Political Expression

A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The WavesThe Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I'd wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn't care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens' Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.  

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner's class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I'd find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I'll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot's silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve "success", or his revolting remark,"Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more." (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare "Real Deals", as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? ...  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here's the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don't. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can't see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I'm a "real writer")? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner's World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that's not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one's otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven't put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don't want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It's the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The "Real Deals" are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The "Real Deals" make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.  

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” ― Ken Kesey

A Voice for the Stolen: Speaking Up For Nigeria

Reports surfaced early last week that hundreds of people, perhaps as many as 2000, were massacred by Boko Haram forces in northern Nigeria, near the Chadian border. Boko Haram, a militant, extremist Islamic separatist movement that is classified as a terrorist organization, is responsible for thousands of deaths since its emergence in 2009. In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 200 schoolgirls, reportedly to make them wife-slaves; those girls remain unaccounted for and hundreds more women and children have been imprisoned and enslaved since.  

Recent reports out of northern Nigeria indicate Boko Haram is using kidnapped girls as suicide bombers.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because so few are talking about it.

 

Last week, I raged, I posted on Facebook, I tweeted, I trolled the internet for information. NPR, through the indomitable reporting of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, as well as syndicated shows Here and Now and On the Media, has done an admirable job of keeping the Baga Massacre in the news; British media, including the BBC and print media The Guardian and The Independent, are producing the most audible, visible, and compelling reports and narratives. Yes, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign raised awareness during the initial days of the schoolgirl hostage crisis last year, but interest waned as time wore on and both captors and victims remained faceless, hopeless headlines. Headlines that grew smaller and have all but disappeared.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because little girls are being forced to blow themselves up.

 

Because little girls are being forced.

 

Because little girls.

 

I believe that lifting up women and girls—ensuring access to education and health care, providing freedom from oppression, delaying the age of first childbirth, promoting engagement in their country's economic system—is the single most important way to end poverty, improve a country's economic and political stability, and yes, even combat religious extremism and terrorism. Ample evidence of this—across cultures, nations, ages—is borne out by statistical research, surveys, white papers, dissertations, and by those who work tirelessly in shelters, refugee camps, schools, hospitals, non-profits and NGOs around the world. We know what to do. Corruption, misogyny, greed, extremism, and lack of political and popular will stand in the way.

 

But now it not the time for my opinion. Now is not the time for me to tell you why stability in Nigeria is critical to American political and economic security. You can read about that for yourself. I posted a few links below that I hope you find useful.

 

I don't know what can be done to help those women and children in Nigeria; nothing can be done to bring back the lives of those slaughtered. But I do know that we can all contribute to projects which work for women's and girl's empowerment. I've included links to few of those below, too.

 

On a day when we honor one of the world's greatest human rights activists, can I ask that you read something about what's happening in Nigeria? Can I ask that you stand up for the right of women and girls to be free from violence, no matter where they live? It doesn't have to be Nigeria. It can be the women's shelter across town. You are needed.

 

Understanding the history of Boko Haram & Northern Nigeria

Northern Nigerian Conflict, James Verini, National Geographic, November 2013.

The Ongoing Horrors of Boko Haram with journalist Alexis Okeowo, On the Media NPR/WNYC, January

The Kidnapped and Enslaved

Missing Nigeria Schoolgirls: A Chronological Storyline NBC News

Baga Massacre

New Reports Show Unprecedented Horror in Nigeria's Baga Massacre, Lizabeth Paulat, Care2

Satellite Images Only Source Showing Extent of Baga Massacre, Victoria Richards, The Independent, January 15, 2015

Media Reaction to Baga

Is The World Ignoring Nigeria? Here and Now, Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson, NPR/WBUR January 16, 2015

Why Journalists Don't Seem to Care About the Massacre in Nigeria Mark Hay, GOOD Magazine January 13, 2015

What the United States is Doing to Improve Security and Stability in Nigeria

U.S. Efforts to Assist the Nigerian in its Fight Against Boko Haram

What Can I Do?

Mercy Corps: Be The Change

Mercy Corps: Why Women Are Key to Building Resilience: Projects in Mali, Niger, Nigeria

Half the Sky Movement

There are dozens of organizations that support women's empowerment around the world. Here's a great list compiled by Half the Sky Movement: Organizations Devoted to Women's Empowerment Projects

Light through the clouds  © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Solstice Stillness

It's in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones—Pico Iyer 'How Can We Find More Time To Be Still?' Ted Radio Hour 

 

When the nettles of frustration brush my skin and leave tiny welts of irrational ire, when I strain to speak and manage only a raspy caw, like the ubiquitous crow that everyone hears but no one listens to, when the voices in my networks become the clashings of a thousand cymbaleers, I know it is time to seek silence.

 

I cradle the familiar collection of equilibrium-shifting triggers in my hands. The drawing down of light as winter approaches is a smooth cool stone, heavy in my palm; within the spiraling centers of delicate shells echo the hollowness of the holidays. I am learning not to fear these found bits of worn, sculpted, worked nature, for they are natural parts of me. They are opportunities to withdraw and listen deeply, to embrace and elevate the heavier parts of my soul.

