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Posts Tagged ‘coming of age’

Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in December 2016, and downloaded Purple Hibiscus in the Cleveland airport along with The Refugees as I was considering how to get more narrative plenitude into my to-read pile. Where Americanah is about the immigrant experience in America and how coming here for more educational opportunity is not necessarily the end of people’s stories — it’s not for Adichie’s characters, who leave to complete their degrees when Nigeria is experiencing university strikes and disruptions but return when America doesn’t turn out to be all it’s promised — Purple Hibiscus is about growing up in the conditions that lead to civil strife. In the book there is turmoil in the government and that in turn leads to uncertainty in people’s lives, which lead to strikes.

While those themes are present, the book is really the story of Kambili and Jaja, teenagers growing up in a strict and wealthy Catholic household in Enugu, Nigeria where their father, Eugene controls them and their mother. Eugene is a difficult character because like many autocratic dads he tells the children that what he does, he does for their own good. He is in many ways a well respected “big man” who provides for many people’s well being, and he even publishes a newspaper that dares to take on the government. How can someone whose beliefs are strong and in some ways good, who fights for what’s right, also hurt the people he loves most?

The drama in the book is not only the conflict in Nigeria about government control, freedom of expression, and civil society, but also about Eugene’s restrictive, dutiful Catholicism contrasted with his sister Ifeoma’s, which is more expansive. When Kambili and Jaja go to stay at Aunty Ifeoma’s their eyes are opened to a different way of living, where children can speak their minds (within reason — even Ifeoma has her limits when her son is rude to a University colleague) and Catholicism can rest side by side with their “heathen” grandfather’s traditional beliefs. Kambili in particular begins to see herself in a new light, not only because of Ifeoma and her cousins, but also because of her friendship with Father Amadi, a young priest who visits Ifeoma and her children often.

When Kambili watches Father Amadi coach some boys who are practicing for a track meet she has an insight: “It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.” She sees that despite their wealth and all its comforts, Aunty Ifeoma’s family, where food is scarcer and there isn’t always gas to get to work, is the more comfortable.

So you could say Purple Hibiscus is about which way of being produces more functional humans — autocracy and uniformity of belief or some version of democracy and pluralism? Of course it isn’t that simple; it’s also a book about all of the emotions and damage that are caused by a loved one hurting someone. The abusive Eugene, for all his philanthropy, and for all his own scars, would never be anyone’s idea of a good parent. But Adichie manages to write make him both hateful and pitiful. And she also writes, in Purple Hibiscus, a thoughtful socio-political novel, a frank book about belief and tradition, and a moving coming of age story, and makes it all beautiful.

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I am not exactly certain where I got Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but I think it was either a library free cart or sale. I hadn’t read Jeanette Winterson before. This was her first novel and I’ve seen it described as “semi-autobiographical.” It’s a coming of age story about a girl growing up the adopted daughter of an evangelical woman in northern England. Jeannette (the character, not the author) loves her mother, who tells her stories and teachers her music and tells her she’s destined to be a missionary. And she is part of her mother’s church family, mainly a group of women. Men are not at all central to the story, except for Pastor Spratt, a missionary and leader in her mother’s church, but even he appears sporadically.

When Jeanette is small, her mother is the star she orbits. When the school sends a letter saying Jeanette must attend (her mother had previously kept her home, calling school “a Breeding Ground”), she begins to see herself, and her mother, for the first time through the world’s eyes. As a teen, she falls in love with another young woman and this sets up the rest of the book’s drama as her mother and the church deal with this revelation and Jeanette chooses her path. Along the way Winterson writes at times affectionately, at times critically, and often humorously of the church people who form Jeanette.

The book’s chapters are named for books of the Old Testament, and there are legends and stories woven into Jeannette’s narrative. I especially liked the story of Winnet Stonejar, a young girl who becomes a sorcerer’s adopted daughter and apprentice. Jeanette is a careful observer, and Winterson gives her space to reflect, towards the end of the book, on her upbringing: “I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it . . . . As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and love me until death and know love is as strong as death and be on my side for ever and ever.” That goes on and develops into a beautiful reflection on why men find love challenging, why she can’t measure her own need, and what betrayal means. I can’t quote the whole two pages but it’s really wonderful and you should read it.

Altogether a good read, the kind that can, as Seamus Heaney wrote, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

 

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My experiment with reading only (or at least mainly) Europa Editions books til the end of the year might continue — after the last book I wasn’t so sure — because The Flight of the Maidens was the kind of terrific read I hoped for. Of course, I cheated because I knew if Jane Gardam wrote it, I’d love it. This is another book Gardam published quite some time ago but reissued. It’s set in 1946 and tells the story of the summer before three young women head to college — all having won scholarships, all set to leave their small Yorkshire town for a world they know little about, mainly because of the war.

Una Vane is the daughter of a widow who opened a hair salon in the house when she had to manage on her own. Una is off to Cambridge to study physics, but she wants to spend her summer trying to understand her relationship with Ray, who grew up in a poorer part of town and is now a railroad man dabbling in socialist politics. Hetty Fallows is off to a guesthouse in the Lakes District to try to read everything she thinks she hasn’t read before she goes off to college in London. Her father, a gentleman before WWI left him shocked, is a gravedigger and her mother is overbearing and flirts with both the vicar and Hetty’s first boyfriend. And Liselotte Klein, who grew up the foster child of Quakers, spends the summer before she starts at Cambridge piecing together her identity. She can’t recall much about Hamburg, and she knows nothing of how her Jewish family fared and whether any of the rest of them got out. She lands with a mysterious elderly couple in London and then with a distant aunt on the California coast, trying to understand her past so she can decide on her future.

