Friday, March 12, 2010

Serpent In Paradise by Dea Birkett

"We all hold a place within our hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength; we can always retreat to its perfection. My mistake was to go there. Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself." - Dea Birkett

When I was in High School, I read the story of the Mutiny On The Bounty. I found it both interesting – and intriguing – to think of the 102 Pitcairn islanders (at that time), descended for the most part from the mutineers and the Polynesian women who went with them, and the lives they had forged on a tiny outcropping of rock in the South Pacific. I imagined it must be an island paradise to have kept them there for so long. I think that Birkett was correct in her assessment that at some point in our lives we all imagine a place where everything is bliss, a place where we imagine our lives will be happy and whole and fulfilled. This dream is tucked away in our hearts, to be pulled out and savored when life proves disappointing.

Serpent In Paradise is the story of Dea Birkett's belief that she would find the island of her dreams in Pitcairn. It wasn't as simple as hopping a plane; there are no airfields on the island. First, there was the matter of receiving permission to go there. It took two years, and even then it was under pretense. The islanders jealously guarded their privacy. After receiving the necessary documents, she then had to arrange for a place to stay while there. Finally, people arrive by water. With papers in hand, she made her way there after a long slow voyage aboard a vessel which was passing near the island. When the islanders came out to barter and sell their limited produce and handicrafts, she finally caught a ride back to its' rocky shore on one of their longboats.

The paradise she expected to find was not there. She found an island which lacked many of the modern amenities she was used to, where the environment was damaged by improper practices, and where the islanders were a very tightly knit community formed by the long existing presence of the Seventh Day Adventists. Her personality and personal habits went against the sensibilities of many of the islanders. She struck me as clueless and insensitive to the feelings of the people around her. Her actions were often inappropriate and created anger toward her. In the end, she felt threatened and made the decision to leave.

I am certain that Serpent In Paradise has done nothing to mend fences between Birkett and the people of Pitcairn. She frequently gives the names of those involved in the awkward and embarassing situations she describes. She was, though, accurate in one thing. She seemed to perceive a dark secret that existed there. A few years later, there were accusations against several of the men on the island concerning their “relationships” with young girls. After several years of trials and legal wrangling, all but one was found guilty.

The book left me sad. It reminds me that no society is without its' problems, regardless of how small it is. It reminds me that when we go somewhere looking for an unspoiled place, we frequently bring about destruction of its' beauty by our demands. On another level, it also reminds me that there are people who are not content to allow us to live with our dreams.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Spiderwick Chronicles

The story begins with a letter to the authors (Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black) from the Grace children – Mallory, Jared, and Simon. They speak of having found a mysterious old book – a field guide that has given them a vision into an even more mysterious world filled with all kinds of creatures – creatures that they had previously thought existed only in fairy tales and fantasies. Some of these are kindly, others mischievous, while others are quite malevolent. The books (there are a total of five in the set) are the story of the adventures and dangers the Grace children face as they learn to navigate amongst them and attempt to save humans from the threat that exists in this unseen world within our world.

The Grace children are interesting and engaging personalities, easy to identify with and likable. Some of the other characters (Aunt Lucinda was a personal favorite!) and creatures they encounter are quite endearing too. The story flows well and the reading is easy; I finished all five of the books in a day. There are a total of 672 pages in the set, but the pages are small and the font is a little larger than most. This, coupled with an abundance of illustrations, makes them go quickly. (My best guesstimate of the number of pages of actual normal print would be about one third that number - 225 pages.)

I am glad I've read the books. I enjoy well-written fantasy. The illustrations are wonderfully done and the storyline shows considerable imagination. It is a bit predictable at times, but it is written for children after all. The Spiderwick Chronicles would be fun to read with or to children. Having said this, I don't believe they are books for all children. If a child has difficulty separating reality and the imaginary, I believe the vivid images they present could be frightening for them. As for me, when I went to bed that night, I just pulled the covers a little higher and made sure that my hands didn't fall over the side of the bed as I slept. :-)

Sven Hassel - The Legion Of The Damned

Danish-born author Sven Hassel is an enigma. Little seems to be known for sure about his origin. He has written a number of books about World War II. He purports to have been a member of the Wehrmacht, once sentenced to prison in Germany for desertion, and ultimately assigned to a Penal Batallion as a member of a tank crew. As such, he is thrown to the front of every battle. In his story The Legion Of The Damned, he tells of his experiences during the war in most graphic detail. Did these things happen in reality? Were they battle stories gleaned from interviews with German soldiers after the war? Purgative or potboiler? I don't know and I don't care.

