Archive | Musings

Illumination Night: Love and Redemption in the Hands of a Master Storyteller

illumination-night

We enter Alice Hoffman’s Illumination Night through the eyes of Simon, stretching to gaze out of his window on a hot summer morning. Simple details give us Simon’s four-year-old world—his room, his mother in the kitchen, his father out in the shed, the sound of the sea, something gauzy and white floating from the window of the house next door.

In the house next door, Elizabeth Renny, seventy-four and fearing another winter alone, gazes through the gauzy whit curtain and feels the weight of her bones lighten.

In the shed, Simon’s father sees his wife’s plates slide off her kiln and looks out to see the gauzy white shape of Elizabeth Renny on the ground.

Thus Alice Hoffman paints her canvas—two houses in a lazy hot seaside summer morning. Yet the very ordinariness of the scene and people contain all of the driving forces of the novel. Simon is small and fears he will not grow. His mother, Vonny, fears for him also and wants more engagement from her silent husband, Andre, who is happiest alone. Next door, Elizabeth feels the weight of age lift and decides she can fly.

When granddaughter, Jody, is brought in to care for Elizabeth, who has broken her leg and collarbone, the cast is very nearly complete. Moving from viewpoint to viewpoint, Hoffman weaves the longings and impulses of the characters that carry them toward tragedy and test their resiliency and capacity for growth. It is as though we can hold the group within our cupped hand as watch the human capacity for folly, tragedy, resiliency and growth played out in full.  Alice Hoffman is surely on my list of master storytellers.

Another Tale for Today

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Browsing through my notes, I came across this dialogue exercise I wrote for a class many years ago. It’s not nearly the level of Tony Fuhrman’s poem, but it seems singularly appropriate to the level of social and political scene today.

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A Tale for Today

“My mom said if I got kept after again I couldn’t go out for a month!”

“Don’t tell her. Tell her you stopped at the creek on the way home.”

Naaa–she’ll find out.”

“Ya, Ol’ Prissy Smithy’ll be calling your ma just so your ma understands exactly what you did.”

“Your ma, too.”

“Who’s that kid over there?”

“Dunno. One of those jerks they’ve been busing in.”

“What’s he watchin’ us for?”

“Dunno. There goes Sammy talking to him.”

“How come Sammy doesn’t have to stay after? He was texting as much as we were.”

“Heyu Sammy! How come the teacher didn’t make you stay after?”

“He acts like he doesn’t’ hear you.”

“Like the guy is a friend of his.” Reuban said.

“Yeah, Sammy always was weird.”

“Did you see that shiny shirt he wears? All purple with funny designs. Like some alien from outer space.”

“Bet they’re talking about us, too.”

“Heard one of those kids grabbed Jimmy Green’s pack and ran off with it—laughing up a storm.”

“Didn’t get into a bit of trouble for it either, I bet.”

“Teacher’s pets, the whole bunch. ‘Now you have to be nice to the new children!’ Like we’re a bunch of kindergardners.”

“Yeah. Coach even made one of them pitcher. Pitcher! Can you believe that?”

“Ain’t fair.”

“Ain’t. And we’re the ones have to stay after.”

“There’s the bell.”

“Better get ourselves in or we’ll be in more shit.”

“Yeah. Let’s go. … Whatcha looking at, weirdo?”

“Nothin.’”

“He was. Git him!”

 

Race in America: Stuck in a Rut

 

 Ferguson

 

 I watch the Ferguson protests and feel very old, very frustrated, and very discouraged. I watched the same explosions and protests in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The same explosion of despair and rage, the same fear and panic, the same, the same, the same. A lot has changed. Huge numbers of blacks have become accepted members of mainstream America and mainstream America has become multiracial. Everything has changed; nothing has changed. How can that be?

 For me, the answer lies in polarization. My maxim: people who interact only with those like themselves become increasingly ignorant of and hostile to those who are different. Over the same period, I’ve watched economic, racial, political, and religious groups become sealed off cells, banging against each other, reciting the same slogans over and over, gaining nothing. Ugly and uglier until it explodes once again.