 

Author Colm Tóibín once stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. I find such comfort in this notion, for it is a way of accepting the world that speaks to a writer who is so often overwhelmed by it. Not surprisingly, it is the times when I seek stillness that I find clarity in my writing, that new characters or ways over seemingly-insurmountable plot walls are revealed.

2014-12-12 15.41.54

 

But beneath the stone and carapace are broken bits of shell and sea glass not yet smoothed by the wisdom of time. Their sharp corners, coated with grating sand, poke into the soft meat of my palm. These are the events external to my life, the headlines and sound bites and smartphone photos of action and reaction. The shared moments of our culture that become hashtags and status updates. The voices opining about it all. Briefly, I join the discussion, but quickly overwhelmed, I retreat and determine the most important thing I can do is to listen. Carefully choose the voices I allow in, and fall quiet, listening.

 

Susan Cain reminds us that this culture values action over contemplation. We are a nation deeply uncomfortable with silence and we often equate opinion with action. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, expressed in a recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, "I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not being a part of the world and ... trying to change it." Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers. During his seventeen years of silence, John Francis realized what a relief it was to listen fully to others, instead of listening only to the point of formulating his own response.

 

We change the world for the better only when we understand what makes the world better for others. The only way to develop the degree of empathy necessary to effect change is to listen to what those others have to say.

 

In this week of longest nights, as I continue to seek stillness within and without, I offer you a Solstice wish of peace and quiet so that you, too, may listen and hear your own heart and the hearts of others.

 

 

 

 

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

I became aware of the “I don’t need feminism because . . .” meme several months ago. You know—that Tumblr photo collection of young women holding up signs that read things like, “I don’t need feminism because I am capable of critical thinking,” or “I don’t need feminism because I am not a delusional, disgusting, hypocritical man-hater.” I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but still, these weird declarations chilled me. How did a sociopolitical movement founded on the principles of empowerment and equal rights become reduced to “disgusting man-haters”? Who are these ignorant young women who believe that feminism is a dirty word, something to be ashamed of, and how do they not understand what they owe to the generations before them and how much work there is yet to do?

 

For the purpose of this review, these questions are purely rhetorical. The answers are there, they are complex, and the subject of many a dissertation, I am certain. Which is probably why Tumblrs of anti-feminist rants exist—we stopped talking about what feminism means on an everyday cultural level. Feminism removed itself to the alabaster towers of academe, where concepts such as intersectionality, essentialism, Third Wave feminism, and patriarchal bargaining are no match for the mainstream, which is still shuddering over 80s shoulder pads as wide as an airplane hangar.

 

Well, thank God for Roxane Gay and her collection of intimate, generous, witty, and wholly accessible essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is the first I’ve heard say, “It’s okay to be messy, to hold conflicting opinions, to do things that don’t follow the party line, to question and be confused, and STILL be a feminist.”

 

As she says in the collection’s closing line, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

 

First, a few things you should know about Roxane Gay: she’s a writer of novels, short stories, essays; a professor of English; a literary and cultural critic; a native of Nebraska, the daughter of Haitian immigrants. You will learn much more about Roxane by reading her essays. Some of what she shares will make you laugh. Some of it will break your heart. At some point, she will hit a nerve and piss you off (though not when she writes about participating in Scrabble competitions-she's adorable and so, so funny here). She ruminates, chats, gossips, but rarely does Gay conclude. Her essays hinge on the ellipses of what makes us human: our vulnerabilities, our inconsistencies, our flaws. Like each of us, she is “a mess of contradictions;” hence, her admission, her claim, to being a “bad feminist.”

 

Don’t look here for a historical treatise or a modern exposition of feminism. This is not a textbook. It is not a quick and dirty “Feminism for Dummies.” It is one woman’s thoughts (many of these essays have been published previously, giving to a loose and rangy feeling to this collection) on a wide range of contemporary American issues, political and cultural, with the basic theme of how feminism can confound and inspire.

 

A pop culture enthusiast, Gay examines contemporary race and gender relations through the filter of current cultural touchstones. She is an unabashed consumer of what are pointlessly referred to as ‘guilty pleasures.’ I floundered at times, feeling like I was smushed into a corner booth with a bunch of girlfriends at brunch, squirming and looking around the diner, unable to contribute to the conversation. I haven’t had television since 1993 and I don't read fan-fic.

 

Still, I soaked up what Gay had to say about the pop culture phenoms, even if I couldn’t relate to the details. She has this raw way of setting forth her opinion, often pointed, contrary, angry, or biting, but without a hint of snobbery. You get that she gets this is opinion, not gospel.

 

She makes many points that resonated deeply with this reader. In the essay Beyond the Measure of Men, Gay writes:

The label “women’s fiction” is often used with such disdain. I hate how “women” has become a slur. I hate how some women writers twist themselves into knots to distance themselves from “women’s fiction,” as if we have anything to be ashamed of as women who write what we want to write. I don’t care of my fiction is labeled as women’s fiction. I know what my writing is and what it isn’t. Someone else’s arbitrary designation can’t change that. If readers discount certain topics as unworthy of their attention, then the failure is with the reader, not the writer. To read narrowly and shallowly is to read from a place of ignorance, and women writers can’t fix that ignorance, no matter what kind of books we write or how those books are marketed.” 

