of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games but the fiction welcomed on the best-seller lists and the book award nominations tended to fall in the “could-be-true-but-isn’t” category.  These were heavy tomes with heavy ideas by heavy hitters in the writing game: Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Bill Styron.  (In those days, it was good to be a Southern Writer).  Liking SF and Fantasy were almost considered the hallmark of an immature intellect.  By the mid 1970’s the stigma was starting to lift but it was still heavy enough to obscure a brilliant novel.  If you are looking for an intelligent, fascinating, often humorous trip through hell, I suggest you find a copy of Inferno by Niven and Pournelle.

Inferno is dedicated to Dante Alighieri and is an homage to the first part of his Divine Comedy but the authors updated the structure.  Instead of Dante himself, the hero of Inferno is Alan Carpentier, a minor SF writer who managed to fall from an eight story window while showing off at a Science Fiction convention.  He returns to consciousness trapped in a bottle, lying beyond the Vestibule of Hell.  Once he screams out the only open-sesame that will work in this paradigm (Why does it take so long for some characters to say, “Help me, God!”?   Don’t they notice that’s the only way some movie characters survive?) he meets a guide named Benny who says the only way out is to walk down through the center of Hell.   Carpentier has to go to the bottom to get to the top.

Carpentier and his guide traverse the levels of Underworld laid out by Dante.  However, there are some modern updates to exact punishments on contemporary professions. (When Minos, Judge of the Underworld gets an argument from Carpentier’s guide, he replies, “Lawyers.  I have problems with lawyers.  There are so many places appropriate to the breed.”)  For example, Real estate developers and tree huggers wage never-ending war against each other and the punishment for advertising men is so bad, the cast of Mad Men will start wearing sackcloth and ashes to avoid being mistaken for their characters in the next life.   (Trust me, you don’t want to know!)

In each case, the condemned face a punishment that is appropriate to their actions but ludicrously out of proportion.  My favorite is Himuralibima, the first bureaucrat (a candidate for suffering, surely!)  who will be allowed to retire once he submits the proper application forms in his accustomed format, cuneiform.   That means he’s writing out his application on mud tablets which dry out in Perdition’s heat long before he can finish them.   Some four thousand years after his death, he’s carved out a bay-sized (as in San Francisco Bay) amount of mud from one side of the Wall of Dis and his discarded, baked-too-soon efforts have become a ford over another river but his application’s not done yet. Another soul, who bought irreplaceable books but refused to spend the necessary bucks to take care of his library, is caught in the DMZ between the Hoarders and Wasters as they roll Cadillac-sized diamonds at each other in another eternal battle for moral superiority.

Without letting go of the humor, Inferno asks the reasonable question, “What is the purpose of Hell?”  Because the suffering is eternal, the punishment of the condemned always ends up being far worse than the crimes they committed to enter this place.  The authors, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, get the credit for coming up with a reasonable answer.   But I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Read the book and find out for yourself.  It’s the only way someone should  voluntarily go to hell.

The Mystery that Breaks all the Rules: The Daughter of Time

My mom could not be predicted.  When I was in my early 20’s, she called up long distance (an expensive activity) and ordered me to read a certain book.  Now.  She heard about it from Gladys who got the recommendation from Jill and now that Mom had read it, I had to.  This made no sense.  Mom knew one or two women named Jill but neither of them usually recommended books and there was no Gladys I could think of. Mom explained to me she had received a letter from one of her favorite writers, Gladys Taber, where Ms. Taber had verified her friend, Jill, revered a book called The Daughter of Time.  Based on that letter, mom borrowed the novel from the library and read it.   Now, she ordered me to do the same.

This story might have ended there because I had developed the habit of ignoring Mom by then but my roommate, Stephanie was working at the college library so I asked her to pick up a copy of the book while she was on shift.  When Stephanie got back that night, the book was in her hand.   She looked up at me and said, “I’m on page 47.  You can have it when I’m finished.”

Jill, Gladys, my mom and Stephanie were all right.  The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey is a wonderful book, partly because it’s a story that breaks all the rules.  It’s a detective story without any of the usual detective methods.  And as for the mystery, well it is one and it isn’t.  It’s hard to explain.

The detective is Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard and the poor man is caught in hospital.   (This is England, so there’s no “the” in front of hospital).   He’s stuck in a bed with a broken bone and is slowly going nuts because there’s nothing new to think about.  He knows how many cracks there are in his ceiling, he knows how his nurses will react to everything he says and worse yet, he knows the plots of all the unread books on his table because their authors aren’t coming up with new ideas.   I love this observation on pop literature so much, I’m going to have to quote it:

"Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then?
Was everyone nowadays thrilled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much
to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about 'a
new Silas Weekley' or 'a new Lavinia Fitch' exactly as they talked about
'a new brick' or 'a new hairbrush'. They never said 'a new book by'
whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its
newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like."