 I’m tired of liberals consumed with their entitlements debunking economics as schemes of corporate giants, damning dissenters as sellouts.

 I’m sick of Tea Partiers insisting everyone can make it if they work hard enough, then refusing to hire minorities because only whites work hard enough.

 I’m weary of Blacks who believe whites and the system they’ve made are hopelessly racist, thereby reinforcing despair and accusing those who make it of being traitors.

 I’ve had it with the corporate leaders extolling competition while striving to eliminate it, rejecting all ethics in the name of profit, stripping workers of the rewards of their labor, casting middle class workers into poverty and the nation into crisis.

 Anyone caught listening to anyone of a different group is liable to expulsion. Those who repeat the same stale, time-worn slogans are “sticking to their guns,” “know their own minds.” stalwart heroes of the battle.” The celebration of closed minds. Everyone is frustrated that they never get anywhere; no one sees that they’ve locked themselves into their own stale fortresses.

 And everyone blames government, which behaves very much as they do. The problem with democracy is that we get what we deserve.

 We need James Madison, who believed mankind is primarily selfish but can be made better by better systems. His maxim: power corrupts; division of power is essential, and it is his view that finally won out at the Constitutional Convention. He believed that when groups realize that it is in their own interest to listen to each other (really consider the merits of the other’s position), productive compromise can result. When liberals acknowledge the importance of economics, capitalists the need for ethics, the problems of distribution, and the rights of workers, when blacks let whites help change white attitudes and discover their own power within the system, and conservatives of all stripes acknowledge that success depends as much on justice as on work—then we can emerge from the rut of racial conflict to which all of the sealed off groups contribute. Until then expect more of the same, leaving us all to weep at the mess we’ve created.

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Election Day: a New Story?

 election day

 

This week we voted. Not really. Washington State now has mail in- ballots, so the sense of community action is lost—among other things. I found the picture above, labeled, “Presidential Election, 2016,” in the midst of hundreds exploding in the red, white, and blue celebration of the day. Grim and gray, it expressed my feelings about the state of politics today–what we’ve come to.  Now the election is over. Can we hope for something different?

Once upon a time, I went to a college that believed exposure to contrary opinions was a necessary step to adulthood and citizenship. Starting with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, we read the debates that shaped the nation. Nothing was more basic to American citizenship than debate. After Obama’s election in 2004, at a Democrat meeting, I suggested talking with local Republicans, but the idea bombed. They confessed they didn’t know how to talk to them about politics. Last week, a column in our local paper asks readers how long it had been since they exposed themselves to any opinion that did not agree with theirs. Where did it go? When did we start treating each other as enemies instead of opponents?

cockfight

 

For me, it began when President Truman proposed National Health Care (no, not Obamacare) and my classmates called me a “commie” because my father, a physician, was on salary, not in private practice. I was twelve. I was seventeen when Senator Joe McCarthy sent his investigators to campus because the University of Chicago refused to make its faculty sign loyalty oaths and because we studied the Communist Manifesto. Reading it made us traitors.

It’s all in the language and language shapes the way we think. If “opponent” becomes “enemy,” disagreement becomes a “threat to our way of life,” agreeing with the opponent about anything becomes “selling out,” Closing your mind to all ideas other than those of your group becomes “loyalty,” “sticking to your guns,” “standing up for principals.”

When the Sixties came along, the Left picked up the war lingo they’d inherited. They talked of “revolution,” declared “war” on the establishment, and anyone liberal whose ideas differed in any way became “patsies of the establishment,” or “sellouts.”

Those were tumultuous times, filled with violence and multiple assassinations. Again language was inflamed—the glory of battle on the one hand, the fear of disintegration on the other. We survived changed. Split by fear and anger created in large part by our own inflammatory rhetoric. In the universities where I taught, there was no debate between theories of politics or anything else. One school supported one theory and another another. Those crossing the line were stigmatized and isolated. On both left and right solidifying of opinion became “unifying,” silencing the middle—“wishy-washy patsies” who don’t know their own mind.