But in a later essays, The Trouble with Prince Charming, The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help, she takes to task both the writers and readers of Fifty Shades of Gray, Twilight, and The Help. Gay draws the inclusive reading line at irresponsible writing of poor quality that celebrates the subjugation and abuse of women and at writing that craps all over the black American experience.

 

Gay also, naturally, discusses feminism from the perspective of a woman of color. This opens worlds of opinion and perspective that this reader craves. In light of this summer’s controversy over domestic abuse, the NFL, and the punishment Janay Rice suffered at the hands of her husband and the media, as well as the killing of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson, MO, I want to ask those young women of Tumblr, “How’s that ‘I don’t need feminism’ working out for you?” For I do not believe that feminism is the purview of women. It belongs to all who advocate for social justice and human rights.

 

In so many clever and self-effacing ways, Gay show us how we have isolated ourselves in our narrow categories. Feminism is not spared her scorn: it has largely excluded women of color, queer women, transgendered women, it hasn’t dealt adequately with fat-shaming, it doesn’t recognize privilege, it offers up highly educated, wealthy, successful white women (Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandburg) as proof that things have changed. But what is most striking about Bad Feminist is to hear a strong, wise, accomplished, vocal woman say, “I’m still trying to figure out what feminism means to me.”

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The Ray Rice Effect

I'd planned to tell you about the writerly "Eureka" moments I've experienced these past two weeks as I work through the professional edits of Refuge of Doves. But I can't. Not this week. This week, I've had different sorts of moments. If I don't speak out, I will begin to question my value as a writer, as much as my experiences have caused me to doubt my value as a woman.  

Unless you live outside the United States or under a news-free rock, you are aware of the public firestorm caused by the NFL's recent two-game suspension and fine of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for beating his fiancée, now wife, unconscious in February. Her name is Janay Palmer.

 

My knee-jerk reaction to this travesty was to bemoan the violent nature of football, and the gladiator-worship that has far more to do with money and celebrity than a celebration of athleticism. I'll own that I despise professional football. But my view of football isn't the issue here. In fact, during the river of adoration that gushed through Washington state in the run-up to the Seahawks' Superbowl win this year, I set out to recalibrate my prejudice against the sport by learning what football can be. I acknowledge that the sport can be played with dignity, that strategy can trump brute force, and that professional athletics can be used as a force of positive cultural change. I hold out hope that these become the norms, instead of the exceptions.

 

Ray Rice's behavior should be an opportunity for the NFL to send an unequivocal message to fans that abuse is alwaysalwaysalways wrong, that consequences matter, and the victim should never, ever be blamed or held accountable.

 

I'm not an activist writer. I shy away from confrontation. I will be the loser of any face-to-face debate because I suck at verbal articulation. I don't think fast. I speak softly. I get easily overwhelmed by emotion and I have a very thin skin. I feel deeply, passionately, recklessly, and possess solid convictions, but I do most of my speechifying to my husband, with whom I am of a mind in all matters moral and political. Our discussions are really harmonious duets. After the Newtown massacre in December 2012, I vowed to cease posting anything political to my Facebook page, because the personal cost of responding to anti-gun control advocates was too high.

 

I broke that vow this week, when I posted Keith Olbermann's impassioned televised op-ed regarding the Ray Rice controversy. I picked up the video via a Facebook friend and shared it on my page. The segment includes devastating footage of Ray Rice pulling Janay Palmer, unconscious, out of an elevator.

 

I don't have television and I don't watch the news online. I wouldn't have been able to pick Keith Olbermann out of a lineup. I don't care what his politics are, which network signs his paycheck, or if he eats his vegetables. He did what the NFL did not do. He spoke up for women. He spoke out against sexism, misogyny, and the most horrible manifestation of a male-dominated society: violence against women.

 

It took all my courage to share Olbermann's video on my feed, because of the deafening silence that I knew would follow. Because professional sports and celebrity are such sacred cows in our culture, and violence against women is still acceptable behavior. Because interest in Ray Rice and Janay Palmer is prurient and short-lived. Because of the roll-of-eyes attitude of those who see this as a "whatever" matter between a man and the woman who defended him after he beat her senseless.

 

My writing is infused with my experiences, observations, beliefs, passions, fears, and questions; what my characters experience and how they react come from all the tiny threads that, woven together, form this writer. But I'm a storyteller. I surround myself with the imaginary and never write with the intention of using my fiction as a political platform.

 

I wrestle with how raw I will allow myself to become and how opening up on the page will affect my ability to tell a story. I've realized in recent months, after reading the beautiful and brave prose of Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed, how much I hold back for fear of being judged. I have certainly bled on the page writing stories about women who've experienced miscarriage, and publishing an essay about my experiences with child loss--an essay I've read aloud to rooms of strangers. It doesn't get much rawer than describing what it's like to eliminate your baby's fetus into a toilet.

 

I shared, and will continue to share, those experiences because I believe in shattering the silence and shame of infertility and miscarriage. I will continue to write through frame of these experiences because I believe my words can speak for those who cannot, for those who are desperate for the embrace of someone who says, I understand. It's not your fault. We write and we read for many reasons, not the least of which is the catharsis of shared human experience.

