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Family of Origin

August 13, 2019

I heard about Family of Origin from my friend Readers Guide one day last week and I went right out to the library, where I found a copy and started reading it that same day. It didn’t take long to finish. Reading it was kind of like spending a weekend with family; it makes you remember how twisted things can get and how looking out at the world with others can make you see it differently.

From the first page, the way this novel is written is interesting, and it implicitly offers itself as a bit of escapism from the current state of things: “this was the summer people came to the Landing to forget their jobs, forget climate change, forget police brutality, forget opioids, forget refugees, forget their inboxes, forget white supremacists, forget tsunamis out of season.” But the characters who have come to this place, the siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey, “remembered everything….They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. They were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.”

Elsa and Nolan are on an island trying to figure out what led to their father’s, Ian’s, death there. He was working with a group of scientists who are studying a particular kind of duck called an undowny bufflehead in an attempt to prove that survival of the fittest has turned the other way, calling themselves “Reversalists.” At first his children suspect that this means he had no hope for the future because he has found them and everyone else in their generation wanting. Elsa thinks, when she first arrives on the island,
“here she was in this ragged shack, clinging to the coast of nowhere, surrounding by jars of feathers, revealing that what Ian had given up everything in his life for was just a squalid heap of nothing. The island confirmed that, with each choice, each fall, since Ian had left Elsa, he’d chosen things that were worse and worse. And every time it felt like he was saying: Even this I choose instead of you.”

Most of the people on the island are old hippies, and one of the conflicts in the novel is between the attitude of their generation and Elsa and Nolan’s, the “millennials.”
“Most of the Reversalists’ research had started not with the ducks, but with their abiding sense that something had gone unstoppably wrong with the world, and that the generation of young people rising up were the cause of it. At best, the millennials were stupid, lazy, entitled narcissists who could not be trusted. At worst…the whole of their generation were an evolutionary step backward for humanity. An insurrection of idiots who would trample everything the Greatest Generation and the Boomers had achieved and doom the species permanently.”

The old people tell stories about how the world is changing. As she got older, Esther says that her elementary-grade students were not as interested in biology, even though
“Esther was famous for making her students run to their various study sites to maximize class time. She shouted: Be light, be quick, keep up or you will be culled from the herd! Previously, people had found this charming.
But this winter, when she made the students run out to the field of their second-rate football team and take off their mittens and press their hands into the snow to imitate the tracks made by different types of animals, the students complained. They showed her their hands, wet and red. It hurts, they said.”

The millennials get the last word, though, in a passage that made me want to stand up and cheer:
“They called it the Hippie Reeducation Program. They taught the generation who had gone to Woodstock and believed in the hypothetical recycling of materials and the practical smoking of weed how to compost with earthworms. How to indoor-irrigate. How to grow tomatoes upside down in hanging baskets that saved space. They turned the Lobby into a greenhouse full of plants grown from colonial-era seeds.
None of this is particularly revolutionary, the older Reversalists said.
That’s exactly what’s wrong with all of you, the brothers said. You only ever wanted to fix problems in ways that felt exciting. You thought you could make the world a better place by talking about it. Fucking about it. Marching about it. You need to learn how to do shit, they said. Then you need to work your asses off. Then you need to get a dozen other people to do the same. That’s the only shot we’ve got.
We don’t have any shot, the Reversalists said. The Earth is kaput.
That’s easy for you to say, the brothers said. You’ll be dead soon.”

There’s a wonderful subplot about an old hippie fiction writer and the kind of dystopian science fiction he doesn’t want to write, tied in with Elsa’s longing to be one of the first people to colonize Mars.