To me, as a Democrat, this change in university life was bitter. I’d been active in politics before the Sixties, working for candidates, even running campaigns, but found myself silenced because I held view other liberals deemed “incorrect.” My heritage—both family and schooling—has taught me to doubt anyone who claimed their views were Truth. But the Sixties had left liberals in closed ranks and for me closed ranks make closed minds.

We blame Washington for it all, but let’s face it, the language of war is exciting, the glory of battle exhilarating, unifying, powerful. Our politicians tell us what we want to hear, and we’ve used the rhetoric of war rather than the language of debate for so long we’ve forgotten what talking with an opponent, much less, opening our minds to another way of thinking is like. Almost seventy years have passed since that schoolmate called me a “commie,” and every year exchanges debate disintegrate further into name-calling. Perhaps we’ve gotten what we deserve. Closed-minded rants that cycle over and over in their own little world until the rest of us clap our hands over our ears and stick our heads in the sand.

We need James Madison—the man who brought bitter factions together sufficiently to give us a Constitution. He wasn’t on the ballot, but the talk on the media was all about “working together,” and everything I’ve read about the mood of the nation tells me we are all sick of the battle that goes nowhere. Let us hope his brains, talent, and perspective will appear in the new group that leads the nation. And let’s hope the people will rediscover their citizenship.

Back to Reading

My apologies to anyone trying to read my blog in the last couple of weeks. We were having technical difficulties and it took a while to solve them. Also, I’ve been off to writer conventions—The Pacific Northwest Writers Association in Seattle and the Chanticleer Reviews in Bellingham—getting refueled. My own latest book, Home Fires, was a finalist in the PNWA Nancy Pearl Award contest and won an honorable mention in the Readers Favorite International Award for realistic fiction, which have clearly distracted me also.

HOME FIRES, Judith Kirscht's third published novel

 

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However, thanks to my persistent tech guru, Kate Williams, I’m back on-line. The title of this blog is a bit of a misnomer, since I’ve been buried in books (and authors) all summer, and left me wondering anew how readers can possibly make choices. I understand why readers cloister themselves in one genre or another and close the doors to keep the hoards at bay even though I think they greatly restrict themselves by doing so. I also wonder how many people have given up reading, overwhelmed, on the one hand, by the demands of the tech revolution and by the flood of self-published books on the other. One statistic I picked up (sorry, I didn’t note the source) reports 80% of Americans haven’t read a book in the past year, but 85% want to write one.

Make of that what you can. For me, the first figure says the social world of the Internet has flooded our lives—it has flooded mine—washing away the hours we used to spend reading, and the second says everyone has a story to tell. We’re going to have to regain our footing, wake up to the lost hours, and focus on those spots in the digital world that feed our particular needs, letting the rest slide by. If human history is any guide at all, sharing stories is one of those basic human needs. Another truth picked up at the conventions: word of mouth remains the most effective way to spread the word.

So please, if you’ve read a good book, share the news—not only to your friends, but with your local library, your independent bookstore, and the web as well. You don’t have to be a computer guru to post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Finally, comment on this blog. Tell me the best book you’ve read this year, and I’ll post the news here.

Let me start the ball rolling (again) by adding a book to the list of novels I started earlier: novels whose characters are caught up in the crises of our times. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

All the Light We Cannot See_

 

The time: August, 1944. The setting: the historic walled town of Saint-Malo, on the Brittany coast north of Normandy, occupied by the Germans. The characters: twelve-year- old Marie-Laure, blind since she was six, takes refuge under the bed as allied bombers seek to drive the Germans out. Her great uncle, who is her sole remaining guardian, has not returned. In a hotel five blocks away, Werner Pfenning, a German private, seeks shelter in the cellar. “Is this it?” he calls out. No one answers. A third and equally important character: the radio. Finally, an enormous diamond, Marie’s father and others are determined to save from the Germans despite its legend that anyone who possesses it is cursed—the possessor will live forever but calamities will befall his or her loved ones until it is returned to the sea.