 

The Ray Rice/NFL debacle this week filled me with shame and fear. Fear that if I speak my heart, my truth, I will pay the price. No one has ever punched me or dragged me from an elevator. I have never been hurt by a boyfriend. I am married to a man of tremendous integrity and compassion. I am smart. I am strong, physically and emotionally. I am privileged to have been born white, in an established democracy, to a family that valued education. Yet, I am ashamed of my own vulnerability. I am ashamed that fear has prevented me from speaking up and fighting back. I am ashamed of the times I was not strong enough to protect myself.

 

Has a man ever used his superior professional position or greater physical strength to intimidate or manipulate me? Yes. 

Have I refrained from reporting abuse because I feared the consequences for me would be worse? Yes. 

Has a man ever made me fear for my physical safety? Yes. 

 

I am not a victim. I am a woman. I am a voice. And I haven't finished speaking. In fact, I've hardly begun.

 

 

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So soaked in the mire of his paranoia and removed from the world, Jeremiah Pearl believes ash falling from the sky after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens is fallout from a nuclear war. He emerges from the forest with his young son, Ben, and holds a timber poacher at gunpoint, demanding, How many are left? I asked you how many are left goddamnit!

Smith Henderson’s smashing, crashing, tour de force debut novel, Fourth of July Creek churns with this sort of Action-Misunderstanding-Reaction and a human life often dangles at the end of any given chain of events. There is so very much at stake here; the novel wrings you limp and has you rereading the quiet ending for what you think you’ve missed.

The backwoods of western Montana give a dramatic backdrop to the novel, which takes place 1979-1981. Such an interesting period for this reader, who came of age during the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shortage, the boiling up of the Cold War, and the transition from Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater presidency to the sham of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The world so often seemed on the brink of calamity and Jeremiah Pearl, urged on by his prescient wife Sarah, scoops up his family from Midwest complacency and flees to rural Montana in response. There he begins an anarchic lifestyle--adopting the gold standard, rejecting all forms of government regulation, and risking the health and well-being of his wife and five children. He becomes an oddity, a legend, and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI and the ATF.

But Pearl’s story is only one thread in this dark, writhing tapestry of a novel. The most constant narrator is Pete Snow, a social worker, alcoholic, and disaffected father on the brink of several disasters of his own making. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex wife after a raging, alcohol-infused blow up, “I take kids away from people like us.” There are no heroes here, except the Cloninger family, who accepts the stray children Pete Snow brings to their door.

Pete, who works only when he can pull himself out of a bottle or a bed, is finally kicked out of his mental lethargy by two different mysteries: who and where is Jeremiah Pearl and, after it is too late, how can he save his daughter?

The mythology of Jeremiah Pearl enthralls Pete and he eventually forms a tentative, misplaced friendship with the paranoid radical and Ben, his sweet, almost-saintly, son. In a parallel subplot, Pete embarks on an Odyssey-like quest to find his teenage runaway daughter, Rachel.

This early '80s world of underfunded social service agencies, abused and neglected children, and addict parents could be 2014, but Henderson recreates an urban squalor in Seattle that has been largely vanquished by massive gentrification. Or simply moved upstream to its nexus on Aurora Avenue. But the rural decay, the political paranoia, and the counter-culture community feel ripped from the headlines. The horror of adolescent institutionalization continues apace and some of the most dreadful scenes in Fourth of July Creek center on what happens to children when they are abused by loved ones and then punished by the system.

Although there are moments of grace and tenderness, this is a hard-bitten, grueling read. It is also damn near impossible to put down. Despite its heft the novel moves at a jittery pace, with tension building like the volcanic dome over Mount Saint Helens. You turn the pages in white-knuckled suspense, anticipating a fiery dénouement.

But here’s where I struggled. Why I cannot sing full-throated praises. Every woman in Fourth of July Creek is presented as a victim, a hag, a whore—most are all three. Only Sarah Pearl wields power over the men around her and that’s because she’s batshit. As a woman, this bleak and gut-wrenching depiction wore me down. As a reader and writer I found it terribly discouraging. And then there’s Pete, born with tremendous advantage and potential, who mostly fucked it away for reasons I could never quite understand or begin to empathize with.

Henderson uses a second-person Q&A to tell Rachel Snow’s story as she “wyoms” through the West and Midwest, as a way to break the tension and jolt the reader from the flow of Pete’s hedonistic and hard-scrabble life. It’s masterfully done, but very nearly overdone. The story within the story didn’t quite work for me. It does offer a female perspective in a novel that is so very white male, but again, the young woman is a victim, tossed about like a pinball. It’s a whole story of how young women become enslaved on our very streets, and it deserves a book of its own. One I’m certain Smith Henderson is more than capable of writing.

An outstanding achievement. One of the year’s best.

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The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld's extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone's hands, saying, "You must read this. You simply must." It's been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops--another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison's most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy's wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York's attorneys, she is delving into the condemned's life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York's execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it's caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity's darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society's nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics' best of lists. It damn well better be.

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a hospital in Volchansk, Chechnya, on a boarded-up gash where a window once sat, a crude mural depicts the city as it had been before war reduced it to rubble. Looking at the mural the viewer is spared, for as long as she can pretend, the reality that the open space would offer: a void of destruction and death.

In his astonishing debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra paints a mural of war so vivid in its awfulness that we tremble as we gaze, but we enter the tableau and become so caught up in the power of Marra’s narrative that we tread heedlessly on the landmines of heartbreak.