As I tried to digest the book after finishing it, I found I had many conflicted feelings. Many of these are feelings that have never been resolved since early childhood. I am 60 years old, a child born of a veteran of World War II in the Pacific. My uncles were veterans also, one of the European Theater and other was involved in the island war in the Pacific. Myself, I am a veteran of the Vietnam era.

As a boy, I had a small collection of baseball cards. My heroes were people like Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. My father had a different kind of collection. As a machinist mate aboard a small supply ship in the Navy, he was stationed in the Aleutians in 1944. The Japanese, having invaded the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska in June of 1942, had evacuated them in July of 1943. He never saw war. His collection, though, was a number of photographs he had kept as souvenirs, pictures of the mutilated bodies of Japanese soldiers and the egregious abuse of these dead by American servicemen. There was no effort to hide these photos; they were kept in the same shoe box that held the memories of birthdays and holidays. He seemed to take perverse delight in my reaction to them, yet never understood why I grew up to become a pacifist. I have often wondered about the source of these horrible photographs. Were they things he had found amongst the possessions abandoned by Japanese soldiers on the islands – given to them by their superiors as proof of the animal-like nature of the American enemy? Or were they someone else's sick idea of trading cards – mass produced and passed around to dehumanize the Japanese enemy in the minds of our servicemen? I don't know and am not sure that I care.

Hassel wrote “War is a bad way of experiencing the heights of life; it leaves you disappointed, and when you come back from it you discover that you have not had any sensible purpose and have lost contact with that to which you have returned; you have become restless, as it is called, and your nerve has gone. That is true both for the victors and the vanquished. Perhaps the tragedy is greater for the victor. He has been victorious, but whom has he vanquished and for what has he conquered? He cannot make heads or tails of it. It was so different when he set out, for then he believed in a simple truth; but that proved to be hopelessly involved once it was stripped of the proud words in which it had been presented to him.” In The Legion Of The Damned, Hassel paints a picture of the hideous nature of war and its' effects on the minds, hearts, and souls of those caught up in it, whether military or civilian.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Since the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, there has not been a declared war in which Americans have fought. Yet, we have lost tens of thousands of Americans in more than a dozen different conflicts and operations. How many more have come back wounded and broken? As I sit here trying to review this book, thoughts of those pictures, the “proud words” that have been spoken to convince people of the rightness of war, and the seemingly endless conflicts swirl in my mind. I think of brave men and women who answer their country's call; still I can't help but wonder whether our leaders have been honest with us. It bothers me that veterans returning from war often do not receive the things or care they need to find healing, to rebuild their lives, or to ensure that they will find the care they need, now and in the years to come. It bothers me when shattered minds are dismissed as pre-existing situations. Is it even possible to return from war unchanged in some way? I don't know, but The Legion Of The Damned reminds us of the reasons we all should care.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The year 2009 was a difficult one for me, marked by losses that were numerous and frequent. I was blindsided by the profound emptiness and heartache that came from these sudden voids in my life. It felt as though life had pulled the rug from under my feet. I wasn't coping well and I suppose I was looking for better ways to deal with things in 2010 when I picked up Joan Didion's book The Year Of Magical Thinking.

On Christmas Day of 2003, the only child of writers John and Joan Dunne (who writes under her maiden name Joan Didion), Quintana, was admitted to Beth Israel hospital in New York with pneumonia. By day's end, she was in ICU in septic shock. Five days later, having returned home from a visit to the hospital, John and Joan sat down to dinner. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, Didion's beloved husband of nearly forty years slumped over and died of a massive heart attack.

A few days later, Didion made this note on her computer.

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.”

Life as she had known it had ended. These sudden changes and losses marked the beginning of what she describes as her year of magical thinking, a year in which she struggled with the conviction that she could have and should have done something to prevent John's death, a year in which grief came ... “in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life." It was also a year in which Quintana's recovery became increasingly uncertain.