The millennials in this novel are right about some things, but they’re human too. Like everyone, Elsa doesn’t want to have to worry about “elections, or the prison-industrial complex, or the dye in pink birthday cupcakes, or pornography that made women want to whimper instead of moan, or the disappearing bees, or celebrities whose names wormed their way into Elsa’s brain, she did not know how.” Elsa “wanted back the illusion of her childhood, that era of certainty, and if she couldn’t have that, she would take nothing,” which is kind of like the defeatist Boomer thinking. But during the week she and Nolan spend on the island, Elsa figures out that there’s no winning the games she’s been playing and “the sooner [she] stopped trying to hunt down some class of people who had all the answers—adults, scientists, Mars missions, Ian—the sooner she could stop the cycle of trying to win. Could look around and decide what kind of game might actually be worth playing.”

If you’ve been short on hope this summer, this novel will provide some, along with the reminder that we can’t always fix problems in ways that feel exciting, but have to begin to “learn how to do shit” that’s essential to the future of our life on this planet.

 

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You, Me, and the Sea

August 10, 2019

As I’ve mentioned here before, my local public library always has good book displays, and their display of beach books recently made me go over and take a look. I picked up Meg Donohue’s You, Me, and The Sea because a blurb identifies it as “inspired by Wuthering Heights,” and it’s been 26 years since I last read a Wuthering Heights homage novel (I remember the date because I was reading it the night my first child was born). This one might have quelled my urge to read anything based on Wuthering Heights ever again, although it wasn’t a bad book. The thing is that it ended, um, happily. What peculiar kind of homage is that?

My curiosity about updates of the Wuthering Heights story stems from my conviction that it’s very much a 19th-century upperclass English plot. When else would two unrelated children have been raised together in an isolated area with few other available playmates and such class consciousness?

Donohue does a decent job of trying to translate that into modern American life, making the setting an isolated farm on the coast of northern California where a former hippie widower takes in an Indian orphan to live with his daughter and older son. The parallels to Wuthering Heights are very close, even to the names—the family that Catherine (in this version called Merrow) gets involved with as she stays with them after an injury are the “Langfords” rather than the “Lintons.” The older brother who is especially cruel to the adopted orphan (in this version called Amir) is a brutal alcoholic with an eleventh-hour backstory that makes him seem, finally, pathetic instead of frightening. The man who rescues Merrow from her life of squalor is rich and blonde.

Even the writing occasionally manages that overwrought quality usually only found in 19th-century novels:
“We had been left by too many loved ones; we would never inflict that pain on each other. Already, I heard Amir’s voice in my mind when he wasn’t speaking, just as I knew he heard mine. In the shed at night when it was very cold, we huddled close under the gaze of the red birds we had made together, and I would drift to sleep unsure whose breath I heard so steady and sure, his or mine.
We would never be apart.”

There are mysterious disappearances that only Merrow fails to realize are thefts by her older brother. He injures Merrow’s dog and it leads to the dog’s death. He also sells Merrow and Amir’s horses for beer money. Amir later wins his share of the farm from the older brother “in a few games of poker….It wasn’t just one card game. I stayed there for three nights, and every night he wanted to gamble another piece of his land. He kept losing, but he insisted we keep playing. He knew what he was doing. He could have stopped the whole thing, and he didn’t.”

There’s also a pitch-perfect passage in which Amir plays on the affections of the Langford younger sister, here called Emma:
“I watched as Emma linked her arm through Amir’s. Did I imagine that he cringed at her touch? I must have, because he gazed down at Emma thoughtfully, as though seeing her for the first time, and in response to his study Emma seemed to pull him closer. As they walked away, I watched Emma tilt her chin up toward Amir and say something I could not hear.”

I found the ending, however, tone deaf. Merrow gives up her Langford fiancée and Amir gives up his revenge. Maybe it would be okay if we left them on the cliff edge of their farm: “Standing there with Amir’s hand in mine, on the edge of our new life together, I felt the shame that I’d felt for so long about my feelings for him finally crumble.” But it’s not okay to have to see their erstwhile fervent romance played out in everyday events and conversation: They have sex. They talk about opening the farm to underprivileged children. They reference the symbolism of a beach rock that Amir once gave to Merrow. They think about having children together. As in real life, no one is swept away by passion or destroyed by longing.