The war in Chechnya occurred not once, but twice in our recent past. Its roots are so deep and tangled in the history of the North Caucasus region—which one character tries to tell in a six-volume, 3,300-page history—that most of us are helpless to name who is fighting whom and where. Forget even trying to tackle the why. But if you can grasp that Chechnya tried to break away from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, you’ll have a glimpse of the First Chechen War. If you understand the first war obliterated the infrastructure of the country and left it vulnerable and run by corrupt warlords, then you’ll have an inkling why Russia invaded a second time. But don’t worry that you still don’t know where this place is or why it’s fought over like a scrap of meat between starving dogs. You’ll get there. Be patient. Take a few minutes to Google a map of Chechnya or Wikipedia, but trust Anthony Marra help sort it out, through the graceful and tragic voices of his characters.

Marra unveils a time so awful it’s hard to get the head around, but with a sense of whimsy and just a touch of the surreal that the reader smiles, feeling awash with affection and hope, before being plunged again into the viscera of war. Akhmed’s exchanges with Sonja are delicious. Akhmed, who is so inadequate as a physician that he does less harm by drawing portraits of the dead and missing than treating the wounded, offers his skills to Sonja, who can sew up a man’s chest with dental floss. Yet she finds use for him in the hospital she runs with an ancient nurse who speaks in the third person. Akhmed represents humanity—a flawed man, but one imbued with tremendous compassion. The child he saves, Havaa—the daughter of his best friend—is the shining star in this constellation of survivors. Sonja’s sister, Natalia, is a comet that sears past so quick and bright it takes the breath away. If you’re lucky, the comet will return again in your lifetime, as Natalia does between the two wars, but know that it will burn fast and disappear while your heart is still pounding. And Sonja is the sun—a strong and shining beacon of intelligence and ferocity—that keeps the stars in alignment. As much as a vulnerable, tired, angry and frightened human can.

It takes some time to settle into Marra’s style and the jarring construction of the narrative, but let go of logic, let go of linear structure and let the characters show you what they need to tell their story. The surface story takes place over a few days in 2004, when Havaa’s father is “disappeared” and Akhmed takes her from their village to the nearby city of Volchansk, to shelter her in the crumbling hospital. But expect shifts of time between the first and second Chechen wars—that is to say, between 1994 and 2004—with a few jumps to World War II, as the nesting dolls of history are dumped out and scattered on the table. There is a steady stream of characters, each with his or her own tattered tale to represent the ancient and modern history of Chechnya, each illustrating the madness of war.

War is absurd. The very idea that modern societies continue to resolve conflict with wanton destruction is beyond explanation. Regardless of our obsession with history, our pop culture fascination with wars distant and current, we seem destined to do the same thing over and over again, expecting but never achieving a different result. Einstein’s definition of insanity. In this arena of the absurd are ordinary people forced to live extraordinary lives.

Marra’s novel reminds us why art is vital to the human race: art keeps us human, despite our avid attempts to obliterate ourselves. Art exposes history that we tune out while it’s happening, because we’re just trying to get through our daily lives. Ah, the irony: experiencing at our leisure—with an act most of us find pleasurable (reading) —a past that we couldn’t make sense of when it was happening. The absurdity continues. But so does humanity.

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Book Review: White Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse

White Dog Fell from the SkyWhite Dog Fell from the Sky by Eleanor Morse My rating: 5 of 5 stars

White Dog Fell from the Sky is as beautiful and profound a novel about love as any I have read. With grace and power it presents all the forms of love the heart is capable of holding: love born of compassion and of passion, love of family and of country, the blinding, feral love for one’s children, for any child, the helpless love for suffering animals, the love of justice that compels us to act, despite our fear.

The story unfolds in Botswana in the mid-1970’s. Across the border in South Africa the jaws of apartheid are grinding black citizens to bone and dust; those caught rebelling face torture and death in prison. A young medical student, Isaac Muthethe, escapes across the border in a hearse, hoping to create a new life and eventually smuggle his younger siblings into Botswana before apartheid swallows them whole. A stranger to Botswana, with no contacts or destination, Isaac begins walking. Behind him is a dog who appeared out of nowhere and who refuses to be left behind. Isaac names him White Dog and so by naming him, becomes attached to him as a symbol of survival and unconditional love.

By chance Isaac encounters an old chum, Amen, who is a member of the South African resistance movement, the ANC. Amen invites Isaac into his household. Fortuitously, Isaac is hired as a gardener by Alice Mendelssohn, an American woman in a nearby town.

Alice’s story, which begins as her marriage comes to an end, becomes linked to Isaac’s by a spark of compassion. It’s as if her heart knows its way before her head has a chance to object. She welcomes Isaac into her home with matter-of-fact generosity, while her mind is distracted by the stress of a stuttering marriage coming to a cold stall.

To put some distance between herself and her present reality, Alice leaves town on a research trip to the great veldt of Botswana - remote, removed, cut off from her town life. Alice asks Isaac to remain in her home during her absence. He is overwhelmed by her sudden trust, yet determined to be worthy of her respect. Alice is surprised to fall in sudden love with a taciturn British anthropologist, Ian Henry. She delays her return home to explore the possibility of a future with this solitary man, her senior by a generation.