If you are like me and tend to follow certain authors, you’ll agree there’s truth in that statement, but that’s all the more reason to try The Daughter of Time.  There’s really no other book like it.  Instead of going after a recent murderer, Inspector Grant studies the last years of the Plantagenet reign and the War of the Roses by looking at Richard III.  Thanks to Thomas More’s history of Richard and the Shakespearean play based on the history, King Richard’s reputation is only slightly nicer than Hitler’s or Stalin’s.    The mystery is not when Richard murdered his nephews but if he is guilty at all.  And while this novel doesn’t cover every point in the debate, it certainly brings up evidence to suggest a miscarriage of justice has been ongoing for more than 500 years.

For a small novel that came out sixty odd years ago, it has caused some big ripples.  There are societies in England and America about Richard inspired in part by this book and other writers such as Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth George have expanded on the ideas in Ms. Tey’s novel in building their own works.  These societies were instrumental in locating the late king’s body last year and they’ve been part of the force ensuring his remains are now treated with respect.  (Treatment his body didn’t get after the Battle of Bosworth)

The book has some humorous bits in it and the characters are wonderful but its longevity is based on an important point.  If history is written by the winners, as Churchill said, how often can we believe history’s assessment of a fallen leader?   Can an opponent ruin a lifetime of work and fair dealing with propaganda?  Perhaps but Ms. Tey thought otherwise, given the title.  You see, truth is The Daughter of Time.

All My Patients are Under the Bed & After All They’re Only Cats

I love some books for their wonderful writing.  I love some books for their wonderful characters.  I even love a few for their couldn’t-guess-that plots.   But All My Patients are Under the Bed and After All They’re Only Cats keep their place on my bookshelf because of their subject.  They’re about the pets we make part of their lives.  In this case they’re both about cats.

Dr. Louis Camuti was a veterinarian that practiced in New York during the 20th century and  specialized in treating cats.   This is unexpected because a) he wasn’t really a “cat person. having no cats of his own and b) he was allergic to felines. Consequently, he really had under no illusions about the species.   He saw they could be good companions and he liked their assertive personalities but he knew they could be sneaky, naughty creatures as well.  So All My Patients are Under the Bed is a collection of professional anecdotes Dr. Camuti collected during his years of practice.  Some are well worth remembering.

There were the times when he treated the cats in Tallulah Bankhead’s house (to make him completely unique, Dr. Camuti made housecalls!) and learned that however badly the actress treated herself and other human beings, she was a very kind person to cats.  Camuti had to pick his way around fallen guests who didn’t survive the previous night’s party and various bric-a-brac to find his client and the owner but the cat was well attended to.   And if the cat needed an injection, Camuti used the contents of the liquor cabinet as handy andiseptic!

He tells of other celebrity (and non-celebrity) related cats always emphasizing how a fair number of the cat injuries result from pairing the cat’s nature with a lifetime of indoor living with humans.   My favorite is when he’s summoned by an owner, convinced the cat has a prolapsed colon (a nasty condition where the inside body part gets pushed to the outside).  Camuti examines the animal and learns the extending piece is a curtain tie-back the poor animal managed to consume.  Camuti stands the cat on the grand piano, firmly grasps the exposed part of the tie-back and swats the animal so it jumps off the piano.  The cat went flying, the tie-back came out and the maid (who thought this was some barberic type of surgery) fainted.  Someday that scene needs to go into a motion picture.

If Louis Camuti was a non-cat person who treated people, then the late Patricia Moyes wrote from the perspective of someone who became a cat person.  She was a mystery writer, married to a non-cat person when he begrudgingly agreed they might manage to share their home with one kitten provided the cat kept away from him.  Of course the Siamese kitten they interviewed chose her husband (Jim) to be her person and Moyes pointed out one of the cat-truths I’ve watched ever since: cats automatically gravitate toward the one person who doesn’t fawn over them.   Stick a cat in a room full of people and the feline will ignore every crooning voice to jump into the lap of the sole cat hater.  The Siamese, Belinda, did it in the book, my Kansas cats did this when my late grandfather came to visit and when I was going through my anti-cat phase, Charlie-Belle did this to me.  Cats like a challenge; it’s part of their nature.