There were two passages I thought translated well to modern life, and one is about racism:
“He thought the Langfords were racist. The possibility had occurred to me, too, while we’d sat together in their den. I’d wondered how differently they would have treated Amir if he had been the one whom Tiger had bitten instead of me. Would Will have insisted he come inside? Would Rosalie have bandaged his leg?
….Maybe,’ I said, ‘it’s easier for some people to have sympathy for people who look like them, whose lives they can imagine more easily.’
‘Why would she be able to imagine your life any better than mine? Because you have the same skin color?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe because I’m a girl. I think I make her think of her own childhood.’ I thought for a moment. ‘If she’d had time to get to know you, it would have been different. With a little time, I think you would have felt differently about each other.’
‘You want me to forgive her for looking at me the way she did.’ I felt Amir’s gaze travel through me, below my skin, through my veins, quickening the pace of my heart. ‘You think I should have empathy for her…because it’s too much work for her to feel sympathy for a boy with brown skin.’

The other passage is about how we treat books. Merrow says that her own books “were bloated with salt air from trips to the beach, their pages dog-eared and marked by my pen” while her fiancee’s books are “pristine. He treated them with a reverence that I supposed I understood but did not quite share. I thought that perhaps Will thought of books as possessions while I thought of them as sustenance. His relationship with books lacked the messiness and the hunger and the desperate sort of joy that mine held.” As I’ve always thought of books as sustenance myself, I enjoyed this comparison.

How about you–can any of you readers make the urge to keep books pristine sound nearly as compelling?

 

The Island of Sea Women

August 5, 2019
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Sometimes I listen to an audiobook just because I come across it in the library, and Lisa See’s new novel The Island of Sea Women is one. Set on the island of Jeju through Japanese colonialism, WWII, and the Korean War, up to the present day, it’s a story about how modern-day South Korea was formed and how a group of female divers, called haenyeo, saw the changes.

The haenyeo culture is one in which women work in both “dry” and “wet” fields—the wet ones meaning the ocean. The men stay home and take care of the children. The two main characters of the novel meet when they are seven years old–Mi-ja, who is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator and becomes the wife of a policeman, and Young-sook, who is the daughter of the leader of the local haenyeo collective and becomes the wife of a school teacher.

Young-sook’s mother informally adopts Mi-ja because her parents are dead and she lives with an aunt and uncle who treat her like a slave. The women do subsistence farming on Jeju, raising millet, rapeseed, red beans, and sweet potatoes. From the sea they gather sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, conch, sea squirts, sea slugs, agar-agar, kelp, octopus, and abalone. As Young-sook remembers their childhood:
“At the end of spring, every family across the island stripped the thatch off their roofs. Mi-ja’s aunt and uncle made her haul away the old thatch, bring in new thatch, and do the best she could to pass stones up to the men to weigh down the thatch and keep it in place. When she was done, she came to my house, where Mother allowed her to help me sort through our old thatch to search for insect larva, which Mother boiled for us to eat.”

Their training as divers begins as soon as they are old enough to play in tide pools and is organized by Young-sook’s mother:
“When I’d turned ten, Mother had given me an old pair of her goggles, which I’d shared with Mi-ja. When I’d turned twelves, Mother had taught us how to reap underwater plants without damaging their rots so that they would grow back in the next season, just as we did in our dry fields. Now my ability to read the seabed for things I could harvest increased daily. I could easily recognize the difference between brown algae, sea mustard, and seaweed, while my skills at sensing prey—the poisonous bite of a sea snake or the numbing sting of a jellyfish—improved too.

The first of Young-sook’s losses happens when she is fifteen, when her mother is caught underwater while harvesting abalone and drowns. In some ways, the novel is the story of her losses, which provide context for historical events. Her brothers are taken by the Japanese to fight in one of the wars that involve the unwilling islanders. In the major loss of the novel, Young-sook watches as one of her children, her sister-in-law, and husband are killed and blames her friend Mi-Ja, who refuses to take Young-sook’s children and claim them as the protected offspring of her policeman husband. We later find out more about what this would have meant for the children, but it’s easy to understand why Young-sook sees Mi-ja’s refusal as the end of their friendship.