Didion describes it best herself. "On most surface levels I seemed rational..." "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. . . . Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself." She relates that she had been trained since her childhood to look for answers in literature, "But I hadn't read anything that captured what I was going through, the immediacy and rawness of it." "I knew I wasn't thinking rationally. I was thinking as children do when they think they can change something that's already happened." Of this book, she writes "This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."

I'm not sure what I expected when I picked The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Did I think I would find the meaning in my losses? Perhaps I was looking for Grief For Dummies, an explanation of how to properly deal with the feelings, how to wrap them into a tidy little package like Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, to make of them a simple task to be completed. What I found was an amazing portrait of the losses and grief of another person, painted with unusual honesty and intimacy, her story of her journey into that “place none of us know until we reach it.” In the similarities of our stories, I found a measure of solace. In the differences, I recognized that we each deal with grief in our own ways and that it isn't over until it's over, if in fact grief ever completely ends. Whatever the case, it cannot be hurried or denied. We embrace the memories of what we had once known and use them to appreciate more deeply what is yet to come. We look for and eventually find our own meaning as we re-examine that which we accept through faith.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

People Of The Book by Geraldine Brooks

In People Of The Book, author Geraldine Brooks has created an amazing piece of historical fiction, woven around and inspired by the true story of a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. In the story, Australian Hanna Heath is called upon to restore the Haggadah, which has been rescued from destruction during the Bosnian war. A brilliant and passionate expert in her field, Heath discovers a number of things within the book – a fragment of an insect's wing, wine stains, an inscription in the margins of a page, a small bit of salt, and a single white hair. These become clues which she pursues to try to learn the answers to the riddle of how this beautiful manuscript found it's way from fifteenth-century Spain to Sarajevo. Heath's conjectures about the Haggadah are sometimes close to the truth, truths which are illustrated through Brook's skillful storytelling as the book goes back and forth between Heath's narration and the different periods of history.

I was especially impressed with the vast amount of research (in numerous disciplines) that Brooks must have done to ensure historical fidelity. The characters she creates in both Hanna's story and the historical vignettes are people with strengths and weaknesses within whom I could find parts of myself. They possess the ability to encourage and exhort, as well as prick the conscience. The stories have as their common theme the Haggadah, of course, but just as strong is another theme suggested by a second meaning of the book's title. Muslims believe that God had revealed Himself to the prophets of Judaism and Christianity. While Islam also believes that Jews and Christians have strayed from the true faith, they are still called People Of The Book. This thread is best summarized by a quote from the book. “... the Haggadah came to Sarajevo for a reason. It was here to test us - to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us - that to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” This, I believe, was the real story that Brooks was telling here.

I had never heard of Geraldine Brooks or the Sarajevo Haggadah before I found this book on the shelves of our used bookstore, but I have to say that People Of The Book was one of the best I have read in some time. I was sorry to turn the last page, but am looking forward to finding other things she has written.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The first chapter begins with these words "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." So it continues. It is the story (fiction) of Susie Salmon, her family, friends, and other sundry characters, including that of her murderer, as seen through her eyes from her place in the beyond. She watches as her family deteriorates under the stress while the murderer goes uncaught, as those she had known react in different ways to her gruesome death. Beyond this I will say no more. I have already been told by one of the readers that this book is on their list too and I will not spoil it for them.

I found the book interesting for its insights into the grief process as it happened in the family, but generally I found the book disturbing on several different levels. It seemed obvious that the author had unresolved issues of some kind and that this story was her attempt at catharsis. After reading the book, in an attempt to understand better where she could be coming from, I read her story, and the source of the demons that haunt the book seemed to become quite clear. I am not, in any way, trying to minimize or trivialize the author's pain. What happened to her was outrageous and I pray that she will one day find peace.

All things considered, I wish I hadn't read this book. Once images are in one's mind, they cannot be removed and my overall feeling when finished was deep sadness. I was surprised to learn that this was considered a book for young adults. Beyond the suggestion that young people can get into trouble by their lack of worldly experience, I felt the book was inappropriate in the way it handled other moral issues.