Doerr takes us to the past to trace the stories of Marie and Werner, gradually bringing us back to this desperate scene and the post-Normandy defeat of the Germans. The deeply personal development of these characters brings the trauma of war home—we live it. We are pulled through with the characters by hope in the form of the radio. Doerr opens the story with a quote from Goebbles: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” But the “us” in the quote is far more universal than Goebbles intended; the radio gives everyone power. This, along with the Braille Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which is Marie’s vision of the world beyond, become the light we cannot see. And the role played by the gem? Read the story and conclude for yourself whether you believe the legend or not. Whether you do or not, you won’t regret the read.

Why Read Book Blogs?

 

Books & tree

 

I’m sitting here wondering what to write about for my next blog—and the one after—and the one after that. My brain is in neutral, so I bounce about other people’s blogs hoping to spark a response, or a topic. They say you should pretend you’re at a cocktail party, flitting between groups, picking up bits of conversation, hoping to find one you can participate in. But I’m terrible at cocktail parties; I can’t do small-talk. And let’s face it; most of the conversations at cocktail parties are small talk. In fact, a lot of the small talk today is about what website or blog provides the answers whoever brought up the topic was looking for. Each carrying a personal internet around connecting to other webs.

So what’s it about, this vast need for spider webs? To find others like ourselves, I think, and this need I understand. Writers seek writers, cooks seek cooks, photographers seek photographers, and form close little groups, immune from the view of others. Criminals seek criminals, too, of course, pedophiles seek pedophiles, and reveal that this act of closing ourselves into cells may not be altogether healthy. This need explains a lot, but not cocktail parties.

People who go to cocktail parties, I think, are casting their webs outward—seeking, seeking. But if the harvest is small-talk, I don’t see the rewards. The kind of talk I find rewarding takes place between two, three, or four friends—not of the virtual sort. A friend and were I talking, the other day, about books that moved us—changed us, spoke to our inner-selves. That led us to open and find commonality in our deeper selves. That’s the kind of interaction I seek and believe others do also. That’s why I write book blogs and hope to attract the sort of surfer who is looking for that deeper reward.

There are books that are like cocktail parties, too, of course. Or theme parks. They lighten the day, bring us the thrill of the chase, fear of the unknown stalker. I read them for that—for taking a break. But the books I write blogs about are those that for whatever reason make me stop, settle, open my inner self. Maybe because the protagonist speaks to that self, maybe because the experience is one I’ve had in my life, but neither are necessary.  I truly believe it’s because the author has the gift of language combined with insight into human behavior that cuts through to the heart of the matter. By this I don’t mean  language that point to its own art. Quite the opposite. I mean language that is transparent to meaning—so clear you are not aware of it at all.

Wait for a few examples of this gift in my next blog.

 

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Race in America—in Fiction

 

Earlier in this series of blogs, I talked of the rewards of reading novels whose characters are swept up in the crises and “hot topics” of our times. In the discussion, I sympathized with readers who find topics such as the Holocaust and race done to death and given to ideological preaching. I recommended novels that break those bonds, give fresh new perspective on those outworn topics and move us to a new place. World War II and the Holocaust were the topic last week. I told of my own personal response to those books as an example of the rewards of reading them. This week, I will do the same for novels on race in America.

The Civil Rights movement opened the doors of publishing houses to minority writers, and we have since had an explosion of novels on the American experience from the non-white side of the coin. Some of them, such as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Alice Walker’s, The Color Purple, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, John Nichols’, The Malagro Beanfield War, T.C.Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, have forever changed our view of America and its people. If you have missed any of those titles, you should add them to your bucket list, for they are powerful movers as well as classics.

However, few white or mixed race writers have tackled race, probably out of fear of being seen as racist. That same fear has silenced an important topic, for surely white attitudes shape the country’s experience as well. Therefore, I’ve focused this blog on stories that give us the experience of living through racial strife from the inside and from across the racial spectrum.