For Americans, learning about how the brutal Japanese colonizers on Jeju were replaced by the American army and local police is eye-opening. In one brief peaceful period of Young-sook’s life, she says that she “worked as a haenyeo, and [her husband] taught his classes unfettered by Japanese occupiers. He spoke to his students entirely in our native tongue, and they used their Korean names and spoke in the Jeju dialect without fear of punishment. We could do these things, because we were free from the colonists at last, although we still didn’t now what life with the American occupiers would be like.”

The killings of Young-sook’s husband, son, and sister-in-law are clearly part of the events of the historical Jeju uprising at the start of the Korean war. So the events of Young-sook’s life are a personal chronicle of those years. In 1954, when the seven-year “incident” was over:
“Reminders of what had happened were everywhere. The man who walked on crutches because his knee had been shattered by a pickax. The girl, with burns on most of her body, who grew to marriageable age but received no proposals. The young man who’d survived months of torture roamed the olles, his hair uncut, his face unshaven, his clothes uncleaned, and his eyes unfocused. We all suffered from memories. Nor could any of us foget the throat-choking smell of blood or the crows that had swarmed in great clouds over the dead. These things haunted us in our dreams and during every waking moment. But if someone was foolish enough to speak a single word of sadness or was caught shedding a tear over the death of a loved one, then he or she would be arrested.”

The novel is not all about sadness. Young-sook becomes a haenyeo chief, responsible for protecting human lives and passing on the knowledge required for harvesting plants and animals from the sea. Joon-lee, a daughter born to Young-sook after her father’s murder, goes to university in Seoul, where she falls in love with the son of Mi-ja. It was once a happy daydream for Young-sook and Mi-ja that her first (and only) son and Young-sook’s first daughter might fall in love, so it’s a nicely ironic ending for the novel when the union of the son with Young-sook’s youngest daughter finally provides an opportunity for Young-sook to widen her perspective and forgive her childhood friend.

I particularly enjoyed the part of the novel in which Young-sook talks about how her youngest daughter was given a copy of Heidi  at school, and the effect the book had on all of them.

I don’t think I would have liked this novel as much if I’d read it, rather than listening to it. My reactions to Lisa See’s novels are unusually varied—I liked Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and then I enjoyed Shanghai Girls, but I hated Peony in Love. The way I got a little bit of Young-sook’s story every time I went out in my car, where I kept the audiobook, made it a better story, more complicated and mysterious than it would have been had I looked at it all together and followed the different threads more closely. I should add here that I am an absolutely terrible auditory learner, drifting in and out, and that I paged through a copy of the print book in order to write about The Island of Sea Women.

Evvie Drake Starts Over

August 3, 2019

After reading about Evvie Drake Starts Over, by Linda Holmes, at Bermuda Onion, I found it at the library and read it in a couple of hours, which is all the time it deserves, but it was a pleasant time.

Evvie Drake Starts Over is a typical self-actualization romance novel, except this time the heroine is not a divorcee but a widow, and even this difference is a matter of chance, since at the moment her husband died she was leaving him. But he did die, however, so no one knows she was leaving him. I thought there would be more about how Evvie felt like a monster while she was supposed to be grieving, but that theme went away as the novel progressed. There’s a great argument for going to therapy and the new romance isn’t the only thing she wants to live for, so this novel is both pleasant and harmless.

The argument for going to therapy is this:
“Did you know it’s possible to remove your own teeth with pliers?….If you have a bad tooth, you can take a pair of pliers, stick them in there, and pull as hard as you can. Is that something you would do?”
“This feels like a trick question.”
“Stay with it.”
“No, I don’t think I would pull out my own tooth with pliers.”
“That’s what I always tell people about therapy. It’s not a question of whether you could try to do it by yourself. You can always try it. But it can be dangerous, and it’s harder. Trying to buck yourself up is the tooth pliers of mental health.”