When Alice returns several weeks later, Isaac has disappeared. His beloved companion, White Dog, remains behind, waiting for him, nearly dead from starvation. In the kitchen an uneaten bowl of porridge sits spoiled on the table, as if Isaac had been interrupted at his breakfast.

Isaac’s fate takes the reader into dark and terrible places; Alice’s quest to find him reveals the light of compassion and the depth of love.

In addition to love, the themes of social justice and political realities in Africa play central roles in the narrative. Man-made borders, that between Botswana and South Africa, the separation of blacks and whites, the barriers of language, social class and nationality as well as the fences designed to keep wildlife away from pasture land, create a sense of confinement and claustrophobia that is at ironic odds with the vast savanna of southern Africa.

Eleanor Morse’s prose captures the searing heat and treacherous beauty of Botswana; her characters touch every sense with a Babel of languages, revealing eyes or masked expressions, the salt on their skin, the sweat that clings to their clothes, the hair that shows or belies their ages. The tension she maintains leaves the reader raw and unable to let the book rest – the story compels as much as it shatters.

There is something very classic about Morse's writing style. This is the work of a mature, confident writer – making me think of Margaret Atwood, Shirley Hazzard, Richard Ford, Iris Murdoch. It could have been written thirty years ago instead of last year – there is an elegance, an ease, a straightforward storytelling style that contains not the least trace of contemporary self-consciousness.

I implore you to read this beautiful book. Your soul will tremble, your heart will ache and you will be changed as a reader.

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Book Review: City of Women by David Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is neither black nor white in war, only infinite variations of gray. With the buffer of history and hindsight, we can sit at our remove and imagine how our moral compass would guide us through treacherous situations, but fiction – well-crafted fiction – can offer three-dimensional dilemma and nuance that our egos would deny.

David Gillham’s City of Women is just such a work and it is excellent. Berlin in 1943 is a city of shadows. Nearly all able-bodied men are fighting across various fronts; left behind are hungry, cowed, suspicious citizens and their Nazi keepers, the old and infirm, wounded soldiers, and black marketeers. But mostly, Berlin is kept afloat by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers and officers. It is a city of women.

One of these women is the lovely and enigmatic Sigrid Schröder, a stenographer and wife of a combat officer. Sigrid’s war is reduced to the daily grind of her job and the grim existence she shares with her wretched mother-in-law. Scrapping together enough to eat, making do with threadbare clothes, huddling in a bomb shelter, not attracting the attention of her apartment building’s informers or Nazis patrolling the streets, would seem to leave Sigrid with no time or energy for moral quandaries. But there are empty moments, split open by boredom, loneliness and desperation. How Sigrid fills them drives the plot of this atypical wartime thriller.

Gillham juggles many elements. His skill at maintaining a complicated narrative with many characters, while remaining true to history, is tremendous. He adds new elements to our understanding of German citizens’ attitudes and behaviors during the war while crafting the hold-your-breath suspense of a literary thriller. His portrait of Berlin is pitch-perfect – the hopelessness and the viciousness of a city living in fear are claustrophobic and terrifying.

Gillham’s characters are intriguing, sympathetic and nuanced. The moments of tenderness and betrayal leave the reader uncertain of whom to trust, demonstrating the inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behavior that are true even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, who among us wouldn’t do what we needed in order to survive? Who among us would risk everything to ensure the survival of others?

What holds this back from a 5-star read is the overheated atmosphere. David Gillham’s Berlin might be drab and crumbling, but beneath the patched coats and bomb rubble is a city pulsing with sex. I’m torn here, because it also raises an important question of how women survive, even now, when their political and physical power is so often compromised. Sex becomes a refuge and a weapon. Still, the movie theatre trysts and living room carpet couplings become tedious and make you wonder how Sigrid would have been portrayed by a woman writer.

In addition, this is one of the most poorly proofread books I have encountered in recent memory. That isn’t the author’s fault, but it jars the reader from her world and sends her dashing for her red pen.

A compelling novel that I highly recommend to WWII history enthusiasts and literary thriller fans alike.

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Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On two successive nights this week I woke suddenly, yelling out in fright. In my dreams I was moments away from becoming the victim of a horrific assault. Shaken, I turned on the light, shifting uncomfortably in sheets soaked in my sweat, and I reached for The Round House. Louise Erdrich’s profound novel haunted my dreams and moved me to tears and laughter in my waking hours.

Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe living on a reservation in North Dakota, doesn’t escape from her nightmare. On a gentle spring Sunday in 1988 her thirteen year old son Joe and her husband Bazil, a tribal judge, peel her fingers from the steering wheel of her car and speed her unyielding body to the hospital. The front of her shirt is covered in vomit and she reeks of gasoline. Raped and nearly burned alive, Geraldine escaped when her captor went in search of matches.

Geraldine’s physical wounds heal in time, but the spirit of this proud, vibrant woman is crushed. She tumbles into depression, refusing to leave her bedroom, barely eating, escaping her terror through the false protection of sleep. The Round House opens with this crime and it becomes the incident which ushers Joe, the novel’s narrator, out of the smooth waters of his childhood into the murky depths of maturity.