Another part of their nature, Patricia Moyes pointed out was their abhorrence of printed material.  If anyone lives with cats and books, you can bear me out on this.   Put the book down and the cat will ignore you.   Pick the book up and the cat has to get between you and the pages, laying on the open book if possible.  Cats are all members of the anti-book league and it only gets worse when you are trying to write.  Belinda developed the Papoose Effect, which involved jumping onto her writer’s back, digging her front claws into the human’s shoulders and dangling suspended like so much  dead weight down’ the human’s.  Instinctively, Ms. Moyes would fling her own arms under the cat’s hind quarters to ease the weight digging into her body. The cat now had her pinned.  The writer’s hands were off the typewriter and kitty curled up against the small  her back, purring with joy.  It’s a wonder Ms. Moyes managed to write at all after that.

But, write she did for another twenty years as have others who live with felines have done.  The writer is a self-centered sort of person (has to be, really) and a cat can be an ideal companion, independent, a bit aloof and unimpressed with their human’s accomplishments.  To the cat, best-seller status, and literary admiration mean nothing.  Win the Caldecott award one morning, the Pulitzer that afternoon and scoop the Nobel prize that night but the feline won’t be impressed.  The cat still demands to be scratched, petted and fed a tasty dinner because in the end, it’s not about the human, it’s all about the cat.  And that is as it should be.

The after effects of In Cold Blood

Fifty-five years ago this week, a Kansas farmer, his wife and two youngest children were murdered by a pair of ex-convicts.  The cons didn’t get away with much (other than the lives of their victims) and they didn’t get away for long because they were under arrest within six weeks, under sentence of within six months and under the ground within six years, executed for the crimes they’d committed.   In today’s 24/7 news cycle, that story would have been buried as quickly as the principals.  Instead, a fairly large group of people continue to mark this sad anniversary because Truman Capote wrote a book about the crime that set a new style and standard for writers and readers.  You could say the book, In Cold Blood, was a literary event in the ’60’s that stayed popular for a number of years.  For the generation who lived or grew up in Kansas in the aftermath of that book, the repercussions continued much longer

My family moved first to Kansas and then to Garden City (the county seat where the defendants were tried) shortly after Hollywood released a film adaptation of Mr. Capote’s book.  Because of the popularity of the book and film, In Cold Blood rested on the shelves of many Kansas homes and many of the kids I knew had either read it or pretended they had.  Of course my friends weren’t interested in the strong narrative or character development: it was a sensational story set a well-known area and they were looking for gore.  To our parents, these were characters at all but a retelling of one of their worst memories.  What we  allgot was a great book about a terrible crime.  The actions of the murderers terrified a small group of Kansans but  I suspect Mr. Capote’s storytelling skills fed the nightmares of many more people lucky enough not to have first hand knowledge of the crime.

For years I stayed in a quandry over this book because I wanted to read Capote’s masterpiece but the subject scared me to pieces.  The victims were very real to me: the farmer had been a deacon at our Garden City church and my dad drove over roads near the victims’ house on his way to work.  The material was all too near, I suppose and I never managed to finish the book until decades after I’d left the Kansas plains.  I finally picked it up in 2005, shortly after my father died.

In retrospect, I can see how those events were tied together.  As a kid, the thing that scared me the most was losing my family (later I feared I’d never get away from them) and the book was about how a family all lost each other one terrible night.  Even as I grew, a seed of little-kid fear remained until the event I dreaded actually happened and one of my parents died.  As much as Dad’s passing hurt, the years of dread I endured fearing his death were far more frightening than the actual event.   When I realized that, I picked up the book and found much in the work that is good.

Everyone talks about the crime, and it is the central event of the story, but In Cold Blood does a good job of capturing the type of mid-westerners I grew up around.  They’re capable folks with enough sense of self to avoid any semblance of bragging.  They believe in hard work more than brilliance and most of their humor is dry.  (some of the counties were too back then).  With a seasoning of detail and dialogue, Mr.Capote brings the residents of Garden City and Holcomb to vivid life and he doesn’t condescend to them.  These are not quaint or rural types.  They are caring kids and tough adults who have to face the unthinkable and then get past it.

Capote’s story is also well-paced, with the just enough foreshadowing to keep up the tension. It isn’t easy keeping tension in a story with a known outcome but Mr. Capote does this by giving the reader side glimpses of graphic details while holding the central account, the confessions, until the climax of the book. He even managed to put a little hope into the ending.
In Cold Blood may not be my favorite book but it is one I respect and one I’ve gone back to since 2005.  The murders and the book cast a long shadow on many lives but I believe we’re moving into the light.