One typical romance novel move tickled me disproportionately, because it’s a move I use on my family and friends when we play Lie-brary, a game where you invent the first sentence of a novel to try to get others to guess that your sentence is the actual first sentence. When we get a novel from the romance category, I always write about a woman with long hair getting out of a name-brand car, and this joke reached a peak the time I wrote about a woman named Beata getting out of a Miata. So I was quite amused to find a chapter that begins like this:
“The next afternoon, Evvie heard someone pull into the driveway and cut the engine. She went to the window and saw a low-slung black Miata, from which a woman in khaki pants and a green sweater-coat was coming into view.”
Sweaters are a minor theme in the novel, which is set in Maine.

Evvie is depicted as a woman who married young and grew to believe the disparaging things her husband habitually said about her. When her best friend, Andy, asks “did he hurt you? Were you scared of him?” she thinks “Does dreading every conversation with him count? Does tensing up when he came into the room count?” Although another of her friends calls this “emotional abuse,” it’s not big and dramatic, but just another of the things Evvie has to work through.

The romance is with a friend of Andy’s, a baseball player named Dean who has lost his pitching mojo and had to retire from the major leagues. When he moves into an apartment in Evvie’s house, they agree to refrain from discussing her husband or his baseball career, although occasionally they suspend that agreement. There’s some good banter, like when the agreement is back on and Dean says “anything you have, get it out of your system now” and Evvie replies “okay. Wait: my husband was a jerk” and Dean responds with “well, sometimes I watch myself strike people out on YouTube.”

When Dean asks what it was that made Evvie decide to leave her husband, we get a story that I think must happen in any number of marriages when one person stops listening:
“there was this night when he said he was going to bring pizza home for dinner, but when he got home, he didn’t have it. I say, ‘What happened to bringing pizza home?’ And he says, ‘I never said that.’ It was so…so bizarre, the idea that I would have imagined an entire exchange with him.”

There are silly parts that I’m not sure why anyone writing a book would put in:
“Monica talked about her classes and the turmoil in her book club, which had been infiltrated by someone who was very unhappy that nobody ever read the books. Most recently, the book had been Infinite Jest, and Monica ran her hands over her hair in aggravation as she explained that of course they didn’t read Infinite Jest, and the point of book club was socializing, and if you had something to say about the book, that was perfectly fine, but you can’t come in and inflict your own rules on everyone.”
Why would any author invent and defend a book club where the members don’t read at least part of the book they’ve chosen?

Dean’s possible comeback as a symbol of hope for Evvie is well integrated into the plot of this novel, with lines like “it was possible for things that seemed doomed to be revived. This was why people kept rooting for the Red Sox and the Cubs until they finally won.”

These are pleasant-enough characters to hang out with for an hour or two, even if you’re not personally all that fond of sweaters or baseball.

 

Magic for Liars

August 1, 2019

Cicadas are singing, sun is shining, and even though summer will come to an end all too soon, the ending is the best part. Right now I have time to sit outside in the late afternoon with a glass of iced tea and read a book.

One of the books I got for my birthday this year is Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars, which is about a private investigator who has to solve a murder at a magical school, the “Osthorne Academy for Young Mages.” From the very first page I found it delightful and had to read bits out loud to the person who gave it to me: “they were all downstairs at the welcome-back dinner, an all-staff-all-students meal that marked the end of the first week of classes. They’d joke there about house-elves and pumpkin juice—or at least the freshmen would.”