The Round House is more than a coming-of-age story. The novel has many layers, each beautifully rendered in language that is so pure it belies the complex themes. The search for Geraldine’s attacker propels the narrative and in this, it is a tense literary thriller. It is an exploration of tribal law and the protracted effort by the federal government to chip away at Native American sovereignty. Tribal political and judicial limbo is a chord that resonates throughout Erdich’s works, yet when told through the perspective of a child it becomes the character’s discovery of his legacy and not the political agenda of the author. It is a novel rich with history, mythology and adventure.

But more than these themes, this is a novel of family. The tight union of Bazil, Geraldine and Joe forms the familial core. Erdrich’s portrait of a strong woman collapsing dug so deeply under my skin – this cold reality was the source of my nightmares. But the ways a husband and a son respond to the woman they love as she falls apart, how hard they work to lift her up and save her, are heartfelt and poignant. Erdrich captures each character’s emotions and reactions in vivid and graceful detail.

The theme of family extends through the tribal community. Erdrich reveals daily life on a reservation. She shows us what we think we know: the poverty and alcoholism on the inside, the marginalization and racism from the outside. But she also conveys a sense of community that few of us will ever experience, no matter how idyllic our childhood. Within the tribe everyone belongs to everyone else – the definition of family is not limited to blood relations. The communal responsibility demonstrates a solid foundation built on shared history and beliefs.

Despite the violent crime that churns the plot, there many moments of levity and sweetness in The Round House. The novel’s comic foil is Mooshom, Joe’s ancestor and tribal elder. And I do mean elder. He’s entering his second century as salty as a sailor and with libido to spare. The many scenes Joe shares with his besties Cappy, Angus and Zack are ripe with thirteen year old boy hormones, antics and tenderness.

I can’t sing loudly enough my praises for The Round House. I also can’t believe this is the first Louise Erdrich novel I’ve read. It has been a year of celebrated-American author discoveries for me: Terry Tempest Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, not to mention the astonishing debut of Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist). That they are each deeply connected to the American West is significant to me as a reader. Through their words I have developed a deeper understanding, love and compassion for my enormous and complex backyard.

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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a "Monster Classic" each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn't so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I'm no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I'm after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.

For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann's reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.

This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I've sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war - the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the "Greatest Generation" united as Allies - with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.

I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation -- how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?

William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.

Because of Shirer's proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer's interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.

As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer's characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today's socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians' idiocy and rejection of facts.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history - this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.

It is a testament to Shirer's skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler's conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany's feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler's increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.

It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm's length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.

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Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr

The Journal of Hélène BerrThe Journal of Hélène Berr by Hélène Berr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"...I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story.

Hélène Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of Hélène Berr. This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman.

Hélène Berr is one of five children of an upper-middle class Parisian family. Although raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish mother, religion plays far less a role in her life than secular education. She is a graduate of the Sorbonne, seeking an advanced degree as her journal begins. She is an accomplished musician, linguist and scholar of Western literature. Hélène is curious, articulate and like many young women in the bloom of their early twenties, she loves the attention of men, she adores her many female friends; she lives for the pleasure of weekends in the country and discussing literature in Parisian cafés.

But she is a Jew. It is Occupied Paris, 1942. And this remarkable account by a young woman living through the nightmare of Nazi occupation and French collusion is a unique treasure: rarely are we able to hold in our hands, heart and mind the real-time thoughts and actions of a life in drastic transition.

The obvious comparison to Hélène's journal is The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that Hélène is free as she writes, she is able to move about her beloved Paris, she has means and a degree of social freedom. For the reader, this holds a particular pain: we know this spirited woman is doomed, yet we rejoice with her as she gathers flowers at the family's country home in Aubergenville, as she contemplates her future with one of two men who may love her, as she practices Bach and trembles at Keats. Reading, I ache to push her south to Spain, west to England. I whisper "Run, run, Hélène, run while there is still time."

Hélène's journal from April - November 1942 is a slow progression from anecdotes about the impact of war on daily life in Paris to growing indignation and fear at the vulnerability of her Jewish family and friends. The most unspeakable happens - her father is arrested in June 1942 and sent to Drancy, a prison camp just outside the city. Amazingly, he is released a few months later and shortly after that Hélène falls silent, for nearly a year.

It is when she resumes her journal again, in October 1943, that the pretty, flighty girl has become an analytical, hardened woman. The compassion and the appreciation of beauty remain, but Hélène seems resigned to her fate. I found this passage so profound. Who among us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen? Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters? Hélène writes:

'So why do the German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me? Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say "Excuse me, miss" when they pass in front? Why? Because those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinking; they just want to obey orders. So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day: yet I would still be the same person. They have forgotten the principle of causality. There is also the possibility that they do not know everything. The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They do not know all the horrible details of the persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo.

Hélène and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944. Hélène perishes at Bergen-Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British.

Hélène regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee; a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to Hélène's true love, Jean Morawiecki. The translator, David Bellos, shepherded the work to publication in France in 2008 to enormous acclaim. The original manuscript now resides at the beautiful and haunting Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris's Marais district.