The HelpKathryn Stocket, The Help
This best seller mixes bitterness and humor with such gift it lifts readers hearts. The southern story of a maid and her socialite mistress gives us heartbreak and laughter on both sides of the racial divide. Not only does it reach deep inside Southern tradition, it gives us characters–both white and black–who reach beyond those traditions to justice—and so move us.

 

Half A heartRosellyn Brown, Half a Heart
A woman dedicated to civil rights takes in the daughter of her conservative sister. I related personally and intensely to this story because it reaches deep inside the family bonds and its characters struggle with the conflicts that split this family. There is no preaching, no good guy/bad guy, simply humans struggling. Thus, it is an intimate story of what it’ like to cope with the polarization of our times. A similar need gave rise to the next book, Nowhere Else To Go..

Nowhere-Else-To-Go-Cover-thumbnailJudith Kirscht, Nowhere Else To Go
This is the story of a college town torn apart by the movements of the Sixties, and was borne of the effect of those days on my young children, their school, and our neighborhood. It is told from the point of view of the junior high school principal whose school and marriage are at stake, of the children of an integrated neighborhood, of parents of both races. It gives a very different, anti-ideological, view of the Sixties. I think anyone who finds themselves split between ideologies, cultures, or religions—and most Americans are, at some point—will relate to this story.

Sweet Song-cover-lowTerry Persun, Sweet Song
A compelling story of a mixed-race boy’s struggle to find identity in post-Civil War America explores the heart of our racial past and speaks truths that resonate with our racial present. Again, if you’ve heard enough about race in America, don’t be put off. This, too, is a very different take. In an account Terry Persun wrote for my blog, he says his interest in race was personal—his father is of mixed breed (aren’t we all, he asks) and as a child, he was identified by others as of one race or the other. Years later, as he read about growing up along the Susquahanna River near Williamsport, a stopping place on the underground railroad, he was moved to understand his racial past more deeply.

The Inheritors by Judith KirschtJudith Kirscht, The Inheritors
I relate very personally to Terry’s story because I think this novel was born of my own need to understand my racial attitude, which was always at odds with my fellow liberals. By hindsight, writing The Inheritors brought me to an understanding of why. Like Terry, the story took me home to Chicago, where I grew up. Like Terry, I created a mixed-race protagonist, a heroine in search of her identity, the like Terry, I never intended to write an historical novel, but was carried into Chicago’s immigrant past. Both of these books move the reader out of the rut racial topics have fallen into. When Terry says “Aren’t we all?” he clearly refers to the fact that to be an American is to be a mutt—who do you know who hasn’t experienced mixed cultures, mixed nationalities, mixed religions, mixed social class. This is what the reader brings to these books—they join their own histories to them.

 

What “Sort of Book” Do You read?

An all to frequent response to my books is, “I don’t usually read that sort of book, but I really got into it.”

So what “sort of book” do I write?

Stories that sweep you into the life of the characters and move you, change your perceptions or your sense of your own life. But that, of course, isn’t the answer such readers are looking for.  They want to know what cubbyhole they fit into: mystery, romance, historical, fantasy, science fiction, etc.. I understand the need for labels. They give some guidance in the chaos of books coming off the press these days, and they tell bookstores and libraries where to shelve the books. The problem is, the label likely to be attached to my “sort of book” is “General,” which isn’t very helpful, “Literary”–which means some English teacher scared you off–“Serious,” which means no fun to read and certainly not a book for escape, or “Good” which has a moralistic or judgmental tone. None of which means a story you really get into.

Moreover, readers also label themselves. “Well, I’m a mystery reader,” “I read romances,” or “paranormal is my thing.” I’m not so sure where this need comes from, perhaps from our need to fit in. But I would argue against walling reading habits in. Used this way, labels imprison us. They protect us from chaos, but they make the world beyond our self-made fortress a scary place inhabited by strangers. Worse, the industry urges writers to write into these pigeon-holes, reinforcing them.