The PI is a young woman named Ivy who is contemplating the sordidness of her profession and ready for a change. She introduces herself and her job by saying:
“if I tell myself that I didn’t have a choice, I’m no better than an adulterer who misses his daughter’s dance recital because he’s shacking up in some shitty hotel with his wife’s sister. He tells himself that he doesn’t have a choice too. But we know better than that. He has choices. He chooses to tell the first lie, and then he chooses to tell every other lie that comes after that. He chooses to buy a burner phone to send pictures of his cock to his mistress, and he chooses to tell his wife that he has a business trip, and he chooses to pull cash out of an ATM to pay for the room. He tells himself that all of his choices are inevitable, and he tells himself that he isn’t lying.
But when I hand his wife an envelope full of photographs and an invoice for services rendered, her world is turned upside down, because he chose. If I try to pretend I didn’t have a choice, I’m not any different from the liars whose lives I ruin, and that’s not who I am. I’m nothing like them. My job is to pursue the truth.”
There’s an ominous current running through the first-person narration of this novel because right from the beginning, Ivy tells us “when I tell you the story, you’ll understand why I had to lie.”

The headmaster of Osthorne has hired Ivy to investigate the murder of one of the teachers at the school a woman named Sylvia. What Ivy lies about, by omission, is that although her twin sister Tabitha, who teaches at Osthorne, can do magic, she herself has no magic at all. Ivy lives in Oakland, where
“across the bay, San Francisco bled money like an unzipped artery. Those who had been privileged enough to have their buckets out to catch the spray drove back over the water to Oakland….They bumped aside people who had been living in these neighborhoods for generations, and they tore down storefronts, and they built brunch pubs with wood reclaimed from the houses they were remodeling.”
While Tabitha went to “magic school,” Ivy says she had to go to “regular school.” And she says that every time she tried to ask her twin what it was like to be able to do magic, Tabitha would “make an analogy that’s like…’imagine if your heartbeat was a cloud and you could make it rain whenever you had a nightmare’ or ‘imagine you’re a candle, and your wick is made of glass,’ or something.”

When Ivy meets Rahul, an attractive young teacher at the school, she “made a choice, one I made in case I needed more credibility, in case I needed him to trust me in ways that he might not otherwise.” The choice is to let him believe she can do magic. I love the way she gets flustered when she talks to him, and the way he is flustered, too:
“Mind if I join you here for a few minutes? I need to get out of that library. It’s like a peach pit in there.”
He gestured grandly to the couch. “Of course. And I know what you mean about the library.”
I blinked at him. I hadn’t even known what I meant.”

The kinds of lying that Ivy admits to in the course of telling her story proliferate, and yet the circumstances are always extenuating, like when she tells her sister, who was off at magic school while their mother was dying of cancer, that she’d told their mother Tabitha was on her way to see her. “I told her you’d be there soon….She kept asking, right up until the end. And I kept lying to her.”

Ivy solves the mystery, but in the end she doesn’t tell everything she knows. She has learned to tell all the truth, but maybe, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “tell it slant.” The people she meets at the magic school have been changed by her investigation and her own perspective on relationships and magic has changed. If you want to know all the details, read the book–it’s fun, and just the right length for the end of a summer afternoon.

The Curse of Chalion

July 28, 2019

67149020_10217711073281671_8586589920577978368_nFor my youngest niece’s graduation trip we went to Switzerland.

I was out of Vorkosigan books so I took the Chalion books, by the same author—Lois McMaster Bujold–for the plane flights. They were almost as good. They feature a weird religious system in a fantasy world where the five gods appear to some people and work their will on the world through them.

The Curse of Chalion is the first one and focuses on a young man named Cazaril, whose adventures become entangled with the royal family of his country, who live under the shadow of a curse, which his actions help to lift. There’s a lot of court intrigue:
“She cannot speak of it, lest men say she is mad…And use it as an excuse to seize…everything. Dy Jironal thought of it. At Teidez’s internment, he never missed a chance to pass some little comment on Iselle to any lord or provincar in earshot. If she wept, wasn’t it too extravagant; if she laughed, how odd that she should do so at her brother’s funeral; if she spoke, he whispered that she was frenetic; if she fell silent, wasn’t she grown strangely gloomy? And you could just watch men begin to see what he told them they were seeing, whether it was there or not. Toward the end of his visit there, he even said such things in her hearing, to see if he could frighten and enrage her, and then accuse her of being an unbalanced virago. And he circulated outright lies, as well.”
Sounds like contemporary American politics, doesn’t it? This is the second trip I’ve taken out of the country since the 2016 election and each time I am more reluctant to tell anyone where I’m from (as if my size and volume don’t tell everyone already).