Hélène is an extraordinary writer - she has the soul of a poet and the vocabulary of a scholar. Her words are a gift to her readers, her life a sacrifice without sense. By reading what Hélène saw and experienced, we honor her hope: that we will never forget View all my reviews

A Thanksgiving Wish

When you are carried away with your worries, fears, cravings, anger, and desire, you run away from yourself and you lose yourself.  Thich Nhat Hanh -- Taming the Tiger Within In an interview last week with the on-line news/entertainment/opinion website "The Daily Beast" the chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes, declared that NPR executives were Nazis for having fired long-time political correspondent Juan Williams. It was a stupid statement by a foolish man. The interview is replete with inflammatory and bombastic statements directed at a host of liberal institutions and pundits, but none as grievous as Ailes's invocation of Nazism.

His comments were so preposterous that to repeat them risks granting Ailes attention he does not deserve. But I was so troubled by this story.  I was distressed on two levels: that Ailes could so casually toss about the one of the most horrific chapters of recent history simply to create headlines for his own agenda; and that his remarks were emblematic of the current state of political discourse. Ailes as an agent of fury isn't an exception -  his voice is just one more in the cacophony of deluded Cassandras that have been howling themselves into a frenzy of late.

This is hardly news. And it certainly isn't new. There have always been sides chosen and partisan rhetoric slung, but I am far from the first to observe that the nastiness has increased in the past decade to a level not experienced in living memory. What occurred to me over the weekend is that we are all responsible for Roger Ailes. Each of us, regardless of political views, have created the conditions under which a Roger Ailes can find an audience and thrive.

I know when the change occurred. It began that late summer morning in 2001, a day that began with such beauty and ended in complete horror. In the months and years that followed 9/11, our shock and grief has turned to fear. And it is fear that creates anger. We fear what we cannot control, we fear what we do not understand and our natural reaction is to lash out at that which is foreign to us. We end this decade at war, our sons and sisters fighting in distant lands, and at war with each other, our nation divided into shades of blue and red.

On the eve of this most precious of American holidays, a day for gathering together to celebrate the bounty of our lives in this most generous, spirited, and positive of nations, I wish for a day of détente. I cannot bring home the men and women who are risking their lives in our names, but I can honor them by not contributing to the angry rhetoric that ripples on the surface of our national conversation. I can hope that we will come to our collective senses and move forward out of a shared commitment to healing and progress. I can support the public calling out of those who deserve a thump on the head, such as Mr. Ailes, without resorting to mockery or defamation. I can act out of compassion rather than contention.

There was a girl who, thanks to her diary that chronicled life under Nazi occupation, gave voice the horrors of World War II. She was one among the millions slaughtered during that dark time. Yet her voice has always been one of light and hope. She is the memory we need to invoke, a voice of peace and reason to overcome the ugliness we create:

"I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy." ~Anne Frank

Safety in Political Expression

This week several Puget Sound residents became victims of gun violence. Two young men shot each other down in a state park in front of families enjoying a Saturday picnic on the shores of Lake Sammamish. Saturday night, an intruder murdered a young mother and one of her children; another child remains in critical condition at Harborview. And last night, a woman who went out into her street to determine the source of a domestic dispute was shot. Accidentally? Does it matter? She is dead, at the hands of a person with a gun. I have rarely felt secure expressing my outrage, or even simply my opinion, in matters where politics are deeply entrenched. I do not think quickly on my feet. I am intuitive, not argumentative; I cannot retain an encyclopedic set of facts and figures in my head to add objective weight to my subjective assertions. I value discussion, but I abhor combative confrontation.

My political and social beliefs are a reflection of my values, what I regard as moral and ethical. I regard others' stances as reflecting the same about them. Entering into a confrontational debate with someone who I consider a friend or a loved one nearly always results in deep disappointment and hurt. I see in them a set of values that I do not understand and it makes me question the foundation of our relationship.

I have spent some time reading the opinions of a Facebook friend via his posts on a political blog. He writes with vitriol, contempt, and scorn, spewing forth opinions as acidic as the bile that must churn in his gut. It has made me so sad to witness his anger. And it has turned me away from posting links to op-eds or articles of a political nature to my own Facebook profile. I don't want to be a part of that same pool of people who are driven by headlines. It doesn't mean that I pay any less attention or that my opinions are any less firm; it means that I need to find a balance between the safety of remaining silent and the rightness of speaking my mind.

Last night, I read a line in David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a line written by an author my age, spoken by a Dutch physician living in Japan in the early 19th century: " ...So  little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to coexist than seek to disprove..."

The first sentence I find terribly sad, the second I take to heart. I do find so much worthy of belief, of holding to the light, of fighting for. But I believe little is gained in argument. Debate, yes, but in this era of screaming heads posing as journalists, vapid tweets and hyper-polarized political parties, Debate has been trampled on and left for dead by its mightier but less worthy opponent, Argument.

Writing allows me to take a step back, to take the time I need to formulate coherent thought, to research beliefs so that they can take the shape of well-reasoned opinion.

But in this instance I let intuition take over, I let the certainty of my heart speak, I let what I know to be moral ring through.

Access to and possession of guns, in the name of a distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment, has made this country far less safe and secure. Recent Supreme Court rulings represent an erosion of effective gun laws and set this nation on a frightening path of increased violence.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is at work in every state to enact and retain sensible gun laws.  I have to believe that we are better as a nation, united, than the angry voices of those who believe their personal rights- rights defined by lobbyists, not the Constitution- are more valuable than the lives of their fellow citizens.