And so we move away from each other and become strangers. Polarization is a sad truth of our times, and I think in some way that’s the reason I read and write about characters who refuse to be imprisoned by the forces of their times, who moved beyond boundaries. Move me to a different place, a different understanding of myself.

The interesting thing is, despite reader self-labeling, such books often become best sellers, such as Kahled Hosseini’s Kite Runner  or Garth Stein’s Art of Racing in the RainOr they are transformed into movies, such as Schindler’s List  or The Life of Pi.

The kite Runner       Life of PiArt of Racing in the RainSchindler's List

Why?
Because they sweep the reader into the life of the character. I think the public responds to good stories—and by “good” I mean stories that move them, speak to their own lives in some way. Hosseini’s hero is driven by guilt for betraying a childhood friend. The dog narrator in Racing in the Rain must carry his master through loss and into life again. It’s no fluke its hero is a dog. Schindler’s List is set during WWII but is about unsung hereos faced with huge destructive forces.

We live in a time of huge social, political, and geological upheaval. Life is tough, and too many if not most of us struggle through our personal hard times alone. The growth and success of support groups speak to the unfortunate truth that troubles isolate us. For that, reading of others facing similar crises, regardless of time and place, is a great balm. Reading of others struggling with fear, guilt, shame, anger, and loss relieves that isolation. We are not alone.

I believe it is the source of my own writing, and I think the rewards of writing are not that different from the rewards of reading. My topics focus on  conflicts of my own times, stretching from the Depression through the tech revolution. In the following blogs, I will talk about this “sort of book” and my very personal response to them. I invite readers to share more titles, give a brief description of the story’s central conflict and share their effect on you.

 

Book Review: The Weird Sisters

As another of a series of reviews on the rewards of reading “reality” or”serious” fiction, let me introduce Eleanor Brown’s New York Times bestseller, The Weird Sisters

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“We came home because we were failures.” So Eleanor Brown opens her debut novel of three sisters, born in a college town of a father immersed in Shakespeare—so immersed that he has named his daughters, Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia. The family communicates with lines from the Bard and Bianca and Cordelia have returned home after receiving letters whose Shakespearean lines tell them their mother is ill. If you know Shakespeare,  it will add to your reading pleasure, but such knowledge isn’t necessary for a good read.

What follows is the story of the two younger sisters’ attempt to emerge from “the sandstorm of Shakespeare in which we were raised” and create a new identity. Bianca (Bean) headed for New York and a life of urban sophistication, Cordelia (Cordy) set a course for anywhere and became a nomad. For each, the attempt ended in disaster and terror. The elder, Rosalind (Rose), has not dared to emerge at all, which heads her toward another sort of failure.

Rudderless, Bean and Cordy struggle to integrate their lives in the great world beyond with the ivory tower of their childhood and evolve into the individuals they truly are. Because we find them back in the college town, the events of their lives in the world stand in contrast to the cloistered fortress and carry the harsh, lonely terror of the unprepared chick cast from the nest. For each, the return is indeed failure, though for the reader it is the beginning of true adulthood.

Brown has created a caricature of the academic family, and perhaps I relate more closely because I came from such a family and know well the sense of isolation from the world at large. Her characters are extreme enough to give us distance and the narrator’s humor makes us laugh. At the same time, this lively and highly original story is also the story of every family, for families are unique organic wholes, and our place in that organism shapes our sense of ourselves, our language, and our expectations of ourselves. To Bean’s and Cordy’s flight from the nest, we see our own, with all its terrors writ large. In Rose, we find that part of ourselves that never left home at all. In all we find the expectation of our culture—that we fly free to create a self that is unique, brilliant, and profound—in all ways superior to our beginnings. And then we land.

Why Read a Novel?

Books & tree

Earlier this month I urged readers to “Drop Out and Read” , and talked about its value to me. I was delighted to see that a good friend and marvelous writer, Toni Fuhrman, had blogged on the same subject, so let me share with you a brief excerpt and link.