66638980_10217672806565027_718652864477528064_nWe started our trek through Switzerland in Geneva, where we saw the UN buildings, the house on Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and had a tour of CERN, where the large Hadron collider is located. Here is a photo of the house, which was rented by Lord Byron from the family that still owns it.

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Next we went to Biel, a small town we had heard of because of a chess tournament, where we saw the remnants of medieval walls, a 15th-century gothic church that had been stripped of its decoration during the protestant reformation, and fountains running with clear, cold, drinking water (it turns out that these are in every Swiss town).

 

 

We went “piping” in Bern, which means walking down the sidewalks under a series of arches, past the medieval clock tower with its moving figures, past where Einstein once lived, down to the side of the cold, green, glacial river where live bears wander through their enclosures.

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In Interlachen, we rode a cog railway up the side of a mountain to see how the town is named for being in between two lakes. It was here that some of us sampled cheese fondue and we learned that no one in our younger generation had read Heidi. (My brother and I visited “Heidi’s Photo Chalet,” where we posed with an alpenhorn and accordion (the goats are part of our scenic background.)

 

 

We were driven through the valley of Lauterbrunnen, the waterfall valley where Tolkien was hiking when he imagined the valley of Rivendell, and took a train ride up the Eiger and then on up to the top of Jungfrau, where we saw the Aletsch Glacier.67101767_10217695205604989_3793488795714715648_n

In Lucerne, we walked across the 14th-century Chapel Bridge and saw the gothic church of Saint Francis Xavier, which has not been stripped of its decoration. We took a boat ride on Lake Lucern, rode a cog train up the side of Mount Pilatus, and rode on cable cars all the way down. At the top, we walked around looking at the vistas below that seemed like maps at the beginnings of fantasy novels.67095810_10217729243415913_3651857361456332800_n

Our last stop was Zurich, where we saw the gothic Grossmunster, with a 14th-century statue of Charlemagne in its crypt. We also visited the Fraumunster, with its Chagall windows. 67090744_10217719628175538_6925565053185818624_nOccasionally we saw signs that said “pfauen,” which we noticed because Pfau was the last name of our pediatrician; it means “peacock” in German. Since I was 16, when I started a group called “The Peacock Farm” and got my friends to call me “head peacock,” I’ve had a fondness for those “beautiful birrds” (as the priest in Flannery O’Connor’s once-again-relevant story “The Displaced Person” called them) and have received many peacock-themed gifts, so my family had to photograph me with the sign of the big peacock (“grossen pfauen”).

I was partway through the second Chalion novel, Paladin of Souls, when we started our long trip back to the U.S. This novel focuses on an older woman named Ista. She discovers a man walking around while already dead and untangles the circumstances that led to his situation.

66846283_10217689020290360_2610338903256727552_nOne of the comparisons in the novel meant more to me after seeing the green, glacier-fed lakes and rivers of Switzerland:
“It seemed to her that some great black glacier, some ice dam in her soul, was melting, as if a hundred summers’ heat had fallen on it in an hour. Cracking, coming apart. And that in the mile-deep, mile-long lake of icy green water backing it up, an expectant surge rippled from bank to bank, from the surface to the uttermost depths, troubling the waters.”