The three friends — Una and Hetty since childhood, Liselotte since they all began to apply themselves to getting into college — go through the pangs of leaving school and starting adult life, along with the challenges of adapting to the postwar world.They have very different experiences but are all in flight, as Gardam imagines. As they struggle to reconcile what they know with what’s in the world and with the hopes they have for themselves and others have for them, the three girls teeter on the edge of womanhood with all the people they know rallying around them to one extent or another. The presence of these people, both dear to them and maddening, provides insights into all kinds of detail about England in the 1940s.

Gardam’s ability to bring people so fully to life, in such vivid detail, never fails to delight. Such vivid people and dialogue — more than many of her books, I could imagine this as a film. I hope it becomes one. Anyway, a terrific read about the end of childhood, the beginning of growing up, the challenge of recovering from war for those in it and near it, the carrying on so many people do when their lives aren’t full of great achievements but they hope their children’s will be. I’m sad that I seem to be all caught up on Gardam’s reissues now.

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I read an article stating that The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt is the best novel of the 21st century so far, and the stories (both the novel’s and the author’s, who seems to live an interesting life) seemed intriguing, even if I am no fan of declarations like that. So I ordered it on interlibrary loan. I read it this weekend, and I do think it’s original, even though it is the classic story of a young man on a quest. Ludo, the young man in The Last Samurai, is younger than many questers — only 11 — and is looking for his father. Sibylla, his unmarried mother, won’t tell him his father’s identity because the man is a writer who reminds her of Liberace, because like him, the man is prone to “slick buttery arpeggios . . . self-regarding virtuosity . . . And yet he was not really exactly like the pianist, because though he did genuinely have the emotional facility of the musician, he had only the air of technical facility . . . .”

The book takes place in London, where Sibylla has gone after deciding that Oxford, where she had a scholarship, is not for her, not because she can’t do the work expected of her, but because that work seems pointless. She meets a woman who can get her a work permit and a secretarial job in a publishing company, and that’s how she meets Ludo’s father. Around the same time an American company buys the publisher and, realizing her job will go away, she accepts a job typing back issues of obscure journals into a computer, which she can do at home while raising her child.

She answers all the questions Ludo asks and teaches him whatever he wants to know, and by the time he is 6 he knows Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic and is learning Japanese. By age 11 he knows about twenty languages along with a great deal of math and science and he’s read widely, including all the travel writing he can find, since that is one clue he has — his father is a travel writer. He and his mother watch Seven Samurai repeatedly, some would say obsessively. He gets the idea that he can seek and challenge seven men in his quest for a father. These men are well known — writers, an artist, a musician, a diplomat, a scientist. His exchanges with his mother and these men are the bulk of the book.

DeWitt says a lot about life, art, family, love, education (I really loved her send-ups of school), and the irrationality of modern life. It’s a book that refers to art and music and languages and cultures and mathematical principals and philosophical ideals you may not know (I didn’t know them all) but unlike some books that reference other works, The Last Samurai doesn’t condescend. It seems natural that the strange and brilliant Sibylla and Ludo are immersed in this kind of knowledge, and fitting that in London they can be immersed. Despite Ludo’s strange upbringing and Sibylla’s isolation, it’s not an unhopeful book. It’s an unusual story, interrupted by chunks of movie subtitles, passages in one of the many languages Ludo or Sibylla is learning or studying, or books he is reading. I’m glad I read it. I’m not making any declarations, however.

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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Paul Hertneky lives in author-rich New Hampshire (in fact he’s going to be reading & speaking at the Hancock Library on June 9 at 7pm, and Rust Belt Boy is published by one of my favorite small presses, also in New Hampshire, Bauhan Publishing) but he grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Ambridge was steel country, and the rise and fall of the American steel industry helped define the town. In his memoir Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about what his hometown and his large immigrant family imprinted on his psyche, and also about what it was like to grow up there.

This book is full of vividly rendered scenes — Hertneky as a boy buying Friday pirohi (“The first bite made me close my eyes”) and asking his grandmother about communism (“my curiosity felt like a constantly full bladder”). His father making puppets out of the rabbits he’d just skinned: “Like the priests during Mass, Milt transformed death into life . . . .” Hertneky in the library which “made me feel whole” lost in the books that helped him dream of other places and other lives. The adult Hertneky at seminal moments, at the steel plant where his co-worker was nearly killed, and as he made a fervent declaration of love only to find it wasn’t reciprocal.

This is a book about one rust belt town where one boy grew up, which is fascinating, especially when I read about the Harmonists, who made Ambridge prosper before heavy industry and who I’d never heard of even though I grew up in Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal coming of age tale reflecting on the fifties, sixties and seventies in America. Given how different Ambridge and places like it are today, Hertneky has gifted readers with the memory of a time and place that is mostly gone. Rust Belt Boy is a lovely read, interesting as a cultural and geographical story, as a memoir, and as a history of the aspirations of immigrants who made postwar prosperity their American dream.

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