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Why read a novel?
How many times in my life have I heard some version of this question? Most people do not read novels. Why? ‘Novels are a waste of time.’ ‘I’m not interested in stories about made-up people.’ ‘Novels don’t relate to my life.’ ‘I don’t have time.’ ‘I have far more important things to do.’

This excerpt, republished with permission, is from a blog post by Toni Fuhrman, published on her blog, a windless place, on July 22, 2013. Click here to read the entire post.

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Toni, in this blog, talks about the intimacy of the novel, of being alone with the story, forming a relationship that is unique–yours alone. How important this is in today’s world where we are forever badgered to be social, to interact constantly, to call people “friends” whether we know them or not. So prevalent is this drive, that for those growing up in the social media world, aloneness, like silence, may become terrifying. When will we rediscover the experience Toni describes? This aloneness is not to be confused with lonliness, for we are joined with the character, with the author’s voice. As Toni says, a novel is “… a companion that makes us laugh and makes us weep, surprises us, inspires us, reaches out to us in our inevitable loneliness and isolation, engages our intellect, and compels us to turn the page …”

I invite you all to join this conversation. Why read novels? So many believe, as suggested by the excuses Toni Fuhrman lists above, that only the real and immediate needs are worth our time, only non-fiction is true. In “Drop Out and Read,” I talked about my preference for characters who confront contemporary crises. My second choice is for historical novels where characters face the same issues in other times and cultures. We will talk about those in this series, also. What is your preference? Why?

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Drop Out and Read

reading

 

I’ve dropped out. Reinvented Sunday. I’ve given myself permission to not read my e-mail, catch up on Facebook, converse with other writers on LinkedIn, or review in my head all of the things, including writing my blog, that I ought to be doing. I feel liberated, relaxed, utterly euphoric.

I dip into one magazine or book without obligation or goal—any bit of news that catches my attention, any travel destination that draws me, a bit of advice on cooking, dog training, stain removing, until I doze in my chair or my housemate rouses me to take the dogs for a walk. Once sufficiently relaxed, I pick up whatever novel I’ve been reading at bedtime. Since when has reading novels become a guilty pleasure reserved for those few moments between the day and sleep? I don’t know, but I do know that’s a habit that does great injustice to the experience of the novel. A novel is meant to be experienced, not nibbled at.

Marry PoppinsSo drop out and drop into a story. As William Deresiewicz says, “… feel what it’s like to inhabit a character’s mind.” (Atlantic Monthly, June 2014, p.94). Resurrect that time in your life when you became Mary Poppins, Alice, Pooh, or Batman and in that experience discovered your own fears and longings. Give yourself the gift of time, that rarest of commodities in American life. For, as Deresiewicz says, “The novel allows you the freedom to pause, to savor a phrase, contemplate a meaning, daydream about an image, absorb the impact of a revelation—make the experience uniquely your own.”(p. 94)

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller cover

Like most authors, I write what I read—stories of characters caught up in the crises of our times. Novels set in other times draw me also because they give perspective on today, but creating characters who confront the monumental changes of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century of American life “bring both self and world into focus,” as Deresiewicz says (p.93). They give the American experience from the inside—what it feels like to live it.

Novels by international authors, such as Hosseini and Achebe, give me the experience of living other cultures from the inside, fascinating in their own right and an experience that gives me perspective on our own culture. I return changed; the realities and demands of my own culture and even my identity itself become less universal, more a product of time and place.

I feel as though I’ve discovered a lost art, for reading was central to my growing up. The demands of the technological age are so incessant and all-encompassing, they leave little room for thought. We are pack animals, and the compulsion to stay “up to date” busy interacting regardless, reflects our need to be part of the flow, our fear of dropping out, of isolation. But take it from me, reading of other lives reduces our sense of isolation, joins us to other lives on a more intimate level. And it gives distance on the compulsions that drive our lives. If, from your easy chair, you’d like a view of lives caught up in technology, try Laurie Frankel’s Goodbye For Now. I promise a review in my next blog.

Goodbye for Now

Woo Themes, Canvas - Designer, Kate L Williams

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