Je Reviens or a lifelong obsession with Rebecca

I remember the summer I met her.  I was in junior high, to old for kid’s books and too young (and snobbish) for the historical romances my mother favored.  When I whined that I wanted something new to read, Mom looked at me thoughtfully and handed me a library book with a drawing of the English countryside on the cover. “Try this” she said.”It’s surprising.”  I glanced at the title, turned to the first paragraph and was hooked with the first line,”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”   Some forty years later and I’m still hooked, returning as often as possible to the house in Cornwall called Manderly.  You see, I’m obsessed with Rebecca.

For Rebecca is a novel about obsession.  The book began while the author, Daphne du Maurier, was living Egypt with her husband, Lt. Col. Tommy Browning and it grew out of two secret obsessions of her own: her intense homesickness for England and a packet of letters she found.  The letters were from an unstable, beautiful woman Tommy had been engaged to for a short time, long before he met Daphne.  Daphne and Tommy had not been married all that long when she found the letters and although the former fiance couldn’t threaten their relationship (she was already dead) Daphne felt haunted by the specter of her husband’s earlier love affair. These feelings are at the heart of Rebecca.

The shyest, most awkward girl in the world becomes the second wife of Maxim de Winter, Englishman and owner of the country estate, Manderly.   Becoming lady of the manor would be difficult enough for this child under any conditions; it becomes almost impossible after she learns how Max’s gorgeous first wife, Rebecca, accomplished the job beautifully.   The second wife imagines everyone is comparing her to the first wife and found wanting.  This is certainly true with Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, Rebecca’s former nanny and one of the scariest women in English Literature.  Seriously, Maleficent, Medea and Lady Macbeth combined couldn’t best Mrs. Danvers in a stare-down contest.  She is one sinister, terrifying lady and she haunts Manderly the way Rebecca DeWinter is supposed to.  By the way, Je Reviens is the name of Rebecca’s boat.  It means I return and believe me, in some ways, she does.

But the first wife isn’t the only character with obsessions and I’m not going to spill any more of the story in case there is someone left on the planet who doesn’t know the plot backwards and forwards.   Ms. Du Maurier makes it clear such fixations never bring a positive result but the book is not about moralizing; it’s about about mood, atmosphere and tension, three things her writing captures so well that reading Rebecca  is like diving below the surface of a pool.  While you are in the book, the world above seems far away and unreal.  Everything below is quiet and enveloping but at Manderly, everything is also under stress..

For those who love Rebecca, I did find something fascinating in my latest copy of the book.  While drafting her famous novel, Daphne du Maurier came up with a  Rebecca epilogue she eventually cut up and use parts of in the intro.   It gives a few details missed getting into the finished book (did you know Maxim was originally going to be named Henry?) and there’s a little dose of that mood that made the novel famous and it suggests that the now resort, Manderly, like Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel retains impressions of its previous inhabitants.

“If you are stouthearted and not overburdened with imagination you can walk anywhere in Manderly with impunity, but if London life has put a strain upon your nerves there are one or two places I should avoid.  The deep woods, for instance, after dark, and the little woodman’s cottage.  Here, there may linger a certain atmosphere of stress.  That corner in the drive too, where the stomp of a tree encroaches upon the gravel, it is not a spot in which to pause….”

I don’t know about you but I always feel overburdend with imagination when I read Rebecca.  I can be as sensible and wholesome as fresh milk most of the time but not when I’m reading Rebecca.  Then I believe in ghosts.

A place to call home: Howards End

Early on in “Educating Rita” the heroine characterizes Howards End as “one crap book.”   When I heard that line, I mentally crossed Howards End off my books-to-read list.    Rita is a funny and engaging character so if she said the book was crap, then crap it must be.  Ten years later, I saw the Merchant-Ivory film and realized I might have been hasty.  More than twenty years have lapsed since then and I am still rereading Howards End, both on paper and as an e-book.  It’s a best friend of a book and I can’t believe I nearly missed it.

Howards End is about many things but mainly its about the connections we have, the connections we make and how they affect our lives.  To begin with, two English sisters named Helen and Margaret Schlegel bump into an English family named Wilcox when they’re all on holiday in Germany.   If these two upper-middle class families had stayed in England, they probably would have stayed strangers since, beyond nationality, they haven’t much in common.  The Schlegels live in London and spend their time supporting progressive causes and the arts, (In American terms they would probably be called liberal elites) because they inherited most of their income.   The Wilcoxes live in the country, are very conservative and are still building their wealth from their own business ventures.  But meet they do and conflicts begin to spark.  Then Helen Wilcox accidentally walks off with the umbrella of a poor clerk named Mr. Bast and he follows her home to get it back.   The third element falls into place and all of their lives will change.