The third novel, which I finished on our last flight, is entitled The Hallowed Hunt, and it focuses on a man named Ingrey and a woman named Ijada who fall in love and use the spirits of ancient animals to right an ancient wrong. At the end of the adventure, she asks him whether “a year ago, could you even have imagined, let alone predicted, standing here being what you now are?” When he says no she replies
“Neither could I have imagined me. So perhaps we should not be so sure of our future fate, either. What we don’t know of it is vastly larger than what we do, and will surely not stop surprising us.”
That’s certainly true about traveling, and the person I have become by the end of a trip.

If you’ve been able to travel this summer, where did you go?

 

The Name of the Wind

July 15, 2019

My adult kids kept asking me if I’d read The Name of the Wind and I kept getting it mixed up with The Shadow of the Wind, which I’d read years ago, a literary mystery by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  Now that I’ve read The Name of the Wind, a fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss, I will never get it mixed up with anything else, ever again. It’s a tale full of tales, a fascinating and remarkable layered narrative.

There’s a tale about Lyra, who performs necromancy on her husband Lanre, which has terrible results for him; he becomes a powerful and mysterious villain in the world of Kvothe, the main character of the central narrative. Kvothe’s parents belonged to a troupe of traveling players but are killed by the creature that Lanre has become, one of the legendary Chandrian who kill anyone who mentions their names or tells any part of their story, even in song. Kvothe’s quest is to find out how to avenge their deaths and right other wrongs along the way. He is a smart young man with lots of talents who is eager to learn more. He attends a university where he learns, among other things, how to do a kind of magic–including calling the name of the wind–and he plays the lute. His story, told in first person, is the story of everything he learns and every creature he meets. The actions of the story take place in a remarkably well-crafted and described world, with all sorts of edges that we barely glimpse but which deepen the experience.

There’s a frame narrative to show readers that Kvothe has escaped from all his adventures alive. He tells his story to a chronicler, who is writing it down. So we get his story and also his perspective:
“Over the last month I had pulled a woman from a blazing inferno. I had called fire and lightning down on assassins and escaped to safety. I had even killed something that could have been either a dragon or a demon, depending on your point of view. But there in that room was the first time I actually felt like any sort of hero. If you are looking for a reason for the man I would eventually become, if you are looking for a beginning, look there.”
This comes 651 pages into his adventures.

I enjoyed the story and the stories layered into it so much that I read the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear. Kvothe is still on a quest to avenge his parents and troupe, but when he gets free access to the biggest library in his world, he says that
“even my continuing failure to find anything factual about the Chandrian didn’t sour the experience. As I hunted, I became increasingly distracted by other books I found. A handwritten medicinal herbal with watercolor pictures of various plants. A small quarto book of four plays I’d never heard of before. A remarkably engaging biography of Hevred the Wary.”
Who was Hevred the Wary? We have no clue, he’s just one of the barely-glimpsed edges of this world.

Once, when Kvothe has told a version of a shaggy dog story also known in this world and told a friend that it’s one his father would make up to keep him puzzling, the friend says “that’s a cruel trick to play on a boy.” Kvothe says:
The comment surprised me. “What do you mean?”
“Tricking you just to get a little peace and quiet. It’s a shabby thing to do.”
I was taken aback. “It wasn’t done in meanness. I enjoyed it. It gave me something to think about.”
“But it was pointless. Impossible.”
“Not pointless,” I protested. “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.”

The love of learning throughout these books is a big part of what makes them such a pleasure. Be warned, however. Although I think reading The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear was enjoyable enough to make up for it, the main narrative builds expectations that only subsequent books can realize. What happens to Kvothe between the end of The Wise Man’s Fear and the frame narrative? Why are these books called the “Kingkiller Chronicles”? We don’t know. And Patrick Rothfuss is still working on the third book, The Doors of Stone. “Still working,” my kids say with raised eyebrows, means he is playing lots of D&D and spending his time on other projects, like an animated Name of the Wind. So if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to start a great story knowing it doesn’t have all the endings it promises, don’t start this one.

It is a great story, though. You won’t regret starting it and if you do you’ll get drawn in so deep that you’ll never want to surface.

 

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