There are other connections in the book (such as Mrs. Wilcox’s emotional bond to her home, the house named Howards End) but when people talk about this novel, they mean something else when they use the  phrase “Only Connect”.   It’s Margaret Schlegel’s plea for everyone to recognize we are all human with good and bad traits. That’s hard to do when we classify people by their backgrounds, their income or their political beliefs.  I’d like to quote the book here:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. 

 

Seen from Margaret’s point of view, it seems to me we tend to live fragmented lives.  The lawyers tend to hang out with lawyers, teachers with teachers, etc., and while that’s reasonable (they have a lot in common) it can also be isolating.  Taken past a certain point and we can forget the “other fellow” has a reasonable point.  Take it even further and groups of people are designated “less than human” and genocide begins.

  But Howards End is not a sermon or a philosophical discussion, it a story with wonderful characters.  There is gentle humor here (every family has their own version of sweet but clueless Aunt Juley or a bossy Mr. Wilcox) and love for the English countryside because the author, E. M Forster loved the Hertfordshire country he lived in as a child.  I understand the fictional house, Howards End, is based on private home named Rooks Nest House.  What lucky people live there now!

  For Howards End is about a home, not just another house.  A home that protects and nurtures those that live in its walls and seems almost to take a hand in determining who will own and care for it.  It’s a home that transcends time touching ancient history in the ancient wych-elm beside the house and accommodating the future with the newer improvements.  In other words, it’s a home for everyone.  Where everyone can connect.

At the Other End of the Timeline: Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children

I like literary archetypes.   To me, they’re the puzzle pieces a person can assemble to understand the canon of Western Literature.   Anti-heroes, tricksters, mentors and shadows are all wonderful but my favorite is the orphan-hero.   His search is for home, his judgments are his own and like all archetypes he/she morphs to reflect the values of whatever era he’s created in.**  If yesterday’s Oliver Twist lives at one end of the Hero/Orphan timeline, then Tensy Farlow in Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children resides at the other.

As I said yesterday, Oliver is a sweet kid and everyone’s victim.  Graceful and sympathetic beyond his circumstances, his victory is in surviving long enough to be rescued by kind adults.   Well, that’s fair, given Victorian Times.  Unprotected kids were nature’s victims and the best any of them could hope for is a reasonable adoption.   But that’s not very heroic.

Orphan heroes in today’s take charge of their own fates and everyone else’s.   They’re brave, caring individuals who stand up to tyrants, tall and small, and they often rescue the adults.  I realized this a few years ago when I was working on a long research paper tracing the evolution of Orphan/Heroes.   I noticed these orphans advanced from being victims to adventurers, then promising proto-citizens to redeemers and  usually the male characters advance a bit in front of the girls.   As I got to the end of my search, I found lots of orphan boy heroes rescuing the world with bravery, super powers, and what-not, but I couldn’t find any recent corresponding girls.  There were supporting girl characters but not a center heroine that fit the bill.  Then I found Tensy Farlow, a heroine for the contemporary fantasy age.

When Albie Gribble finds the abandoned Tensy in a pile of laundry, all he sees is an abandoned  baby girl.  He doesn’t know Tensy is being looked for, which is all to the good.  You see, each  human in Tensy’s world has a guardian angel to keep as much evil at bay as possible..  Unfortunately, some angels do their job better than others.  Some angels are forgetful or forgotten and some angels become demons, opening the world for wickedness.   And, although Tensy Farlow can see guardian angels, no spirit looks after her.  Tensy has no angel at all.

Tensy Farlow & the Home for Mislaid Children is a children’s novel in the same literary vein as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Graveyard Book.   In other words, the setting is a bit gothic, most of the characters have odd English-sounding names (like Howard Humberstone and Matron Pluckrose) and very improbable things happen.  Like many fantasy books, it has the eternal struggle between good and evil but the the hope of redemption is not a ring-bearing hobbit or a wand-waving wizard.  Instead, the fate of the universe comes to rest on the bony shoulders of a  orphan girl with flyaway red. curly hair, especially good eyesight and a mind of her own.  Trust me, she’s somebody special.

For anyone who thought Children’s fantasy stopped with J. K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket or Neil Gaiman, take a look at this book from Australia.   It’s worth the look.  You could end up believing in angels.

** If I tend to use male pronouns in talking about universal types, that’s how I was taught during a less-enlightened century.  I hope I make it clear that as far as archetypes go, I believe neither gender has a monopoly, nor should they.  Fiction, in my opinion, should be the last place to accept limitations.